Book Review: Antisemitism and Islamophobia in Europe: A Shared Story?

Friday 29th June, 2018

Review by Ivan Kalmar

James Renton is Reader in History at Edge Hill University, and Academic Advisor at MONITOR Global Intelligence on Racism at the European University Institute. His research focuses on race, empire, and global politics, from the 16th to the 21st centuries. Most recently, he is the editor of 'Islamophobia and Surveillance: Genealogies of a Global Order', a special issue of Ethnic and Racial Studies.

Ben Gidley is a Senior Lecturer in Psychosocial Studies at Birkbeck, University of London. He is the co-editor of Ethnography, Diversity and Urban Space (Routledge) with Mette Louise Berg and Nando Sigona, and co-author of Turbulent Times: The British Jewish Community Today (Bloomsbury Continuum) with Keith Kahn-Harris.

Antisemitism and Islamophobia in Europe: A Shared Story? was edited by James Renton and Ben Gidely and published by Palgrave Macmillan, 2017.

The links between representations of Jews and Muslims in the Christian West go back to the very beginning of Islam, but took on a new character as large Muslim communities took root in the West. If the Jews had long been the West’s defining internal and the Muslims its defining external Other, now Muslims and Jews both took up abode within the West. It is in this context that a number of scholars rediscovered the overwhelming historical record of the joint representation of Jews and Muslims in the western Christian imagination, including James Pasto, Gil Anidjar, Matt Bunzl, Sander Gilman, Wolfgang Benz, Derek Penslar, and others, including this reviewer. The “European migrant crisis” of 2015-16 radically exacerbated the rise in anti-Muslim sentiment and activism. It also released troubling manifestations of antisemitism. “Islamophobia,” which became a common, if contested, term, came to be compared almost obligatorily to antisemitism, with speakers and writers drawing parallels to anti-Jewish racism before Hitler, and worrying lest the hatred of Muslims take the same course as antisemitism did. Renton and Gidley’s book has entered the scholarly literature at the auspicious moment when the link between the two hatreds is of very broad interest. Meticulously scholarly yet accessible in language, it should be required reading for both specialists and the general public interested in the issue.

The book includes 10 chapters by scholars from different disciplines, plus an introduction by the editors. Its focus is on Europe, where western antisemitism and Islamophobia both developed. Some of the chapters are case studies, while others present a more general perspective. There is a general chronological arrangement, from the Middle Ages to our own time.

The Introduction by the editors is an important essay in itself, providing an overarching, diachronic framework for relating the Jewish and the Muslim “Questions.” Renton and Gidley trace the complex relationship between the two during the Middle Ages, early modernity, the Enlightenment, and the rise of the western empires in the nineteenth century. One of their major conclusions is that the “overarching architectural foundations of the schema” have remained the same in spite of extremely salient differences. The latter include the fact that historically Jews were blamed for the ills of urbanization, while Muslims were positioned as a geopolitical problem (13); a distinction that, one might add, continues today when “globalist” has become for some a synonym for “Jew,” and “terrorist” for Muslim.

Two case studies covering the medieval period include Andrew Jotischky’s chapter on the treatment of Jews and Muslims by the Crusaders, and François Soyer’s on stories about Jewish doctors killing patients in medieval Spain and Portugal. Jotischky concludes that incipient antisemitism and Islamophobia in the Middle Ages functioned in the context of a developing notion of humanity that accepted only Christians as fully human. To be fully human meant accepting “the Church as the universal expression of God’s charity,” with those who did not left somewhere between humans and animals (37). Soyer’s fascinating account details medieval conspiracy theories about Jewish, or more precisely, neoconverso (Christian converts of Jewish origin) doctors. They were accused of murdering Christian patients (not all of them, because then who would hire them!). Similar charges were sometimes leveled at doctors of Muslim ancestry (moriscos), though in their case the defamatory charges were derived in form anti-Jewish models.

