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Racialised narratives in the battle for the Holy Land

Very few enduring historical conflicts have involved such a polarisation of discourse and a reliance on racialised constructions of the other than that between Israel and the Palestinians. Even the terms generally used to refer to the dispute themselves – from the “Arab-Israeli conflict” to the rather cumbersome designation of “Israel/Palestine” – are imbued with discursive meanings that attribute certain racial, ethnic, national, or religious characteristics to one or either party. Often lurking just below the surface, these discursive constructions burst to the fore in situations of political conflict and violence, and come to dominate not just language itself, but the way in which we think about and perceive the objects of that language.

One such word – seemingly innocuous and yet permeated by historical and political meaning – is the term “anti-Semitism”. Once a purely linguistic categorisation referring to the Semitic roots of languages such as Arabic and Hebrew, the term “Semite” has taken on racial and ethnic connotations to designate a particular religious group (Jews); meaning that the term “anti-Semitism” is often considered these days to refer specifically to a form of racist xenophobia directed towards Jews as an ethnic group (regardless of the rather problematic nature of that designation).

It is this meaning of anti-Semitism that has seen the word bandied about in recent weeks, especially in relation to the frankly appalling rise in hate crimes against Jews in Europe following the Charlie Hebdo killings last month. It is also this meaning of anti-Semitism that Benjamin Netanyahu has relied upon in order to capitalise on the tragic killings of four Jews in France to spread fears about the security of Jews in Europe, and to encourage their migration to Israel. Which brings us to the final use of the word anti-Semitism in current discourse: criticism of the state of Israel.

In this war of words and words in war, Israel has proved adept at mutating the meaning of certain terms and presenting a racialised discourse in which, as the sole enshrined “Jewish state”, any criticism of its policies or political proceedings is immediately tarnished with the slur of “anti-Semitism”. Similarly (though perhaps less equally), Islamist movements such as Hamas, Hezbollah, the Muslim Brotherhood and others have attempted to brand any criticism of their political decisions or doctrinal interpretations as “Islamophobia”. None of which negates the fact that anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim prejudice exists, but rather draws attention to the ways in which words, and their power, are implicated in political processes of meaning-making and line-drawing.

Debating racisms and racializations

Exploring the significance of this discursive realm of racialised prejudice served as the rationale behind a recent conference entitled “Anti-Jewish and Anti-Muslim Racisms and the Question of Palestine/Israel” (notice: not “Israel/Palestine”) held at the London School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) on Monday. Organised jointly by research centres at SOAS, LSE, and the University of East London, and funded partly by the Runneymede Trust, the conference brought together a heady roll-call of great scholars from a variety of disciplines to “explore the multiple, complex and inter-related ways that anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim racisms are being constructed in relation to the question of Palestine/Israel.” Significantly, the word “anti-Semitism” was avoided in a conscious effort to resist current discursive formations of Jews as the only Semites.

In particular, the conference took a historicised approach to the construction of the contested ethnic and racial categories of “Jew” and “Muslim”, seeking to problematize the boundaries of both in relation to the conflict in the Middle East. Several panel discussions focused on the historical legacies behind current developments in Palestine/Israel, and on the relationship between European racialised attitudes towards Jews and Muslims and events on the ground. Scholars such as Gil Hochberg and James Renton took a long view of history to point out the rather bizarre transformation of Jews as the “Semitic other” in 19th and early 20th century European discourse, to becoming assimilated into the puzzling neologism of “Judeo-Christianity” – thus transforming from the threatening and barbaric Oriental to part of the civilised West in a flash of linguistic wizardry.

Others, such as Sami Zubaida and Emily Gottreich, sought to deconstruct the problematic term “Arab” and the “highly ideologised identity” related to it. Both scholars urged critical reflection of such racialised terms, in particular in relation to the seemingly oxymoronic category of “Arab Jew”, which as well as being a marker of the ethnic roots of many Mizrahi Jews has also come to be used as a self-proclaimed identity category by (predominantly Leftist) secular Jews in order to consciously undermine the Arab-Jewish dichotomy propounded by Israel and its supporters (the fact that many of these self-identifying “Arab Jews” actually descend from North African Berber tribes is especially interesting). Conversely, many French Jews of Algerian origin, who might ostensibly be considered of Arab ethnicity, self-identify as “pieds-noirs” (“black feet”), the term used to designate white colonisers who occupied North Africa in the 19th and 20th centuries and whose history is embittered with the brutal repression of the native Arab population.

