Dangers of ignoring the contrasts in Euro hatreds

By Benjamin Weinthal, January 13, 2011

It is now a commonplace in Europe to regard antisemitism and the more recent phenomenon, "Islamophobia", as much of a muchness. Yet there are important historical distinctions between the hatred of Jews and anti-Muslim prejudice. While European Muslims are without question subject to discrimination and violence, no reasonable observer could claim that they face the prospect of a Final Solution-style extermination plan.

Ironically, the Berlin Centre for Research on Antisemitism cemented the marriage between Islamophobia and antisemitism at a conference just over two years ago. Despite its name, this is a body that has largely ignored both Islamic antisemitism and expressions of anti-Jewish sentiment in post-Holocaust Germany.

A week from now, the Moses Mendelssohn Centre, based in Potsdam, is sponsoring a second academic conference devoted to the "Concept of the Enemy Islam and Antisemitism" in the Bavarian city of Tutzing. In the past, the Mendelssohn Centre's director, Dr Julius Schoeps, has rejected such comparisons as unhelpful but it seems there is now a new political climate.

Last month, Richard Herzinger, of the German daily Die Welt, neatly captured the wrongheadedness of Europe's new political conviction when he stated that "it is not 'Islamophobia' that is the antisemitism of the 21st century, but antisemitism."

Writing in Libération last November, the French philosopher Pascal Bruckner noted that the idea of Islamophobia originated in revolutionary Iran. In Bruckner's view, allegations of Islamophobia allow Islamic radicals to blunt criticism of extremist Islam and rationalise the rejection of secular Western values. In short, "Islamophobia" is a gagging order. But Herzinger, Bruckner and the few journalists and academics who question the rhetoric of Islamophobia are a minority.

European antisemitism brings together left, right and Islamists

The fact is, European societies have gone to great lengths to stifle any expression of anti-Islamic sentiment - even, some might say, at the expense of freedom of speech.

In 2008, for instance, the right-wing extremist Pro Cologne political party organised an anti-Islam conference. Thousands of demonstrators from all walks life took to the streets in protest against this "Stop Islam" event, prompting the city of Cologne to pull the plug on it.

By contrast, when four years earlier Walter Hermann set up his so-called "Cologne Wailing Wall" exhibit - which includes a cartoon of a man wearing a Star-of-David bib and an American flag while devouring a Palestinian boy and holding a knife that bears the word "Gaza", alongside him a glass filled with blood - on Cathedral Square, the bustling pedestrian zone in the middle of the city, it was allowed to stand without protest.

In the wake of the Shoah, Germany is of course a special case. The motivation of its intellectuals in regarding hatred of Jews and of Muslims as indistinguishable is complex. Writing in the weekly Freitag, journalist Sabine Pamperrien recently described critics of the equating of Islamophobia with antisemitism as Winkeladvokaten - loosely translatable as "shyster lawyers", a term that the Nazis used to degrade Jewish lawyers during the Third Reich.

The same description was applied to the German left-wing politician, Gregor Gysi, by an Austrian neo-fascist and convert to Islam, Robert Schwarzbauer, who specifically branded Gysi a "shyster lawyer of Zionism" for his efforts to combat his party's anti-Israeli platform.

A significant contrast between antisemitism and Islamophobia - which the merging of them dangerously ignores - is that the former manages to bring together such uneasy bedfellows as radical leftists, fanatical Muslims and right-wing extremists.

Above all, the darkest blot on German history that is the Holocaust speaks against the blending of the two hatreds that the Moses Mendelssohn conference in Tutzing is about to endorse. The Shoah seems to weigh so heavily on German society as to promote a psychological need to cast it off, to diminish it.

German-Jewish philosophers Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer argued that the crimes of the Holocaust created such profound guilt among some Germans that they tend to ignore antisemitism, blame the Jews for the Holocaust, and hold Israel to moral standards they apply to no other country.

A University of Bielefeld survey last year found that 57 per cent of Germans questioned agreed with the statement that "Israel is conducting a war of extermination against the Palestinians".

Conflating antisemitism with anti-Muslim thinking may serve as a release for German guilt. But it has dangerous consequences for European Jews and undermines the legitimate fight against radical Islamic terrorists who threaten Europeans of all faiths and backgrounds.

Benjamin Weinthal is a journalist based in Berlin and a fellow of the Foundation for Defence of Democracies

Last updated: 10:56am, January 13 2011