Five thousand Jews left Afghanistan in 1948 to settle in the newly-created State of Israel. In 1979, as Soviet tanks rolled down the Salang Pass, most of the remaining Jews also emigrated, some to India, some to Central Asia. By the time Afghanistan was reinvaded in 2001, only two Jews remained. In January 2005, when Ishaq Levin, the caretaker of the Kabul synagogue died, it left Zebolon Simintov as Afghanistan’s sole surviving Jew. Simontov’s former wife immigrated to Israel with his two daughters a long time ago. But this seemed to have done little to diminish his spirits. In January 2012, when Channel 4 News’s Alex Thomson caught up with Simontov, at fifty-one, he was rambunctious as ever. In a brief interview, the irrepressible Simontov denounced Karzai, NATO, the Afghan warlords and, inevitably, the Taliban. It is astonishing that this outspoken man survived the fundamentalist Taliban regime.
It was tough for him under the Taliban, said Simontov, but then it was tough for everyone. However, that did not prevent him from dealing with them in his characteristic irreverent style. When some Taliban would ask him to convert to Islam, he would instead offer them the choice of conversion to Judaism. ‘They just laughed and left it alone,’ he said. But the prospect of the Taliban’s return does not please him. He fears the vacuum that a NATO withdrawal would leave in its wake that might, once again, turn the region into a lethal playground for proxy grievances. For the sole survivor of a community that had resided in Afghanistan since the eighth century, perhaps the example of Iraq is all too vivid.
Achcar, London: Saqi, 2009.
Jews had resided in Iraq far longer, since the time of the Babylonian captivity in 538 BC. But by 2007, only eight remained. Alone and desperate, they were without a community to protect them from the bloody and indiscriminate civil war that engulfed Iraq. As in Afghanistan, the once large and flourishing community had dwindled after the creation of Israel. More deeply rooted and less willing to leave than Jews in other places, it took sabotage and intimidation by Zionist agent provocateurs to finally spirit the Iraqi Jews out (A similar campaign also succeeded in precipitating the flight of Egyptian Jews to Israel). As hostilities between Israel and the Arabs grew, Iraq under the Baath regime became less and less hospitable to those who remained. In the end, it was the two American-led wars that achieved what even the Mongol invasion, and everything in-between, had failed to do. Thus collapsed one of the world’s oldest Jewish communities which, among other things, was responsible for producing the Talmud, Judaism’s second-holiest book.
The treatment of Jews who have remained in the Muslim world is no better or worse than that of any other minority. Since the founding of Israel, their numbers have dwindled. Except for countries like Iran, where a substantial Jewish population still thrives, few in the Muslim world ever encounter a Jew. Most know Jews only through scripture or news reporting on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. All Jews as a result have been cast unwittingly as adversaries by a conflict with which most of them have no connection, which many even oppose.
There is little doubt that anti-Semitism exists in the Muslim world today and that Holocaust denial is not uncommon. This is deplorable. But as the Lebanese-French scholar Gilbert Achcar notes in The Arabs and the Holocaust, the anti-Semitism of the Muslim world is an epiphenomenon of a political conflict; it does not have social roots. Achcar cites Yehoshafat Harkabi, the leading Israeli scholar and former head of the military intelligence and no friend of the Arabs, as saying ‘it is functional and political, not social’. For most Muslims, anti-Semitism is a function of ignorance and unfamiliarity; it is also an abstract means of participation in a conflict where Jews have been cast as the oppressor by virtue of a state which adorns its instruments of war with Jewish religious symbols. In this respect it is quite different from European anti-Semitism; it does not involve any actual contact with a Jew. It is also different in so far as it comes from a position of weakness, whereas European anti-Semitism was born of strength and directed against a vulnerable minority. It is comparable less to the racism of the Ku Klux Klan than to the reaction of the Black Panthers. Both kinds of hatred were totalising, but only the former existed without a stimulus. Harkabi again: ‘Arab anti-Semitism is not the cause of the conflict but one of its results; it is not the reason for the hostile Arab attitude toward Israel and the Jews, but a means of deepening, justifying and institutionalising that hostility. Its rise is connected with the tension created as a result of Zionist activity, and especially of the traumatic experience of defeat…Anti-Semitism is a weapon in this struggle.’
This might explain the attitudes of the majority, but it does not excuse the minority of voices who have shamelessly borrowed from the tired tropes of European anti-Semitism. The notorious anti-Semitic forgery, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, was first translated into Arabic by a Maronite priest named Antun Yammin in 1925, and has remained in circulation ever since. Many of its ideas have been assimilated into the writings and pronouncements of some leaders, priests, and intellectuals. This is sometimes combined with more virulent forms of hatred of Jews, as a tit-for-tat response against Zionists who are seen as being at war with Muslims. As Zionists have sought political advantage by trying to erase the distinction between Zionist and Jew, some Arab-Muslim reactionaries have obliged by being equally impervious of those differences.
Achcar gives an example from an article published in the Saudi daily Al-Bilad. The writer, Hilmi Abu-Ziyad, responded to the capture of Adolp Eichmann in 1960 by congratulating the Nazi henchman for the killing of millions of Jews. Though a marginal position, Abu-Ziyad’s is precisely the type of reactionary provocation that has produced a whole genre of books dedicated to exposing the anti-Semitism that is supposedly part of the Arab-Muslim social fabric. That the Eichmann trial itself had a propagandistic purpose is well attested to in Hannah Arendt’s stellar reporting for the New Yorker. But if David Ben Gurion had aimed to use the Holocaust as a justification for the creation of the Jewish state, then his success has been compounded by the kind of reaction which made the Jewish genocide itself the focus of its ire.
