The Jewish people have long suffered various forms of hostility, particularly in Europe for many centuries. The Twentieth Century has seen this reach infamous heights with the treatment they received at the hands of the Nazis. Recent comments by leading Jewish figures have alleged that although European-led anti-Semitism is on the decline, a new form of anti-Semitism is on the rise with its strongest voices found in the Muslim world.
In the last few months attempts have been made to define this new form of anti-Semitism. The term "anti-Semitism" is generally understood to mean racism against Jews, but is now being redefined by a number of prominent Jewish personalities to identify "a new anti-Semitism" as being found in those opposing Israel and her policies. Any criticism of the state of Israel is attacked with the repugnant label of 'anti-Semitism '. Labelling Muslims and Islam implicitly and explicitly as racist and bigoted can and has had the effect of stoking the ignorant fires of Islamophobia. In dealing with this issue, we first need to understand what type of criticism of Israel can be seen as a new form of anti-Semitism and why. The recent United Nations World Conference Against Racism (Durban, August 31 - September 7, 2001) indicated wide-spread sympathy with the view that Zionism was a racist movement. Are people around the world today, particularly Muslims, being "anti-Semitic" or just anti-Zionist?
The New anti-Semitism?
Hostility towards Jews in Europe has had numerous forms over history. The holocaust is etched powerfully in our memories. Prior to this, pogroms in Russia and elsewhere were a common tyranny, and going back further we find the inquisition in Spain and the expulsion of Jews from European countries including England in the 13th century. Until the arrival of secularist culture, the Jews as a whole were despised by Christians on religious grounds and were blamed for murdering Christ. After the French Revolution and the foundation of the United States of America, this religious persecution was limited and could no longer gain state sponsorship. Yet, it resurfaced again as race-based discrimination with the Nazis. After this ghost seemed to be put to rest, we now find Jews again being blamed, this time for their support of Israel and the injustices that are being done in the name of "the Jewish state".
In his recent remarks to the Parliamentary Committee Against anti-Semitism, Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi in the United Kingdom, noted that "...we are wrong to see all criticism of the State of Israel as anti-Zionism let alone as anti-Semitism"
This point has to be kept in mind. Yet it begs the question, if not all criticism of the state of Israel can be construed as anti-Semitism then surely some can be seen as such. What kind of criticism of the state of Israel is anti-Semitic? By leaving this question unresolved, the Chief Rabbi is saying almost nothing in his remark. Any person who raises the voice of criticism of Israel, therefore is open to the allegation of being anti-Semitic.
Professor Irwin Cotler, an MP in the Canadian House of Commons and the director of McGill University's human-rights programme, made his position clearer. He explained that "traditional anti-Semitism," directed against the rights of individual Jews, was "very much on the decline, but that "the new anti-Semitism" represented "the discrimination against and the denial of the rights of the Jewish people to live as equal members of the family of nations." Or to interpret his point, the new anti-Semitism is denying Jews the right to exist as a distinct sovereign nation state. This raises many questions. Where is the Christian sovereign nation state, or the Buddhist one, or the Islamic one? Does the existence of a state for the Jews allow them to expel hundreds of thousands of non-Jewish inhabitants and prevent their return?
In Israel, there are two recognised nationalities, Jewish and Arab. The implication is that these are two distinct races since there are Arab Christians and Arab Muslims within the 'Arab' nationality. Within this small-scale family of nations, these two are certainly not equal members. The Arab nation and the Jewish nation have quite different and unequal rights - and that doesn't even address the majority of Palestinians who have been forced off their land or had their land brutally occupied.
Which kind of nation is Professor Irwin Colter talking about here? The state of Israel, army and all, or perhaps the Jewish nation within a more complex, not particularly Jewish, state? If the latter, then we have the possibility that someone saying that the state of Israel has no right to exist is not denying that the Jews have the right to exist as a distinct nation state. It is just that the Jewish nation would be one one without an army.
Another attempt at drawing a distinction between legitimate criticism of Israel and anti-Semitic criticism has been given by Rabbi Michael Melchior, the Israeli Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs: "Criticism of Israel has its place. Israel is not perfect nor does it claim to be. But all fair-minded people must be vigilant in drawing the line between legitimate criticism and the manifestations of anti-Semitism now parading as such. The State of Israel is a central component of Jewish identity. When Israel is attacked in intentionally inflammatory terms, no one should kid themselves who the real target is. When Israeli occupation is likened to the wholesale Nazi extermination of Jews, this is not legitimate criticism; it is anti-Semitism. "
The difficulty this definition poses is just what is "intentionally inflammatory". It is fact that in recent years, the Israelis had a policy of breaking the bones of Palestinians, that use of torture was sanctioned by the Israeli courts and that according to a recent report in Ha'aretz newspaper, the IDF (Israeli Defence Force) has developed their techniques of controlling the Palestinian occupied territories though studying the way the Nazis controlled the ghettos in Warsaw . Is someone who raises these points being intentionally inflammatory? It really depends how it is done, and even who does it. But even if it is intentionally inflammatory, does that amount to anti-Semitism?
