David Shasha: a Sephardic voice
- On Anti-Semitism, Zionism and Terrorism
by David Shasha
A number of years ago Daniel Goldhagen, a young maverick scholar with
concrete ties to the mainstream Jewish community and the son of a
Harvard professor, published a book that set off a huge and quite
acrimonious debate about Anti-Semitism and the Holocaust. His book,
Hitler's Willing Executioners, was lauded by what Norman Finkelstein
has called "The Holocaust Industry" and was demonized and torn apart
by the radical Left which saw the work as yet another attempt at
articulating a stodgy Jewish fatalism helping to process the manner
in which Jews have formed their own self-image.
And while I have deep sympathy for the Left, in this particular case
I had to part company with the prevailing political correctness on
Essentially, to discount Goldhagen's thesis as opposed to the manner
in which that thesis was (and is) being put to use by Zionism and the
so-called "Holocaust Industry," and these two things can and must be
separated, was to make the argument that the Germans were essentially
a peace-loving people that allowed Hitler and his henchmen to do
something against their interests rather than seeing Hitler, as
Goldhagen presented it, as an extension of the indomitable will of
the German people.
By placing the Goldhagen book in the same category as Joan Peters'
execrable From Time Immemorial, the infamous book which sought to
diminish Palestinian claims to their own country, Finkelstein and
others linked their critique of Goldhagen's understanding
of "eliminationist" Anti-Semitism within the larger framework of the
Zionist struggle against the Arabs.
And herein lies much of the problem with current approaches to
Anti-Semitism: The linkage on both the Left as well as the Right of
disparate issues such as Israel, terrorism and the Holocaust - each
of which have their own individual trajectories from a rational
standpoint - creates a mishmash of ideological animus that has been
utterly incendiary; a burning match which has lit the furious and
debilitating state of our current discourse.
Essentially, the historical phenomenon of Anti-Semitism is a
passionately Christian cause that was a transformation of the ancient
Greek contempt for other cultures. The ancient Greeks, as I have
written elsewhere, created a monolingual culture that ignored and
frequently abused their protégés and subjects. I suppose that it is
ironic that Zionism has been deeply informed by such a monolingualism.
The first Christians, many of whom were Gentiles themselves, imbibed
this ethno-cultural prejudice - as well as the accompanying
monolingualism - in an attempt to present their nascent religio-
political community as one that bore strict and penetrating
commonalities with the surrounding Greco-Roman world, leaving Judaism
out in the cold, exposed to the persecuting tendencies of their
With the emergence of a Christian Roman Empire, this cultural
prejudice was transformed into a political program that was informed
and made real by the all-pervasive influence of writers such as
Augustine who sought to recast the role of the Jew in Christian
Anti-Semitism as a cultural and political phenomenon has its roots in
a Christianity which brought together a number of different trends in
antiquity and turned those trends and peculiarities into a sharply
defined political program.
The emergence of Islam further complicates this picture: Muhammad
emerges out of the mists of Arabian paganism by setting his own
prophecy within the Judeo-Christian continuum. Thus, Islam is
reliant on the prior revelations of the Jews and Christians, but
seeks to strike out on its own by calling itself the final
revelation; a matter that led to certain internal reassessments of
Judaism and Christianity.
These matters of doctrine and history are too complex to discuss here
in any reasonable detail, but suffice it to say that Islam developed
in its first post-Muhammad generations in a manner which contrasted
with that of Christianity.
Islam sought to reclaim the culture of ancient Greece and Rome and
began to employ all members of the Middle Eastern community in this
This meant that Jews and other ethnic minorities served within the
Islamic polity as recognized members of a cultured society and
participated in an intimate way in the evolution and development of
As Ross Brann has brilliantly shown in his masterful recent work
Power in the Portrayal, the issues that caused tension between Jews
and Muslims cannot be identified as Anti-Semitic in the same manner
in which parallel developments took hold in Christian Europe.
The Jewish-Muslim dynamic was more in the realm of a rivalry; a
rivalry that took place, it must be clearly and honestly stated,
under Islamic hegemony.
The acrimony of a polemicist such as the Spaniard Ibn Hazm was not
wedded to the sort of "eliminationist" Anti-Semitism that was so
endemic to Medieval Europe. As Brann shows, the writings of Ibn
Hazm, dripping with anti-Jewish sentiment, must be balanced with the
rhetorical nature of the texts in light of the lived culture of
Islamic society which saw even Ibn Hazm interacting in a substantive
manner with Jews and others who he would demean in his writings.
To bring this discussion back into the present, we recently saw the
horrendous attack of the Jewish houses of worship in Istanbul, for
centuries a key site of the so-called Muslim-Jewish "symbiosis," a
place where Jewish culture was able to regenerate itself after the
trauma of 1492. These attacks are sure to rekindle the discussion of
Anti-Semitism in our current political climate.
So today we hear a great deal from the Right about Arab Anti-Semitism
and from the Left about how there is no Arab Anti-Semitism. The
issue is fraught with difficulties and complexities with very real
ramifications for the manner in which we all understand some of the
most volatile and sensitive issues that we as Jews and Muslims face
And here a bit of inter-Jewish cultural perspective is needed to
illuminate the issue:
Ashkenazi culture, schooled by and formed within the crucible of
European Anti-Semitism, a very real phenomenon and not just an
outgrowth of modern Zionism, sees the outside world as a purely
malevolent phenomenon. Ashkenazi Jews have traditionally had little
faith and trust in concepts of humanism and universalism. They are
innately distrustful of any pronouncements of egalitarianism and
Sephardic Jews on the other hand have consistently opened themselves
up to the world and do not fully understand the paranoia and
condescension of the Ashkenazim.
