Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s speech at the Durban II conference on racism turned into a racist rant against Israel and the Jewish people. The conference, intended to give the people of the world an opportunity to challenge racism, lost all credibility when many in attendance applauded Ahmadinejad’s claim that the Jewish people used the Holocaust as a pretext to take over and dominate the people of Palestine. Ahmadinejad, you’ll recall, won global attention when he became the first leader of a UN country to call for the wiping out of another UN country (though he later claimed he was only calling for regime change), and for denying the very existence of the Holocaust.
Ahmadinejad’s tirade makes quite a bit more sense in the context of domestic Iranian politics. Playing to anti-Semitism and anti-Western attitudes may be his only hope as he runs for reelection on a failure to deliver the end of poverty and powerlessness promised during the last campaign. What makes less sense is why some of his fellow Muslims have not denounced this anti-Semitism more vigorously.
The creation of the State of Israel was a product of a Jewish nationalist movement that arose at the end of the 19th century and sought to provide protection for Jews who were treated as second-class citizens in both Christian Europe and Muslim countries for many hundreds of years. The desire for a safe haven made perfect sense, though the antagonism that they encountered from many Palestinians made perfect sense as well given the previous history of Western colonialism and Christian crusades.
Palestinians saw the Jews as an invading force that would uproot their own Arab society. Yet most Jews coming to Palestine were fleeing oppression, and simply could not understand how Palestinians would view them as agents of a Christian West that had been murdering Jews as “Christ killers” for at least 1500 years. The mutual misunderstandings were predictable, though not inevitable, and both sides bear considerable responsibility for not reaching out in a more generous way toward the other. In the end, each party’s insensitivity strengthened those elements on the other side who were most fearful for their existence (I’ve told this story in more detail in my book Healing Israel/Palestine).
The failure of most countries of the world to open their doors to Jews seeking to escape Nazi persecution—and the resolute opposition of the Palestinian movement to allow Jewish refugees into Palestine, both during and after the Holocaust—set the stage for the first act of global affirmative action: the United Nations’ vote to create the State of Israel. Had the Palestinian people accepted the UN division of Palestine, the two states that Palestinians seek today would have already been in existence.
Without trying to tell the whole story, I do believe that Israel’s current policies toward the Palestinian people in the West Bank and Gaza are cruel, repressive, and de facto racist. Many of us who support Israel’s right to exist are strong critics of its current policies.
Yet one reason why the peace forces are unable to win majority support in Israel or among the Jewish people as a whole is that too many Arabs and Palestinians seek not a two-state solution, but the total elimination of the State of Israel as a Jewish homeland. Ahmadinejad, like Hamas, and like many other voices in the Arab and Islamic world, conflate legitimate criticism of Israel’s policies with an assault on Israel’s existence; an error which becomes even more outrageous when linked to a denial of the Holocaust or the anti-Semitism that led to the flight of some one million Jews from Arab countries between 1947 and 1967. When Prime Minister Netanyahu, Avigdor Lieberman, and other right-wing extremists are able to point to this irrational hatred of the Jewish people as the “real” underlying message of the critics of The Occupation, they stir up fears among Israelis that seem to be rationally founded, given the hatred being expressed.
All the more so when one witnesses the striking silence about the racism that led to the Hutu-Tutsi massacres, the destruction of Buddhism in Tibet by Chinese racism, the oppression of women and gays in many Muslim countries, and the list could go on and on. By singling out Israel, Ahmadinejad proves the case for many Israelis that the critique is not simply a matter of rational opposition to oppressive policies, but rather a manifestation of the very hatred that makes it imperative for Jews to protect themselves by any means necessary.
We in the Jewish peace movement plead with our Muslim and Arab comrades and friends to denounce those who deny the Holocaust and who unfairly critique Israel. So it was with deep disappointment that we watched as representatives of many of these countries cheered Ahmadinejad’s tirade rather than dismiss him as the racist demagogue that he is.
The great losers in this are the Palestinian people. The more that Jews are scared, the less likely they are to be true to their own religious and cultural history, largely one of support for the most oppressed. So the anti-racist conference that calls itself Durban II actually succeeded in strengthening the hold of the racists, and in the process has made continued Palestinian suffering all the more likely.
For those of us who believe that the God of all peoples wants all to be treated as equally valuable and as embodiments of God’s image on Earth, the failure of Muslims and Arab to disassociate themselves more publicly and forcefully is itself a problem that must be addressed with honesty and public confrontation, in a spirit of mutual respect and caring for each other. To do less would be to dishonor the God of the universe. We in the Jewish world who continually and publicly critique the misuse of Judaism to justify racist and repressive policies by the State of Israel have every right to demand a similar critique from our Arab Christian and Muslim brothers and sisters.