Last year, when I was still in college, a group of Israeli activists visited my school to talk about their role in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. They were young, intelligent and radical – at home on pretty much any college campus, squat, or co-op dorm in the United States.
“Zionism is the settler-colonial ideology that drives the occupation,” they said. “It’s all about the money. This country [the United States] fuels it by supplying weapons and surveillance equipment. It isn’t about our land or their land; it’s about moneyed interests,” said one, a former Israeli soldier himself, who saw the mechanics of the occupation in the West Bank firsthand.
Their solution is simple – the academic, cultural and economic boycott of Israel and its institutions that participate in or benefit from the occupation. That means no consumer buys Israeli products, no professor speaks at Israeli universities, and no artists perform a concert in Israel. The idea is to shame and delegitimise Israel into ending the occupation, similar to the student activism that preceded the end of apartheid in South Africa.
‘Apartheid’ is also a word that many activists use to describe the occupation in Palestine. Many colleges hold ‘Israeli Apartheid Week’ on campuses to demonstrate the ways in which Palestinians are oppressed on a daily basis, such as at checkpoints, and the “ghettoisation” of their homes and places of business.
A year later and thousands of miles away, Pakistani political figures were saying similar things. “Indeed, everyone should boycott Israel,” Meerajul Huda Siddiqui, Jamaat-i-Islami’s Sindh chief, told me in a telephone interview. “But we also want the international community to name and shame Israel. Because the United States continues to support Israel, the international community always falls short.”
When Israel launched Operation Protective Edge, a military operation against Hamas in the Gaza Strip this summer, Pakistan’s religious parties and organisations took the lead in organising protests against it. Jamaat-i-Islami, Jamaat-ud-Dawa and Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam (Fazl), ostensibly Pakistan’s far-right wing, all organised rallies this summer in “Palestinian solidarity,” that were attended by thousands. Their policy proposals range from organising a unanimous condemnation from the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, a group of 56 Muslim-majority countries, to outright military action.
The Majlis-e-Wahdat-ul-Muslimeen (MWM), a Shia organisation traditionally at odds with the other – mostly Sunni – parties, also had a similar anti-Israel policy. “We believe that all the people currently settled in Israel should be removed in the same way that they arrived, to the countries where they came from,” Ali Ahmer, a spokesman for the party told me. “We’re waiting for the day when the Arabs unite and can drive the Israelis out by force.” (Except Ahmer also chastised Saudi Arabia, an ostensible beacon of Sunni ultra-orthodoxy, for “sitting in Israeli and American laps” when it comes to Palestine.) The other parties, while alluding to the need for better cooperation between Arab countries, did not extend their criticism that far.
Generally speaking, Pakistan almost universally favours the Palestinian cause. It is among the handful of Muslim-majority countries that still do not recognise Israel, and have next to no communication with it. Pakistanis are not allowed to go to Israel, and our diplomats speak for the Palestinian cause at virtually every international summit.
The reason why the Pakistani government has taken such an outspoken and forthright stance in favour of the Palestinians is the Muslim connection. All the party spokesmen I interviewed brought up the fact that it was Muslims that were being oppressed, not just people, and that “no Muslim can tolerate the injustice taking place against fellow Muslim Palestinians,” as Jamaat-ud-Dawa’s central director Yahya Mujahid told me. In view of the wider atrocities taking place in Syria, or in Pakistan itself, where the instrument of oppression is the (Muslim) state, and many of its victims are not, one can see the selective empathy at play.
Consistently, religious organisations in Pakistan point to the oppression faced by Muslims in the Philippines, Burma, Bosnia, Kashmir and Palestine, but do not talk about the Kurds in Turkey or Syria (where Muslims are oppressed by Muslims), the Tamils in Sri Lanka (non-Muslims oppressed by non-Muslims), Tibetans in China, or Yazidis, Shias, Christians, Druze or the many other religious minorities in the Middle East. The religious component to Palestinian solidarity also led many to shared quotes from the Quran superimposed on pictures from the conflict, giving it a divinely ordained quality, as if Hamas was doing God’s will.
That makes Pakistani Palestinian activism markedly different from their western or American counterparts, who struggle for Palestinian rights on a secular, humanist basis. A significant part of American protesters, in fact, tend to be Jews who feel directly or indirectly responsible for Israel’s conduct. Activists for Palestine in the United States (who may or may not be Jewish) are either Zionists – those who believe in the nation of Israel and care for its well-being – who believe that Israel ought to hold itself to a higher moral standard; or they are anti-Zionists, who believe, like most Pakistanis (and the Israeli activists that visited my campus) that Israel is conducting a neo-colonial project. Norman Finkelstein and Judith Butler are both American Jewish academics who are very active and outspoken in the BDS movement (Finkelstein’s parents were Holocaust survivors) and while their opposition to Israel remains resolute, so does their commitment to secularism. In most cases, it is secular solidarity with Palestinians that motivates western activists and not religious empathy.
