Posted by on August 23, 2010 in Blog

Last week I was invited to Los Angeles by Vidal Sassoon to address a major symposium on anti-Semitism. Sponsored by Hebrew University, the international symposium brought together experts from four countries to explore the phenomenon of anti-Semitism in the world today. I accepted the challenge, since I viewed it as a real opportunity to open a dialogue and to present an Arab view on at least one aspect of this issue.

My paper, which I entitled “Anti-Semitism and the other anti-Semitism” was an effort to create an understanding of Arabs as Semites and as victims of the same poison that had affected the Jewish people. I also sought to create an understanding of how both peoples have not only been victims of the West, and how both have been turned against one another and used racist caricatures to describe each other.

While there were those at the symposium who refused to accept the thesis that anti-Semitism applies to Arabs as well as Jews – their reaction was rather expected. Those who have made an identity of being victims will not easily surrender their sole ownership of that role. And those who have written their books on “The Arab Mind” and “How Arabs Think” or based a generalized criticism of Islam and fundamentalism on out of context quotations from the Qur’an or from this or that Muslim thinker, will not readily agree that what they are doing is no different from those who have written racist treatises about “the Jews” – as if an entire people can be understood or criticized by a single quotation or action.

What pleased me, however, was that the overwhelming response of those in attendance (about 500) was enthusiastically positive and supportive of my call to understand Arab suffering and pain, and my call to end negative stereotyping of Arabs and Muslims.

At the end of my remarks, Vidal Sassoon urged me to publish them as an article in the Arab press, and so I present it below in an effort to further this dialogue.


Historically, the animus of anti-Semitism directed against both Arabs and Jews, has been one phenomenon.

It has been a largely Western Christian struggle against two Semitic civilizations – one which it found living within its midst and which it saw as an internal threat; the other which it confronted as an external challenge, but which it similarly defined as a threat to its survival.

In some ways, this anti-Semitism was no different than other racial or tribal conflicts – but only by degrees/since it was more extensive and persistent in its violence and intensity.

Both Jews and Arabs were perceived as threats – their organizations, their wealth, and even their corporate identities were seen as damaging to the West. And the results have been devastating to both peoples. Both groups have suffered a history of vilification and both have endured campaigns of systematic violence.

A decade ago I did a study of political cartoons and other forms of popular culture—comparing the depiction of Jews in Tsarist Russia and pre-Nazi Germany with that of the Arabs in the U.S. in the 1970s and 1980s.

In both content and form the treatments given to each were identical. The two most prevalent German and Russian depictions of Jews paralleled the two most common images of the Arabs projected in U.S. cartoons. The fat grotesque Jewish banker or merchant found its contemporary counterpart in the obese oil sheikh, and the images of the Arab and Jewish terrorists differed only in their attire.

Both groups were uniformly treated as alien and hostile. They were accused of not sharing Western values and were both viewed as prone to conspiracy. They were both seen as usurpers of western wealth, were accused of lusting after women. And both Arabs and Jews were defined as threats to western civilization.

Jews were portrayed as internally associated with capitalist greed and externally with anarchist violence and communism. Arab avarice was held responsible for runaway inflation in the West and Arabs were seen as the main agents responsible for international terrorism.

Though inevitable, it was nonetheless profoundly tragic that as both groups became locked in a struggle over Palestine, that, in their political discourse, each would fall prey to utilizing and even propagating some of those same forms of negative stereotyping against the other.

As an Arab American who has spent most of my adult life organizing with my community to secure our rightful place in our American democracy, I can testify to the devastating effects this intergroup conflict has had on Arab Americans.

Respected major Jewish political and civil rights organizations routinely denounced Arab American efforts as anti-Semitic and even went so far as to state that there really was no such group as Arab Americans. What we really were, these Jewish groups asserted, were Lebanese, Syrians, Palestinians, etc. who had, as a result of Arab petro-dollar funding, come to term ourselves as an “Arab lobby.” We were not an ethnic people, just a cause – and merely an anti-Israel cause at that.

As a result of the campaign of hatred waged against Arab Americans, violence and threats of violence, political exclusion and defamation all described the political reality of my community for much of the past twenty years.

