The NY Times published an op-ed yesterday by a medieval historian specializing in the Jewish life during this period. But the moral of her piece was anything but medieval. It was addressed squarely at Donald Trump and the GOP presidential candidates’ stark Muslim-baiting:
Do harsh words lead to violent acts? At a moment when hate speech seems to be proliferating, it’s a question worth asking.
…Some claim that last month’s mass shooting in Colorado Springs was provoked by Carly Fiorina’s assertion that Planned Parenthood was “harvesting baby parts”; Mrs. Fiorina countered that language could not be held responsible for the deeds of a “deranged” man….
…History does show that a heightening of rhetoric against a certain group can incite violence against that group, even when no violence is called for. When a group is labeled hostile and brutal, its members are more likely to be treated with hostility and brutality. Visual images are particularly powerful, spurring actions that may well be unintended by the images’ creators.
Unfortunately, her article does not take into account even more recent events like the San Bernardino massacre perpetrated by an Islamist couple inspired by ISIS, and the blowback in which mosques in Arizona and Coachella were torched.
Prof. Sara Lipton argues quite convincingly that words, especially ones spoken by political or communal leaders, kill. She returns to her own field and period to reinforce this important message. During the Middle Ages, she writes of a transformation in Christian theology which sought to lay blame for the ills of the world, but specifically for the death of Jesus, at the feet of Jews, Muslims and other non-believers. The leaders of the Catholic Church, from popes to charismatic theologians began to rail at the Jews, blaming them for the murder of Jesus. It was at this time that the first blood libels were heard, in which Jews were accused of killing Christian babies to use their blood to make matzoh.
Generally, these sermons did not explicitly call for violence against Jews. But apparently, that message was tacitly understood. For when the pope did call to free the Holy Land from the heathen yoke of Islam, the first victims were not in the Middle East, but right at home. Rivers of blood flowed through the Rhineland after thousands of Jews were slaughtered by those preparing to join the Crusade.
As part of this theological struggle, Christians encouraged Jewish apostates to denounce their former Jewish brothers and sisters. Some Jewish scholars were even forced into public debates in which they were compelled to defend Jewish belief in the face of “superior” Catholic dogma. These were not mere intellectual exercises since, if Jews lost such a debate it was viewed as a renunciation by God. This too could and did lead to further violence against Jewish communities.
We have seen similar examples of Muslim apostates like Ayan Hirsi Ali, Tawfiq Hamid, Mark Halawa, and others, whose questionable interpretations and personal back stories are taken up by Islamophobes in order to smear Islam. They’ve created, in collaboration with the Islamophobia industry of foundations, ideologues, and individual funders, a veritable minor league farm system of prospects offering fodder for Islam bashing.
Returning to the Middle Ages, the lessons taught by these Christian preachers and the killers doing their bidding have resonated through the ages. It took until the 20th century for the Catholic Church to renounce the teaching that the Jews killed Jesus. Anti-Semitic tropes of the medieval period still percolate in the minds of many throughout the world.
Lipton’s argument is made even stronger argument when you take modern history into account. It goes without saying that the propaganda of Goebbels and publications like Julius Streicher’s Der Stürmer, were instrumental in stirring up the rage needed to execute the Holocaust. Not to mention the charisma and verbal venom injected into the German body politic by the speeches of Hitler himself.
In Rwanda, it took the Hutu-dominated mass media to stir up rage against the minority Tutsi. Politicians ambitious to make their mark railed against their enemies, degrading them, turning them into sub-humans. From there it was only a small step to mass murder that cost the lives of 800,000 Hutu.
As I wrote above about the anti-Semitic scourge of the Middle Ages, the Rwandan genocide has had devastating consequences in the decades since. Empowered by, and responding to such mass murder, Rwanda’s liberator, Paul Kagame, uses similar techniques to ensure the Hutu won’t return to haunt his country. He intervenes in the affairs of neighboring countries like the Congo, where millions have died in proxy wars between Tutsi and Hutu allies. Now, Kagame himself has become the same genocidal tyrant he redeemed his country from in the 1990s. Neighboring countries like Malawi and Burundi have similarly experienced paroxysm of inter-ethnic violence inspired by Rwanda. Hundreds of thousands more have died in these battles, which continue even today.
In Israel, a rising crescendo of hate has united Jews in a conviction that they are surrounded by angry, violent, implacable enemies who seek their extermination. This has undergirded the political supremacy of the Israeli extreme right, which has controlled national politics, with a few brief interruptions, going back to 1977. In order to retain its grip on power, the rhetoric has grown progressively more heated. As a result, we’ve entered a new Intifada, in which 120 Palestinians have been murdered over the past two months. Among them have been grisly acts of Jewish terror like the Dawabsheh arson-murders. Only a year before that, Mohammed Abu Khdeir was tortured and burned to death by Jewish settler terrorists seeking vengeance against Palestinians.
Just as popes and preachers goaded Christians to hate Jews leading to their mass murder, Israel’s leaders use the same inflamed, hateful rhetoric against Islam in general, and Palestinians in particular. They attempt to turn a political conflict over power and resources into an all-out religious war of extermination. In this sense, Israel’s leading rabbis and politicians are exploiting religion for a wholly secular-material purpose.
The most absolutist among Zionists have argued that the return to Zion and Israel’s rise was presaged by prayers murmured by Jews for centuries about returning to the Land and rebuilding Jerusalem. But those who used this argument forgot several things: no Jew davening in a Polish shtiebel in the 17th century ever dreamed that this would involve a massive army killing tens of thousands of Arabs and the theft of an entire land from another people. And those Jews who prayed for the rebuilding of the Holy Temple never knew that this would involve destroying the third holiest site in Islam and provoking a likely religious war.
In other words, contemporary pro-Israel propagandists co-opt the tropes of Judaism to justify unprecedented violence and repression against Palestinians. Like Joshua raising his trumpet at the walls of Jericho, they draft the Jewish God in an eternal war against Islam and its local representatives, the Palestinians.
Similarly, the GOP today is running down this road at a breakneck pace. The hate spewed not just by Donald Trump, but by even the most moderate among their candidates (like Fiorina), has led to real violence and it’s guaranteed that they will lead to more. No American should accept that the price of innocent American blood shed in San Bernardino should be innocent Muslim blood. If that happens, then Donald Trump and his fellow moral dwarves will be the ones with blood on their hands.
Silverstein has published Tikun Olam since 2003, It exposes the secrets of the Israeli national security state. He lives in Seattle, but his heart is in the east. He publishes regularly at Middle East Eye, the New Arab, and Jacobin Magazine. His work has also appeared in Al Jazeera English, The Nation, Truthout and other outlets.