ExperimentalExperience

Seeing Europe Everywhere, Even In The Unfolding Of Another People’s Histories

In Book Responses, Israel/Palestine, Journalism, Musings On Confusions, The Daily Discussion on December 9, 2010 at 5:55 pm

There are some issues where obfuscation and confusion are so prevalent, so pervasive, that we are unable to know what we are talking about any more. A recent example of such a situation is encapsulated and discussed in this new book by Gilbert Achcar called The Arabs & The Holocaust: The Arab-Israeli War Of Narratives. There is a wide and popular set of writings that claims and insists that it is an inherent Arab anti-Semitism that informs the Arab resistance to the idea of Israel, and underpins the ongoing conflict there. That this Arab anti-Semitism is determined to destroy Israel and she is defending herself against this stain that aims to bring the holocaust back to the Jewish community.

There is little to argue against the fact that this narrative is largely believed, particularly in Europe and the USA, and strangely in full denial of the actual lived history and heritage of the Jews in the Middle East. Perhaps more egregiously, it is a narrative that takes a many centuries old European heritage of anti-Semitism, a heritage deeply ingrained in her society, literature, arts, and political (anyone remember Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice?) and simply foists its presumptions and history onto a new people where neither evidence nor experience suggests that anything of a similar depth and entrenchment ever occurred. However, challenging this has been difficult and many academics have continued to make this claim, and definitely many Israeli politicians and their supporters in the USA have repeated it ad nauseum – the Arab are anti-Semites and that is what is being fought in the wars in West Bank and Gaza, and that is what confronts Israel in Iran (ignoring the fact that nearly 30,000 Jews continue to live in Iran and are valued and crucial parts of its society and the nation!).

Now comes an essay in Dissent magazine called Anti-Semitism And Ignorance by Fredrik Meiton, a PhD student at NYU, as a review of Achcar’s book. It makes for interesting reading as Meiton challenges Achcar’s arguments and takes issues with specific incidents that Achcar outlines as in fact evidence of anti-Semitism. But throughout the essay this young man erases precisely what every Israeli or other politician, academic and intellectual with a strong pro-Israeli bent has done; the Nakba. Meiton wants to erase the broader political context of why Arabs, and let’s be specific – British Mandate Arabs were so supportive of the Nazis, and why the Nazis’ were so eager to foster collaboration with the British Mandate Arabs; it was calculated politics.

Meiton’s criticisms also represents a strange tendency of many to see all history as merely variations on European history – an Eurocentric pathology that insidiously and with alarming ignorance refuses to allow other people to have their own motivations, reasons, politics, calculations, judgements, designs and ideas. Meiton seems unable to allow for an Arab people to have an Arab-centric idea of resistance, opposition, ideas, politics, understanding of historical imperatives, and protection of cultural and social traditions.

We can’t avoid the fact that towards the end of WWI the Arabs of Palestine were confronted, thanks to the Balfour arrogance, a near absolute dispossession and dispersal. It was the Zionists, claiming to speak for all Jewery, who were going to be responsible for this dispossession. The very Zionists who happily conflated their Zionist political goals with Jewish spiritual and divine beliefs. This latter conflation of Israel with the entire Jewish community over the world was a political and rhetorical trick that Israel continues to use when it serves its purpose, but wants to scream ‘anti-Semitism’ against when criticism is aimed at its policies and practices. That is, on the one hand Israel says that Zionism is an all-Jewish movement, argues that anti-Zionists are anti-Jew and anti-Semitism, but then screams bloody murder if their opponents make the same connections by loudly accusing them of anti-Semitism! It’s a wonderful trick of language and reflects once again the powerful ways in which it can be manipulated to discredit your opponent. By conflating Israel with Jews, they can conflate criticism of and resistant to the Israel project with anti-Semitism. This is old news, but it was disappointing to read Meiton doing precisely this in his review; using this sleight of hand to build all his arguments in the review.

Meiton makes the same mistake; he can’t come around to acknowledge that the ‘heritage of anti-Semitism’ that he is talking about only dates to post- WWI, and has no historical trajectory to explain it. That is, all those who claim that the Arabs are inherently anti-semitic, begin their stories around 1918, unable as they are to find earlier traces, or even any consistent evidence of this in literature, politics, culture, poetry, art, politics, economics etc. They can’t find evidence because there isn’t any of a social pathology. What they find is a resistance and an opposition to the Jewish/Zionist/Israeli (take your pick!) project, and Meiton cannot accept that this resistance can be anything other than a social pathology.

That all the principal perpetrators of the so-called Arab anti-Semitism happen to be Palestinian Arabs, is ignored i.e. why would the Palestinians Arabs of British Mandate Palestine be opposed to the Jews and choose to collaborate with any power that was also opposed to the Jews? Well, because of what they knew was coming to Palestine – the colonization of their lands by tens of thousands, the dispossession and the displacement. It was a life and death moment. But Meiton can’t admit to this – he sees in incidences like a Nazi official being saluted by Arabs as evidence of anti-Semitism, rather than the evidence of ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’ and no more. Meiton also wants to finely slice “Jews” from “Israelis’ from ‘Zionists’, but this is disingenuous for after all Israel’s own leaders and pundits never do this; when it suits them, they assume any one of these costumes to serves their purposes. If Israel is criticised, it is anti-Semitism because Israel is for all Jew etc. Sometimes it feels like the 3-cup trick; guess which one the dice is under!