And because the motivations are different, the manifestations are as well. During Operation Protective Edge, Pakistani expressions of solidarity with Palestine frequently became anti-Semitic, especially on social media. Many people put Hitler as their profile picture on Facebook, and many shared a quote allegedly said by him though it is likely that it is apocryphal: “I would have killed all the Jews of the world, but I kept some to show the world why I killed them.” #IHateIsrael and #IfHitlerWasAlive were the top trends on Twitter, along with more secular #SavePalestine and #SaveGaza. In European protests against Israel, cases of vandalism and violence against Jews and Jewish establishments was also reported to be primarily in Muslim-majority neighbourhoods.
But the fundamental difference between anti-Semitism as I saw it in Pakistan and the more “traditional” anti-Semitism in Europe – which has a long, illustrious history – has been anti-colonial sentiment. The West’s history with Jews is markedly different from Muslims’ history with Jews. Jews were a minority, and were primarily seen as an impediment to racially pure nationalist projects. Jews were also the prototypical capitalists: greedy bankers who never put in an honest day at work and stole from common folk. They were also never seen as white. Nazi propaganda posters show Jews as dark, hunched figures with shifty eyes and large noses. Even in the United States, when large waves of Jewish immigrants were arriving in the early 20th century, they, like the Irish and Italians, were racially discriminated against by traditionally northern European Protestants.
Jews in the Pakistani imagination are exclusively white, and are characterised as European/Western neo-colonialists (despite the fact that half of Israel’s population is of Middle Eastern origin). While the image of the Jew as financially powerful remains – albeit as a reflection of today’s realities rather than of 16th century banking practices – the groundswell of anger comes from the image of the Jew as the oppressor and coloniser. Hence, the Palestinian question is integral to understanding anti-Semitism in Pakistan, and in large parts of the Muslim world today.
In my interviews with members of religious parties, each one was careful about avoiding violence (save the MWM), international cooperation and framing the Palestinian question as a humanitarian question. But when I asked what ‘Zionism’ means to them, that political correctness vanished. Ahmer, from the MWM, said that Zionism is a Jewish ideology designed to “take over the world; 90 per cent of all Jews believe in it,” he claimed. Ahmad Nadeem, from the JuD, said that it’s the belief that “the Jews are better than everybody else.”
Anti-Semitism, whether in the West or the Muslim world, is difficult to identify in some cases. “Old-fashioned’”anti-Semitism is generally easy to spot and report: Hitler salutes, “yahoodi saazish” and “I hate Jews” tweets. But it has become more sophisticated over the years. Jobbik, a popular neo-Nazi party in Hungary, has demanded for the registration of all “Hungarian-Israeli dual citizens” i.e. Hungarian Jews in parliament. But of course, it’s done under the pretext of the sanctity of the Hungarian state.
It’s similar on a personal level. An acquaintance has hardly posted anything against Jews in general, but has been vocal about his scepticism towards the 9/11 attacks, attributing them to a conspiracy by “foreign hands.” The same, so far unnamed conspirators who also “own the media” are behind the “gross imbalance” in how the Gaza War was covered, he alleged. Another acquaintance has posted perfectly reasonable critiques from academics and journalists about the high death toll and Israel’s policies, but from conversations I’ve had with him, I know him to be explicitly anti-Semitic, if not on Facebook. Referring to “moneyed interests,” and the “CIA-Mossad Nexus” are essential allusions to Jews either directly controlling world events or, in controlling American policy, indirectly so.
Hence, the convergence of liberal activism in the United States and religious activism in Pakistan pose problems for identifying and dealing with anti-Semitism because both secular academics and ultra-orthodox political figures – who, in the case of Hafiz Saeed, are actual militant leaders – end up using the same rhetoric. Lawrence Summers, an American economist and former president at Harvard University, made a statement about the convergence of anti-Semitism and the criticism of Israel back in 2002: “Profoundly anti-Israel views are increasingly finding support in progressive intellectual communities. Serious and thoughtful people are advocating and taking actions that are anti-Semitic in their effect if not their intent.”
While the statement created uproar in the American Jewish community itself (Judith Butler wrote a long rejoinder in the London Review of Books), especially when it comes to who can and cannot criticise Israel’s policies, it has been the inverse in Pakistan, where much of the activism has been anti-Semitic in intent, if not effect. Secular, humanitarian arguments have been or are used as a vessel to convey anti-Semitic sentiment.
Howard Jacobson put it eloquently when he responded to allegations of Gaza’s similarities to the Warsaw Ghetto:
“Berating Jews with their own history, disinheriting them of pity, as though pity is negotiable or has a sell-by date, is the latest species of Holocaust denial, infinitely more subtle than the David Irving version with its clunking body counts and quibbles over gas-chamber capability and chimney sizes. Instead of saying the Holocaust didn’t happen, the modern sophisticated denier accepts the event in all its terrible enormity, only to accuse the Jews of trying to profit from it, either in the form of moral blackmail or downright territorial theft. According to this thinking, the Jews have betrayed the Holocaust and become unworthy of it, the true heirs to their suffering being the Palestinians. Thus, here and there throughout the world this year, Holocaust day was temporarily annulled or boycotted on account of Gaza, dead Jews being found guilty of the sins of live ones.
Anti-Semitism? Absolutely not. It is “criticism of Israel, pure and simple.”
Criticism of Israel is neither pure nor simple, and is usually an inextricable mix of anti-colonial resentment, guilt, humanitarian outrage, divine ordinance, geopolitics, and often some old-fashioned anti-Semitism.