Studying anything having to do with Jews is at once conventional and sedate and potentially perilous. In 2010, a project at Yale University gathered experts from a number of different countries and disciplines to examine the peculiarly modern forms taken by the world’s oldest hatred. The resulting conference, titled “Global Antisemitism: A Crisis of Modernity,” included considerations of anti-Semitism in places as disparate as Francoist Spain, Brazil under the Dutch, post-apartheid South Africa, and contemporary settings too numerous to list.
But what drew widespread media attention to the gathering was the treatment of only a single topic, namely, anti-Semitism in the contemporary Islamic world. In fact, the sessions devoted to this phenomenon set off a firestorm of controversy so fierce as to result in the eventual ouster from Yale of the conference organizer, the Yale Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Antisemitism (YIISA). Although the university’s official reason for shuttering YIISA was the program’s alleged failure “to meet high standards for research and instruction,” there was not the slightest doubt that the real reason lay in the vociferous charges of “anti-Arab extremism and hate-mongering” lodged against the conveners by Arab and pro-Palestinian groups and their faculty supporters. By 2011, YIISA was no more.
Now, the conference proceedings have been published in five slender volumes. They appear under the imprint of the Institute for the Study of Global Antisemitism and Policy (ISGAP), of which YIISA was originally a project. Headed by the sociologist Charles Asher Small, ISGAP is the largest research unit of its kind in North America; its mission is altogether respectable: to study anti-Semitism “in a comprehensive, interdisciplinary framework from an array of approaches and perspectives.” Ironically enough, one might say that the very comprehensiveness of ISGAP’s approach—which necessarily mandates the inclusion of Islamic anti-Semitism, today’s single deadliest form of the phenomenon under examination—is what proved YIISA’s undoing. In this respect, publication of the conference volumes affords an opportunity not only to consider the merits of Yale’s conduct but to reflect more generally on the academic study of anti-Semitism today.
As befits its title, Global Antisemitism: A Crisis of Modernity adheres to the comparative perspective now dominant in international studies and in the social sciences more broadly. In the eyes of the volumes’ contributors, modern anti-Semitism—as distinct from theological anti-Judaism—is a product of, in Charles Small’s meticulously neutral phrase, “adversarial identity politics” in the age of globalization. Under this expansive rubric, the papers address manifestations of anti-Semitism across a mixed bag of institutions, events, settings, and ideologies: from non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to “feminisms,” from Holocaust denial to media coverage of the second Lebanon war, from post-nationalism to the UN’s Durban conference of 2001, from American university campuses to third-world propaganda outlets, and beyond.
Unlike classic studies of the subject by single authors—one thinks of the French researcher Léon Poliakov’s four-volume History of Anti-Semitism (1955-1977), Robert Wistrich’s 1,200-page A Lethal Hatred: Anti-Semitism from Antiquity to Global Jihad (2010), Anthony Julius’s Trials of the Diaspora: A History of Anti-Semitism in England (2010), or Gavin Langmuir’s History, Religion, and Anti-Semitism (1990)—the essays collected here do not attempt to form a unified voice or vision. Instead, we find the perspectives of historians, sociologists, journalists, and intellectuals jostling each other, sometimes to illuminating but often to less than satisfying effect. Nor, in the end, can the collection be said to have broken new ground, although that is hardly surprising: modern anti-Semitism has been studied for at least 150 years, and breakthroughs are hard to come by.
Overall, however, the volumes do present a fair picture of the range and extent of anti-Semitism today, and the tone throughout (very much in contrast to the often bloodthirsty materials cited) is measured, sober, and reasonable—even when it comes to such wild-eyed haters of Jews as Hamas, the Islamic Republic of Iran, or the Palestinian Authority. Indeed, any fair-minded reader would be hard-pressed to see, from these dispassionate analyses, what the brouhaha at Yale was all about.
On the topic of Islamic anti-Semitism in particular, most of the assembled experts are content to follow Bernard Lewis’s dictum that Islam itself was never inherently anti-Semitic, but only became so late in the day as a result of European influences. Thus, the Syrian-born political scientist Bassam Tibi carefully distinguishes between historical Islam, which he concedes may have been a tad Judeophobic, and modern political Islamism, which bears the imprint of full-bore European race hatred; as an important signpost in this process, Tibi singles out Our Struggle against the Jews (1950), a volume by the radical Egyptian theorist Sayyid Qutb.
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Others have their own leading indicators. The Israeli scholar Meir Litvak points to the preachings of the Ayatollah Khomeini starting in 1963, while the American specialist Jeffrey Herf finds an earlier source in a 1937 speech by Amin Haj al-Husseini, the “Grand Mufti” of Jerusalem and eager collaborator with Hitler. A still earlier date is given by Menahem Milson, the eminent Israeli scholar of Arabic literature, who notes that the Protocols of the Elders of Zion was translated into Arabic in 1925 and has been a perennial best-seller ever since.