The Chief Rabbi's opening remarks gave a number of impressive anecdotes and a few statistics indicating a rise in hostility towards Jews (albeit the statistics only refer to France and it may be that issues about classification of attacks overshadow what appears to be an increase). He highlights the case of Daniel Pearl as someone kidnapped and killed by some Pakistani Muslims 'for being a Jew' and refers to the remarks of a London-based Muslim teacher apparently calling for a war against the Jews. In both cases there is, perhaps unavoidably, at the core, the issue of identifying Israel as the enemy state, opposing it and opposing the power behind it represented primarily by the Jews. You have to ask, if Israel was not stealing land from Palestinians and murdering and oppressing others, would these Muslims identify Jews as a whole as the enemy? Would Daniel Pearl be alive today? Yes, he probably would be. This, of course doesn't justify his killing simply on the grounds of being Jewish.
Is the hostility of some Muslims towards Jews in general motivated by opposition to the injustice they have brought to Palestine, which the Jews themselves could bring to a halt to by stopping the oppression or, is it racism founded in Islamic teachings which the Jews cannot bring a halt to and can therefore only be opposed? To answer this question, we need to look into the teachings of Islam and the history of non-Muslim minorities in the Muslim world.
Islamic teachings on unjust discrimination
In Islam we are instructed to judge with equity, not discriminating on any grounds other than the wrongful actions of the case. If the accuser and the defender changed place and the offence was the same, then the judgement should be the same:
O ye who believe! stand out firmly for justice, as witnesses to God, even as against yourselves, or your parents, or your kin, and whether it be (against) rich or poor: for God can best protect both. Follow not the lusts (of your hearts), lest ye swerve, and if ye distort (justice) or decline to do justice, verily God is well-acquainted with all that ye do.
This verse makes it clear that bias towards people on grounds of their wealth, closeness of family relationship, which implicitly includes race or even bias towards oneself amounts to injustice. Racism is however singled out specifically as unjustified:
O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other not that ye may despise (each other). Verily the most honoured of you in the sight of God is (he who is) the most righteous of you. And God has full knowledge and is well acquainted (with all things).
These verses make clear that God judges people, not on their race or tribe but on the grounds of their religious beliefs and moral practice. However, we must not assume that we can simply pass judgement on other people on these grounds. In Islam, there is a clear distinction between the justice of mankind and the justice of God. In our implementation of Justice on Earth we have to judge according to the limited knowledge we have. God on the other hand knows everything. Although God may know one person as being better than another that does not automatically translate into our ability to show bias towards people on the basis of apparent righteousness. Apparent righteousness is not the same as actual righteousness. This is a vitally important teaching in Islam and is one of the first things students of Islam learn. According to Islam, all deeds are judged according to their intentions. Someone can be apparently a more pious person in every way, but their intentions are not pure and so their actions will not be accepted by God. With this in mind, when a Muslim feels the inclination to be judgemental towards others, he restrains himself with the knowledge that the true status of that person's righteousness is only known to God.
When it comes to legal matters where we must form our judgements of others, we must first recognise that Islam has an entire legal system which determines the treatment of people, Muslim and otherwise. The fact of implementing Islamic law, in itself, represents an assertion of one religion over others. However, this does not mean that the law favours Muslims over non-Muslims. Muslims are warned of such an approach in the following verse:
Among the People of the Book are some who, if entrusted with a hoard of gold, will (readily) pay it back; others, who, if entrusted with a single silver coin, will not repay it unless thou constantly stoodest demanding, because, they say, "there is no call on us (to keep faith) with these ignorant (Pagans)." but they tell a lie against God, and (well) they know it.
Islamic law may be split into two categories. Some laws which concern basic human rights such as right to property, life, honour must not take the professed religion of the person into account for the sake of justice. We might call these 'the secular Islamic laws'. Other laws such as inheritance, marriage and divorce explicitly vary according to the professed religion of the parties concerned. Each recognised religious community has its own courts and laws. These sets of laws are part of each religious group's right to live according to their own religion. They in fact represent a much more profound level of freedom of religion than does the secularisation of all law where for example, people may be forced to accept a particular form of personal rights and responsibilities counter to their religious beliefs.
