Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Rethinking Anti-Semitism

President Trump’s recent rhetoric and treatment of Muslim American congresswomen has me concerned. So has the rise of white supremacy and Christian nationalism in the United States, as well as the increase in anti-Semitic attacks in Europe and the United States.

The term “anti-Semitism” has always been used to describe anti-Jewish attitudes and behavior. Indeed that is how the Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines it: “hatred of Jewish people.” But I remember from my seminary training that the Semitic peoples were originally much broader than the Jews.

The term Semite comes from the Biblical name Shem, one of the three sons of Noah who survived the Flood in the Book of Genesis. According to the story, all peoples on the earth are descended from three men – Shem, Ham, and Japheth - and their wives. From Shem came not only the Hebrews but all the peoples of the Ancient Near East that we now know as the Middle East. The Hebrews were just one branch of the family tree of Shem.

Modern dictionaries define “Semitic” in this wider context. Once again Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines Semitic as “of, relating to, or constituting a subfamily of the Afro-Asiatic language family that includes Hebrew, Aramaic, Arabic, and Amharic.” It defines Semite as “a member of any of a number of peoples of ancient southwestern Asia including the Akkadians, Phoenicians, Hebrews, and Arabs; (2) a descendant of these peoples; (3) a member of a modern people speaking a Semitic language.”

The term Semitic has always applied to a group broader than Jews. Yet the term anti-Semitism has been narrowly defined as applying exclusively to Jews. In this age of increasing ethnic violence, it is time to expand anti-Semitism to include hatred toward any Semitic peoples, including Arabs and Palestinians.

Insofar as anti-Semitism normally includes hatred of the Jewish religion and not just Jewish ethnicity, a broader definition of anti-Semitism would include prejudice against Arab religion as well as Arab people. Although not all Arabs are Muslims, the two often go together in bigots’ minds. Anti-Muslim prejudice is part of anti-Arab and anti-Palestinian sentiment.

However you want to define it, it is hate. Those who think they can love Israel by hating Palestinians are deluding themselves. The same is true of Muslims who hate Jews. We are one race – the human race. Of all nations Americans ought to know this, given our history and struggles for racial equality. Yet we still struggle.

In our country anti-Jewish bigotry is immediately called out for what it is. It is time for anti-Muslim rhetoric and policies to receive the same treatment. They should be labeled for what they really are: ethnic bigotry.

This idea may be difficult for many Americans to swallow, so entrenched is the Muslim stereotype after 9/11, the Iraq wars, and the endless war in Afghanistan. But in the end the hatred of any ethnic or religious group is just a form of racism, which divides people into imaginary “races” based on geography, language, religion and physical appearance.

Truth be told, when I studied in Israel for a semester I could not distinguish a Jew from an Arab if it wasn’t for distinctive clothing and language. They are physically indistinguishable to me. Modern genetic studies bear that out. Israeli Jews are related to their Middle Eastern neighbors.

The Bible confirms that we are all interrelated. In preaching to the Athenians, the apostle Paul said that God “has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth.” Even the Flood story says that Canaan, the ancestor of the Canaanites (the indigenous peoples of the Holy Land) was the nephew of Shem and Japheth. We are all cousins.

Readers may not agree with my proposal to enlarge the scope of the term “anti-Semitism,” and that is alright. I don’t really expect the idea to progress beyond this blog post. Furthermore I don’t actually care what anti-Muslim prejudice is called, as long as it is identified as a problem. Call it Islamophobia. Call it anti-Arabism. Call it racism. Call it religious bigotry. Call it whatever you want. I call it unchristian behavior.

To hate Arabs for being Arab, Jews for being Jewish, Muslims for being Muslim, or Christians for being Christian, is nothing more than hatred. Jesus called us to love our neighbors and our enemies. As a practicing Christian, those of every faith and ethnic group are my brothers and sisters. To admit anything less is to fall short of the ethic of Jesus.


Wcjm said...

Love is not a word that immediately comes to mind when I watch the behavior of Ilhan Omar or RashidaTlaib.

Anonymous said...

@Wcjm, I am not sure why you would expect politicians, either left or right, to express love.
The point here as I see it is that Christ followers are supposed to love others, even their enemies. We should examine ourselves rather than looking around for people who are not loving in order to justify an unloving attitude on our part.(2 Corinthians 13:5)

MNT said...

The problem your use of words like " Islamaphobia" is that you don't distinguish between rejecting an ideology and treating individuals with bigotry. I absolutely reject and abhor some of the tenants of Islam as expressed in the Koran and the Habif and as practiced by jihadists and conservative Muslims. But I have met people who are Muslims....usually because of their culture and upbringing....who are wonderful and who I think I could be friends with. Words like "Islamaphobia", because they aren't clearly defined, are designed to suppress criticism of Islam by lumping together genuine bigots with those who legitimately question what the religion teaches. Maybe because I also reject the tenets of white nationalism I am guilty of Naziphobia.