Scholars Need to Begin Studying Islamic Anti-Semitism

Roundup: Talking About History

Neil J. Kressel, in theChronicle of Higher Education(March 11, 2004):

For many decades, social scientists of every disciplinary stripe have placed themselves in the forefront of the battle against bigotry. On the basis of that record, one might expect to find psychologists, sociologists, and others hard at work studying the dynamics of Jew-hatred in the Muslim world. But that is far from the case.

These days, more than a few leading Muslim clerics routinely denounce Jews with dehumanizing rhetoric. For example, in April 2002, Sheikh Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi of Egypt, one of the most important Sunni clerics, described Jews in his weekly sermon as"the enemies of Allah, descendants of apes and pigs." Sheikh Abd Al-Rahman Al-Sudayyis, the imam of the most important mosque in Mecca, similarly sermonized that the Jews are"the scum of the human race, the rats of the world, the violators of pacts and agreements, the murderers of the prophets, and the offspring of apes and pigs." The imam further advised Arabs to abandon all peace initiatives with Jews and asked Allah to annihilate them. Many leaders of Muslim countries enthusiastically greeted former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's similarly racist ranting.

Yet social scientists have essentially remained mum concerning a problem that President Bush, in a speech in November, has placed high on the world agenda."Europe's leaders, and all leaders," he said in London,"should strongly oppose anti-Semitism, which poisons public debates over the future of the Middle East."

The image of the president of the United States pressing ahead in the battle against bigotry while social scientists lag far behind is, to say the least, unusual -- especially when one considers the mountains of research that have addressed past anti-Semitism and racism in Europe and the United States.

An examination of PsycINFO, a leading online index of psychological studies, shows 458 entries on anti-Semitism since 1940, 99 of which have appeared during the past 10 years. But not a single one deals directly with hatred of Jews by Muslims or Arabs in the contemporary world. At most, a few psychologically oriented authors, like Mortimer Ostow, have touched tangentially on Muslim anti-Semitism in studies focusing on Jew-hatred in other contexts, and a few political historians, like Bernard Lewis and Robert Wistrich, have offered some social-scientific speculation on the topic.

An analysis of Sociological Abstracts tells much the same story. Since 1963, 130 entries in the database have dealt with anti-Semitism, but none center on the hatred of Jews among Arab Muslims or others in the broader Muslim world.

The failure of social scientists to confront this dangerous form of contemporary bigotry is particularly curious in light of the past prominence of sociologists and psychologists in the study of anti-Semitism. The list of important studies is long and includes, among many others, books by Nathan Ackerman and Marie Jahoda (1950), Bruno Bettelheim and Morris Janowitz (1964), Charles Glock and Rodney Stark (1966), George Kren and Leon Rappoport (1994), Robert Jay Lifton (1986), Gary Marx (1967), Harold Quinley and Charles Glock (1979), Gertrude Selznick and Stephen Steinberg (1969), and Charles Stember (1966). Indeed, several seminal studies in mainstream social psychology -- The Authoritarian Personality, by Theodor Adorno and his colleagues; The Nature of Prejudice, by Gordon W. Allport; and Obedience to Authority, by Stanley Milgram -- had their roots, in part, in the desire to understand manifestations of anti-Semitism.

So what's going on? Why have social scientists neglected the study of Muslim anti-Semitism?

Some say there is no need to study the phenomenon, and that the charge itself is merely a sneaky ploy to fend off criticism of Israel. For example, the columnist Norman Solomon purports to explain the"strategy" used by supporters of Israel:"To quash debate, just smear, smear, smear. Instead of trying to refute critiques of Israeli policies, it's much easier to equate criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism -- a timeworn way of preventing or short-circuiting real debate on the merits of the issues."

Sheikh Tantawi, of Egypt's Al-Azhar University, offers a more extreme form of the argument, holding that"the charge of anti-Semitism was invented by the Jews as a means of pressuring the Arabs and Muslims, and with the aim of implementing their conspiracies in the Arab and Muslim countries. It should be disregarded."

While the question of where legitimate criticism of Israel ends and anti-Semitism begins can be a tricky matter, whether one looks at bombings or rhetoric it is clear from a review of recent events that much Muslim hostility to Jews is old-fashioned bigotry, plain and simple.

Another attempt to end the discussion of Muslim anti-Semitism before it starts can be found in the contention that Arabs cannot be anti-Semites because they are Semites. Bernard Lewis put that specious semantic argument to rest when he explained in his 1986 book, Semites and Anti-Semites, that"the term Semite has no meaning as applied to groups as heterogeneous as the Arabs or the Jews, and indeed it could be argued that the use of such terms is in itself a sign of racism and certainly of either ignorance or bad faith. ... Anti-Semitism has never anywhere been concerned with anyone but Jews, and is therefore available to Arabs as to other people as an option should they choose it." In any event, nothing is gained from applying the"anti-Semitism" label to anti-Arab discrimination, abhorrent in its own right, except to confuse matters and take attention away from anti-Jewish hostility.

comments powered by Disqus