On the role of racism in the Israel-Palestine conflict

Phoebe is thinking about the role of racism in the Israel-Palestine conflict:

“To lower everyone’s blood pressure for a moment, think of it like this. Imagine that two neighbors, one who happens to be Jewish, one who doesn’t, get into an argument over… any number of ridiculous things people argue about that have nothing to do with their ethnic-religious origins. Someone’s dog ripped up someone else’s flower bed, whatever. We wouldn’t say that the Jew’s antagonist in this conflict is an anti-Semite. Sometimes Jews, like everyone else, get into disputes, and those disputing with them have whatever beef anyone has with anyone. However, if a bunch of strangers to both formed a committee to support the Jew’s antagonist, while ignoring similar and worse conflicts in the town between non-Jews, we might wonder about the committee members. Now, if the Jew’s antagonist, picking up on his likely source of support, throws a ‘dirty Jew’ in there, that’s foul play and all, but that doesn’t mean the original conflict was about anti-Semitism. It was about the flower bed.”

And the next day:

“I remain unconvinced that “race” or “racism” is the best lens through which to understand the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as it plays out among the parties themselves. I think it’s a very useful lens for understanding why certain third parties get involved, but the Israelis and Palestinians themselves, no.”

Matt responds in agreement about distinguishing between antagonists and their cheerleaders:

“When we call a speaker racist (as opposed to their speech), it typically means that that speaker should be banned from the discourse because their presence is unproductive. If we ban too many Palestinians or too many Jews, we wind up completely disrupting the discourse in a way that is certainly unproductive, because there’s no one left to convince.”

as well as disagreement about the role of racism in the conflict:

“…why should we distinguish between the claims of different actors on that basis when the claims are identical? And while we might seek to be inclusive of a variety of perspectives and actors in our conversation, that doesn’t mean that all claims are equal in that conversation. In short, I don’t think it’s often useful to think of racism as a matter of intent or as an exercise into soul divination.”

“Often, I go back to the 1929 Hebron Massacre. (Phoebe talks about the “ultimate” cause being about land, so lets go back in time.) Palestinian leaders spread a rumor that Jews were massacring Palestinians in Jerusalem. Palestinians (enough) in Hebron chose to believe that rumor because they were willing to believe almost anything about Jews, and they chose to respond by killing Jews.”

A very interesting conversation, HT Bob.

There may be strategic reasons for those most directly involved in the conflict and its resolution to pass over racism. But if like me you agree with Matt that racism is a significant factor, you will be wary of failing to acknowledge something major by putting it to one side. I also take Phoebe’s point that racism cannot be the only lens through which to examine the conflict, but it is racism which gives the conflict its popular edge and sucks in partisans with a weird and avid intensity from all over the world. It seems these days that in engaging with the conflict, and the way the conflict is refracted in far off places like Britain, it is impossible to avoid giving an audience to racist views. Nevertheless racism should compromise the influence of those who espouse it, should have consequences which disadvantage them while they continue to espouse it, and should meet with robust but constructive rebuttal.

19 Responses to “On the role of racism in the Israel-Palestine conflict”

  1. Jimbo Says:

    It may be a chicken and egg question. Palestinian Arab Muslims and Christians traditionally did regard Jews as a people exiled and dispossessed for their rejection of Jesus and the prophets. While imperial Christian and Islamic regimes did discriminate against and exclude Jews, on that basis.

    Regardless of whether that is antisemitic or not, it is very traditional Christianity and Islam.

    Understandably, Palestinian Arab Christian and Muslims were unhappy, from the mid- late 19th century, with Jews settling in the land in other than the tiny numbers to which they had been accustomed/entitled. If one reads, say, the first Arabic anti-Zionist poem, that the Jews are a people dispossessed for their sins, and Palestinian Arab Christians and Muslims blessed, conversely, with possession of their land for their superior virtue, is a given.

    But equally understandably, Jews did not feel that should be the last word on the matter. If Jews wished to live in the land in above those tiny numbers, they had to settle against Palestinian Arab Muslims’ and Christians’ wishes; whose arguments then evolve, from more traditional ones, to ones more modern and nationalist, and antisemitic; then post-colonial.

