The New Anti-Semitism: Islamophobia


It is acceptable to advance anti-Semitism in film – provided the Semites are Arabs. I call this habit of racial and cultural generalization “The New Anti-Semitism.” I call it “new” not because stereotypical screen Arabs are new (they aren’t) or because anti-Semitism against Jews is dead (it isn’t). I use the word “new” because many of the anti-Semitic films directed against Arabs were released . . . at a time when Hollywood was steadily and increasingly eliminating stereotypical portraits of other groups.
– Jack Shaheen, Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People

The new anti-Semitism extends far beyond darkened movie theatres to the spotlight shining on Donald J. Trump, the presumptive nominee of the Republican Party. What if Trump had substituted “Jew” in his diatribe against Muslims? What if he told enraptured followers that: Jews should be banned from entering the country until we can figure out what’s going on. And imagine: He’d require Jewish-Americans to register with a government database, and mandate special identification cards. Warrantless surveillance of American Jews and their places of worship would become the new normal.
It’s possible that such blatant anti-Semitism might have derailed his candidacy – but who could say for sure in these peculiar times? In any case, I suspect that degrading Jews would evoke more outrage than the calumny visited upon Muslims. Indeed, Trump’s followers celebrate Islamophobia, but is this anti-Semitism?
Jews and Arabs are both Semites. To cite a headline from the Israeli paper Haaretz: “Jews and Palestinian Arabs share genetic roots”; they’re “blood brothers” – much to the chagrin of the Semitic-deniers. Jews and Arabs also share a history, theology, and language. Linguists readily uncover the Semitic roots of Hebrew and Arabic. No wonder our prayers for peace bear a family resemblance – shalom and as salaam. But there is no peace. And there will be no peace until Jew and Arab stop mirroring hateful stereotypes of one another.
To be sure, in theory, Islamophobia cannot be reduced to prejudice against Arabs – only about 15% of Muslims are Arabs. In practice, however, Islamophobes keep it simple. The pervasive, Islamophobia mobilized and exploited by Trump and too many others is not the product of a nuanced analysis of the demographics of the diverse Islamic world. It is not tempered by the lessons of history found in works that should be required reading in these times, studies such as Hofstadter’s Paranoia in American Politics. The Arab is the Islamophobe’s idee fixe.
Islamophobia traffics in Arab vilification. “Terrorist” evokes images of the nineteen Arabs responsible for the 9/11 horrors and the couple – in Arab garb – that murdered colleagues in San Bernardino. Visions of tropical Indonesia – the world’s most populous Muslim nation – don’t come to mind. Like some quantum particle, the invisible Arab terrorist is everywhere and nowhere. Primetime TV and popular films profitably promote such apprehension. Hollywood provides a steady diet of dangerous, subhuman Arabs in immorality plays such as American Sniper: Degenerate Arabs kill American soldiers who only desire is to deliver “the savages” from a tyrant. The Arab delights in killing innocent Americans: You can almost hear the time bomb ticking as Jack Bauer tracks them down in the TV series, 24. And Arab intrigue may be foiled in Obama’s favorite show – Homeland. Stay tuned. Never mind that hundreds of millions of Arabs live in peace, and scores of prominent imams and scholars condemn the rare fanatic’s jihadist tactics. And certainly mainstream American commentators have no intention of ruining their reputations and careers by suggesting that what they do to us and what we do to them are not unrelated.
No longer the magical Arab of our childhood cartoons, the demonized Arab foments overwrought, if not hysterical, behavior. This new anti-Semitism differs radically from the prejudices usually visited upon minorities. The Arab is not maligned as slothful or unintelligent, nor is he the cunning thief who bedeviled Ali Baba. The Arab terrorist would kill you, and even if he fails, he broadcasts terrorism’s signature message – be afraid, be terribly afraid.
Even those who appear to be Arabs are harassed even murdered. Sikhs are massacred at their temple in Wisconsin, and orthodox rabbis are removed from a plane as they pray – Hebrew sounds suspiciously like Arabic. An Italian mathematician working equations aroused suspicion – evidently, he used Arabic numerals and algebra (an Arab invention). And even some who pride themselves on their tolerance look askance at that Saudi in Arab robes and headdress across the aisle on the plane.
The new anti-Semitism extends well beyond the Trump campaign. Council on Foreign Affairs research estimates that 51% of Americans fear that they or a family member will be killed in a jihadist terror attack despite the fact that there have been no foreign-directed attacks on the homeland since the 9/11 tragedy. Attacks by domestic jihadists are rare and sensationalized. During a four year period, “Only one of sixty-four domestic attacks were confirmed to be carried out by an Islamic extremist.” As the research concludes: “An American is more likely to be killed by a lightning strike, car accident, or toddler.”
The corporate media seldom report that rightwing radicals were responsible for 87% of the domestic terrorist attacks. Such attacks are rarely called “terrorism” – a term reserved for Arabs. Rightwing attacks on churchgoers or abortion clinic are the work of “disturbed gunmen” not terrorists. Congress curtailed funds to investigate such groups: for the most part, only the schemes of the Arab terrorist must be thwarted. The new anti-Semitism attains its apotheosis when it’s assumed that the Arab terrorist would inflict a fate worse than death. Consider routine stories. A family is murdered. The popular media assure us it could have been worse – it wasn’t a terrorist attack. A plane crashes, but survivors take comfort – it wasn’t terrorism.
Perhaps Confucian wisdom – putting first things first and calling them by their right name – can promote a more conciliatory discourse with our Arab cousins. We call the old anti-Semitism, Arab prejudice against Jews, by it’s right name – anti-Semitism. The time is long overdue to call prejudice against Arabs by its right name – the new anti-Semitism.

Ron Hirschbein is the author of four books on war and peace. He taught at California State University, Chico, and held visiting professorships at University of California campuses in Berkeley and San Diego, and at the UN University in Austria.

One thought on “The New Anti-Semitism: Islamophobia

  1. is there any concern here about Sunni Muslims committing acts of genocide against Shia Muslims, or is that acceptable in the Tikkun community

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