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Anti-Racism Versus Anti-Semitism?

Hazem Saghiyeh

In France, students will soon be given a handbook that educates them about racism and anti-Semitism. Indeed, anti-Semitism is the European term for racism against Jews. In addition, students will watch and study movies on the Holocaust, such as Shoah, Sophie’s Choice, and Schindler’s List.

France suffers from a guilty conscience regarding Jews. It was the place where the fabricated Dreyfus Affair took place – thus inspiring journalist Theodore Hertzl to establish the Zionist movement. It was in France that Marshall Pétain set up the Vichy government that collaborated with the Nazis and delivered trainloads of Jews to death camps in numbers greater than the Germans requested.

Today, about 600,000 Jews and four million Muslims live in France, and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is on centre stage. Televised scenes from the Middle East have a heavy impact on France’s Muslim youth who identify with Palestinians and on French Jews who overwhelmingly support Israel.

The situation is further exacerbated by the security and psychological climate in the wake of the 9/11 attacks and by societal problems caused by the country’s difficulties in assimilating the Muslim population. Also, there is the volatile issue of whether Muslim women should be permitted to wear the hijab, as well as U.S. pressure on Paris to take more pro-American policies in the Middle East.

The bottom line is that while there is a problem of anti-Semitism in France, the roots are largely different than the traditional ones. And the French government is taking positive action in trying to contain the problem, particularly in the schools, which are France’s prime tool for weaving together a cohesive social fabric.

In March, the French Ministry of Culture, the Pompidou Centre, and France’s Bibliothèque publique d’information cancelled a screening of a documentary on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Route 181, a film co-directed by Palestinian Michel Khleifi and Israeli Eyal Sivan. The reason given was that the film “provoked intense emotion, particularly among those who are alarmed by the rise of anti-Semitic and anti-Jewish statements and acts in France, and who consider that the film’s underlying hostility to the existence of Israel may be of a nature to encourage these acts.” Especially provocative was the juxta-positioning of a scene from Claude Lanzmann’s holocaust film, Shoah, with a scene that portrays Palestinians as victims of Holocaust survivors and their offspring.

The cancelled screening, urged by some French intellectuals and denounced by others, was, in my view, crude, arrogant, and oppressive. It reflected the view that anti-Semitism is an absolutely unique phenomenon that cannot be equated, in any way, with any other tragedy, large or small. Although the Palestinian tragedy is a by-product of anti-Semitism, it is, according to some French intellectuals, simply not acceptable to use the mother tragedy to understand elements of the Palestinian tragedy.

There is also a deeper truth. The censors were, in effect, insisting on the absolute uniqueness of the Holocaust decades after the Holocaust had become part of the literature of democratic and progressive intellectuals and activists. This is, in itself, harmful to the memory of the Holocaust and may, in certain environments, backfire and provoke anti-Semitism.

Yet, there is an unfortunate truth that explains the indifference to such fears and that also explains the lack of Arab enthusiasm for denouncing suicide bombings: namely, that opposition to anti-Semitism and opposition to racism are becoming mutually exclusive, opposing phenomena.

Anti-Semitism has become the preoccupation of white Westerners in countries where this hatred originated. Fighting anti-Semitism should be a universal movement that reaches beyond Europe and the U.S., but the struggle against anti-Semitism has been twisted into a means of pointing blame at those who oppose Ariel Sharon’s bloody policies. Rather, the fight against anti-Semitism should be a movement that attracts the sympathy and support of people everywhere.

At the same time, the struggle against racism, particularly since the Durban Conference in 2001, has taken on a similarly exclusive quality for those supporters of the non-Western poor, who want to see the West and “the Jews” as the cause of Third World misery. As a result, they do not criticise their own societies, and they fail to enlist Westerners in the battle against racism.

So, you are either against anti-Semitism and turn a blind eye to racism that targets Arabs, Muslims, and Africans, or you are against racism and turn a blind eye to anti-Semitism that affects Jews and is of so much concern to Americans and Europeans.

This dichotomy represents a tragedy which negates enlightenment, modernity, and a sense of universal humanity.

Hazem Saghiyeh is an editor and columnist for Al-Hayat, the London-based,
pan-Arabic newspaper.
Source: Al-Hayat, March 13, 2004 - english.daralhayat.com

From the Common Ground News Service
hagalil.com 09-05-2004



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