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British Jews and Muslims: two myths (part 2)

Ben Gidley

In the second part of my post on British Jews and British Muslims, I will move from the myth of the Jews as a model minority to a second myth: that Islamophobia is the new antisemitism. A number of academics, activists and journalists – Muslim, Jewish and otherwise – have made this claim in recent years. The real similarities between antisemitism and Islamophobia are often cited, as well as the faith-based nature of the two communities these racisms target. (For some more simplistic versions of the claim, see Mya GuarnieriDaniel Lubanor Shlomo Sand; for more interesting and sophisticated versions, see Matti Bunzlor Nasar Meer and Tehseen Noorani.)

Just as the model minority myth obscures a number of truths, the Islamophobia-is-the-new-antisemitism myth also has problems.It ignores the very real differences between the material conditions and patterns of exclusion experienced by Jews a century ago and Muslims today, including the shift already mentioned from official monoculture to official multiculture, and therefore often leads to quite an ahistorical view of reality. By relegating antisemitism to the past, it denies the very real manifestations of antisemitism today, including both dinner party antisemitism and violent attacks. It accepts the earlier assimilationist logic in implying that Jews completely succeeded in knuckling down and fitting in and are now unproblematically part of the dominant white majority. And it promotes a kind of zero sum approach to different racisms, a perverse calculus by which racisms are measured against each other, the intensity of one necessarily diminishing the value of the other.

I think it would be more helpful to see the two racisms existing in a more complex relationship. Like other racisms, both are constantly mutating and taking on new forms and new disguises; both are promiscuous and find new allies and new protagonists. Three facts stand out about the complex relationship.

First, hatred against Muslims and hatred against Jews are often expressed together, by racists who see both minorities as closely connected or even as two sides of the same coin. You can see examples of this in the recent Community Security Trust annual report on antisemitic incidents, with as in some neo-Nazi literature distributed in East London, which concluded: “JEWS AND MUSLIMS OUT OF REDBRIDGE”.  This suggests a potential Muslim interest in combating antisemitism and Jewish interest in combating Islamophobia. This in turn points to a need for an anti-racist politics of alliance between Jews and Muslims.

Second, on the other hand, the two hatreds are often expressed instead in antagonistic ways, and this blocks the possibility of a shared struggle against both racisms. For example, many of those who fight against antisemitism play down and even deny the existence of Islamophobia, while many of those who fight anti-Muslim racism scorn the continued significance of anti-Muslim racism and assume bad faith when it is mentioned. Lying behind this, of course, is the tense politics of Israel/Palestine, which has profoundly damaged Muslim/Jewish collaboration.

Third, this kind of either/or politics is exploited by racist movements. For example, the viciously anti-Muslim English Defence League and the fascist British National Party both claim to be pro-Jewish, for different reasons: the EDL to recruit Jewish support and the BNP to help re-brand themselves as mainstream and post-fascist. On the other hand, far right antisemitic movements increasingly borrow the language of anti-Zionism as a cover for their racism, and far right antisemitic ideas have in turn increasingly gained traction amongst anti-Zionists, including in the Muslim community. For example, anti-Zionists have taken up the old Christian antisemitic “blood libel” myth that Jews use the blood of non-Jewish children in their rituals, while neo-Nazis have taken up ideas from the anti-Zionist movement, such as the idea of an all-powerful “Israel lobby”. These sorts of entanglements not only block the common struggle, but actually feed both racisms.

This complex reality requires a complex politics. We need to stop competing in the victimhood stakes and recognise that both racisms are important and dangerous. We need to attend to Islamophobia in the Jewish community and to antisemitism in the Muslim community. And we need to be vigilant about the blurry line between taking sides on Israel/Palestine and taking up antisemitic or Islamophobic themes. Once Jews and Muslims recognise they have a common stake in fighting both racisms then we can begin to build a Britain free of antisemitism and Islamophobia.

Ben Gidley is a Senior Researcher at the Centre on Migration, Policy and Society (COMPAS)at Oxford University. He is the co-author of Turbulent Times: The British Jewish Community Today, with Keith Kahn-Harris.