Anti-Semitism, Islamophobia: Shared hatred?

Though it’s common in many Western countries to blame anti-Semitic and Islamophobic violence on tensions in Palestine, these animosities are instead deeply embedded in local histories.

Anti-Semitism, Islamophobia: Shared hatred?

Pro-Palestinian rally in Brest (Finistère), France. Oct. 28. (Credit: Fred Tanneau/ AFP)

In Illinois, US, a landlord brutally stabbed two tenants more than a dozen times, resulting in the death of a six-year-old child. His mother survived the attack.

"You Muslims must die," the assailant shouted.

In Pennsylvania, an individual infiltrated a pro-Palestinian demonstration, hurling racist insults while pointing a gun at the gathering from his car.

In California, people vandalized synagogues and Jewish-owned businesses.

Meanwhile, in France, a synagogue was defaced with a spray-painted message: "Victory for our brothers in Gaza. Pride." In another town in France, a message was left on an official’s gate: "Out, you bastard Jew." The wall of a French-Turkish cultural association in a different city was marred with the hateful message, "Death to Islam," juxtaposed with a Star of David.

These incidents represent just a fraction of the thousands of anti-Semitic and Islamophobic acts worldwide since Oct. 7 when Hamas carried out a deadly assault on Israel, which resulted in 1,200 dead, according to Israeli authorities.

In response, Israel unleashed a violent military campaign against the besieged Gaza Strip, which has been under an Israeli airtight blockade since 2007. The unrelenting Israeli bombings targeted hospitals, schools and refugee camps alike, compounded by dehumanizing political rhetoric and calls for forced displacement.

On Nov. 2, UN experts declared that the Palestinian people were "at grave risk of genocide."

The war may be confined to the local battleground, but its reverberations are felt globally. Today, as in the past, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict elicits unparalleled emotions and activism, especially in the West.

While not inherently a religious war, the fact that it is unfolding in the holy land of the three monotheistic religions prompts all kinds of civilizational fantasies, ranging from the most apolitical to the most ideological.

There are for instance those who perceive Israel as the front line in a global struggle against Islam. Meanwhile, others view Palestinian resistance to occupation as part of a broader battle against a world system, one with Jews allegedly pulling the strings behind the scenes.

Now, more than ever, the prevailing atmosphere is fertile ground for confusion with labels such as Jew, Israeli, Zionist, conspirator on one side, and Arab, Muslim, Islamist, terrorist on the other.

One consequence of this madness is the ongoing juxtaposition of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, as if one must pick one form of racism to condemn over the other, which results in two conflicting perceptions.

The first attributes the rise in anti-Semitism to "Muslims," while the second implicates "Jews" in the dissemination of Islamophobia.

For some, traditional European anti-Semitism seems to have waned, making way for a form of anti-Jewish hatred rooted in Islamic and/or Arab origins, often endorsed by some on the left under the guise of anti-Zionism. Conversely, another perspective posits that the traditional anti-Semitism has also diminished, only to be supplanted by the rise of Islamophobia.

In both scenarios, the terms "anti-Semitism" and "Islamophobia" are frequently manipulated for political and ideological purposes.

With ‘Jews’ or against ‘Arabs?’

Anti-Semitism has a long history spanning over 2,000 years, reaching its devastating peak with the Holocaust — the extermination of nearly six million European Jews by Nazi Germany and its collaborators during WWII.

Various factors contribute to the persistence of anti-Semitism, with one of the most enduring being the fact that Jews have been long viewed as being a nuisance to the communities in which they live.

Throughout history, Jews have been accused of being a deicidal people, of practicing ritual murder, poisoning wells, causing the plague, plotting against the Tsar to annihilate Christianity, being capitalists or communists, both stateless and cosmopolitan, and serving foreign interests, among other allegations.

In the Muslim world, the conspiratorial dimension of anti-Semitism was virtually nonexistent until the mid-19th century and the emergence of European influence, and later the rise of Zionism.

For centuries, Jews lived under the dhimma regime, a system that grants certain rights and protection to non-Muslims living in Islamic state. This gave them an inferior legal status in exchange for state protection. Christians were also subjected to this condition.

Attitudes toward Jews varied over time, with periods of open hostility or relative openness. But in general, their experience in the Muslim world is incomparable to the systematic persecution they witnessed in Europe.

However, after the Nakba, European anti-Semitism was introduced to the region in the form of conspiracy theories and Holocaust denial, blending with Islamic anti-Judaism.

While it is common to depict Muslims as inherently hostile to Jews, the reality is far more nuanced. Several factors, however, contribute to the clever maintenance of this confusion today.

Israel, as a self-proclaimed Jewish state, has itself endorsed the association between Zionist ideology, the policies of ethnic cleansing pursued by its successive governments, and cultural or religious affiliation with Judaism.

What’s more, in many Western countries, including France, there is a current trend to conflate anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism, which not only serves to deny the Nakba but also aims to stifle any criticism of Israel. This inclination is not confined to a portion of the media discourse but is cultivated at the highest levels by governments and within mainstream political currents.

Similarly, in recent years, there have been instances of extremely violent anti-Jewish acts carried out in the name of Islam, often exploiting the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a pretext. A poignant example is the 2012 attack on the Ozar Hatorah Jewish school in Toulouse, where a jihadist murdered a father, his two sons, and a little girl, claiming vengeance for Palestinian children killed by the Israeli occupation.

Meanwhile, in the broader international context shaped by the fight against terrorism, Israel and its supporters globally have vigorously worked to draw a parallel between the transnational jihadist threat and the Palestinian struggle against occupation. This concerted effort aims to delegitimize the latter within the framework of the broader counterterrorism narrative.