Arendt was not the only person to warn about the political uses of the Holocaust. The eminent Israeli diplomat Abba Eban was himself known to quip, ‘There is no business like Shoah business’. Scholars and intellectuals such as Raul Hilberg, Peter Novick, Avraham Burg, Norman Finkelstein and Tom Segev have all documented and deplored this abuse of the memory of Holocaust victims. But this misuse of the Holocaust as a political tool does not negate the nature and scale of the genocide. Muslims and Arabs are right to complain that the Palestinians are paying a price for crimes committed by others. But anticipating this argument, the Israelis have tried to paint Arabs themselves as complicit in Nazi crimes. They have made much of the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem Amin al-Husseini’s collaboration with the Nazis while ignoring the well-known working relationship between the Nazis and some Zionists. Achcar sees no reason to cover up for the Mufti’s execrable moral and political choices — he rejects the hackneyed ‘the enemy of my enemy is a friend’ argument — but nevertheless wants to keep things in proportion. He notes that while the Mufti’s reprehensible misdeeds are fodder for numberless Zionist propaganda tracts, no attention is paid to the hundreds of thousands of Arabs, including many Palestinians, who fought and sacrificed for the Allies.
But since the Holocaust is bandied about as a justification for the creation of Israel — and the dispossession of the Palestinians — some Arabs have assumed that the legitimacy of this enterprise could be undermined by questioning the Holocaust itself. Instead, writes Achcar, such partisans merely display an inhumanity which undermines their own cause, painting opposition to Zionist colonisation as being based on anti-Semitism rather than in sympathy for its victims. Achcar notes that these attitudes, which have hardened as the conflict between Israel and the Arabs has escalated, sit in striking contrast with the Arab reactions contemporaneous with the Nazi genocide. He quotes many Arabs denouncing the genocide and professing sympathy for its victims, even as they affirmed the Palestinians inalienable political and national rights. Some even expressed a willingness to accept more Jewish refugees so long as the rest of the world was willing to accept their share.
All of this, however, has been erased from memory in no small part due to the Arabs’ own willingness to forfeit this admirable legacy. As Arabs and Muslims have abandoned this tradition in favour of clumsy flirtations with anti-Semitism, they have made it easier for their detractors to paint them as later-day reincarnations of the Nazis. Trying to fight one alien import, Zionism, with another, anti-Semitism, was never likely to succeed. They seem to have overlooked the fact that the former always relied on the latter for its survival.
In his exhaustive study, Achcar is unsparing in his criticism of Arab anti-Semitism and attempts by some to deny or minimise the Holocaust. But unlike some Arab intellectuals who play exclusively to the Western gallery, his interest is primarily intellectual. His distribution of blame is not geared for personal or political advantage. Achcar reports borrowings from The Protocols by Rashid Rida, the celebrated reformer of Egypt, the Grand Mufti’s collaboration with Nazis, and the preponderance of anti-Semitic language in the earlier literature of Hamas and Hezbollah. But he does not flinch from pointing out that the nature and scale of these associations are exaggerated and the context elided. His book offers a thorough and scholarly refutation of Zionist writers who have thrived on the subject. His greatest contribution is in restoring proportion and fairness to a debate which is generally characterised by hyperbole, vituperation, distortion and partisan apologia. In the preface, Achcar claims that his aim was to produce a work of objectivity and critical distance. He succeeds.
But Achcar’s otherwise systematic, thorough and fair-minded work fails to give any reason other than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for explaining why anti-Semitic views prevail in places which have little investment in the conflict. Why did even an astute politician like Gamal Adbul Nasser find it necessary to refer to The Protocol? Might it be because discussions of Jewish power are so suppressed that people simply don’t know how to talk about it and inevitably resort to myth? There is a large disparity between Jewish political influence in the most powerful Western states and the amount of attention it gets in mainstream discourse. Consider the American electoral process: while it is commonplace to hear about the excessive influence of corporations over politicians, or the deleterious effect of the Citizens United legislation which allows corporations to donate unlimited amounts of money while enjoying all the protections of individual citizens, the fact is rarely mentioned that the largest donations that both political parties, Democrat and Republican, receive come from Jewish donors, Sheldon Adelson and Haim Saban respectively. Both donors are on record saying that the issue they are interested in most is Israel and both have supported intransigent policies in the Middle East. Yet few people even know their names. Why this silence? Is it the fear of being labelled an anti-Semite? Is it dogma, which recognises no agents, only structures and processes?
Every time the US president is brow-beaten by an Israeli prime minister or Israel’s American allies, political discipline mandates that the mainstream intellectuals should not notice; but ordinary people do. However, unlike the intellectuals, they are not equipped with the analytical tools necessary to assess this skewed balance of power. It is not entirely surprising then that some of them end up indulging in anti-Semitic conspiracy theories ascribing mythical powers to Jews, who are treated as an undifferentiated and coherent social bloc. The only way to disabuse them of these notions would be to present them with an analytically sound, sociological explanation which recognises both the sources and limits of Jewish power and accepts the diversity of their class, cultural, and political affiliations. Some American intellectuals, such as John Mearsheimer, Stephen Walt, and Tony Judt, have done this with insight and rigour. But Achcar makes a single, somewhat disparaging, reference to the former two and does not discuss the Israel lobby at all. This is unfortunate since a scholar of Achcar’s calibre could have elevated the debate. This quibble notwithstanding, Achcar has made an invaluable contribution, and Muslims would do well to make a gift of his book to anyone who makes another reference to The Protocols.