By lumping anti-Semitism with Islamophobia at a controversial one-day conference in early December, a Berlin academic center put Germany's post-Holocaust understanding of anti-Semitism in the public eye.
By lumping anti-Semitism with Islamophobia at a controversial one-day conference in early December, a Berlin academic center put the issue of Germany's post-Holocaust understanding of anti-Semitism in the public eye. Anti-Semitism experts rightly argue that the conference, entitled "Concepts of the Muslim Enemy - Concepts of the Jewish Enemy," organized by the Center for Research on Anti-Semitism to discuss how German society marginalizes Muslims, blurred crucial differences between anti-Semitism and discrimination against Muslims.
The original mission of the publicly funded center, founded in 1982 by a Jewish survivor of the Nazis, was to study anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, as well as xenophobia and racism in general. In recent years, however, the center has increasingly focused on discrimination against non-Jewish minorities. Reflecting this tendency, Wolfgang Benz, the center's director since 1990, wrote in a preview to this month's conference that "The fury of the new enemies of Islam parallels the older rage of anti-Semites against the Jews."
In response, scholars of anti-Semitism, including Daniel J. Goldhagen, Matthias Kuentzel and Yale University's Clemens Heni, have charged that by juxtaposing anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, the center is trivializing the Shoah, playing down Iran's genocidal threats toward Israel, and ignoring radical Islam's murderous loathing of Jews and Israel. Capturing the distinction between anti-Muslim bias and anti-Semitism, Heni noted that no people but the Jews "has ever been blamed for such a welter of 'evils'- capitalism, communism, liberalism and humanism: None of these anti-Semitic accusations are used against Muslims today."
Equating anti-Semitism with Islamophobia not only minimizes such distinctions, it also makes it more difficult to discuss the dangers of radical Islam. That may well have been the intention of the concept in the first place. The notion of "Islamophobia" emerged from the Islamic Republic of Iran following the revolution in 1979. According to Caroline Fourest and Fiammetta Venner, two French journalists who have written extensively on the subject, the Iranian mullahs introduced the idea of a phobia to Islam as a response to international criticism of such practices as the forcing of women to wear headscarves, and persecution of homosexuals and other violators of "Islamic morality."
Of course, prejudice against Muslims does exist, and Europe badly needs to study and improve measures to combat discrimination in employment and housing, as well as hostility resulting from stereotypes and racism. The Berlin Center is fulfilling its mission by studying anti-Muslim prejudices. But its naive acceptance of the concept of "Islamophobia," without either defining the term or exploring its exploitation to shield criticism of radical Islam, has illuminated the shortcomings of the center's approach.
The Islamophobia row is a symptom of broader disorientation and intellectual dishonesty at the government-funded center. A German institution entrusted with studying and fighting anti-Semitism has special responsibilities. To invoke the German-Jewish philosopher Theodor Adorno's plea for the post-Holocaust world, it is obligated to "structure its thinking and actions in such a way that Auschwitz would never be repeated, that nothing similar would happen."
In neglecting the Iranian threat and shifting its resources to flawed comparisons between Islamophobia and anti-Semitism, the center seems to be abandoning Adorno's imperative. The last three editions of the center's yearbook lack any mention of Iranian anti-Semitism; so does the center's Web site. Yet, ironically, the current yearbook criticizes Kuentzel, an expert on Islamic anti-Semitism, for making supposedly unjustified comparisons between the anti-Semitic tirades of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and those of Adolf Hitler.
The director insists that the institute is apolitical and that academic inquiry must remain independent of politics. But it is intellectually disingenuous to argue that the center can remain politically neutral when spectacular levels of Islamic anti-Semitism are ubiquitous in the Arab and Muslim worlds, and intense dislike of Israel is widespread even in Germany. (According to a 2008 BBC poll, Germany tied with Spain for the most negative attitudes toward Israel in Europe.)
In 2004, when it hosted the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's anti-Semitism conference, the German government pledged to work against the spread of global anti-Semitism. The publicly funded Berlin Center could be a major agent for that work. Yet it has remained silent about Germany's trade relationship - the largest in Europe - with the anti-Semitic, Holocaust-denying Iranian regime, and about the blatant failure of the ostensibly pro-Israel German-Israeli parliamentary group in the Bundestag to initiate legislation to halt deals between Germany and Iran. These are precisely the types of phenomena that meet the criteria of the center's mandate to address the persecution of minority groups and the threat of future genocides. Iran's support of terror activity against Jews worldwide, and against Jews and other minority groups at home, offers ample proof that we are not dealing with a passing event. The center's apparent lack of concern about these manifestations of anti-Semitism and other prejudices is therefore baffling.
Depressingly, there is no shortage of anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist threats and actions in the post-9/11 world. Yet one of the institutions charged with identifying and responding to these threats appears to have veered off track and taken its focus off anti-Semitism. It is a saddening development. One hopes the battle cry of the American trade unionist Mother Jones will inspire the center and Germany to continue its historical responsibility to remember the Holocaust and prevent future genocides: "Pray for the dead, and fight like hell for the living."
Benjamin Weinthal is an independent journalist working in Berlin.
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