Islamophobia and anti-Semitism: exploring the plight of today's refugees through the lens of yesterday's refugees

On Sunday afternoon, February 19, the Humanistic Jewish Havurah presents a provocative meeting discussing the interconnectedness of Islamophobia and anti-Semitism, and how those attitudes relate to the plight of today’s refugees. Our speaker will be Hava L. Holzhauer, the Anti-Defamation League’s (ADL) Florida Regional Director. ADL is deeply committed to fighting anti-Semitism and protecting the rights of all Americans.

The event will be held in the David G. Willens Community Room of the Jewish Federation of Collier County (2500 Vanderbilt Beach Road, Suite 2201, Naples), starting with “coffee and chat” at 1:30 p.m., and commencement of the meeting promptly at 2:00 p.m. Reservations are required. RSVP to Dena Sklaroff at 239.591.0101 or denas27@aol.com.

Since the advent of Zionism, the Arab and Muslim worlds have become fascinations in Jewish life. And since September 11, 2001, the world of Islam has become an obsession in American life. Similarly, Jews and Americans take center stage in the Muslim perception of evil – often referring to Israel as the “Little Satan” and to America as the “Great Satan.” The demonization of the Jew in Muslim propaganda during the past several decades echoes the strident hatred of German fascist leaders before and during World War II.

For most of the past fourteen hundred years, the fate of the Jews in the Islamic world had been kinder than their fate in the Christian world. Jews were not loved in Islamic countries, but they were not demonized either. They were often granted “dhimmi” status – a “protected person” who could be an asset to the community, provided they paid their “jizya tax.” In Spain and in many other places, Jews and Muslims established alliances of convenience which lasted for centuries.

Rather, it was in the Christian world where Jews were most demonized. The militancy of the Crusades and the persistent hostility to the banking and commercial activities of the Jews encouraged intense hatred. It was in the Christian world that Jews became racial pariahs, the stereotypes of which would later be appropriated for modern anti-Semitism.

Zionism was one response to this hostility. But the advent of Zionism, with its goal of creating a Jewish state in its historic homeland, was an affront for many Muslims. Most Muslims saw the arriving Zionists as the last invasion of European colonists. In fact, to this day most Muslims refer to Israel’s 1948 War of Independence as the “Nakbah” – or “Great Catastrophe.” Later, the Israeli victory in the Six-Day War was a tremendous humiliation for the Muslim world. And after 1967, anti-Semitism became an important ingredient of Muslim propaganda and politics.

The Jewish response to this clash of civilizations has often been fear and contempt – fear of Muslim numbers and power, and contempt for the ignorance that allows anti-Semitism to flourish and for the governments that continue to educate their youth with these lies. For some, fear and contempt have united into hatred – which has too often been expressed through Islamophobia.

Today, the world faces the worst refugee crisis since World War II. More than 65 million people have been displaced, a significant portion of which are fleeing for their lives as they escape war in Syria. But anti-immigrant rhetoric has stoked fears and led some to argue that it is simply too dangerous to accept refugees into the United States – with no deference to the fact that applying for asylum under “refugee status” is the single most difficult way there is to enter our country.

Americans once shamefully turned their backs on Jews desperate to find safety and asylum. We must all remember that we were strangers once too.