This review is a classic case of a double-bind most Israeli apologists find themselves in. By erasing history, and the torturous experiences of the lesser other, the Palestinian, they then proceed to try to construct a narrative that gives precedence of Europe and a European history. Unable to acknowledge the stories and equal validity of ‘the other’, they are confused at the persistent resistance and entrenched opposition of this lesser people. Why do they hate us – because of who we are, and never because of what we have done to them. I often wonder if this shuttered view is intentionally constructed, or a means to ease our guilt and avoid the horror of our actions. To now face the fact that we are murderers, rapists, thieves and pillagers, and that our fine civilization is intrinsically tied to this barbarism.

And equally, I would argue, on a different note, that such loose and frivolous attempts to equate European antisemitism with Arab nationalist resistance to the Zionist/Jewish colonial project, denigrates the insidiousness and sheer entrenched scale of Europe’s hatred of the Jew. It takes what is a genuine fact with a centuries old heritage (anyone remember the expulsion of the Jews from Cordoba?) and attempts to foist its burdens onto a small people, in a small part of the world, who in a moment of fear and desperation choose their friends poorly, but were certainly not the only ones to have done so. We must also remember that in India, anti-British nationalists also collaborated with the Nazis, and even with the Japanese – anything to oust the colonialists, anything to protect their lives and their liberties.

Speaking about the Nakba is a punishable crime in Israel. Why? Meiton never mentions the Nakba, nor admits to a genuine grievance of the Palestinian Arabs in pre-Israel times. He never offers a larger political, social and colonial understanding of the period  – not the history of the region, the colonial context of its emergence, and the specific problems and fears that underpinned their allegiance to the Nazis. Their history, their horrors, their sufferings, their worries, their resistance, their determination to hold on to what was going to stolen from them, do not count as relevant facts in this story. Tariq Ali reviewed the same book and began his review of Achcar’s book from the very place that Meiton refuses to:

It was not until after the first world war that relations between the communities began to deteriorate seriously. The reason for this was the Balfour declaration (opposed by Edwin Montagu, the only Jewish member of the British cabinet) that offered a homeland in Palestine to the Zionist Federation, without any consultations whatsoever with the people who lived on the land. Hitler and the judeocide of the second world war further cemented the foundations of the settler-state and led to the nakba for the Palestinian Arabs of the region. Hardly surprising that this led to the “war of narratives”

Where is this in Meiton’s account? As the Israeli/Jewish/Zionist (take your pick!) dispossession and occupation of the Palestinians as continued, as the Israeli/Jewish/Zionists wars in the region have continued unabated (Lebanon, attacks and occupation of Syrian and Syrian lands, attacks on Iraq, attacks on Egypt, attacks on Jordan) and as Israeli/Jewish/Zionist rhetoric of more war and greater war (Iraq, now Iran, who is next) underpins the presence of the state in the region, should it surprise us then that it is not uncommon or unexpected that Arabs will adopt a language of resistance and opposition that also uses the Israeli/Jewish/Zionist labels loosely and carelessly? Can Israel claim that is is the sanctuary of all Jews of the world, that being anti-Israel is being anti-semitic and then should ‘foul’ when in fact the people it confronts can’t tell the difference between what is anti-semitic and what is anti-colonialist or anti-Israeli nationalism?

Meiton is determined to point out Achcar’s flagrant use of ‘ignorance of the Arabs of broader political realities’ to explain what to Meiton’s eyes are clear acts of anti-Semitism, as for example when they allow a Nazi official to leave unhurt after he steps out of his car in the middle of a riot shouting ‘Heil Hitler!’ As Meiton argues.

This repeated use of ignorance as an explanatory—and exculpatory—factor is the book’s greatest flaw. Whenever Achcar encounters anti-Semitism alongside contradictory words or deeds, the former is automatically discounted. The presence of such contradictions, he assumes, proves that it is a matter of ignorance, and not of real anti-Semitism.

But why is it not ignorance and real anti-Semitism? Meiton never offers an argument to counter Achcar’s argument i.e. Meiton has no evidence that in fact it was nothing but political convenience rather than an entrench social pathology called anti-Semitism. Meiton does not need to; he relies on our European/American presumptions that this behavior, as echoed in European history, could only be anti-Semitism. If it looks like a goose, walks like a goose, sounds like a goose, it must be a goose!

But the ignorance is on Meiton’s side; by failing to point out or accept that the Arabs of British Mandate Palestine were in a full-scale rebellion against the machinations of the Zionists, and the tens of thousands of immigrants that were arriving, the violence / terrorism that was being conducted by the Irgun for example, he deceives the reader, and also himself.

An entire people’s experience and perspective is absolutely absent; a taboo of such stark proportions that it can’t even be elided to in the review, and the realities of the political and military acts taking place on the ground during the period this so-called Arab anti-Semitism raises it head, erased as explanatory factors.The erasures are too stark. And they are not just Meiton’s, but those of the editors of the magazine and the reviewers who allowed this piece to go through. For after all, none of them noticed what was left unsaid.

(Full disclosure: This is not a review in defense of Gilbery Achcar’s book. I have not read the book so am not in a position to judge its contents or its arguments. What I am responding to here are Meiton’s elisions and erasures as he challenges Achcar. This essay should not be read as an endorsement of Achcar’s work. Until further updates of course)

  1. [...] histories of Jewish persecution in Muslim lands. In fact, I recently wrote a blog post called Seeing Europe Everywhere, Even In The Unfolding Of Another People’s History, where I question the false histories that attempt to convince us that the Arabs are the new [...]

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