Criticism of European anti-Semitism always neglects its context. That is, it mistakes its object, frequently construed as being Israel, for being more important than what it has in common with other continental racisms. It is always a criticism of the Jewish right to statehood, to political freedom, never an acknowledgment of a larger prejudicial impulse towards towards persons of Mideast descent, which attaches itself to different European Semitic communities at different times.
Indeed, contemporary accounts of anti-Jewish racism bear little to no difference from descriptions of the phenomenon in the 1930s, when Jews were the primary representatives of ethnic difference in Europe. This should come as no surprise. Anti-Jewish racism is an ancient prejudice, one whose roots go back over two millennia. Its age guarantees a sense of continuity, of feeling as though nothing has changed, that when it comes to European Jewry, history always remains at a standstill.
The problem is that it never does, that time moves on irrespective of how it favors us. Take, for example, the fact that for nearly sixty years, Europe has been, comparatively speaking, ‘Jew-free’, even though in countries such as Germany, Jewish populations have begun to grow. Most significantly, during this time Muslim migrants have begun calling the continent their home. Frequently hailing from Arab countries and from Turkey, as well as east Africa and south Asia, Muslims have come to bear the same kind of difference for Europeans as Jews.
The irony of this change is its timing. Taking place at precisely the same moment that European Jewry was formally reestablishing itself in the Mideast, these migrants came to live in a Europe that had only recently emerged from the Holocaust, and was disengaging itself from its colonial holdings in many of these immigrants own home countries. Living in the shadow of both of these events, their European presence has always been a challenge, in turn creating relations between Muslims and Jews different than those impacted by the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Reading the mountain of Jewish-authored op-eds last week about the Aftonbladet affair, I could not help but wonder why, if we were really dealing with a case of anti-Semitism, not a single charge ever sought to place itself within the context of greater trends in contemporary European xenophobia. Was it because of the political persuasions of the persons making the claims, who, even if they are not sympathetic to Arabs, cannot see the similar ideological mechanism that substitutes Muslim for Jew, and vice versa?
Or was it because the critique of anti-Semitism took form before the advent of large scale Muslim immigration to Europe, and never had the opportunity to redefine itself to include both peoples? I’m inclined to believe the latter, especially considering the degree to which the critique of anti-Jewish racism became problematized in left circles following the Six Day War. ‘Anti-anti-Semitism’, as it is often called, came to be considered an ideology masking Israeli transgressions against Palestinians, not a critique of anti-Jewish racism.
To the post-1967 progressive mind, we had become Europeans, when, until Israel’s independence, we were considered neither fully white nor adequately oriental, even though it was not uncommon for Jews to be derided as ‘Muslim’. The problem is that the contemporary judgment of the left, committed as it is to the colonial critique of Zionism, oversimplifies this history, forgetting it, impeding the Arab connection. It also fails to acknowledge any other Jewish ethnicity than Ashkenazi, further severing any ties between Jews and the Levant.
Anti-Arab racism had to unnecessarily get segregated, independent of European Muslims’ experience of the same basic prejudices as the continent’s former Jewish population. There would be no concentration camps, but there would be facsimiles of practically everything else: specifically a combination of ghettoization and integration. Muslims would be similarly treated as ‘outsiders within the bourgeoisie’, as Max Horkheimer once described Europe’s Jews, as well as icons of the global south, as perennially itinerant migrant laborers.
This is why the obsession over medieval blood libels and the like, in the case of Swedish allegations of organ harvesting, is so troubling. Its historic specificity repeats this act of segregating European racisms towards Jews and Arabs by unnecessarily privileging the archaic quality of the charge, in certain instances, contending that is also a product of outside influences, i.e. Arab agitation, if not representative of a coalescing of left-wing anti-Semitism and Palestinian-Muslim interests.
What if the accusation isn’t reflective of such influences, but, rather, is an attempt to harness the distress of the Mideast conflict for the purposes of staging anti-Semitic prejudices, writ large? Might we not see it as equally exploitative of the Palestinian victim alleged to be the embodiment of this macabre crime, that he is also being exploited in a racist fashion, just like we are? What would that teach us about the kind of prejudice being exercised here, particularly the company Jews and Arabs are forced to keep by it?
It is not that identification of the resurfacing of the blood libel narrative is wrong, though, in my view, there is an uncomfortably narcissistic quality to its emphasis. The problem is that the charge of blood libel is not tied to anything else, that it is decontextualized. That this might be, perchance, a reflection of the way that the Arab-Israeli conflict has determined how we talk about racism, such that we could misconstrue its breadth. Or for that matter, discourage us from asking why Europeans would indulge it now, in such a highly complex manner.
Joel Schalit is Zeek‘s online editor. His next book, Israel vs. Utopia, will be published this October by New York’s Akashic Books. Schalit lives and works in Milan, Italy.