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Spreading the Stain


In late July, responding to antisemitic incidents in France, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon called on French Jews to immigrate. French President Jacques Chirac responded by informing Sharon he was persona non grata in Paris. Manifestations of antisemitism have indeed been on the rise in France and throughout the world: swastikas on tombstones, explosions at synagogues, and attacks on individual Jews.

Seizing the opportunity afforded by the current surge in antisemitism, Israel and its defenders seek to de-legitimize the critics by categorizing them with defacers of tombstones. They try to spread the stain.

Among them is Lawrence H Summers, President of Harvard University and former Secretary of the Treasury in the Clinton Administration. On 17 September 2002, Professor Summers said: ‘Profoundly anti-Israel views are increasingly finding support in progressive intellectual communities. Serious and thoughtful people are advocating and taking actions that are antisemitic in their effect if not their intent.’

the Palestinian cause, inherently just, is in danger of slipping into a bog of fascist and antisemitic tendencies

Responding in the London Review of Books, Professor Judith Butler of UC Berkeley writes that Summers’ approach amounts to denying the right to criticize, especially since ‘we are not given any criteria by which to adjudicate’ when such criticism of Israel carries ‘the effective force of antisemitism’. She points out a further danger: if every criticism of Israel is met by the cry ‘Antisemite!’, we shall no longer be able to identify real antisemitism when it occurs. Butler calls on Jews to ‘widen the rift between the state of Israel and the Jewish people in order to produce an alternative vision of the future... to secure an independent Palestinian state or to re-establish the basis of the Israeli state without regard to religion so that Jewishness would constitute only one cultural and religious reality.’1

Where are the Arabs?

When progressive anti-Zionists talk about re-establishing the basis of the Israeli state so that both Jews and Arabs can live together peacefully, what do Arab writers have to say? Very little, it turns out. The tone is set, rather, by people who sabotage the possibility of a new discussion. Dr Ibrahim Aloush denies the Holocaust, while journalist Ahmad Ragheb thanks Hitler for ‘doing part of the job for us’.2 Although such views are not representative, the fact remains that in the face of them, the vast majority of Arab intellectuals keep silent. They stand by while The Protocols of the Elders of Zion sell like hotcakes on Arab streets.

When Arab intellectuals like Aloush and Ragheb preach the formula ‘Judaism = Zionism’, maintaining that every Jew, by the mere fact of being Jewish, is a Zionist and therefore an ‘enemy’, they play into the hands of those who would label any criticism of Israel as antisemitic. Antisemitism helps Israel to justify its existence. In particular, in its current debate with the academics, Israel needs to identify anti-Zionism with antisemitism. If Zionism and Judaism are one, as Aloush and Ragheb maintain, then so are anti-Zionism and antisemitism.

Why do these Arab intellectuals fall into such extreme positions? One reason is political regression in the Arab world, which has opened the way for the rise of Islamic fundamentalist currents. These view the conflict in terms of religion (Jews vs Muslims), rather than in terms of nation (Zionists vs Arabs) or class (colonizers vs the colonized). The growing bitterness in the Arab world, however, stems not just from the conflict with Israel, but from broader economic and political problems. By taking an antisemitic position, intellectuals like Aloush and many fellow Arab antisemites avoid coming to grips with these problems. They are unable or unwilling to present an alternative to the Arab regimes.

Because Israel purports to represent Jews in general, the hatred it arouses is readily extended to Jews in general. Yet not so long ago, we should remember, the attitude on the Palestinian street was different. Through the period of the first Intifada, most Palestinians were careful to distinguish between Zionists and Jews, because they related to the conflict as a political one as opposed to a religious or racist one.

To criticize Israel, however, is not to downplay the disastrous effects of the positions taken by Aloush and his ilk. Instead of destroying Israel’s monopoly on defending Jews against this blight, these Arab intellectuals flirt with it. As a result, the Palestinian cause, inherently just, is in danger of slipping into a bog of fascist and antisemitic tendencies.

Because they lack a progressive political programme, Arab antisemites are blind to the opportunities offered by the current discussion in the West concerning alternatives to global capitalism. By treating Jews in general as the source of their misfortunes, they lose allies in the struggle against occupation – not just the occupation in Palestine, but also the one in Iraq.

Rather than make common cause, Arab intellectuals and activists have kept their distance from Jews. They ignore the many Jews of conscience, both within Israel and outside, who believe in an internationalist solution to the conflict.

The isolation of Israel

Since the start of the second Intifada in September 2000, more and more people have been searching for a solution outside the framework of ‘two states for two peoples’.3 The Intifada has left Israel without a strategy. The Oslo concept – that Israel could continue the occupation indirectly through a Palestinian partner – has collapsed. Israel has found itself again in charge of the whole land west of the Jordan river, where the Jews will soon be the minority.

The ‘demographic danger’ frightens both the Israeli Right and the Left. Both want to preserve what they call the state’s ‘Jewish character’, but both also know that the world will not accept such an entity unless it is democratic. To stay both Jewish and democratic, Israel must maintain a Jewish majority. If it continues to rule over the 3.5 million Palestinians in the Territories – together with the 1.1 million Arabs in Israel itself – then the Arabs (who have a higher birth rate) will soon outnumber the Jews (now 5.5 million). One Israeli response, we have seen, is to try to increase Jewish immigration by playing up fears of antisemitism elsewhere. Another is to close Israel off to non-Jews.

In the case of self-closure, the measures Israel takes are illegal, immoral and unacceptable to the rest of the world. One such is the separation wall, Israel’s answer to Palestinian suicide attacks. The wall imprisons the Palestinians, but it also ghettoizes Israeli Jews – not just physically, but morally.

Another method of self-closure is the intended disengagement from Gaza. Much of the world, including the Israeli Left, has not yet perceived its immorality. But Sharon’s plan does not entail true disengagement. After a true disengagement, Palestinians would have the right to enter or leave Gaza as they wish. Gaza would have a port, an airfield and an open border to Egypt – all without Israeli control. In this sense, Sharon will never leave Gaza. It will continue to be a prison.

The separation wall and the disengagement plan smack increasingly of apartheid. As Israel marches toward pariah status, it labels the people who oppose these measures ‘antisemites’. One can play the ‘antisemitic card’ for just so long; one can spread the stain just so far.

The antisemitism that now appears in the Arab world is a relic imported from Europe, complete with stereotypes and lies. It answers a need which stems, broadly speaking, from the dashing of Arab hopes for a better life within the new American order, and specifically, from the abominable conditions of Palestinian life since the signing of the Oslo Accords. The new-old antisemitism is nourished by leaders and opinion makers as a cover for their impotence. By resorting to the stereotype of the conniving, wealthy, string-pulling, demonic Jew, they can explain the military and economic superiority of Israel, blurring the responsibility of their own regimes.

Asma Agbarieh is a labour organizer and political activist from Jaffa. She is also an editor at the monthly al-Sabar and serves on the editorial staff of the bi-monthly Challenge. http://www.hanitzotz.com/alsabar http://www.hanitzotz.com/challenge


  1. ‘No, it’s not antisemitic’, London Review of Books, Vol 25 No 16, 21 August 2003.
  2. al-Akh’bar, 29 April 2001.
  3. For an analysis of the two-state solution see: ‘Disengagement and the Death of the Two-State Solution’, Challenge, No 86, July-August 2004.

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