However, as a result of our hard work, the increased openness and fairness owe have found in many political leaders, the responsiveness of many progressives in the Jewish community, and helped to a great extent by the new atmosphere created by the September 13th Israeli-Palestinian accord, this painful chapter in the history of the Arab and Jewish communities may be coming to an end.

But for that to occur, the spirit of the accord must be translated into a new relationship between our two communities.

What happened on September 13th was more than a mere political act – the act of mutual recognition, if fully implemented, can mark the end of the intergroup hostilities between the two Semitic peoples. By mutually recognizing each other’s peoplehood – both Israeli and Palestinian – can end their denial of each other’s rights to a corporate identity.

I.F. Stone once told me that in his view one of the most virulent forms of anti-Semitism was the fear of Jews claiming their rights and operating as an organized group. “It was, after all, the anti-Semite,” he noted, “who would say ‘Some of my best friends are Jews,’ but then go on to denounce organized Jews.”

Was it not Golda Meir who denied that a group called Palestinians ever existed…and was it not Israeli policy for 25 years to refuse to recognize the national rights of that people?

In 1985 Prime Minister Rabin, speaking at the National Press Club in Washington said that the Israeli refusal to deal with the PLO had nothing to do with terrorism but rather “because by talking to them one recognizes the national rights of Palestinians and that is something we refuse to do.”

And so too, for Palestinians and Arabs there was a systematic denial of the rights of Jews to define themselves as a separate ethnic national community.

The Arab rejection of Zionism was not only based on their pain over what that movement had done to them, but because they could not accept the definition of the Jews as a separate national entity.

With mutual recognition, that mutual denial has ended.

What is important now is that both communities move from formal mutual recognition to a deeper mutual understanding.

There is a tendency exhibited by oppressed groups of people who have experienced pain to, in a sense, draw a circle around themselves and their pain. They do not see beyond their pain. Some groups make a virtual religion of their pain—and their history, as they write it, becomes the history of the painful things that were done to them.

For such groups, other peoples become objectified and depersonalized. As a result, some victim peoples have become victimizers. They have no feeling for the pain they inflict. Indeed, they often justify the pain they inflict on others because, for them, the only real pain is the pain they feel themselves.

Arabs and Jews must move beyond that conundrum—that has defined their mutually inflicted pain—to a new relationship of mutual understanding. Both groups must never again exploit the crude anti-Semitic caricatures that have been used to dehumanize each other.

But more than that, we must come to know each other as full people who share the same feelings, fears and aspirations. Our real histories are not the simple black/white, stick figure history portrayed in Leon Uris’ The Exodus or The Hajj. Humanity and suffering exists on both sides.

Arabs, I believe, must come to understand the legacy of anti-Semitism, the Jewish fear of the pogrom and the tragedy of the Holocaust. But more than that, Arabs must also know the fear of the survivors of Afula and the pain of the families and friends of those who did not survive the massacre.

As well, Jews must know the agony of imperial conquest in the Arab world…what colonialism meant, what it did to Algerians, Libyans, Egyptians, and what dismemberment and conquest meant to the Arabs of the Levant—there were pogroms against Arabs, too!

But more than that, Jews too must grapple with the pain of Palestinians and Lebanese—not only that of those who died at the al-Ibrahim Mosque in Hebron but also those who suffer the daily humiliations that occur within occupation: the collective punishment, the curfews, the lost land and the violence and the arbitrary arrests.

And Jews must understand the fear, the pain, and the anger of those 500,000 Lebanese who were forced to flee their homes as the Israeli government mercilessly bombed villages in Lebanon last year. While Prime Minister Rabin said that he was sending a message to the government of Lebanon with that bombing – what we must ask was the message those homeless people took with them. And what was the message received by the families of the 150 Lebanese who were killed in the raid?

We must know each other’s pain.

To move forward, we must get inside each other’s skin and know each other as well as we know ourselves.

In the end, I believe, this is the only way to end the suffering and to bring Arabs and Jews together in a common struggle—not against each other—but together to end the virulent anti-Semitic poison that has brought us both so much pain.