As I write this, I’m on a plane returning from Berkeley to Seattle, after attending an Islamophobia conference, “The Road Traveled,” at which I delivered my first academic paper. There were presenters from Japan, Canada, Sweden the UK, France, and Austria.
It was a bracing experience for many reasons. One of the most important was that I was the only Jewish presenter. This is not a criticism. On the contrary. I think the openness to diversity (or intersectionality” to use the common parlance) of the conference organizers is critically important. I am, in fact very grateful to be able to represent my (admittedly dissident) Jewish perspective to the mostly Muslim audience.
Reflecting on that theme, during my talk, I suggested that a similar conference on anti-Semitism hosted by a Jewish or Israel Studies program would likely not include any Muslim speakers; and if it did, it would only be the kosher (or “good”) Muslims who would be invited.
I learned a great deal and for that I’m grateful to my fellow speakers. Among the things I learned were historical facts I didn’t know or hadn’t even considered. For example, a Swedish scholar spoke in part of the Catholic Reconquista of medieval Spain. When he got to a discussion of the Inquisition he mentioned, of course, the expulsion of Jews and the subsequent torture of Marranos at the hands of the Church and State. But one fact was entirely new to me: the Catholic State expelled not just Jews, but the defeated Muslims (or Moors) as well. Muslims too were tortured if they were found to have concealed their continuing allegiance to Islam.
An interesting question is–why I didn’t know this. Certainly it is largely because in the Jewish history courses I took at the Jewish Theological Seminary and medieval Spanish Hebrew poetry at the Hebrew University, none of this was mentioned. The question is, Why?
That’s the general issue I want to explore. It relates to a Jewish need for exceptionalism. It is an impulse that begins far back in our history, perhaps to God’s promise to Abraham to make his descendants “as numerous as the stars in the sky” (this was written at a time when you could still see thousands of stars in the night sky!). Or perhaps it goes back to the verse in the Bible in which God calls Israel a “chosen people.”
We certainly are not the only religion or nation to hold such beliefs. Here in the U.S., “American exceptionalism” goes back at least to the 19th century and the notion of “Manifest Destiny,” if not earlier. But we Jews have made tradition of this. And while such a notion of being set aside for a sacred or divine purpose can be a blessing; more often it has proven a curse.
The Holocaust and the Exceptionalism of Jewish Suffering
Witness the Holocaust: while there can be no argument about the enormity of the suffering inflicted on the Jewish people, there’s a certain conceptualization of the tragedy that can be especially harmful. Primary among these is that this genocide was not only unique, but that it confers on Jews certain rights or privileges: “boasting rights,” if you will. Jewish suffering in the Holocaust has been used to justify all manner of horrible Israeli policies towards the Palestinians. Whenever the Israel Lobby and its apologists meet anyone viewed as hostile to Israel, invocation of the Holocaust silences the conversation and seals the “fate” of the interlocutor. Associate someone with Hitler or his brand of Jew hatred, and you need not say more. You’ve neutralized whatever credibility or viability their arguments might have.
Further, by “exceptionalizing” the Holocaust this serves to cut Jews off from the rest of humanity. If the six-million are “ours” and ours alone, then there can be no other genocide that compares to it. In truth, humans have committed genocide going very far back in our history as a species. Even we Jews exterminated tribes which lived in the land of Israel at the time of Israelite settlement. There were even civil wars between the kingdoms of Judah and Israel, in which tens of thousands were slaughtered as recounted in the Biblical narrative.
Nor should the rest of humanity and its religions let themselves off the hook. The Catholic Church slaughtered Albigensians in the Middle Ages. It slaughtered Jews during the Crusades. Burmese Buddhists have killed tens of thousands of Muslim Rohingya Muslims and ethnically cleansed a half-million people. The Buddhist Sinhalese of Sri Lanka slaughtered the Tamils to end Sri Lanka’s civil war. We are a race that kills its own. And the murderers often get away with it.
But such an impulse to mass murder is not unique to Jew haters (of which there have been far too many, alas). Genocide may be built into our human genetic code.
What is critical is for all of us to learn from this impulse and the historical record of such mass violence. To do this, we must acknowledge our common humanity and not render one religion or people unique. Otherwise, we are falsifying the historical record and rendering ourselves unable to look history in the eye and see it for what it is. That will make us less able to stop future acts of genocide.
Anti-Semitism and Eternal Victimhood
The same Jewish impulse dominates the discussion of anti-Semitism. There are scholars whose careers have been dedicated to the proposition that anti-Semitism and its Jewish victims are unique.
The idea, for example,that other religions may also be victims on a similar scale is anathema to Jews. In truth, we “love” our suffering. We cherish it. And sometimes we even abuse it for our own political ends (witness Israel’s invocation of the term “anti-Semite” at the drop of a hat to silence critics).
Modern Zionism persists in this myth about suffering and victimization being at the heart of Israeli Jewish nationhood. Consider the concept of making the ‘ultimate sacrifice’ on behalf of the nation. One of the most hallowed sayings in the Zionist canon is “Masada will not fall again!” (Sheynit Masada lo tipol). This refers to the Roman siege of Masada during the rebellion of 70 CE, at the end of which Eliezer ben Yair, the commander of the 900 remaining Judeans, is reputed to have ordered their joint suicide. To this day, IDF recruits make a pilgrimage to the mountain top and pledge their allegiance and their lives on behalf of the nation, in a dramatic ceremony.
Nor are Jews alone in worshipping such sacrificial death. One of the events historians used to explain Slobodan Milosevic’s obsession with the conquest of Kosovo, was the Serbian defeat at the 14th century Battle of Kosovo. The outcome determined that Russian Orthodox Serbia would be ruled by the Ottoman (Muslim) Turks until the 20th century. The national loss in this battle is embedded deep in the Serbian national psyche. For six centuries, Serbs like Milosevic prayed to avenge this defeat, and he did–until he lost the prize amidst outbreaks of mass slaughter that compelled NATO to intervene.
Many Jews expend considerable amounts of energy denying that Islamophobia exists or, if it exists, that it is nowhere near as threatening or potent to its Muslim victims as anti-Semitism is to Jews. Part of the reason for this denial is that many Jews view Muslims and Arabs as enemies of Israel. This fear and mistrust itself often becomes Islamophobia. But even if it doesn’t, Jews who blame these two groups for Israel’s predicament can ill-afford to see any commonality with their perceived enemy.
This bifurcation between Jews and Muslims costs both religions critical allies who could help each other fight against religious bigotry. Whether Jews wish to acknowledge this commonality or not, our historical plight as “the hated ones” shares much with Muslims. To give but one small example: while I don’t think much of the spectacle of Israelis (in Paris, an Israeli Jewish journalist and in Berlin, an Israeli Palestinian) who don kippot in Arab neighborhoods daring Muslims to assault them, the truth is that this is precisely the same form of bigotry Muslim women who wear the hijab and Sikh men who wear the turban, endure.
If we were smart, we would make a common alliance to fight this scourge, not separate ourselves by making our victimization worse than anyone else’s.