Middle East Scholar Discusses Anti-Semitism


In 2004, I visited Buchenwald Concentration Camp in Germany. My guide had one eye and one leg: a result, he said, of a suicide bombing in Israel. As a young man, he had gone to help build the Jewish state out of shame for Germany’s past. After the explosion, he felt motivated to examine the conditions that had led to such a brutal act. “What I don’t understand,” he said, sweeping his hands across the barren landscape of the camp, “is how Israelis can now brutalize the Palestinians.”

The notion that the situation of the Palestinians is similar to that of Jews in prewar Europe is a sentiment that has been around a long time. Last Thursday night, at an event sponsored by Justice for Palestine, Middle East scholar Joseph Massad largely regurgitated the idea. While treated through the lens of an intellectual history of anti-Semitism, Massad’s essential point was largely unoriginal. The scholar opened with this question: “are Palestinians perpetrators or victims of anti-Semitism?” The answer, it turns out, is that it depends who they’re talking about, and who’s talking about them. Massad has spent much of his career in the spotlight of controversy. Many of his writings are directly in the vein of the late Edward Said – once one of Alan Dershowitz’s favorite interlocutors. More explosive was the allegation that Massad intimidated Jewish students in class – the centerpiece of a critical documentary that claimed systematic bias in the teaching of Middle East-related subjects at Columbia University, where Massad works.

Although it was relatively light on evidence, the documentary instigated an investigation into Massad’s teaching. The scholar was apparently undeterred. By appearing as a Saidian postcolonialist at Harvard Law, he was storming the battlements of Dershowitz’s intellectual heartland. His greater challenge, however, may have consisted in explaining his discipline’s discourse to law students: one timidly confessed that he was “not really familiar with the literature [Massad] mentioned”.

That literature turned out to be parts 19th century French literary figures, parts Eurocentric race science types, and parts early Zionist leaders. All had embraced the term “Semitic” as one which included both Jews and Arabs; the former two also saw it as embodying a series of negative characteristics. One race scientist noted, for example, that “Semites … produce no commerce, art, civilization” and were “an inferior combination of human nature”. Given such assessments, Massad noted, 19th century Jews had a hard time assimilating into mainstream European culture. Zionism offered a solution: by moving to the Middle East, Europeanized Jews would confront Arab Semites. By acting as Europe’s “forward rampart” in Asia, and by looking down at Arab Semites the way Europeans looked down at Jews, the Zionists would appropriate the mantle of anti-Semitism: they themselves would become anti-Semitic, and in doing so would be European.

Circular as this logic was, it demonstrates, according to Massad, the specific circumstances with which the term “anti-Semitic” can actually be invoked. Among Jews, he maintained, only Zionists have truly been anti-Semitic with respect to Palestinians. Among Arabs, only those who are biased against non-Zionist Jews can be branded with the label. This is because, Massad insisted, Zionists have negated their own Semitic status in the act of themselves becoming anti-Semitic. Israeli Zionists’ delegation of the Semitic mantle, he claimed, has largely been successful. Arabs, Massad noted, have been branded with many of the same negative images that were once used to tarnish Jews. The perception of Jewish control of the financial markets, for instance, has been reborn as the fear that Arabs control the world’s oil, particularly the fear of Saudi influence in the American economy.

Americans, said Massad, actually own more of the Saudi economy than vice versa. Massad also observed that Jewish Halakah law was once viewed with the same suspicion that Islamic Shari’a is today. Massad further claimed that categories familiar to 19th century European Jews had been reproduced with respect to Palestinians. Those within Israel’s 1948 borders, he said, were “foreigners in their own land.” Those in the West Bank and Gaza were “ghettoized,” and those in the diaspora were akin to “wandering Jews.” Speculating on Palestinians’ future, he went so far as to say that it was reasonable to expect mass deportations from the West Bank and Gaza.

All the same, Massad’s thoughts were mostly a crystallization of a preexisting perception. That Palestinians have been “ghettoized” in the name of maintaining a demographically “pure” state – by a group fleeing similar persecution in Europe – is and has always been seen as a tragic irony. As much as forcing this observation into the frame of “anti-Semitism” might help clarify the terms of the debate over what that term truly implies, it might, in fact, introduce new complications, especially if, as Massad himself admitted, most modern Israelis do not and never did support “Zionism.”

What is more, the metaphor may still have less saliency than pro-Palestinians’ preferred analogy – apartheid. After all, the only difference between that concept and Massad’s “transfer of anti-Semitism” is his evidence that Arabs have become demonized as Jews once were – neither a solely Israeli phenomenon nor one which demonstrably originated in Israel. Deconstruction and complication are hallmarks – usually welcome ones – of academic discourse. In the wrong hands, however, such an incendiary allegory might bring more calamity than clarity to such a strained debate. Neither the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict nor the trajectory of Massad’s career seem to bode well for this theory being embraced for any of the right reasons.

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