In light of recent events on this campus as well as articles in the media, we find it necessary to highlight a number of misconceptions about Islam and anti-Semitism. We would like to dispel the notion that criticizing the Israeli government or military amounts to a condemnation of Judaism or Jewish people (just as a critique of Saudi Arabian state is not automatically anti-Islam or anti-Arab).
Edward Said’s seminal work on orientalism serves as our first point of reference. Said asserts that Western conceptions of the Middle East do not arise from an objective analysis of the region, but rather are viewed through a lens that in effect distorts reality. Orientalism propagates a false historical narrative through its creation of an “ideal other.” Said’s conception of American Orientalism is particularly relevant to our analysis of current campus events and to the larger narrative of Islamophobia. The history of orientalism in Europe differs from the American narrative, as the United States never possessed colonies in the Middle East. As a result, America’s brand of orientalism is entirely unique, defined and politicized by its relationship with Israel, a Western democracy.
Along the same vein, Said remarks that Israel regards the entirety of the Arab world as its principal enemy. Viewed through this framework, the Palestinian desire for national determination is seen as a disturbance to Israeli security. Resultantly, Palestinians and pro-Palestinian Arabs are seen as irrational, violent and inclined toward terrorism. This very fact helps explain the sheer magnitude of Islamophobia on both this campus and in the United States in general. Similarly, these massive generalizations conflate a number of distinct categories, as many individuals believe all Arabs are Muslims, and these two categories are regularly conflated with violent terrorists.
The conception of the “dangerous Arab terrorist” is also manifested in the portrayal of the Middle East in Western media. In emphasizing the figure of the dangerous Arab terrorist, the media propagates the false presumption that all Arabs are a threat to Western interests. This tendency is visible in the Washington Post article published about the current situation on our campus. David Bernstein, author of the article and also a Professor of Law at George Mason University, singles out a student who wears the hijab as the sole voice on campus who spoke out against Pessin’s anti-Palestinian post, ignoring the numerous other members of the Connecticut College community who were alarmed by it. Our own Hillel House issued a statement on March 25th as a result of the Facebook post stating “We do not condone racist speech or actions toward any group under any circumstance.” Bernstein also quickly conflated criticism of the post with anti-Semitism itself, as if a critique of the Israeli government was itself anti-Semitic. Finally, his thinking ignored the fact that many Jews themselves are critical of the Israeli government as are other citizens of the United States. Singling out the most visible Muslim woman on campus as the sole voice was permissible precisely because of the Islamophobic discourse in the media and the broader public. The media’s tendency to generalize and broadcast false assumptions detracts immensely from a clear-headed discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian problem.
With these ideas in mind, it is imperative to turn now to Norman Finkelstein, an American political scientist and author of Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History. Finkelstein argues that charges of anti-Semitism, identical to the accusation David Bernstein made in The Washington Post, are essentially misuses of anti-Semitism that serve to delegitimize valid criticisms against the Israeli state. In other words, criticisms against Israel as a state are in fact not anti-Semitic in nature. Criticizing Israel’s policies does not amount to criticizing Judaism or Jewish people. With Finkelstein’s remarks in mind, we as the authors want to make an imperative clarification. In criticizing Professor Pessin’s original Facebook post, which likened Palestinians to rabid pit bulls, students were not invoking anti-Semitism but were simply criticizing the racist and orientalist nature of his remarks. We can see how this is an instance of anti-Semitism discotorse being appropriated to mask Islamophobia.
The polarizing nature of the current conversation precludes productive dialogue on this subject. In order to transcend orientalist assumptions and language, we must stop making generalizations that impede dialogue. Similarly, we must become more critical of the way in which Western media portrays issues of Islamophobia and anti-Semitism, using anti-Semitism to avoid criticism of the Israeli government and ignore orientalist assumptions about Arabs and Muslims. It is evident from the events that have transpired on this campus that generalizations about Islam, Arabs, Jews and all of their representations perpetuate unproductive dialogue. We hope that in invoking Said’s discussion on Orientalism and Finkelstein’s discussion on anti-Semitism we have begun to provide a greater understanding of Islam and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. •