    But the more traditional Islamic and Christian anti-Judaism slips out, here and there, even in professedly secular P.L.O. and P.A. discourse; certainly in Islamist discourse such as of Hamas (e.g. a prayer that g-d make the Jews ‘lost, as before’ i.e. dispossessed, as they were originally.

    That discourse is less prevalent in that intended for western audiences, which is heavily informed by very western, Enlightenment, post-Christian and post-Islamic deconstructions of Jewish ethno-nationality and exile. Islamists will adduce modern deconstructions of the Old Testament-as-history as proof of the inferiority of the Jewish traditions, not as a lesson to apply equally to the Quran (or even the New Testament).

    The fact is that in both Christianity and Islam, especially Palestinian varieties, anti-Judaism and anti-Zionism, hostility to Jews as a religious group and hostility to their existence as a major group in the land, were indistinguishable. As in many instances was antisemitism. The Jews were exiled, dispossessed and humiliated because of their persecuting the saints, and clinging to an inferior revelation, which they passed on from generation to generation in lachrymose endogamy. Anti-Zionism = anti-Judaism = antisemitism. There was no true distinction.

    Antisemitism par excellence did not allow Jews a right to return to the land: it merely sought Jews’ exile from this world altogether. And this antisemitism, which can be found in Palestinian nationalism in the 1930s, grew out of earlier varieties, already present, and scarcely distinguishable from Palestinian Christian and Islamic anti-Jewish prejudice generally.

  2. David Schraub Says:

    I think it is also worth noting Phoebe’s shout out to her commenters who — miraculously! — managed to be civil and insightful even while disagreeing about “that” discussion. As we all know, when it comes to Jews and anti-Semitism, we’re mostly just shrieking psychopaths, so this was a pleasant deviation from what many on the left and right consider to be the “norm” on the issue.

    • Mira Vogel Says:

      This is only controversial if you start out wrong.

    • Phoebe Says:

      Thanks for noting that David Schraub – and just to be clear, I for one don’t think it’s “shrieking” for Jews to discuss anti-Semitism! What I was remarking on was the tendency of posts (on my own blog and elsewhere) that so much as mention Israel attracting commenters who pretty much just wish to yell online. In this case, everyone stuck to the topic at hand, which was lovely.

      And Mira Vogel – thanks for the link!

      • David Schraub Says:

        I know you don’t think that; but that’s the popular conception which I took your post to be pushing back against. The general assumption is that Jews who speak about anti-Semitic are either bad-faith miscreants or over-sensitive sociopaths. “You just can’t speak rationally with these people.” And yet, your comments section is a pretty strong refutation of that.

        • Phoebe Says:

          Haha, yes, I know *you* know, it’s just the rest of the Engage readership I was worried about! But thanks for clarifying.

        • Mira Vogel Says:

          Some subjects only becomes controversial if you go at them wrong – so, if as well as being partisan, you’re also adamant, one-sided in your stories, insulting of those who disagree with you, and at the same time sketchy on the facts, there a greater chance of people reacting very negatively. You see this with many argued-over topics – animal testing, climate change, etc.

          Whereas if you carefully outline some propositions, take pains to explain them, tread carefully round the sensitivities, and give due acknowledgement to arguments against your views (and even perhaps without the last two), then an approach like that will be at least understood as sincerely trying to get to the bottom of something, and like anybody else, Engage readers are much more likely to join in with that.

      • Phoebe Says:


        Ideally yes. Unfortunately, as we see with the comments to even straightforward news stories in which Israel is mentioned, you do get a certain number of people who basically scan for key words and take the opportunity to provide their own rants, barely if at all tying them in with the overall content of the article/post. I’d been getting so much of this that I’d been less keen on writing on these issues, and so am reassured that lately, discussions have been much more civil and (as much as it’s possible to say that in this context) productive.

        • Mira Vogel Says:

          “you do get a certain number of people who basically scan for key words and take the opportunity to provide their own rants”

          Couldn’t happen here, Phoebe – we have excellent moderation


          I hope you will continue to write on this subject, because you write about it very well.

  3. Victor Alvarez Says:

    Racism? No, both sides are Semites. religious fanatic is a fanatic, no mater if he is Jew or Muslim. Anyway all humans have a common ancestor and ere brothers. In my opinion does not matter where the borders as long as all humans have the same rights and obligations.

