*I dedicate this piece to my late aunt Yacout who left us recently and who had nothing in her heart but love for others and was the perfect example of tolerance, care, and perseverance. Rest in peace khalti.
Even as my heart aches for the loss of civilian lives in Gaza, particularly of young children whose innocence is being hijacked by a ruthless conflict with no solution in sight, I find myself in the difficult position to clarify a few things about some disturbing yet common attitudes in my own neighborhood. These comments might not make me very popular within my own community; but I am sadly used to that by now. Years ago, as a result of my own painful experiences, it became obvious to me that only a self-critical attitude can move us as human communities in a better direction. Resistance against what we perceive as injustices cannot stand on morally strong grounds if we are unable to see our own glaring shortcomings. I write these words while I am keenly aware of the volatile environment in which we all find ourselves nowadays. This is an environment in which it is very difficult to step back and attempt to shape a constructive position without risking to have negative and even demeaning labels thrown your way; I know it, I lived it.
I am not a political scientist and I have little to add to what experts in the field of international relations have written about the Arab-Israeli conflict. What I want to add to the picture fits within a self-critical attitude that unfortunately continues to be largely lacking on both sides of the conflict. It is often claimed within Arab and Muslim circles that the highly emotional reactions that are witnessed in many parts of the so-called Muslim world over the conflict in Palestine/Israel are strictly political. In one of the forms that this claim takes it is argued that nothing but Israel’s policies and the loss of Palestinian lives trigger the deep anger; in other words, no anti-Semitism is part of the picture. Certainly, many of Israel’s policies and actions, like any other political entity must be put under the critical lens, especially given the history of the conflict and given the images that continue to surface in media outlets showing a population under siege and hopeless children under extreme duress. It is understandable and expected that a dire situation engenders strong reactions. But much worse atrocities have been committed by other governmental and non-governmental entities against civilian Muslim populations without nearly the same expressed outrage, the tragic Syrian situation, in which a bloody dictator has killed thousands and thousands of civilians, being the latest example of this state of affairs.
I am extremely uncomfortable about the insistence that there is no anti-Semitism involved in these reactions within Arab and Muslim circles. My own experience has shown me the exact opposite of that. Of course, one might counter that this is no more than anecdotal evidence. I agree. But, I also insist that this is sufficient proof for me as a human being who is at the mercy of his own limited experiences. My comments are certainly not meant to be an academic presentation; nor do I want them to be taken as just another strike in an ideological war, aiming to discredit this or that side of the conflict. My comments are part of a personal blog and seek nothing more than putting on the table of discussion what I believe to be a moral issue that transcends the current political problems of the “Middle East,” even as it fuels them in a variety of ways. Let me put it bluntly, my experience has shown me that anti-Semitism is unfortunately a real problem in the Arab and Muslim communities to which I have belonged at different stages of my life.
I was born and spent my childhood in Morocco, a country that has had a Jewish minority for centuries. The Jewish presence in fact long predates the arrival of the Arabs and the spread of Islam in Northwest Africa. Historically, the fate of the Jewish communities within the Moroccan setting has varied from thriving to severely persecuted, with the common cases falling somewhere between those two extremes. Here, I am not interested in the long-term historical record. I am modestly sharing my own experiences and observations regarding how Jewish communities and individuals have been perceived around me.
I must start by stressing that it was ingrained in my head from a young age that “Jews” were somehow ethically challenged. It was a common occurrence for me and other children around me to be labeled “yahudi” (meaning “Jew”) by our own parents whenever we acted mischievously. In other words, this perception had become so ingrained in the cultural setting that it became normalized for otherwise decent individuals to utter such absurdities without giving much thought to their roots or ramifications. I must also note that my recent visits to the home country have unfortunately shown me that things have not changed much on that front; in fact they might have gotten worse.
As I reached my young adult years, a deeper ideological element became part of my experience of how Jews were presented and perceived. There is no question that the Arab-Israeli conflict constituted the background of the ideological positioning of the Zionists as the quintessential enemy, but the meat of the case against the Zionists surely moved beyond the political and military conflict in the Holy Land. Instead, it became a regular occurrence for me to witness highly popular Friday sermons in which Jews are vilified as Jews. They were routinely presented as the enemies of God himself, as hopelessly non-rehabilitatable, and as the ultimate foes of the righteous in an end-time eschatological confrontation of good and evil. If that was not sufficient, what was added to the picture was a mix of anti-Semitic legends and conspiracy theories that, as I would learn later in my studies, originated in European circles. For instance, it is common until today to find cheap Arabic copies of the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” sold on the streets of Arab capitals.
The impact of all these elements on my surroundings was immense. The line between a political conflict on the ground and a mythologized confrontation that involves supernatural beliefs was blurred again and again. The only logical conclusion for many, especially youth like a number of my friends of the time who led frustrating lives within severe socio-economic conditions, is that Jews, all Jews, were the ultimate other, an “other” that represented the opposite of everything good that one imagined in the “self.” I myself lived with such hatred in my heart for a significant part of my life.
When I moved to the United States as a young man, that attitude was carried over to the new setting. When my own late father learned from some relative that my new hometown was also home to a significant Jewish community, he made sure to share unsolicited advice on how I ought to never trust any “yahudi.” One would think that the American setting would have had an important impact on changing the anti-Jewish sentiments that Muslim immigrants, like myself, had brought with them from lands far away. Instead, what I found in the Muslim community that I joined was more of the same, which did nothing more than strengthen my own misguided opinions on everything Jewish. I do not want to suggest that strong anti-Jewish sentiments dominate every American Muslim community. The only thing I can attest to is that, if I am honest with myself, there is no way to escape the multilayered misconceptions and hateful attitudes about Judaism and Jewish people that were being spread within my community and other communities that I encountered in the same region of the United States.
It would take an extremely severe personal crisis, which I will detail elsewhere, for me to realize that I could not anymore tolerate any kind of racism, sexism, homophobia, or other forms of discrimination in the name of a religion that presents itself as a “mercy to mankind.” Long years of reading and questioning led me to rethink much about my views on the world around me. Importantly, my academic focus on religion led me to meet many wonderful professors, administrators, and students of Jewish background who had a very positive influence on my life at many levels. These encounters, in addition to the chance that I had to study various facets of the Jewish tradition and Jewish history, made me strongly allergic to any ignorant statements about Jewish communities and individuals. As if that is not obvious enough, one cannot condemn the hatred that Muslims have faced over the years in some Western settings simply because of their religious background and at the same time turn a blind eye to the hatred that a number of Muslims carry in their hearts towards Jews for (bad) religious reasons.
The goal of this modest blog entry is not to create a “buzz.” Given my background, it would have been much easier for me to rehash what is being repeated elsewhere and to make sure to sound outraged about this or that attack, as to gather the praise of my Facebook friends and my meager number of Twitter followers. I chose otherwise, not because I want to show my moral superiority; I surely fall way short of where I need to be as a human being. I mostly wanted to highlight something that is central to my story as someone who was shaken by traumatic experiences, many of which are connected to the identity politics that came to shape our world in the last two decades. Call me naïve but I believe in peace and pluralism. But, I also realize that peace and pluralism cannot be built on lies. Understanding that is the first step to counter the vilification process that leads to disregarding the basic humanity of innocent people. I leave it to my conscientious Jewish friends to stand up to the hatred that grows in the ranks of their own communities about Arabs and Muslims. As for me, I dream of a day when we can all truly say, in the words of Rachid Taha, to those whom we once perceived as eternal foes, “bonjour alikum.”