Consequently, the current presentation of the fight against anti-Semitism is perceived by many as a call to unite against Arabs and/or Muslims rather than a genuine effort to protect local Jewish communities. It is seen, at times, as an insistence to rally support for Israel within a context of escalating Islamophobia and racism.

In this context, Islamophobia is not understood as the criticism or rejection of Islam, but as hostility toward Muslims regarded as a homogeneous group, whose real or presumed members are reduced to their Islamic identity — sometimes to a mere attribute — from which they are relegated to an irreducible otherness, justifying discrimination against them.

Like anti-Semitism, Islamophobia can be directed at individuals who are not Muslims but are perceived as such. Its origins, however, are more recent compared to those of anti-Semitism.

The discourses fueling Islamophobia are primarily rooted in a colonial continuum that has been reignited by representations of "the other" emerging from the "war on terror" following the events of 9/11.

Soros deemed ‘evil’

Today, while anti-Semitism and Islamophobia are fueled by different rationales, these two forms of discrimination are interconnected and complementary.

For instance, "Jews" are often criticized for allegedly having what others want but lack, and "Muslims" get criticized for not supposedly having what people think they should have.

In the same vein, former US President Donald Trump's tenure has been particularly conducive to these forms of racism, which some mistakenly perceive as paradoxical.

For example, supporters of Trump, who introduced the "travel ban on Muslims," gathered in Charlottesville in 2017, chanting "Jews will not replace us."

In France, despite the current mood to rehabilitate the extreme right, which some believe has purged itself of anti-Semitic residues, the reality is that, over the past decade, the causes it has championed have been fueled in part by anti-Semitic tropes.

These narratives revive the grand Jewish conspiracy, portraying Jews as powerful, manipulative figures seeking to orchestrate the destruction of traditional societies through migratory invasion, the dismantling of the family unit, "gender ideology," compulsory vaccination, and so on.

An illustrative example of the intertwining of anti-Semitic and Islamophobic discourse is the attention given to the American billionaire of Hungarian origin and Jewish faith, George Soros. He has become a focal point for nationalists worldwide, who accuse him, among other things, of financing the "great replacement" through his Open Society Foundations.

The persistent dichotomy between these two forms of racism is not just futile but also perilous.

This is exacerbated by the fact that, contrary to surface impressions, both anti-Semitism and Islamophobia transcend specific political affiliations, permeating a diverse array of rhetoric at various levels and intensities.

While the extreme right remains unparalleled in its expression of these prejudices, the confluence of both forms of racism is observable across different spectrums.

In the case of France, for instance, President Emmanuel Macron faced criticism for paying tribute to Marshal Pétain and thrusting the anti-Semitic theorist Charles Maurras back into the spotlight.

Marcon’s Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin also came under fire for anti-Semetic remarks in his book, Le séparatisme islamiste – Manifeste pour laïcité, in which he praises Napoleon’s approach toward Jews, asserting that “some of whom practiced usury and caused unrest and complaints.”

In an effort to draw parallels with his own strategy on “Islamist separatism,” Darmanin later references a letter from the emperor, in which he expressed his desire "to reconcile the beliefs of the Jews with the duties of the French and to make them useful citizens, being resolved to remedy the evil in which many of them indulge to the detriment of our subjects."

As for Western leftists, a notably harmful narrative has gained traction within significant circles. This is exemplified by their interpretations of the Syrian revolution: since 2011, a pervasive discourse has emerged according to which claim that the Mossad was behind the outbreak of the Syrian popular uprising. According to this narrative as well, the Assad regime's crackdown on its opponents is justified as being a battle against imperialism and jihadism.

This representation is laden with insinuations, suggesting an underlying bias that deems it inconceivable for Arabs, particularly Muslims, to aspire to freedom and social justice. According to this perspective, if they do harbor such aspirations, they are either perceived as being influenced by "Jews," or potential jihadists, or a combination of both.

In these circumstances, the victims of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia should ideally unite, especially in Western contexts characterized by the ascent of the extreme right and retreats into cultural identities.

This entails a concerted effort to combat all forms of racism, irrespective of the political or religious beliefs of the victims, even when such prejudice arises within their own "community of belonging."

However, a significant challenge arises: It is nearly impossible to divorce the fight against racism from the complexities of the Palestinian question, as some may wish.

Even if these hatreds are locally brewed and cultivated, with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict primarily serving as an amplifier, any anti-racist effort cannot afford to overlook history.

This underscores a major difference between moral anti-racism and political anti-racism.

Moral anti-racism views racism as an individual problem tied to fear of the other and ignorance.

Meanwhile, political anti-racism emphasizes the historical conditions that facilitated its rise and shaped its dimensions. It contends that the repercussions of racism persist in contemporary societies, and that they are inherently structural in nature.

Considering the historical links to the Nakba in the context of European imperialism, its evident colonial dimension, and the influence of European anti-Semitism in the ascent of Zionism, it becomes challenging to envision how the ongoing Palestinian tragedy could disappear through a discourse that romanticizes the friendships between Jews and Muslims (the former being considered as the descendants of Isaac and the latter those of his half brother Ishmael) set to the melodies of Arab-Andalusian music.

For the moment, there seems to be no way out of the quagmire.

This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour. Translation by Sahar Ghoussoub. 

In Illinois, US, a landlord brutally stabbed two tenants more than a dozen times, resulting in the death of a six-year-old child. His mother survived the attack."You Muslims must die," the assailant shouted.In Pennsylvania, an individual infiltrated a pro-Palestinian demonstration, hurling racist insults while pointing a gun at the gathering from his car.In California, people vandalized...