There is a debate in the discussion of contemporary Muslim anti-Semitism about how much of it is based on indigenous sources and how much originates from imported sources.
This is a valid question, of course, for those who believe that there is such a thing as Muslim anti-Semitism. Some deny its existence outright, but those who agree that it exists will fall into one of these two categories. In general, those who tend toward apologetics will emphasize the imported quality. This claim is connected to the poorly substantiated notion that over the centuries Jews and Muslims enjoyed good relations in the course of their shared history in Muslim lands.
It is with this in mind that the title of the book, while probably off-putting to some, is appropriate. In three passages of the Quran (Sura 2:62-66; 7:163-166; 5:59-60), Jews, who either do not keep the Sabbath or do not accept Allah, are referred to as pigs and apes. These verses have provided the basis for the extensive usage of the dehumanizing assertion among Islamist leaders that Jews today, and in particular Zionists, are pigs and apes. Needless to say, dehumanization is a necessary condition for the implementation of genocide.
Kressel points out that these suras do not necessarily have to be interpreted in an anti-Semitic fashion. An exegete with a different motivation could render such passages harmless as have Christian exegetes with hateful/problematic passages from the New Testament. The current usage clearly demonstrates, therefore, that contemporary anti-Semitism employs indigenous sources for the purpose of cultivating hatred against Jews.
One of the main claims that Kressel addresses, – which again comes from the apologists, – is that Muslim anti-Semitism is an outcome of the Arab-Muslim conflict with Israel. In other words, the rise of the state of Israel is the proximate cause of the upsurge in anti-Semitism. This assertion is partly correct, but the “why” explanation offered by apologists ignores the larger basis for this phenomenon. The theological category of dhimmitude, which was essential to the Muslim view of the other since Islam’s advent, is still operable and is a clear reason why what might be considered normal prejudice toward a state whose composition is different from its neighbors becomes unbridled and hateful prejudice, which, when directed at Jews, is called anti-Semitism. Here, Kressel, a social psychologist, has a definite contribution to make to the literature on contemporary Muslim anti-Semitism, whose ground has been laid by scholars of Islam such as Ba‘at Yeor, Bernard Lewis, and Daniel Pipes.
In the most valuable section of the book, aptly titled “Dhimmi Winners and Islamic Identity: A Case of Cognitive Dissonance,” Kressel introduces readers to a deeper reason why the Jewish state of Israel has contributed to an upsurge in anti-Semitism among Muslims. The Jews’ “position as dhimmis confirmed the Muslim sense of superiority. Thus, the Jewish condition under Islam enhanced the Muslim identity and contributed to collective self-esteem. In some ways, the situation resembled the way maintaining American blacks in positions of subservience reinforced whites’ egos across the socioeconomic spectrum.” This analogy is not incidental. Elsewhere, Kressel laments that, whereas social psychologists were pioneers in exposing the nature and perniciousness of racism against American blacks, they have avoided the topic of Muslim anti-Semitism.
Employing social psychological terminology, Kressel also explains how social identity theory, scapegoating, and cognitive dissonance contribute to the phenomenon of Muslim anti-Semitism. While his discussion of each is complex, their integration into an explanation when put concisely is: “The coupling of Arab defeat with prior stereotypes of Jews as inferior created an untenable psychological predicament for many Arabs.” Surely, in light of Iranian anti-Israel violence over the past several decades, one may say confidently that this psychological predicament goes beyond Arabs to Muslims, in general.
Part of the challenge here is that Kressel’s social psychological explanation of this problem touches upon theology, an area that is outside the purview of a social psychologist. This work would, therefore, be complemented by a study that delved into the theological dimension of Muslim anti-Semitism and explored the nature of Islam’s version of Christian supercessionisn, its relationship to dhimmitude, and key passages in the Quran. Such an analysis would flesh out the nature and basis of Muslim anti-Semitism and its particular relationship to the rise of Israel.
In short, the focus of the dialogue needs to shift away from how certain Israeli actions or practices have generated Muslim anti-Semitism to how the very content of Islam, as it is currently propagated and understood by tens of millions if not hundreds of millions of Muslims, is the ultimate foundation for the existence of this intense hatred. Pithily, Kressel states, “Arguments over land can be settled; arguments over identity, pride, and transcendent identity are not so easy to resolve…to lose to Jews require[s] a revision of fundamental thinking about the very theological and political system upon which stood one’s social identity.”
The Sons of Pigs and Apes is strongest when its analysis stays within the bounds of social psychology, the field in which Kressel is an expert. Other parts of the book, while valuable to those unfamiliar with the topic, are not particularly helpful to those with some background in the subject. Items from MEMRI are frequently cited, leaving the reader to wonder whether checking MEMRI regularly over a year-long period would be equivalent to reading several sections of The Sons of Pigs and Apes.
To be fair, the author’s ability to write more within a social psychological discourse is limited by the availability of data on Muslim attitudes toward Jews in Muslim majority countries. That is simply an outcome of the fact that these countries have closed societies, a point that Kressel alludes to but unfortunately does not stress. A 2008 State Department report to Congress stressed that data collection on anti-Semitism in Muslim-majority countries was basically impossible because NGO’s and researchers did not receive the protection from governments that is necessary to conduct a proper study. Certainly the best way to avoid the correction of a problem is to deny the public – in this case, the international community – the opportunity to definitively ascertain that the problem exists.
Nevertheless, there is sufficient information available to assert that, not only does this problem exist, it is one of the most severe problems facing the Jewish people, Israel, and the West. As Kressel notes, one can gain information that proves the existence of the problem, such as the enormous popularity of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion in book and film form throughout the Muslim world. Therefore, the free world must continue to press repressive governments to permit the kind of research to be carried out so that the international community will recognize that it cannot continue to deny or minimize this most dangerous hatred.
Among its attributes, The Sons of Pigs and Apes successfully maintains the issue of Muslim anti-Semitism on the agenda by educating readers about its existence and skillfully disarming the arguments of minimizers and deniers alike.
Matt Abelson is a rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary in Manhattan where he is also completing a masters’ degree in Jewish Thought. He is a graduate of Scarsdale High School and Harvard University where he earned his B.A. in American History in 2002. He has interned at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and the Shalom Hartman Institute.