Iran's president poses a challenge for Muslims - but for Jews as well
Published in the Jewish Chronicle 30 December 2005
No one wants to end the year on a downer, but I?m in a mood I can?t quite shake. Who?s to blame? His name is Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and he is the President of Iran.
Plenty of JC readers will share my disquiet at the antics of this man who has, in the past few months, both called for Israel to be wiped off the map and denied the truth of the Holocaust. It would be nice to write him off as a bigot with a screw loose, but we can?t. He is not David Irving; he is the head of government of a major country which aspires to be both a regional superpower and the leader of the Muslim world.
All of which would be enough to get anyone down, but that?s not the chief reason for my doldrums. Earlier this month, I wrote a column for the Guardian denouncing both Ahmadinejad and the wider phenomenon of hate of which he is only the newest and most prominent manifestation. ?We can deny it no longer,? I wrote. ?The virus of anti-Semitism has infected the Muslim world.?
Like other pieces by other people on this subject, the column triggered an enormous response, with several hundred emails arriving from all over the world. And it?s these which have me worried. What they reveal is that Jews and Muslims are in a state of deep, mutual hostility and suspicion.
Of course, there were exceptions, but a huge number of Jewish correspondents faulted me only for not going further. I should have said that Ahmadinejad is nothing new since Muslims have always hated Jews, treated them at best as second-class citizens, that Jew-hatred is innate and encoded into their holiest texts.
I should have said that Muslims will not rest till they have destroyed Israel, that they regard all Jews as inferior and that those who cannot see the danger looming are as blind as those who sought to appease Hitler.
From dozens of readers, the message was clear: we are on the brink of a second Holocaust, except now we shall be killed in the name of Allah.
From Muslims, there was a different response. A gratifying number wrote to tell me they were ashamed of the Iranian President and wanted nothing to do with his anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial. But very many others wrote to say that, if it was wrong to deny the Holocaust, then it was equally wrong to deny Israel?s crimes against the Palestinians. Some of these spoke as apocalyptically as the Jewish readers, accusing Israel of a genocidal campaign against Muslims; others trotted out ugly, familiar lines, including the one about the Jewish-owned media.
It was impossible to wade through this email avalanche without feeling that we have come to a dangerous pass. Two global communities face each other in what increasingly looks like a state of conflict. Many on both sides assume the worst of the other; both speak as if a bloody confrontation is inevitable.
So now I?m in no doubt: we have to move to change this situation. In that Guardian column, I urged Muslims (and their progressive allies in Britain and elsewhere) to repudiate the sickness of anti-Semitism and to do it fast. But, if they must act, then so must we. Plenty of Jewish commentators have been content simply to expose again and again the extent of Muslim antipathy to Jews and Is-rael. Their core thesis can be boiled down to six words: ?See, they really, really hate us.?
I don?t think repeating that statement, whipping up our own fears, however justified, gets us very far. Instead, we have to do what we tell Muslims to do: look in the mirror and face some uncomfortable facts about ourselves.
Now, I don?t buy the idea ? raised in hundreds of those emails ? that this surge in Jew-hatred is simply a response to Israel and its conduct. For one thing, I don?t think it?s ever right to blame the victim of racism for racism: if people hate Jews, that?s the anti-Semites? fault, not the Jews. Second, it?s quite clear that Muslims were making life awkward for Jews long before Zionism.
Nevertheless, we have to try, for our own sake, to see how we got here. And that means admitting that Israel is, at the very least, part of the story. Here?s how things seem to have worked. Many Muslims have, especially since 1967, been angered by Israel?s occupation and harsh treatment of Palestinians. They see a community, namely Jews, that, mainly, supports and defends Israel. They find themselves at odds with this community, believing it to be on the wrong side of an urgent, humanitarian question. Forty years of that opposition soon becomes antagonism: they oppose these Jews who apparently stand with the Is-raeli occupier. And eventually that antagonism stirs something much worse, reawakening a prejudice that explodes into the toxic anti-Semitism we see today.
I know that?s not the whole story. Some Muslims would hate Jews even if we were still in Russia and had never got near Palestine. And, yes, plenty of Jews already criticise and debate Israel in a spirit of pluralism absent from most of the Muslim world. But, rationally, we surely have to admit that four decades of mainstream Jewish support for an occupation Muslims believe, rightly or wrongly, is mistreating their brothers has created fertile ground for the belief that the Jews are against them, and worse.
Some Jews ? including the London-based analyst Tony Klug ? warned of precisely this sequence of cause and effect 30 years ago. Few wanted to listen then, but now we must. Muslims have to look deep into their own souls and see the abyss into which they are falling. But we surely have to do the same.