    • Brian Goldfarb Says:

      Oh heavens, this chestnut _again_. The term antisemitic was specifically coined by the well-known 19th Century racist and anti-Jew Wilhelm Marr (wikipedia have a good entry on him) to refer to Jews, though there is some dispute as to whether this is really the earliest reference to the term used in this way.

      The term “semitic” is, these days, used to refer to that group of languages that come out of the region: Hebrew, Aramaic, Arabic and probably others as well, but _not_ to the people who live there or originated from there.

      Further, there is now strong DNA evidence that those recognised as Jews, across the world, Ashkenazi, Sephardi, Mizrachi, have a common ancestry that can be traced back to between 2 and 3 thousand years ago, and to the that part of the Middle East to be found “between the river and the sea”. Should Victor Alvarez so desire, I can post the link to this information here on this thread.

      • Bill Says:

        And let’s remind Victor that Marr coined the term antisemitism to empower, not confront, Jew-hatred making it more intellectually credible by re-branding it. And in any case the “it’s anti-‘Semite’-ism so it’s ok for Semite to hate Jews” is a lie anyway. The connotation of antisemitism has always been about hating Jews, not just anyone in the Middle East and Ethiopia. Anyone dishonestly playing fast and loose with etymology to expand the penumbra antisemitism to include all “Semites,” especially the odd one that hates Jews, should know full well that s/he is actually enabling racism, even if not actively participating in it.

      • Lynne T Says:

        Brian: I think DNA has established that even us pasty-faced Ashkenazim are not only genetically close to middle eastern Jewish populations, but also we are genetically close to non-Jewish Syrians and Palestinians, which is hardly suprising, given that it is not known how many Levantine Christians and Muslims are descendants of Jews who converted after centuries of oppression.

        Not sure where such fact leaves Victor’s reference to borders and rights other than to observe that there are countries in Israel’s neighbourhood where minority rights are considerably more unbalanced than they are in Israel (Gaza, Egypt, etc.) and that imbalance has precious little to do with Israel’s occupation of the WB and East Jerusalem, which has largely to do with security issues that arose after Arafat’s [in]glorious return from Tunisia rather than bigotry.

        • Brian Goldfarb Says:

          “Not sure where such fact leaves Victor’s reference to borders and rights…” Nowhere, I’d suggest, Lynne. He’s being at the very least troll-like. I would guess that Victor knows all that we three have said very well, but is just trying to get one over on us by being (superficially but unsuccessfully) “clever”. That is, he doesn’t need any references to Marr, but is hoping that we might be taken in.

          Two chances: fat and no.

        • Bill Says:

          Plus everyone knows that “semites can’t be antisemetic” is just another way of saying “Fifty Million Frenchmen Jew-Hatin’ Semitic People Can’t Be Wrong.”

  4. mike Says:

    Does racism/bigotry have a role here? You’d have to be blind, deaf and dumb not to see it.
    Anti-semitism (the anti-Jewish kind) existed in this region way back before the founding of Israel. The Grand Mufti of Jeruselam was a vociferous Nazi supporter in World War Two. The romanticized “Arab Spring” in Egypt including extreme demonstrations of Jew-hatred not covered by media, culminating in hundreds viciously beating and sexually assaulting Lara Logan while screaming “Jew, Jew!”.

    Today Egypt is withdrawing its ambassador to Israel because they let Hamas militants slip over the border to assault Israel, then cried bloody murder when a few Egyptians were unfortunately killed as the militants took off back into Egyptian controlled territory, ignoring their own role in the debacle. Muslim Brotherhood members, historically deep in hatred for Jews, are using this as an excuse to stir up out of proportion rage against the Jewish state.
    No, this isn’t a “psychotic rant.” Its a sad statement of fact.

  5. Absolute Observer Says:

    Do you have a link for this? I’d be interested in reading more about it.

  6. Yael taubman Says:

    And what would everyOne call Abbas’s statement that “not one Jew
    Will ever be allowed to live in the Palestinian State”, plus
    any Palestinian who sells land to a Jew gets the death penalty.
    Is that not racism?

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