This article was published in De Groene Amsterdammer, 24-2-2006 under the title De jood als globaliseringsproduct
Why doesn’t the public consider the importance of the cartoons about Jews published by the Arab European League and in countries such as Iran?
On Friday 10 February on Nova Politiek, Ayaan Hirsi Ali alleged during a discussion about the worldwide cartoon war that Jews were a race and therefore could not help being Jews (1). This made them entirely unlike Muslims, who chose their religious faith.
Whether the difference is truly that straightforward is a matter of opinion. Fate versus free choice: the contradiction is simplistic and therefore manipulative. Besides, sixty years after 1945, Hirsi Ali has apparently forgotten that Jews are not a race at all. Jews may or may not be an ethnic group or a people and may or may not have a distinctive religion, traditions and nationality or views on these subjects. Perhaps they are in fact a community of soul mates that has existed for centuries. Having a Jewish mother is a prerequisite, although in some cases having only a Jewish father is also sufficient. Endless debates have addressed what Judaism is, and what Jews are or should be. But Jews are definitely not a race. This propaganda device was fabricated by Nazis elaborating on nineteenth-century European racial theories.
Not a single participant in the debate on Nova Politiek challenged Hirsi Ali’s remark. The idea of the Jews as a race is apparently deeply embedded in Dutch collective memory. Could this be because nobody is interested? The debate is not about Jews or anti-Semitism. It is about the sensitivities and frustrations of Islam and Muslims in the Netherlands, Europe, Asia and the Arab nations. It is about terrorism, fundamentalism and liberalism and about respect for religion and freedom of expression, about Western values versus Islamic ones.
Perhaps Europe has become so fixated on these issues that the public does not consider from a broader perspective the content or possible interpretation of the cartoons published by the Arab European League (AEL) and in countries such as Iran.
The AEL website features a cartoon that parodies the Shoah, as well as the Jews in at least equal measure. At first glance, the picture appears to question the figure of six million Jews murdered. This is within reason. Admittedly, scholars are not in unanimous agreement about the exact figure: perhaps the death toll did not reach six million. The actual message of the cartoon, however, is entirely different: Jews have reason not to want the number to be challenged. Here, the picture comes perilously close to the revisionist view that the Shoah is partially, largely or entirely a Jewish fabrication, a Jewish lie on which the Jews are capitalising in financial, political and moral respects. “The” Jews and of course – or in the same breath – Israel as well. The cartoon also reflects President Ahmadinejad of Iran’s plan to host an international conference debating the scientific evidence of the Holocaust, which he has labelled a myth, as well as his appeal to publish cartoons refuting the Holocaust everywhere.
The second cartoon, entitled “Hitler goes Dutroux”(2), reveals Hitler in bed with Anne Frank, telling her: “Write this one in your diary Anne.” This approach is also familiar: it is a case of “pornographic anti-Semitism” (the term was devised by Solange Leibovici )(3) and suggests a sexual relationship between the Jewish victim or simply the Jew and the Nazi: obviously a perverted relationship. In the Netherlands Theo van Gogh was highly adept at similarly perverted verbal sex games with adversaries that were in some cases Jewish or “Semitic”.(4) What a surprise that Abou Jahjah(5), once labelled by Van Gogh as the “pimp of Islam”, paid Van Gogh a posthumous tribute by conveying his criticism of the West, of Jews or of Israel through metaphors reflecting the sexualised tradition of Van Gogh. But why target the Holocaust? After all, Jews did not attack the prophet.
Muslims around the world were offended by the controversial cartoons in Denmark for three reasons. First, simply because depicting Mohammed at all violates Muslim rules, second, because the cartoons ridiculed Mohammed, and third, because the cartoons related Islam to and equated it with terrorism, including suicide terrorism. They argued that Europe applies a double standard: what is holy to us – the prophet – is considered fair game; but if we attack what is sacrosanct in Europe – i.e. religion not in the traditional sense but in a secular one (the Holocaust) – our actions are labelled as blasphemous, in the sense of punishable anti-Semitism. We have the ability and the right to do asyou do. If you trample what is holy to us, we will drag what is sacrosanct to you through the mud. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. Basically, a combined attack on the Holocaust as the Holy Cow of the West, over which even that other Western Holy Cow (freedom of expression) cannot prevail. Two Cows in one blow.
At first glance, this argument seems valid. In the West the Holocaust (or rather the Shoah) has acquired a holy, sacrosanct status in a sense. Consider the days dedicated to international commemoration of the Holocaust or Auschwitz. Also note how the persecution of the Jews appears to have replaced religion and Christianity as a frame of reference for what is right and wrong. Denial of the Holocaust is punishable in several countries. Surely, then, by analogy, equating an entire religion and its prophet with terror should be punishable as well?
The line of argument and comparison, however, are valid only superficially. Beneath the surface, they are entirely flawed. In my view the Holocaust is a historical fact and the existence of Mohammed (as well as that of any other prophet or God) primarily a religious ideology or sentiment. Advancing this argument, however, would probably be futile.
What matters most is to fathom why expressions perceived by some as ridiculing Islamic values by the West leads these people to trivialise and sexualise the annihilation of the Jews and to challenge the Shoah and the extent of destruction that resulted. And far more extensively than a hollow defensive retort.