What such discussions demonstrate, more than anything, is the constructed nature not just of racism itself, but of the racial categories against which such xenophobia is defined – thereby linking both racism and racialization in a dialectical and mutually constitutive relationship: you cannot have one without the other. When it comes to debates about the questions of Palestine/Israel – or even to very real incitements and perpetrations of violence by one group against the other – it is easy to see how such discursive constructions take on deadly power within the context of global politics.

The “looming presence/absence” of Europe

Another theme to emerge from the conference was the significance of Europe and other Western states in shaping developments on the ground in the Middle East – not just in relation to Western foreign policy towards the region but also in domestic attitudes towards Muslims and Jews as religious/racialised groups and the fostering of antagonisms between them. A number of speakers and discussants presented arguments on the role of Europe in the conflict, highlighting the way in which European powers have been “navigating, manipulating, orchestrating” Israeli-Palestinian relations both historically and contemporaneously.

Considering the key British role in the inception and creation of the state of Israel, it is hardly surprising that the UK and wider Europe (as well as the US) have maintained a keen interest in the developing situation in the Holy Land. But what is much less often realised, argued Gil Hochberg in her presentation, is the way in which Europe has mitigated the conflict in Palestine in order to serve its own ends – both in real political terms and in terms of fostering a new discursive construction of reality.

“Europe has managed to cleanse itself of its two historical crimes – colonialism and anti-Semitism – by transferring these crimes to their historical victims: with Jews as the new and latest colonisers, and Muslims/Arabs as the new anti-Semites, Europe can present itself – once again – as the voice of reason, enlightenment and peace – a fantasy for which the European recent legacy of colonialism and racism is actively forgotten and displaced.”

Similarly, the collective of Western states discursively known as “the international community” (and dominated by the US) have been key players in manipulating the conflict to serve their own domestic and international political agendas – a fact that James Renton drew attention to with respect to the 2008 Israeli war on Gaza, which he called “internationally-sanctioned regime change.”

The significance of Europe, however, is distinct to that of the US (which in effect serves the role of an imperial sponsor and patron to Israel) in that domestic developments in the treatment of Jews and Muslims on the ground in Europe can have profound reverberations for domestic politics in the Middle East. Just as Netanyahu was able to manipulate the Charlie Hebdo killings into a marketing campaign for Israeli nationalism, Zionism itself as a political ideology has a vested interest in fuelling anti-Jewish sentiment in Europe and elsewhere as an incentive to push Jews to move to Israel (and thus bolster the demographics of the “Jewish state” against the creeping tide of “Arab-ness” flowing from the occupied Palestinian territories). But more than this, some scholars argued at the conference, fostering Jewish/Muslim antagonism in Europe is also high on the Zionist agenda, since a rise in anti-Jewish xenophobia among Muslim communities will not only create a potential influx of European Jews to Israel but also serve to discursively construct the “Muslim/Arab” as a “backwards racist” and thus give credence to Israel’s claim to represent “the only democracy in the Middle East” and the last bastion of humanity and rationality against “barbaric” Islamic fundamentalists. In other words, Israel as a Zionist state has a direct incentive to spread Islamophobia.

Resisting racism

As well as engaging in academic deconstructions of the racialised discourse on both Muslims and Jews, the conference also offered several counter-measures. It is crucial that academics and lay people alike take time to critically engage with the perfectly-packaged and sound-bite construction of reality that is presented to them on a daily basis, and learn to recognise the underlying power structures lurking within any discourse (Judith Butler’s recent LSE lecture on the discursive politics of the term “human shield” is a case in point). It is equally crucial that people seek out and question such discursive politics wherever they encounter them, whether that be in the form of “terror entrepreneurs” such as Steve Emerson or in the lack of mainstream media reporting on the Chapel Hill incident. Significantly, as well as questioning such racisms, it is also possible to combat them; to manipulate dominant discourses in your favour (much like the Israeli practice of denouncing Palestinian resistance as “terrorism”), and particularly in order to push for a solution in Palestine. As Dr Mohammed Idrees Ahmed argued: “A movement toward justice in Palestine which makes the universal principles of liberalism and equality central to its aims can be a powerful vehicle for combatting anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. It will deny cover to those who have used the conflict as a cover for laundering their own prejudices.”

In other words: don’t let discourse get the better of you; get the better of it.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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