Jonathan Spyer: Anti-Semitism in Islam and the West

Jonathan Spyer

Prof. Jonathan Spyer is a Journalist and academic currently working out of Jerusalem. He recently made 2 trips into Syria and survived to tell the tale. Last week, he was in Montreal speaking at McGill University for the ISGAP (Institute for the Study of Global Antisemitism and Policy) lecture series, Antisemitism in Comparative Perspective. His talk was about Antisemitism in the Middle East (here is the full lecture Video), historically and in the present.

He reviewed the two theories re Islamic anti-semitism, the “modernist” and the “perennial” theories. The modernist theory, espousing the idea that Middle Eastern anti-semitism is imported from the West and related to the rise of Israel as a state. The perennial theory of Islamic anti-semitism that traces its origins to the beginnings of Islam in the 6th. century. In reviewing these theories he points out how they interweave to create the current ideas and attitudes in the Middle East and also how they compare with Western anti-semitic ideology.

Interestingly, the Jew could survive in Arab lands only if he was a defeated and weak figure of ridicule and contempt. It is for this reason that the rise of contemporary Israel is such an affront to Islamic ideology. It is also in this context, we can understand the terrible current affront to Islam when Jews, who are supposed to be weak, inferior, and ridiculous (monkeys etc.) are in possession of Jerusalem, a seminal Islamic holy site.

By contrast, the Jew, historically in western Christian mythology is a dangerous, powerful, and treacherous, figure who nevertheless must not be killed because his presence attests to the historical Jesus, and the second coming of Jesus is dependent on the conversion of all Jews to Christianity. With the relaxation of Christian ideology in the 19th century and the rise of secularism and science, 20th century western style antisemitism was born based on 19th century “scientific theories of race”. Here the picture of the “Jew as a treacherous, moneygrubbing figure” became etched in biology, leaving absolutely no exit for Jews living under Nazi ideology and sovereignty.

Spyer had an interesting response to the question of whether anti-zionism is the same as antisemitism. “Zionism” was a movement to advance the creation of a Jewish state and there were groups debating pro and con. However, once Israel was created, one can only speak about being for or against the abolishment of the existing State of Israel. Therefore, anti-zionism is not about criticizing the state of Israel but is a screen for the Arab wish to destroy the state of Israel.

Spyer also answered a question about his recent trips to Syria and in a few words conceptualized Obama’s Middle East foreign policy. He states that although Obama’s intentions regarding relations in the middle east were well meaning, they have unbalanced relationships that have held for years. Resulting in a situation that makes the US appear weak towards their enemies and endangers the countries with whom the States have typically been allies.

Spyer is able to concisely summarize Obama’s missteps in the Middle East.

He states that “Obama appears to have thought that by expressing Empathy and understanding of Middle Eastern cultures via his Cairo speech in 2009, he could open dialogue and repair the damage that he perceived had been caused to the American image in the Middle East by the Bush policies. He then proceeded to not back long standing allies of the US, Tunisia and Egypt and Libya, and also not to confront long standing enemies of the US in the Middle East, Iran and Syria. In this way he degraded the US strategic coin in the era. Those who had relied on the US are now dead or in jail and those who had relied on other patrons, were glad that they chose the “right” side – witness Bashar Al Assad who has waged a war against his own people with the support of Russia and China for over a year, and no interference from the US or Western Allies. And this is exactly the opposite of what is needed to have a voice in the Middle East, i.e. one must show that one’ allies can rely on you and that your enemies must fear you.  This is how Israel has managed to maintain some semblance of peace in a very dangerous area of the world. And this is how Obama has seriously devalued the American Strategic coin in the region.” (emphasis mine)

I invite your comments.

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