Denis MacEoin
Denis MacEoin

Antisemitism and Islamophobia: the difference

For most people of my generation, it seemed axiomatic that the horrors of the Holocaust and our heads-on collision with Nazi rhetoric had expunged antisemitism from Western culture and thought. Yet here we are decades after the defeat of Germany and the permanent iconising of Adolf Hitler and his gruesome crew as the supreme examples of evil in the modern world, sadly aware that antisemitism has, if anything, grown beyond its previous boundaries.

Today, it seems at times that antisemitism has become ubiquitous, stemming from more than one political source or religious persuasion. On the political left, it arises from an abiding hatred for the Jewish state, a state mistakenly considered colonialist and ruled by an apartheid system. Given the realities of Israel, this stance is wholly irrational.

Equally irrational, but for very differed reasons is far-right antisemitism, which is simply a modern revival of Nazism combined with earlier forms of Jew hatred. Its irrationality is part of the wider sense of pointlessness for anything that tries to replicate what was a failure in the past. And yet right-wing movements have been growing for years in Europe and some are part of the wider political system, providing them with the hope of future success. Their success can wipe out any notion of a second failure and encourage an even wider spread of antisemitism alongside the growth of right-wing politics, economic theory, hatred for all immigrant populations, and cultural backwardness.

Antisemitism takes one or two further styles. First, within a few Christian churches, some in perpetuation of a centuries-old conviction that the Jews killed Christ, others for much the same anti-Israel justifications as are found on the political left. Secondly, and much more widespread within the Islamic world and some Muslim enclaves in the West.

Let me pause here, however, since the mention of Islam raises the spectre of Islamophobia, an ill-defined yet in some places common form of hatred. There is a gulf between Islamophobia and antisemitism that exposes the irrationality of the latter. Having spent so much of my career as an academic in Islamic Studies, I am all too aware of the need for clarity over what it entails and what it does not entail.

A fear of Muslims is not in itself rational, just, or fair. The majority of Muslims are just ordinary people who try to live their lives like people everywhere. The majority living in Western countries are much the same. They work in factories, hotels, cafes, shops, hospitals, universities, and businesses. Some are politicians ranging from local to national level. There is no reason to fear them as a collectivity any more than for the rest of the population. As for the millions of migrants and refugees, they demand are compassion and, once settled, our acceptance.

I need hardly explain at this point where Islamophobia actually comes from: the rise of fundamentalist Islam, with its accompanying violence, its terrorism, its unceasing threats to Western civilization,  its regimes, and its insistence on harsh punishments including cutting hands, flogging, and execution, sometimes by stoning, its exploitation of women, its bans on girl’s education, its treatment of non-Muslims, and more. The hardliners enforce a single set of values taken from shari‘a law. I find it not at all irrational to fear all this.

Given that context, we have to ask what should provoke fear of Jews. I can’t think of anything that would allow me to fear Jews as a collectivity. They are ordinary people trying to make their way in the world, but they do not threaten a non-Jew like myself. As a secularist, I have misgivings about some aspects of Judaism, especially hyper-orthodoxy, but that is no more than my feelings about Roman Catholicism or the Evangelist churches.

It is obvious that we need to have discrimination regarding what we fear and what we tolerate and what we embrace.

About the Author
Retired Middle East historian, author of books, articles, and encyclopedia entries on Islam and related topics. Member of UK Liberal Democratic Party.