Mistaking Symptom for Cause

The notion that anti-American terrorism would be affected by the signing of an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal is not altogether different, and no less foolish, than the belief that Muslim anti-Semitism will abate due to the same.

James Kirchick
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James Kirchick

Arabs and Muslims have many reasons, some of them valid, to detest Israel. Though it is a liberal democracy in which Arabs have more freedoms than anywhere else in the Middle East, Israel remains a society where Jewish citizens enjoy certain privileges. The very creation of the State of Israel is known in Arabic as the "Nakba," or "catastrophe," as it resulted in the displacement of over 500,000 Arabs then living in Mandatory Palestine. These refugees, along with millions of their descendants, live either under a four-decade-plus military occupation or in camps scattered across the region.

One can believe that the statelessness of the Palestinians is a continuing tragedy largely of their own making (the fruits of rejectionism and support for terrorism), while appreciating that Muslim hostility and resentment toward Israel has deep underpinnings - not all of them baseless. But it does not follow that the occupation, abuses committed by the Israel Defense Forces, onerous West Bank checkpoints, or any other policies undertaken by the State of Israel legitimize claims that Jews are the source of AIDS, use Muslim blood to bake their bread, or spread their octopus-like tentacles across the media, governments and global financial institutions.

IDF troops in Qalandia, West Bank during Palestinian protests marking anniversary of Israeli occupation, June 5, 2011. Credit: Reuters

Just as the actions of China, Pakistan or Zimbabwe ought not be used to stereotype Chinese, Pakistanis or Zimbabweans, the actions of the Jewish state should not be used to denigrate Jews, especially those who are not even Israeli.

That such an elementary distinction bears repeating is thanks to the recent remarks of Howard Gutman, the U.S. ambassador to Belgium. In a speech late last month, he drew a distinction between the "classic bigotry" against Jews that has been a hallmark of Christian Europe, and that expressed today by Arabs and Muslims. "The largest part of the solution," to the latter form of "anti-Semitism" (which, in the original transcript of his remarks, Gutman put in scare quotes, as if to suggest that the manifold bigotries voiced by Arabs and Muslims about Jews merely constitute overzealous criticism of Israel), "remains in the hands of government leaders in Israel and the Palestinian territories and Arab countries in the Middle East."

Citing his ancestry as the son of a Polish Holocaust survivor, Gutman argued that, "Every new settlement announced in Israel exacerbates the problem." Arab and Muslim "anti-Semitism," presumably, will subside once a Palestinian state is created.

Gutman's remarks created a firestorm in the United States, where major Jewish institutions condemned them and a string of Republican presidential candidates called upon President Obama to recall his emissary. Never mind Gutman's ignorance of European anti-Semitism, which, contrary to his portrayal of it as a phenomenon exclusive to nativist movements, has a long pedigree on the cosmopolitan left. (Indeed, contemporary European anti-Semitism is more often found emanating from the pages of ostensibly "liberal" newspapers and the lips of left-wing politicians than from conservative publications or individuals).

Also scurrilous is Gutman's argument against "lumping together" European and Muslim forms of anti-Semitism. Indeed, the latter, as Prof. Jeffrey Herf showed recently in his book "Nazi Propaganda for the Arab World," has been heavily influenced by the former.

What made Gutman's remarks so reprehensible was that he mistook the symptom for the cause. Antipathy toward Jews in the Arab and Muslim worlds long predates the existence of the first Zionist settlements - never mind the creation of the State of Israel. Gutman's analysis conflates legitimate criticisms of Israeli policies with a medieval hatred of Jews; it is the difference between Haaretz editorials and the conspiratorial ranting of Hungarian fascists.

Apparently, however, when the ideas of the European far right are propagated by the dark-hued, such base hatred suddenly becomes "understandable." Saying that Israeli policies are responsible for anti-Semitism patronizes Arabs and Muslims, for it excuses behavior which bien pensant liberals like Gutman would be the first to criticize were it to come from a white Christian.

Americans, for instance, have good reason to be angry with Iran, whose agents hijacked our embassy for 444 days, suborned the murder of 241 servicemen in the 1983 Beirut barracks bombing, and continue to kill soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq. But that anger about the actions and nature of the Iranian government, however legitimate, does not justify racism by Americans toward Iranian individuals.

Though statistically it has been shown that anti-Semitic incidents around the world rise in response to violent chapters of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, this is only because anti-Semites lie in wait for such conflagrations to occur and cynically exploit them. Should Gutman ever be the victim of an anti-Semitic attack at the hands of a Muslim resident of Brussels, would he blame it on the existence of West Bank settlements, thereby absolving his assailant of blame?

Despite the controversy, Gutman won't be recalled to Washington, and not only because he is a high-level donor to the president and his party. While the White House distanced itself from his remarks, it can only go so far in its denunciation. And that's because the administration agrees with Gutman's larger point: Having repeatedly endorsed the theory of "linkage," which posits that resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the key to solving America's problems with Muslims writ large, the administration and its backers have provided intellectual ammunition to those who argue that Israel brings anti-Semitism upon itself. Both contentions hold America and its ally hostage to the pathologies of cynical despots, fundamentalist clerics and credulous masses, none of whom care a whit for Jewish-Muslim coexistence.

The notion that anti-American terrorism would be affected by the signing of an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal is not altogether different, and no less foolish, than the belief that Muslim anti-Semitism will abate due to the same.

James Kirchick is a fellow of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a contributing editor for The New Republic.