Almost alone among the contributors, the historian Paul Lawrence Rose patiently goes back to the Quran to show that Muhammad himself was far from favorably inclined toward Jews. In Rose’s reading, much as Christian anti-Semites still harp on the role played by “the Jews” in the death of Jesus as depicted in the New Testament gospels, modern Islamic anti-Semites rely on the Quran’s recitations of ingrained Jewish perfidy to justify their present-day revenge fantasies against both Israel and the Jewish people.
That so few are willing to take the long view is a great pity, since there is a patent need for a comprehensive understanding of the roots and development of the anti-Jewish strain in Islam. In fact, it might legitimately be argued that there is nothing “modernist” at all about modern Islamic anti-Semitism—or about modern anti-Semitism, period.
The case can be stated succinctly. Today, allegations of Israeli genocide, war crimes, apartheid, colonialism, organ harvesting, ethnic cleansing, shooting of Palestinian children for sport, exporting of aphrodisiac chewing gum, responsibility for 9/11 or for the failed Arab Spring, remote-controlled sharks, spy birds, poisoning of Palestinian wells—all such canards merely replace, and frequently play off of, such classic anti-Semitic tropes as Jewish clannishness and misanthropy, deicide, desecration of the host, the use of Christian blood in matzah, the poisoning of European wells, Jewish global conspiracy à la the Elders of Zion, Jewish pollution of Aryan women, Jewish responsibility for the Bolshevik Revolution, and on and on. Among Islamic anti-Semites, the enduring popularity of Quranic formulas depicting Israelis and Jews as apes, pigs, monkeys, and vermin serves the same ends as anti-Semitism elsewhere: to vilify Jews, individually and collectively, as unique instances of sub-human depravity and evil.
Nor is that all. For the real “crisis of modernity” alluded to in the volumes’ title is not the recrudescence of the anti-Semitic disease itself; it is the accommodating, apologetic, and finally complicit response to it on the part of Western elites and the Western liberal Left. As in medieval Europe, where the defense of Jews was regarded as heresy or, even, as evidence of the defender’s hidden Jewishness, standing up for Israel in European and American leftist circles is construed as prima-facie evidence of the advocate’s own racism. Pointing to even the most blatant manifestations of anti-Semitism can invoke what the British scholar David Hirsh calls the “Livingstone formulation,” after the former mayor of London who, when accused (rightly) of anti-Semitism would reflexively accuse his accuser of playing the “anti-Semitic card” in order to cut off legitimate debate about Israel’s nefarious behavior.
Finally, there is no blinking the fact that a primary locus of this apologetic and accommodationist spirit is the world of the modern university, as witness Yale’s panicked reaction to the YIISA conference and rapid capitulation to its denigrators.
Which brings us back in turn to the question of how anti-Semitism is, or should be studied.
This is a subset of a much larger question: what has been and what remains the place of Jews in the world? Like Jewish experience writ large, anti-Semitism must be set both against and within its relevant contexts.
To set Jews and anti-Semitism apart from those contexts is to risk attenuating certain commonalities with the experience of other groups undergoing related historical phenomena of extreme bias or hate, thus potentially conducing to parochialism if not solipsism. Worse, writing Jews “out” of history risks reducing them to stereotypes, including such ludicrously outsized and historically injurious ones as the Eternal Jew of anti-Semitic legend.
But, on the other hand, to place modern Jewish experience solely in its European or global context, or within such leveling mental frameworks as “victim studies,” runs the risk of merging it with, or burying it within, larger phenomena: political developments, intellectual and religious trends, demographic movements, and so on. Jewish distinctiveness is thereby blurred or lost, and so is the peculiar uniqueness of the Jewish historical experience, one aspect of which comprises the unique duration and repeating contours of anti-Semitism.
The danger of the latter approach is seen most clearly in the academic discipline of “Holocaust and Genocide Studies.” The noble effort to make the Holocaust a focal point for pedagogy and policy has—through the corrosively obscuring effects of comparison and universalization, exacerbated by the twisted logic of anti-Zionism—led to relativizing the Jews (not the world’s only sufferers), diminishing the monstrousness of the Nazi war against them (only one genocide among many), and, finally, reversing the roles of perpetrator and victim (Israel now as bad as Nazi Germany then). The bizarre if unspoken conclusion of this chain of reasoning is that Jews today have all but forfeited the moral right even to be included under the rubric of “Holocaust and Genocide Studies.”
So is anti-Semitism just another hatred for another minority, or is it a unique hatred for a unique entity? The choice as posed is too stark. Anti-Semitism is much too important to be regarded as just a Jewish matter, but also much too specific to be lost in the study of “hatred” or, in Charles Small’s cautious phrase, “adversarial identity politics.” Unfortunately, this new collection of essays misses the opportunity to consider why Jews have for so long been the target of humanity’s incendiary blame and enmity, and why, today, academic habit should willfully and meretriciously deny so patently undeniable a fact. As things fell out, YIISA itself became another casualty of that same habit of denial, if not, indeed, of the very “crisis of modernity.”
Alex Joffe is a Shillman-Ginsburg Fellow of the Middle East Forum. His website is alexanderjoffe.net.