While Sephardim have had issues with their host governments
throughout their illustrious history, the issue of Anti-Semitism is
not pronounced as a defining element of their identity, and certainly
not a crucial part of their sense of what it means to be Jewish.
The Sephardic abnegation of their traditional organic culture has led
to an almost complete evisceration of the traditions of religious
humanism that are so sorely needed in our time. And with the
complete absorption of Zionism into the Jewish body politic and its
replacement of Ashkenazi Judaism for the traditional Judaism of the
Levant, the issue of Anti-Semitism and its concomitant ideological
substrate of Gentile-hatred has now been pushed to the fore.
This Aryan strain of Anti-Semitism has been imported into the Middle
East and has in its grip many Jews and many Arabs on both sides of the
ideological and political fence.
And this was in some ways to be expected: As Anti-Semitism was a key
component of the Zionist mindset to the point where the Zionists
themselves believed in the very stereotypes perpetuated by the Anti-
Semites and have made those stereotypes a very central part of their
own Jewish self-understanding, the struggle against Zionism would
almost inevitably have to address itself to that point.
This adoption of the Anti-Semitic thought-patterns has clearly led to
Rather than ignore the core pathology of Zionism, its endemic and
obsessive concern with how the whole world hates the Jewish people,
the Arab Muslim world caved into these base concerns and imported a
Nazi-like Jew hatred into their universe, a place that was more in
need of internal development rather than the debilitating
scapegoating of the Ashkenazim.
So what we now have is the triumph of the Zionist mentality in the
By this triumph I mean to say that the Arabs have lost their own
traditional relationship to the Jewish people, in many ways because
the Arabs have not been able to withstand the cultural and historical
assaults that Zionism has borne upon them and have lacked the
fortitude to remember and maintain their own cultural traditions.
Rather than seeing the perpetuation of the historical commonplaces of
the Arab cultural universe, we are now witnessing new strains of Arab
discourse and political culture, both in the Arab world and its large
diaspora in the West, that have eliminated the traditional image of
Jews and Judaism as a fraternal element in their societies and
adopted a European perspective which is clearly Anti-Semitic.
On a parallel track, Zionism and the State of Israel have eliminated
any and all possibility for a plurality of Jewish voices in this
debate, voices that could articulate a variant reality of life in the
Levant. The State of Israel and its institutional supporters have
violently arrogated to themselves the sole responsibility for any and
all Jewish self-affirmation and self-representation.
There is no way in the current internal Jewish discourse to
articulate a viewpoint in the mainstream community, and by mainstream
I mean within the frame of discourse that is represented in our
Yeshivahs and Synagogues, that sets Zionism into relief and tries to
state an alternative socio-cultural viewpoint that might serve to
question the salient aspects of Zionist ideological discourse and
It is taken for granted that Ariel Sharon is the leader - not just of
Israel - but of the Jewish people. One reads in the Israeli press
stories not simply about Israel but about world Jewry - as if the
State of Israel is the sole legitimate representative of the Jewish
As proof of this point, I am reading many desperate articles written
by well-meaning Leftists in Israel BEGGING American Jews to stop
approving Sharon's policies as they are leading the country into the
quagmire of terror and despair.
The idea that Israel can do whatever it wishes in the name of the
Jewish people with no repercussions to World Jewry is now clearly
Jews are vulnerable the world over because of what Israel is doing.
The charge of Anti-Semitism is a valid one when we read the
pronouncement of France's Chief Rabbi that Jews there should stop
wearing skullcaps in public. This is a frightening state of affairs
that must be unequivocally condemned.
So what we now face is the terrifying emergence of the pure atavism of
fundamentalist Jews and Muslims.
The struggle now is between Jew-hating Muslims and Gentile-hating
The basic challenge, which many have told me is insurmountable, is to
free up and realign the channels and rhetoric of our discourse to
reflect the idea that there is a socio-historical paradigm, "The
Levantine Option," that can sweep away the venom and venality of the
"The Levantine Option" would return Anti-Semitism and its terroristic
outgrowth in the Islamic world to the cobwebs of European Christian
history, as so tellingly recounted by Daniel Goldhagen.
The Left's recasting of the debate, implying that Europe was not
really pathological about the Jews in order in some way to derail the
core of the Zionist imperative, has caused a great deal of trouble in
the manner in which the debate has to be rearticulated.
We must continue to fight Eurocentrism - even when it comes from the
Looking at the atavistic impulses of Al Qa'ida that were made
mainfest in Istanbul last week, we see that the true face of Anti-
Semitism - a phenomenon that is just as dangerous to Muslims as it is
to Jews - is an ugly rehashing of the work of the Monks and Popes of
old, men who irrationally saw the Jews as purveyors of the demonic.
The attachment of the belief in the salience of the Anti-Semitic
canard within Zionism, the idea that the GOYIM will always hate us so
we need to get as far away from them as possible, has made Jewish
culture a very toxic thing in our time.
Rather than adopt the spirit of tolerance and pluralism that animates
Western Liberalism, a spirit that as Jose Faur has shown was first
articulated by the Conversos in the face of the Spanish Inquisition,
Modern Judaism has yet to free itself of its European nightmares and,
even worse yet, has brought the nightmare of the Shoah into the
Zionist conflict where it has been used and abused by all.
Actions - on ALL sides - have their consequences. We do not seek to
exonerate the Muslim terrorists as we do not wish to exonerate the
illnesses of Zionism.
This sense of balance is not available in mainstream discourse.
With the abnegation of the Sephardic voice in the current dialogue,
we are left with some very self-defeating narratives, none of which
will help us resolve the pressing issues that are literally killing
David Shasha, NY
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