Jews, the Shoah and its memory are not necessarily a threat to the Muslim world but serve as a weapon plunged between the ribs of the West. I have several hypotheses. First, the focus on Jews and their annihilation is being used to hit the West where it is most vulnerable – as Arab circles have been doing for some time, as well as right and left-wing extremists everywhere in the world, for example by equating Hitler with Sharon or Jews with Nazis. The Holocaust was perpetrated in and by the West. In a cynical paradox, the West then declared as sacrosanct one of its most miserable failures. Second, many people outside Europe and many newcomers in Europe believe that the perception of the Jews as victims is obsolete or irrelevant. The Shoah does not figure in their history. After all these years, Jews should be demoted in the hierarchy of suffering. Many so-called autochtonen [native Dutch people] share this view. The Palestinians who are the one hand genuine victims of Israel (a creation of the West) are on the other hand a largely Islamic underdog and as such perfect objects of identification. Both their struggle against and their oppression by the ultimate Other (i.e. the Jews) inspires sympathy. They unilaterally project their aggression, which they are rarely free to express toward their own rulers, toward Israel. The Palestinians have replaced the Jews as victims par excellence, and in Israel the Jews have changed from victims into perpetrators. Basically, by ridiculing the Shoah, the AEL cartoons target the West where it is most vulnerable – namely its own tainted past – while at the same time they erode the status of the Jews as victims.
Third, nineteenth and twentieth-century Western anti-Semitic ideology is being recycled for the umpteenth time. Jews personify and in fact are the West. They represent modernity, which is as envied and enticing as it is feared and dangerous. For a century and a half, they have symbolised capitalism, Marxism, secularism, big cities, decadence, perversion, pornography, Asphaltkultur: everything that Christianity had prohibited, and that Islam forbids. What next? After a few years in the era known as globalisation, we find the entire world at our doorstep, filled with new opportunities but also with new fears. In this world, “the” Jews may once again serve as agents of cohesion between divergent groups of the world population and as a superficial but powerful statement of global evil. As the people of the Diaspora with a very specific history, are the Jews not a manifestation of globalisation, and have they not been so for longer than anyone can remember, well before the term came into use?
The stereotype of the cowardly Jew has been driven to the background. Given the substantial power of Israel relative to its size, the Powerful, Wealthy Jew stereotype is being revived: Jews are in control everywhere behind the scenes. In addition to being prophets of the Global Economy, they are instigators of 9/11 and the war in Iraq. As early as 1900 The Protocols of the Elders of Zion depicted the Jewish quest for world power. A century down the road, in the era of globalisation, they have in fact attained this world power.
Both Jews and anti-Semitism are very regularly operationalized in different ways. Jews and Judaism are all-purpose metaphors. Even Jews engage in this popular pastime. As do non-Jews, both those who regard themselves as “friends” of Jews or of Israel and the critics and anti-Semites. The concepts often bear little relation to actual or living Jews or to “genuine” anti-Semitism. They are still less likely to be based on serious analysis and mainly serve personal interests, power politics and a host of other ideological crusades.
There are Jews and Jewish organisations that aim to institutionalise Jews as victims and welcome anti-Semitism in some respects, as a cohesive force within a polarised Jewish world and as a remedy against criticism of Israel.
Some anti-Semites automatically dismiss accusations of anti-Semitism, arguing that such allegations are intended only to undermine their perfectly legitimate criticism of Jews or Israel. Others use anti-Semitic cartoons or statements to stir up turmoil and garnish support.
And many non-Jews are “more Jewish than the Jews”: they use Jews or anti-Semitism as instruments in their own war against terror, against Islamic fundamentalism or to gain votes. A dash of Jews or Judaism and a reference to anti-Semitism draw attention and seem to enrich or upgrade their own argument. On Nova Politiek, for example, Hirsi Ali deployed Jews and anti-Semitism as a strategy to embellish a stand.
Monitoring the boundary between stereotype and historical reality, as well as the capricious connection between the two, is essential for a critical review of what constitutes anti-Semitism, and what does not. And to prevent the use of Jews and anti-Semitism to charter propaganda.
No mystifications, please. For the record, the Jews are not a race.
Translated by Lee Mitzman
Evelien Gans (1951) is a historian and publicist specialising in modern Jewish history; she is Professor of the endowed chair of Contemporary Judaism at the University of Amsterdam and a researcher at the Netherlands Institute for War Documentation (NIOD).
(1) Nova Politiek is a weekly political discussion show broadcast live on the public network. Ayaan Hirsi Ali (1969), originally from Somalia, is a Dutch politician and a member of the House of Representatives, where she represents the Dutch VVD (liberal democratic party). A feminist and atheist, she has become widely known for her harsh criticism of Islam. Very recently Hirsi Ali left the House for Representatives and the Netherlands; she accepted a job at the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute. The immediate cause for her departure was the, both nationally and internationally, widely criticized (and in the meantime recalled) announcement by her fellow party member, the minister of Immigration, Mrs Rita Verdonk, to withdraw Hirsi Ali’s Dutch citizenship because of some improper information the latter gave when her naturalisation was at stake.
(2) Marc Dutroux (1956), who was sentenced in 2004 to life imprisonment for kidnapping, raping and murdering six young girls, has been called the face of evil and the monster of Belgium.
(3) Solange Leibovici (1946) teaches literature at the University of Amsterdam and is also a publicist; she specialises in literature and psychoanalysis.
(4) Theo van Gogh (1957-2004), a film maker and columnist, fiercely defended absolute freedom of expression; his statements and jokes about Jews and later about Muslims (he introduced the term geitenneuker or “goat fucker”) were infamous manifestations of such freedom of expression; in 2004 he and Ayaan Hirsi Ali produced Submission, a cinematic pamphlet decrying the alleged legitimation of abuse of women in the Koran; on 2 November he was brutally assassinated by the Islamic fundamentalist Mohammed B.
(5) Abou Jahjah (1971), originally from Lebanon, is a Belgian politician and a staunch opponent of assimilation and Zionism; he is the founder and leader of the Arab European League (AEL) established in Antwerp in 2000 to defend the interests of Muslim immigrants in Europe.