Do Arabs Experience Antisemitism? (Part 1-Palestinians)

Reading and seeing pieces of the various wars being waged on the Palestinian people, I've been thinking a lot lately about the treatment of European Jews prior to the Holocaust. As I said in a comment to this post:

i always stay skeptical when people compare palestinian and jewish experiences, because a lot of times i hear really reductionist soundbyting like “the israelis are like nazis!” which fail to get at all the nuances that can NOT be obscured if we want to have a real discussion about it, you know? but there are plenty of actual comparisons to be made, like…hmm, an extremely oppressed group who is denied basic human rights is scapegoated by those who oppress it, accused of being THE primary producer of the things that are wrong with the region, accused of being untrustworthy and conniving because of the group’s position on the outside of the society that oppresses it, and subject to regular attacks for no [good] reason…who does this sound like?

Last week I stumbled upon a great zine entitled "The Past Didn't Go Anywhere: Making Resistance To Antisemitism Part of All of Our Movements" (via Josh Russell). It is available for download in both digital and printout formats (I recommend reading it before reading the rest of this post). This is a must read for EVERYONE. The writers of the pamphlet did a great job breaking down so many issues in a clear, concise and engaging way. They went into the history of Jews in Europe, the history of antisemitism, antisemitism on the left, and the history of American Jews. I recognized so many things paralleled in Palestinian, Arab and Arab American experiences, giving me pause to ask whether discrimination as faced by (non-Jewish) Arabs can be best characterized as antisemitism (I will go further into this line of thinking in Part 2-Arab Americans), especially in a race-based system in which, as a means of invalidating our experiences, we are constantly told "Arab is not a race" (and therefore no one can be "racist" against Arabs).

I often struggle with finding accurate language in discussions of race and ethnicity, and I've heard others say that they desire more sophisticated terms for these discussions. You can take this post as an exploration of options, as well as an attempt to illuminate similarities in experiences, but not as an attempt to quantify or homogenize experience.

Antisemitism is typically not an accurate term to describe discrimination against non-Jewish Arabs (or Jewish Arabs being discriminated against for being Arab), as it has it's origin in hatred of Jews specifically, and not of Semitic peoples as a whole. From "The Past Didn't Go Anywhere:"

From the beginning it was chosen as a chic, new scientific word to show that Jews were an inferior race (not a religion that they could convert out of), and to replace the word Jew-hatred (Judenhass) so that Jewhaters could enjoy sounding more sophisticated.


Although Jews didn't get to choose the term for their oppression -and
oppressed groups rarely do- over years being attacked by it, they have accepted the term to describe the historical experience of being targeted for being Jews.
There isn't really one oppression that targets all those who were labeled
“Semites” in a similar way.** But there is a larger oppression that both groups experience: Orientalism. From the Chinese Exclusion Act and the Third Reich to the Red Scare and the War on Terror, the "West" has historically targeted Asians, Arabs and Jews as mysterious, dishonestly and manipulatively intelligent, overly sensual, warlike, and barbarically loyal to their 'tribe' instead of to humankind.

Currently Palestinians are in a situation which, at different levels, shares many similiarites with Jewish experiences in Europe prior to World War II. Palestinians in the diaspora have no homeland to return to. Palestinians in Israel, who are a part of Israeli society, are seen as suspect--they are a marginalized community who have been denied full agency and yet are seen as parasitic traitors. Bradley Burston writes in Haaretz:

Too many of us want our Arabs to be traitors. Too many of us see Israeli Arabs, as a group, as hypocrites, parasites, their dual-loyalty a thin disguise for support of terror in the service of Palestine.
There is a quiet sense among many of us, that Israeli Arabs are fleecing the state, even as they grouse about inequality and nurse plans to de-Judaize the national home of the Jewish People.
It is, in many ways, a form of classical anti-Semitism in which the Semites in question happen to be Israeli Arabs.
We complain that they live off the rest of us, that they flaunt our zoning laws and evade the taxes we pay, that they are happy to take our welfare while spurning the notion of defending the country.
It makes us feel somehow more secure in our own identity as Jews in a Jewish state. It makes our dislike of them, our educational, economic, and social discrimination against them, seem more of a reasoned response than what it actually is, which is institutional racism.

Palestinians in refugee camps are being scapegoated as the cause of all the Middle East's problems, and are being used as capital for any number of political agendas by political leaders who ultimately don't care how many Palestinians die. Meanwhile, 87% of Palestinians in Gaza live below the poverty level of $2 per day while their food sources are restricted and on any given day they risk being killed by factional militias or Israeli forces, neither of whom value the lives of the people. This situation is very serious, but those with the most political power are unconcerned. This begs the question, what will it take?What will it take for those who have the power and influence to change this? What will it take for the global community to put pressure on our political leaders to change this? How bad does it have to get before someone stops it? This question inadvertently leads to the Holocaust. From "The Past...:"

For centuries, Jewish communities could be expelled from European towns at any time, for any reason and made homeless. Permission to stay lasted only as long as an area’s rulers saw local Jews as ‘useful.’ Ruling classes developed and passed down strategies to make good use of Jews’ vulnerability...all of an area’s Jews were a ruler’s handy target: When the economy or other conditions became unbearable, Jewish homes provided a whole neighborhood where gentile masses could riot and let off steam.

The Holocaust did not happen overnight. It was built on centuries of Jewish oppression, implicating not just Germany, but all of Europe. It was not an anomaly in which all the blame can be placed on one isolated historical figure. It exists in an entire culture of scapegoating, oppression and antisemitism.

It did not happen that long ago. People who experienced it are still alive today, and its memory is still alive in subsequent generations. It is easy to say "Never Again" to something as horrific as genocide, but what about saying "Never Again" to the horrific reality of systematic oppression that preceded it?

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About Nadia Abou-Karr

Nadia is a Palestinian-American writer based in Detroit. She recently received a Bachelors of Fine Arts from Wayne State University and plans to pursue graduate studies in Visual Culture/Criticism. She is an artist, writer, media maker and activist. Currently Nadia is working with the Allied Media Conference, TheCulturalConnect, and writing for Detroit's Metro Times. She has written and contributed to numerous different zines and independent publications, and blogs at Her interests include printmaking, fiber arts, Palestinian liberation, women of color feminism and art theory.

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