Antisemitism: the oldest Orientalism

In this must-read article in the Times of Israel, Dani Ishai Behan accuses Edward Said, the guru of ‘post-colonialism’, of failing to acknowledge that antisemitism is a variant of ‘Orientalism’, the title of his hugely influential eponymous book. Said cast Jews as ‘Orientalists’ themselves, whereas they have always been the victims of colonialism, both European and Muslim.

The late Edward Said cast Jews as Orientalists

Said focused primarily on the Arab-Islamic
world, but he also included the rest of the Middle East and Asia
(barring one notable exception) in its ambit. Although he briefly
touched upon the “similarities” between Western Jew-hatred and
Orientalism, he refrained from acknowledging antisemitism as a variant

The reason why should be obvious to anyone familiar with his
politics: recognizing Jews as a part of the Eastern ethnic/cultural
fabric would have amounted to accepting our indigenous ties to Israel
and, by extension, the validity of our claims to the land. Instead, he
obnoxiously referred to Orientalism as “the Islamic branch of
antisemitism”, thereby implicitly rejecting the indigeneity of Jews to
Israel/Palestine and conceptualizing us as a European colonial
imposition. In other words, he distorted a quintessential part of the
problem that his book should have addressed, thereby making his book a
narrow political tool rather than the honest academic endeavor that it
is often considered to be. 

Western antisemitism has always been animated
in large part by what we now recognize as Orientalism, of which a direct
line can be drawn from antiquity straight to the death factories of
Nazi Germany, and living on in the 21st century under the guise of
“anti-Zionism”, which Said himself promoted.


This brings us to the Zionist movement – the
return of the Jewish diaspora to its native land. Realizing that no
amount of assimilation or social mobility would end their persecution,
Herzl and his followers endeavored to turn what had previously been
nothing more than a farfetched dream into a reality: we would be
repatriated to our country of origin and rebuild everything that we had
lost. As a result, waves of Jewish olim left the diaspora and returned
home, purchasing and cultivating unused land in what was then a sparsely
populated, disease ridden province of the Ottoman Empire. 

However, the
Arab world, who had colonized the land of Israel centuries earlier and
subjugated the remaining Jews under a system known as ‘dhimmitude’,
violently resisted this movement. And as they came into contact with
European colonial powers, they were exposed to European antisemitism as
well. Whereas Arab Jew-hatred had hitherto been strictly theological,
they began to absorb European Orientalist ideas about Jews (blood lust,
backwardness, misanthropy, deceitfulness, conspiracy theories, etc),
which still persist in Arab media and society. And in subsequent
decades, these would be imported to the rest of the Muslim world,
eventually making their way into the anti-Zionist movement we are now
faced with.

How ironic that the world’s oldest victims of
Western colonialism, a people that have suffered its effects longer than
anyone else, are now being cast as “European colonizers” and
“Orientalists” themselves. And by ironic, I really mean “disgusting,
wretched, and heartless”. The rest of the world, rather than empathizing
with our plight and addressing our needs as a people, has instead
demanded of us the same thing that Westerners have been demanding of us
for centuries: disappear.

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