Unchallenged hatred disquieting

November 02, 2001|By Ira Rifkin

PRESIDENT BUSH has bent over backward since Sept. 11 to distinguish between Islam and terrorists acting in Islam's name. Muslims are not the enemy, he says; "evil" terrorism is.

Christian leaders have been quick to second these sentiments. Many national and local Jewish leaders have likewise spoken up in defense of ordinary Muslims. This is as it should be.

But why haven't U.S. officials and Christian leaders also decried the steady drumbeat of religious hatred from Muslim sources directed against Jews? I'm not speaking about angry words directed at Israeli government policies. I mean language that does not discern between Israeli policies and Jews in general, that attacks "the Jews" simply for being Jews.

Has everyone forgotten that the power of language to inflame and provoke works both ways?

Osama bin Laden, of course, has been saying such things for years, as have official media in Muslim nations. But prominent American Muslim leaders also have been guilty of statements that should be condemned publicly as dangerous religious hatred.

Consider Cleveland's Imam Fawaz Damra, a fixture at interfaith events in that Ohio city. While raising money for Palestinian causes in 1991, he said in an interview that surfaced on a Cleveland TV station after Sept. 11 that Muslims should be "directing all the rifles at the first and last enemy of the Islamic nation, and that is the sons of monkeys and pigs, the Jews." Cleveland Jewish leaders dismiss Mr. Damra's post-Sept. 11 apology for the comment as more political than sincere.

In New York, Sheik Muhammad Gemeaha, the high-profile leader of Manhattan's Islamic Cultural Center, said, "The Jews were behind these ugly acts [of Sept. 11], while we, the Arabs, were innocent." He also has claimed that Jewish doctors were poisoning Muslim children in American hospitals.

Muslims have every right to say what they like about Israeli policy. But out of malice or ignorance they routinely substitute "the Jews" for "Israel" and "Zionist" for "the Jews." But they are not interchangeable terms, and to use them as such demonizes all Jews in a very dangerous way.

Jews have come to expect such comments from Muslim quarters. What frightens many American Jews now is that the comments are going virtually unchallenged by their government and leading Christians, even as they are increasing in frequency and ferocity. Reading the American Jewish press makes it clear that for the first time they fear the unthinkable -- that this nation can turn on them is within the realm of possibility.

American Jewish leaders, of course, have sounded the alarm, but have met only with frustration.

"There is a significant silence," said Abraham Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League. "No one is speaking out about hate in the name of God."

The American Jewish press has also picked up the gauntlet. New York's The Jewish Week ran a column last week headlined, "Why Jews Should Worry." "We Jews have reason to worry because the West ignores this Jew-hatred," wrote commentator Dennis Prager.

The fear works like this:

Assume the current situation gets worse -- also a distinct possibility -- and bin Laden pulls off another deadly attack on American soil, the anthrax threat spreads, the economy continues its free-fall, American military efforts fail in Afghanistan and international Muslim pressure intensifies for an end to this round of the conflict.

In short order, Americans accustomed to quick fixes then grow desperate for a settlement, and President Bush decides he has no choice but to force Israel to bow to Palestinian demands, emboldening Muslim anti-Semitism.

Few American Jews are gung-ho Zionists, but they do share a visceral sense that Israel is their safety net; that its survival and their security are connected. The deepest fear is that latent anti-Semitism will be unleashed and Jews will be blamed openly for all that has befallen the nation because of their support for a severely weakened Israel no longer perceived as vital to U.S. interests.

It's easy to understand why the White House has been mute. Mr. Bush's priority is holding on to whatever little Muslim support he has for the "war on terrorism." American Muslim loyalties are also clear.

But where are the voices of the leaders of Christian denominations, particularly mainstream Protestants and Roman Catholics? Are they also fearful of crossing Muslim sensibilities? Is their silence indicative of a bias? Are they also incapable of distinguishing between Israeli policies and Jews as a people? Have they forgotten the lessons of the Holocaust, the costs of silence or indifference?

Is all this Jewish paranoia? Maybe.

But much of Jewish history consists of a succession of tragedies, and a people repeatedly traumatized reacts to new trauma with heightened alarm. Better safe than sorry yet again.

Ira Rifkin, an adjunct professor at American University, is a writer and editor specializing in religion issues who lives in Annapolis.

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