Freedom of religion is one of the basic essential ingredients in the Islamic system, this is demonstrated in the Qur'an in numerous places but also throughout the history of Islamic civilisation. Here are a few of the key verses on the freedom of religion.
Let there be no compulsion in religion: Truth stands out clear from Error: whoever rejects evil and believes in God hath grasped the most trustworthy hand-hold, that never breaks. And God heareth and knoweth all things.
...To each among you have we prescribed a law and an open way. If God had so willed, He would have made you a single people, but (His plan is) to test you in what He hath given you: so strive as in a race in all virtues. The goal of you all is to God; it is He that will show you the truth of the matters in which ye dispute;
Say, "The truth is from your Lord": Let him who will believe, and let him who will, reject (it)...
Freedom of religion is one of a number of essential universal human rights established by Islamic law. The very fact that Islamic law has always applied such rights and principles universally regardless of religion and regardless of race shows that any accusation that Islam could be a racist religion or a religion which others are forced to adopt is a lie. It is not only refuted by the quotations from the Qur'an above but it is also refuted by the history and development of Islamic civilisation. Muslims around the world can now be found in the millions from every race, whites, blacks, Semites, Orientals etc. Any claim that Islam has a doctrine of racism is a nonsense. To claim that Islam could be anti-Semitic on racist grounds is doubly a nonsense because the Arabs and the Jews are the same race - they are both Semites. Religious communities of Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus and many more can be found throughout the Muslim world that have pre-existed the arrival of Islamic rule. These communities have always lived alongside Muslims. The same cannot be said about either the history of Judaism or Christianity. For example the Jewish community in Spain had what is widely recognised as the Golden Age of Judaism under Muslim rule. For example, in his book "Judaism, the way of Holiness" Professor Solomon Nigosian states :
The Spanish Jews (Sephardim) migrated to the centre of Muslim power in Turkey and to North Africa when they were kicked out of Spain for being Jewish by the resurgent Catholic church in the 15th century.
- "The Muslim invasion of Spain in AD 711 was welcomed by the Jews, and for the next seven centuries Spanish Jews were to become the leaders of worldwide Judaism. They entered the fields of government, science, medicine, philosophy, literature and architecture, making outstanding contributions. Little wonder that scholars identify this flowering of Jewish intellect in Muslim Spain as the Golden Age of Judaism.
The very idea of universal rights only came into Western culture after interactions with the Muslim world. The earliest reference to the codification that Encyclopaedia Britannica can find, of course studiously ignoring Islamic sources, is a treaty made between a new Christian ruler in the Iberian peninsula in 1188 and the nobles. The nobles demanded and got from the king a guarantee to rights for protection of life and limb, property and honour and a regular trial. It is interesting that this happened in the area of Europe with most experience of Muslim rule at the time. These rights match all but the last two rights that Muslims and non-Muslims had under Muslim rule in that area and that Muslims have have been taught as part of beginner courses in Islamic law for many centuries.
Specifically under Islamic law Muslim rulers must guarantee the following rights to all people: the right to life and limb, the right to property, the right to honour, the right to think (freedom of conscience) and the right to practice your religion. These rights are part of the overall aim identified for Islamic law as the general welfare of the people.
Truly universal rights which applied for both nobles and for the common man were not adopted by Western civilisation until well after these Iberian pacts.
Even though Islamic law does not represent unjust discrimination in favour of Muslims over non-Muslims, the very fact that the law is coming from Islam rather than some kind of secular lawmaking processes is to some people unjust discrimination in favour of Muslims by implementing "their laws". This argument however, is beyond the subject of this essay and is discussed elsewhere.
Perpetrators or Victims?
- "As data collected by the Stephen Roth Institute at Tel Aviv University, and other research, makes clear, the rise in anti-Semitism in Europe coincided with the beginning of al-Aqsa intifada - and Israel's heavy-handed response - with most of these attacks limited to acts of vandalism on synagogues and cemeteries. As the institute also makes clear, the perpetrators of these attacks, like those who attacked rabbi Gigi, were largely disaffected Islamic youths, a group itself that is the victim of some of the worst race hate and discrimination in Europe. "
When injustice is allowed to stand, the inevitable consequence is that the victim will start to take matters into their own hands. Limited in resources, the danger of vigilantism is that in a keenness to punish the perpetrator, the wrong persons are targeted and punished thus producing more injustice. This process fuels a fire of escalating injustice. This is what we see happening in occupied Palestine today and in many other places. It is the process behind the rise in anti-Semitism seen in the statistics referred to by Peter Beaumont. The key to breaking this cycle is found in forgiveness:
The recompense for an injury is an injury equal thereto (in degree): but if a person forgives and makes reconciliation, his reward is due from God: for (God) loveth not those who do wrong.
