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Modern Islamophobia echoes murderous anti-Semitism

  • 30 October 2015

'That anti-Semitism and ... Orientalism resemble each other very closely is a historical, cultural, and political truth,' wrote Edward Said in 1978, 'that needs only to be mentioned to an Arab Palestinian for its irony to be perfectly understood.'

That remark comes to mind in response to the remarkable speech delivered last week by Benjamin Netanyahu at the World Zionist Congress, in which the Israeli PM blamed the Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, for convincing Hitler to exterminate the European Jews in 1941.

What was behind this extraordinary assertion, dismissed by all reputable historians as utter nonsense?

Netanyahu's reference to Hitler came in the midst of an address mostly devoted to attacking the current Palestinian leadership, whom he implicitly linked with al-Husseini. Thus, as Juan Cole writes, 'the real intent of [Netanyahu's] outrageous assertion is to create a blood libel that all Palestinians bear responsibility for the killing of 6 million Jews by the National Socialist state.

'He asserted that al-Husseini's animus was rooted simply in irrational Jew-hatred, which he alleged characterised the Palestinian masses then and now, without regard to the issues of the Jewish ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians or of occupation.'

Many commentators noted how, by diminishing the moral culpability of Hitler, Netanyahu moved into territory usually occupied by Holocaust deniers and neo-Nazis. Yet insufficient attention has been paid to the details of that association — in particular, the structural similarities between Netanyahu's argument and traditional anti-Semitism.

'This essentialisation of Palestinians as mass murderers,' continues Cole, 'mirrors the false mythology of medieval and early modern European Christianity that Jews stole Christian babies and used their blood in their rites — a myth that lay in part behind the Holocaust.'

As Cole implies, the affinity between anti-Semitism and Islamophobia can be traced back to their shared origins in medieval Christianity, where the Moor featured alongside the Jew as an enemy of the church.

Mattias Gardell points out that 'many stories told about Jews in medieval and early modern Europe were also spun around what were then termed Moors, Saracens or Red Jews: Muslims were devil-worshipping, sexually deviant, man-eating monsters; Muslims ritually defamed the cross and consumed the blood of ceremonially slaughtered Christian children in blasphemous communions.

'Church art portrayed Mohammed as the Antichrist, and Muslims as horned devils, Christ-killers, dogs or a hybrid race of dog-men.'

Both doctrines evolved over time, reshaped by domestic politics and the changing landscape of the international order. After 1945, the world's revulsion at