April 10, 2020

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If academia can’t define antisemitism correctly, their conclusions are worthless


Professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University, Mark R.Cohen, in 2013 wrote a chapter for a book on the history of Jewish-Muslim relations. This chapter, titled “Muslim Anti-Semitism: Old or New?,” has recently been released publicly.

Cohen is a recognized researcher on Jews in Muslim lands. His research is sound. But in this article, I think that his central thesis is based on an incorrect assumption:

In presenting my own views, I should first define what I mean by anti-Semitism because of the fuzziness that prevails in contemporary discussions of anti-Semitism in Islam. This fuzziness emanates especially from representatives of the counter-myth school, for whom every nasty expression about Jews in the Qur’an, the hadith and other Arabic literature, and every instance of harsh treatment or violence experienced by Jews in the past, is deemed anti-Semitic. But this is decidedly not anti-Semitism. It is, rather, the typical, though nonetheless unsavory, loathing for the“other” found in most societies even today, a disdain that, in the Middle Ages, was shared by all three Western monotheistic religions in relation to pagans and rival monotheist claimants to divine exclusivity and the right to dominate society.

The proper definition of anti-Semitism, which is shared by most students of the subject, is a religiously based complex of irrational, mythical, and stereotypical beliefs about the diabolical, malevolent, and all-powerful Jew, infused, in its modern, secular form, with racism and the belief that there is a Jewish conspiracy against mankind. Defined this way, I can say with a great deal of confidence, in agreement with other seasoned scholars, that such anti-Semitism did not exist “under the crescent” in the medieval Muslim world.

I agree with Cohen that Jew-hatred in the Muslim world throughout history has been nothing close to how it was in Christian Europe. But his definition of antisemitism – which he claims is shared by most academics! – is almost comical in how limited it is.

The view of the Jew as “all powerful” is relatively recent, pretty much from the 19th century. Cohen’s definition doesn’t include Christian supersessionism or charges of deicide, accusations of the blood libel or Jews spreading plagues, or Voltaire’s or Marx’ more philosophical antisemitism which were not based on any religious viewpoints. No one can seriously say that there was no antisemitism in Europe before the 19th century but if you accept this definition, that’s pretty much what you are saying.

Muslims have eagerly incorporated not only traditional Christian antisemitism in their everyday discourse (the first Muslim blood libel was in 1840) but also the conspiracy-theory antisemitism of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, modified to explain how weak Jews could have defeated the proud warrior Arabs. But before that infestation of  Western-style antisemitism in the Muslim world, it had its own flavor, which is reflected in writings about Jews by Muslims today.

The major qualities of Jews based on the Quran, as described by an Arab professor a few years ago, are:

Jews steal money
Jews use usury to enrich themselves and impoverish non-Jews
Jews don’t care about human life
Jews are cowards, hiding behind fortified walls
Jews betray all agreements and covenants
Jews distort words of holy books
Jews  are killers of prophets and other fine people
Jews want to extinguish the light of Allah
Jews bring corruption to the lands they are in

There are some variants but the basic list seems to be consistent.

These attributes are a very specific Muslim form of antisemitism. They seem to predate Western influence on Muslim thinking about Jews. None of them fit Cohen’s definition of antisemitism. 

Redefining antisemitism may make one feel better, but the hate is still there. Antisemitism morphs into ascribing to Jews whatever is considered the biggest evil of the day. Giving it a narrow definition that ignores thousands of years of Jew-hatred does not help matters at all – it obfuscates what it is pretending to illuminate.

(I emailed Professor Cohen to explain his definition a bit better, but he never responded.)

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