Refuting Avnery on Antisemitism

Uri Avnery’s recent article, “The Fallacy of Rising anti-Semitism”, which was republished on the “Australasian Muslim Times” on 5 March 2015, must be seen through the prism of Israeli domestic politics. Avnery, an Israeli citizen, wrote his piece as a long-standing critic of Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and in the context of Israel’s impending election. Avnery berates Netanyahu’s call for European Jews to immigrate to Israel as a mere scare campaign.

If Avnery’s mindset could rise above the limited horizons of Israeli party politics he would not be able to deny so readily the reality of contemporary antisemitism. Antisemitism is a separate issue to immigration to Israel, yet in his zeal to score political points against Netanyahu Avnery wrongly conflates the two.

Worse, Avnery goes further, and tries to minimise and even justify and legitimise violent attacks against diaspora Jews, at least when perpetrated by European Muslims of Arab descent. He asserts that such attacks are not motivated in any way by a hatred of Jews but rather by Muslim hostility to the State of Israel, its existence and/or its policies and actions.  He says, in effect, that if these attacks are removed from the statistics of antisemitic incidents, then antisemitism is not increasing.

Avnery’s “analysis” is often unthinkingly embraced by Muslims living in western societies. This is a dangerously short-sighted mistake. If it is acceptable to attack Jews, anywhere and everywhere, for the real or imagined wrongs of Israel then it is equally acceptable to attack Muslims, anywhere and everywhere, for what is done in their name, and in the name of Islam itself, by avowedly Islamic groups or by Muslim-majority states. It is simply not credible to condemn Islamophobia while attempting to rationalise antisemitism.

Prejudice is prejudice. It condemns the innocent along with the guilty, and is therefore morally indefensible. In the Jewish tradition, God promised Abraham that He would with-hold punishment of Sodom and Gomorah, the most sinful of places, if there had been only ten righteous people living there. We are taught that the idea of punishing the innocent is so repulsive to God that God considers it preferable to let the guilty go unpunished.

Attacking or targeting people because of their race, religion, ethnicity, or nationality is a hate crime. Just as diaspora Muslims should not be attacked for the real or perceived actions of other Muslims whether in Australia or overseas, so too diaspora Jews should not be attacked for the real or perceived actions of other Jews whether in Australia or overseas. A hate crime is a hate crime regardless of the ethnicities of the perpetrator or victim.

The murder of Jews in Mumbai, Toulouse, Brussels, Paris, Copenhagen and elsewhere, by Islamist jihadis, even if motivated solely or in part by opposition to Israel’s existence or Israeli government policies, does not alter the fact that Jews were singled out and targeted because they were Jews. Nobody asked them for their political views or attitudes towards Israel. Targeting Jews because they are Jews is antisemitism.

And even if they did support Israel, so what? Is it morally acceptable to bash or murder Muslims if they happen to sympathise with any particular Islamic group or a Muslim-majority state? People are entitled to hold and express their own opinions. No-one has the right to be violent towards others merely because one does not agree with their opinions. Such violence is a conspicuous sign of the moral and intellectual weakness of one’s own opinions.

Avnery really ties himself into knots when he attempts to reinterpret historical events through the lens of his contemporary political agenda. He cites examples of antisemitism from segments of the Christian world, past and present, and from Christian religious texts but, like a man trying to force a square peg into a round hole, he limits Islamic antisemitism to Muhammad’s “wars with neighbouring Jewish tribes.”

Within Islamic religious texts there is a diversity of attitudes and interpretations, from passages and rulings which encourage tolerance of Jews to hostile proclamations that the Jews are the enemy of Islam.

Islamic history also demonstrates a wide range of treatment of Jews, from periods of massacres and official discriminatory and degrading laws imposed upon Jews (and Christians), to periods of much more tolerance, albeit as second-class residents. Avnery cites the Golden Age of Islamic Spain famed for its tolerance and coexistence between Muslims, Christians and Jews. Yet even here, at its height, a Muslim mob massacred 4,000 Jews and crucified Joseph Nagdela, the Jewish vizier in Islamic Spain. Moses Maimonides, to whom Avnery points as an example of Muslim enlightenment towards the Jews, was in fact forced to flee Spain with his family after a Berber dynasty, the Almohads, conquered Córdoba in 1148, and gave the Jewish and Christian communities the choice of converting to Islam, death, or exile. Maimonides’s family, along with most other Jews, chose exile.