Several chapters discuss the peculiarities of Islamophobia and antisemitism in different parts of Europe. Sander Gilman reviews the debates about circumcision and ritual slaughter in Western Europe. The discussion about these practices among Jews, including legal action against them, has a much longer history than the current version targeting both Muslims and Jews. Gilman suggests that the “central cultural crisis of the New Europe is not European integration in national terms, but the relationship between secular society and the dynamic world of European Islam” (157). The debate about circumcision must be seen in this light. He adds that, mutatis mutandis, it is the same debate that has been around for “two hundred years” regarding secular society (a “new form” of Christian society) in its relationship to the ritual practices of the Jews. David Wertheim’s chapter on Ali Hirsi and Heinrich Heine compares difficulties with integration imposed on the contemporary Somali-Dutch anti-Islam activist on one hand, and on the nineteenth-century German-Jewish poet on the other. In both cases, the point is that minority members have faced a “double standard of emancipation.” They are pressured to adopt the ways of the majority, but are then suspected of insincerity and hiding their real character, which remains that of a Muslim or a Jew. Yulia Egorova and Fiaz Ahmed focus on the UK. This is the only chapter that brings up the thorny issue of Jewish Islamophobia and Muslim antisemitism. Based on ethnographic field work, the authors suggest that although the Israel/Palestine issue clearly plays a role in their mutual recriminations, so do the insecurities within Britain that both Jews and Muslims continue to experience. Daniel Gordon shows that in France, too, the Middle East is not the only factor that may differentiate responses to antisemitism and Islamophobia. Some who fight Islamophobia have disassociated themselves from anti-antisemites, while at the opposing pole there are those who insist that the antiracist struggle must not be divided. Common wisdom holds it that French Muslims gather around the former position and French Jews around the latter, reflecting their division over Israel/Palestine. Gordon shows, however, that party loyalties on the Left are at least as relevant. Though the political history of these issues is complex, today the communists and their friends distance themselves from the fight against antisemitism, but the socialists and their friends don’t.

The focus moves east in Robert Crews’ chapter on Russia, and Marko Attlia Hoare’s on the Balkans. Unlike in the West, in Russia a large Muslim minority has been established even longer than a Jewish one. The Tsar’s authorities were often happy to collaborate with religious leaders in both communities, hoping to control them. However, Russian nationalism often defined itself as Eastern Orthodox and depicted the Muslim and the Jew as its enemy. Both groups were the subject of conspiracy theories and the object of often unrestrained violence. In the Balkans, antisemitism and Islamophobia varied very much by region. Hoare discusses how Serbs and especially Croats often meant to coopt Muslims and, much less often, Jews, as fellow nationals with a different religion. Sadly, this was overshadowed by violent hostility, at different times resulting in genocidal massacres. Expulsions and atrocities occurred also in Bulgaria and Greece.

James Renton’s contribution continues his important work contextualizing British plans for a Jewish homeland in Palestine, within the overall plan that London (and here, also, Paris) had for dividing up the Ottoman Empire on national lines. The ideological background to the Sykes-Picot agreement employed the notion of the “Semite,” and encouraged support for the Zionist enterprise by the Jews’ Semitic relatives, the Arabs. Such efforts had only a very limited and temporary success. Renton shows that the concept of the Semite was doomed from the start, minimizing differences that would eventually end the concept’s usefulness.

Gil Anidjar’s piece on anti-antisemitism interrogates the ontology of the struggle against antisemitism. Anti-antisemitism, at least after the Holocaust, is a “struggle for survival,” and not only for Jews. Anidjar suggests that the survivor’s “negative portrait” is a figure that Czesław Miłosz personified as Ketman, using a term of Persian origin referring to when dissimulation is used as a means of surviving a murderously oppressive regime. Unlike the dissimulator, the anti-antisemite refuses dishonest accommodation and stands up to fight. Anidjar speaks of “Orientalism, aka Islamophobia, aka antisemitism” (205), equating Jew and Muslim as targets. Yet his references to Agamben’s figure of the Jew in Auschwitz who gives up the fight for survival, and who was referred to as a “Muslim,” result in a confusing mix of metaphors (Muslim as Jew and a target of murderous prejudice, vs. “Muslim” as the non-survivor and a figure for ketman). Some readers might therefore misunderstand the conclusion of this essentially brilliant essay, that the “war on antisemitism … takes as its ideal Christ over Ketman, and the survivor over the Muslim” (206).

There are, naturally, other things that might have been discussed in this book. One might have looked at Hegel’s extremely influential philosophy of history, which created a single category for Arab and Jewish religious and cultural Geist; at the no doubt complex relationship of antisemitism and Islamophobia to philosemitism and Islamophilia; or at how western Jews and Muslims have attempted to adapt their group’s image to prevent censure by the Christian and Christian-descended majority. But no single volume can do everything. The great merit of this compilation is to have raised so many interesting angles on its central question: if antisemitism and Islamophobia in Europe have a shared story. The book makes it abundantly clear that yes, they do.

Review by Ivan Kalmar, University of Toronto.

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