By Maha Elgenaidi
On April 7, congregants of Shaare Torah in Gaithersburg, Maryland, found their synagogue defaced with swastikas and profanity. The incident devastated congregants like Michael Weisel, who said, “When my wife called me and told me what happened, I was speechless. I started to cry.”
Given the long history of anti-Semitism, this attack would have been alarming even if it were merely an isolated incident. But it wasn’t. Anti-Semitism is now coming from sources that cannot be passed off as “fringe.” A Jewish candidate for a student government office at UCLA was subjected to a grilling based solely on her Jewish identity and questions about supposed “dual loyalties” — precisely the sort of question Jews have faced for centuries
A Jewish fraternity house was daubed with a swastika. In a recent study, 54 percent of Jewish college students reported witnessing or experiencing at least one anti-Semitic incident on campus.
These incidents, like the police murder of Walter Scott in South Carolina and the racist chants by the fraternity in Oklahoma, should serve as a wake-up call reminding us that the struggle against racism and bigotry is far from over.
Although we recently celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Selma marches that led to key victories in the civil rights struggle, racism against African Americans is still very much alive, as is racism against other peoples of color. (A March 2 Justice happening this week seeks to end racial profiling, demilitarize the police and invest in “community-based alternatives to incarceration for young people.”)
Bigotry based on religion is also spiking, not only here but around the world.
The Dual Rise in Anti-Semitism and Islamophobia
Islamophobia remains potent in both the U.S. and Europe. A recent Pew poll showed that U.S. attitudes toward Muslims are “colder” than those toward any other religious group; a Zogby poll revealed that the percentage of Americans viewing Muslims favorably has declined from 35 to 20 percent from 2010 to 2014.
Europe is also now riddled with xenophobic right-wing parties whose appeal is based largely on Islamophobia. The rise of PEGIDA (Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the West) is another wake-up call for those of us who thought ethnic and religious bigotry was on the ropes in Europe.
It’s no surprise, therefore, that Europe also has seen a sharp rise in anti-Semitic attitudes and incidents, including violence; the purveyors of Islamophobia are often also promoters of anti-Semitism. The right-wing parties and organizations may focus on Muslims as the chief “threat” to their vision of Europe, but they often trade overtly or covertly in anti-Semitism as well. The Jewish Community Protection Service in France reported 527 overt anti-Semitic incidents in the first seven months of 2014, nearly double the number reported for the same period in 2013. These ranged from arson and vandalism to murder.
Anti-Semitism is deeply rooted in Europe; there are evidences of it in ancient Greek and Roman culture, but it came to full bloom only as Christianity became the dominant religion. As the later Roman Empire and then the kingdoms that emerged from its collapse sought religious unity, some leading Christians saw Jews as threats to such unity.
This antipathy to Jews and Judaism persisted even into the Enlightenment; indeed some Enlightenment thinkers, such as Voltaire, who were reversing the trope that blamed Jews for rejecting Christianity, simultaneously blamed Jews for having created it. This long tradition of anti-Semitism bore its most horrific fruit in the Nazi Holocaust.
Anti-Semitism is spiking in the Muslim world also. Pew Research polls have shown widespread anti-Jewish sentiment in Muslim-majority countries, usually linked to opposition to Israeli policies toward Palestinians but also often fostered by Arab and other governments. Anti-Semitism serves as a convenient distraction from government failure.
Why Muslims and Jews Must Stand Together
Historically in the Muslim world, Jews rarely faced the hostility that often confronted them among Christians. Jewish historians consider the centuries when Jews lived among Muslims to be a “golden age” for Jewry. In the 20th century, however, Arab hostility towards Jews began to grow, stimulated largely by growing Jewish immigration to Palestine and culminating in the formation of the state of Israel, which most Arabs saw as dispossessing the Palestinian population.
The growing populations of Muslims in Europe, some of whom are ingrained with anti-Semitism, may also have played a role in Anti-Semitic violence. Let’s not forget that a handful of Muslim extremists have been responsible for some of the anti-Jewish attacks in Europe, though it is heartening to see that organizations representing the European Muslim majority have firmly condemned such actions.
The Union of Islamic Organization of France, for instance, vigorously denounced the attacks on the magazine Charlie Hebdo and on a kosher market in Paris this past January, explicitly condemning anti-Semitism in their statement; and the Gathering of European Muslim and Jewish Leaders has been meeting since 2010, dealing with issues concerning both communities, including the denunciation of anti-Semitism.
Separating Criticism of Israel from Anti-Jewish Bigotry
It is important to emphasize that taking issue with the policy of the Israeli government must be clearly distinguished from wholesale condemnations of Jews as a people. Similar to conflating the actions of groups like ISIS or Boko Haram with all Muslims, hostility to Jews in general is neither a rational nor a just reaction to the actions of the Israeli government.
Muslims in particular must give no quarter to anti-Semitism. The Quran and other Islamic texts not only promote a vision of religious pluralism but also show particular respect for “the people of the Book,” including Jews. And, there is a long history of generally harmonious relations between Muslims and Jews that Muslims should be proud of and seek to revive.
As noted above, the centuries when Muslims, Jews, and Christians lived in harmony in Spain was a “Golden Age” of Jewish life and culture; the great Jewish philosophers Maimonides and Solomon ibn Gabirol and the great Jewish poets Judah Halevei and Abraham ibn Ezra are but a few of the many names that might be cited in support of this claim.
Above all, American and European Muslims need to recognize all they share with Jews, including the danger both communities face from bigotry and xenophobia. Islamophobia and anti-Semitism, while different in origins and sometimes sources, are both forms of intolerance that can benefit from shared strategies in combating them.
A hadith from al-Bukhari’s renowned collection recounts that once, when the funeral procession of a Jew passed by Muhammad and his companions, the Prophet stood as a gesture of respect. One companion objected, “It’s a Jew.” Muhammad replied, “Was he not a soul?”
That is the attitude that must inform Muslims’ engagement with this issue. The long history of mutual respect between Muslims and Jews demands that Muslims today take the lead in drawing all people of conscience together to reject and extirpate anti-Semitism.
Maha Elgenaidi, M.A. religious studies, Stanford University and CEO of ING, a national network of American Muslims working with partners of diverse faiths and cultures to promote religious literacy and mutual respect and counter prejudice and discrimination through education about Muslims and people of various faiths and worldviews who make up our country. ING emphasizes the importance of countering all forms of bigotry while working within the framework of the First Amendment’s protection of religious freedom and pluralism.