A glaring weakness in Avnery’s view is his failure to recognise that much of Islam’s animosity towards Jews is rooted in religious supersessionism – the belief that Islam has superseded Judaism (and Christianity), that Judaism by rights should no longer exist, and certainly should not be as successful as it continues to be. Antisemites see Jewish powerlessness and vulnerability as the natural order of things which they seek to restore. Much of the rage directed against the modern State of Israel and the Jewish people arises from the fact that the Jews, far from disappearing, are stronger and more vibrant and creative than ever. It is precisely when Jews defend themselves successfully, as Israel has done, that Jews disprove the historical role that Islam has assigned to them and that the rage against them is at its most intense.

Many Islamist writings, from Sayid Qutb onwards, and some past and contemporary Islamic clerics, designate Jews as the enemy, regardless of the existence of the state of Israel. Such positions encourage and permit Islamist extremists to attack diaspora Jews. For example, Mohammed Merah, who killed three French soldiers (of North African and Caribbean backgrounds) and four Jews, including three young children, in Toulouse in France in 2012 was raised on hatred for Jews, as verified by his brother.

Avnery denies that Muslim antisemitism has any connection to ‘The Protocols of the Elders of Zion’. Both ‘The Protocols’ as well as Hitler’s ‘Mein Kampf’’ are highly popular reads in the Arab world. Islamists frequently cite the fantasies and fabrications in ‘The Protocols’ as facts. Hamas endorses ‘The Protocols’ in its Charter.

All the evidence, from the police services of European countries to the American FBI, and others who monitor hate incidents, shows that antisemitism remains a major force especially in Europe, and that it is increasingly more prevalent, violent and murderous. In Britain, antisemitic incidents more than doubled in 2014 from the 2013 figures. In France, Jews comprise only 1% of the population, yet 50% of racist attacks are against Jews. In the USA, for the past ten-year period, attacks against Jews comprise 60-70% in the religious hate category. Even in relatively peaceful Australia, there was a 35% increase in antisemitic incidents, including harassment and assault, during the 2014 period compared to the previous year.

It is ordinary Jewish people being attacked and murdered in synagogues, Jewish schools, Jewish museums, kosher supermarkets, and other Jewish venues. They are targeted and attacked because they are Jews.

Muslims should be the last people to support Avnery’s assertion that the victims of racism and bigotry are to blame for the attacks against them. Victims of racist or bigoted attacks, whether Jews, Muslims, women, or others, are not to be blamed for being attacked just for being a member of that particular segment of humanity.

Avnery posits other arguments that are irrelevant to his central claim. He notes that the Jew-hater, Wilhelm Marr, who coined the term ‘antisemitism’ had never met an Arab, but then asserts that the term also applies to Arabs because they are also Semites. In fact, the term, ‘antisemitism’ was used to replace the term ‘Juden-hass’ (Jew-hatred). It was invented to apply only to Jews.

Arabs in Europe may well be “despised, humiliated and discriminated against”, as Avnery claims. But then so are Roma, Jews, Africans, and others. Yet none of these groups has produced terrorist groups and individuals in their host countries who commit politically or ideologically motivated violence and murder against other ethnic communities.

In the final analysis Avnery’s views are irrelevant. The fact is that even before Netanyahu called on Jews in Europe to come home to Israel, they were already leaving Europe, some for Israel, others for the USA, Canada and Australia, due to violent and murderous antisemitism.  Avnery can assert that they have nothing to fear from antisemitism but they are answering him by voting with their feet.

The sad fact is that antisemitism is increasing throughout the world, and that a proportion of those violent attacks are perpetrated by segments of European Muslim communities. Hiding these facts, denying or minimising antisemitism, does not help Jews, Arabs, Muslims, Europeans, Israelis, or Palestinians. The logic of denying or minimising antisemitism can equally be applied to denying or minimising Islamophobia. The end result is the undermining of all genuine efforts at countering acts of bigotry and hatred of any kind.

About the Author
Julie Nathan is the Research Director at the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, the peak representative body of the Australian Jewish community, and is the author of the annual ECAJ Report on Antisemitism in Australia.
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