Nor can goodness and Evil be equal. Repel (Evil) with what is better: Then will he between whom and thee was hatred become as it were thy friend and intimate!
The general principle of ethics in Islam is to behave towards others the way you want God to behave towards you. Specifically, as is in the first of the two quotes above: forgive others for what they have done to you so that God forgives you what you have done wrong. Or as in the prayer taught by Jesus (peace be upon him) "forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us". In today's world there is still a great deal of racism and other forms of unjust discrimination, but although there is agreement that it is bad, controversies swirl around how people should be compensated for it. The UN conference on racism was a good example of the problems associated with the blame and compensation culture which is so dominant today. The Jewish race was recompensed for their suffering at the hands of the Nazis by being given a state in Palestine. But how should the Palestinians be recompensed for their losses? Give them back Palestine? Black people wanted recompense for the generations of slavery they have suffered at the hands of Europeans. In the end the conference achieved no new substantive deal to recompense anyone. The fact of the matter is in almost all of these controversies that the guilty people have died and their children cannot be blamed for the sins of their parents. This kind of blaming is precisely the misidentification of the perpetrators that fuels the cycles of injustice. For peace and harmony to come about people need to move on - forgive and forget.
Forgiving and forgetting does not mean however, blinding ourselves to what is happening around the world. Naivety is not a virtue. It is essential that we reveal the injustices that are happening, not merely in an attempt to justify our own actions, but so that we can learn to avoid doing them ourselves. We are only responsible for what we have the authority to do and we must make sure that we ourselves do no injustice. If we can by our actions prevent injustice then we should also do so. This may involve fighting against an oppressor, but this shouldn't be due to wanting revenge. It should be purely in the interests of establishing justice. Where we can only speak out we must also make sure that we do so and that our speech does no injustice to anyone.
Racist attacks of all descriptions are to be condemned for their injustice. Identifying which group is suffering worst from such attacks cannot justify ignoring any of them. To say that there are twice as many attacks against Muslims as against Jews doesn't in any way justify failing to deal with the injustice done against the Jews. If the number of attacks were equal does that make everything fine? No, of course not. Two wrongs do not make a right. A Muslim attacking an innocent Jew does not justify a Jew attacking an innocent Muslim nor visa versa. Each attack must be treated as a separate injustice that needs our effort to rectify.
Since September 11, a concerted effort has been underway in some quarters to bring about a 'clash of civilisations" between Islam and the West. Part of this is through inflammatory articles and speeches some of which can be clearly and justly labelled as anti-Semitic or islamophobic, (though little of which could be characterised as racist against Westerners). On the other side of the spectrum are efforts to bring about a dialogue of civilisations. In bringing about such dialogue we cannot start by pointing fingers and casting blame. Instead, we must recognise the areas of agreement and build on them.
Islam is about establishing justice between people, and through justice, peace. Islam stands clearly against all forms of racism. Islam protects the universal, God-given rights of humankind, while recognising that people have differing paths in religion which they are free to follow and which confer differing social and economic rights among people such as in marriage, divorce and inheritance. This freedom is at the heart of the tolerance of Islam.
In this world there are many injustices, among these are the rise of anti-Semitism especially that manifested in unjust attacks on innocent Jews, the islamophobia and the attacks on innocent Muslims and the numerous other cases where human rights are violated across the world. In seeking to heal the world of these problems, we need to understand how victims become perpetrators and in our sympathy for the victims we must avoid becoming perpetrators ourselves. Key to this process is providing sincere and fair criticism, criticism that is clearly intended not to inflame but to help. Sometimes it may be harsh but it must always be factual and fair. To make our helpful intention clear we need to identify the good actions of those being criticised ,as well as identifying their bad actions, and we need to avoid intending retribution by our criticism by forgiving those who have injured us or at least clearly being prepared to do so, should they ask for it. If it is done right, this will help to create, not inflamed argument, but sincere dialogue.
We need a dialogue of civilisations, not a monologue and not a clash of civilisations.
Bibligraphy and further reading suggestions:
- The Yusuf Ali Translation of the meaning of the Qur'an (Amana Trust publications USA)
- Al Tawhid: Its implications for thought and life - Ismail Raji al Faruqi (International Institute of Islamic Thought (IIIT) ISBN 0-912463-80-5 (PB))
- The Principles of State and Government in Islam - Muhammad Asad (Dar Al-Andalus - printed by Redwood Press Limited in the UK)
- Judaism, The way of Holiness - Soloman Nigosian (Crucible - ISBN 0-85030-429-6)
- Numerous articles are available on the internet including:
- The transcript of the speech to the IPCAA by the Chief Rabbi
- Muslim perspectives on current news stories: