Gil Anidjar is an Assistant Professor at Columbia, with his primary responsibility the teaching of Comparative Literature – but there is a lot of comparison, and very little literature, in his writing. He offers two Comparative Literature courses. One is on Freud and Derrida. The second, a course that is listed as part of Columbia’s Middle East offerings, is called, dramatically, “Hate.”
The course on “Hate” is not really about the history or literature of the Middle East at all. It is an extended rumination upon two matters. The first is the evil of Europe, which has for its own purposes not merely created “the Other” (or rather, being especially awful, as Europe will be, creating two “the Others” – “Arab” and “Jew”), and subjecting both of them to identical diabolical persecution.
The second is that in creating, and persecuting, these inoffensive Arabs throughout Europe (and those inoffensive Jews) Europe is largely responsible for the otherwise harmonious relations between Arab and Jew, and which were disrupted only by Europe’s colonial project, and attempts to separate, and “create difference,” as with, for example, the loi Crémieux (1870), which gave French citizenship to Sephardic Jews in Algeria.
Here we have, in full flower, the conception of “the Other” who is created in order for European (or Euro-American Man) to define himself, as against that “Other.” Indeed, Gil Anidjar has written a book about this subject called The Jew, the Arab: A History of the Enemy.
“What is Europe such that it has managed to distinguish itself from both Jew and Arab and to render its role in the distinction, in the separation, and the enmity of Jew and Arab invisible – invisible, perhaps, most of all to itself”.
In other words, Jew and Arab are equally victims – not of each other, except insofar as each “creates” the other in imitation of the Ur-villain Europe, that has “created” both Jew and Arab as the enemy. In Gil Anidjar’s world, European history is replete with hatred – equal hatred – and persecution – equal persecution – of the Jew and of the Arab. This equality in suffering is central to his world view.
Unfortunately, it bears no relation to reality. The Jews of Europe were in fact (see Leon Poliakoff, see Malcolm Hay, see Gavin Langmuir) subjected, first out of theological hatreds, and then out of racism directed at Jews even if they ceased to be Jews, over more than a millennium. They were inoffensive; they had no political or military power. Yet they were driven from country after country, their goods stolen, many of them killed. The history of charges of ritual murder, of massacres, could fill up a book, and indeed, do fill up a book – Simon Wiesenthal’s Every Day Remembrance Day, in which murder after murder, massacre after massacre, expulsion after expulsion, is listed.
But the Arabs? The Arabs, or rather the Muslims, though stopped by Charles Martel and the Franks at Poitiers in the West in 732, continued to fight in Spain until finally Muslim power came to an end in 1492; in the East, the Muslims seized much of Eastern Europe and the Balkans, and were besieging Vienna as late as 1683. And meanwhile, for a thousand years, Arab raiders went up and down the coasts, not only on the Mediterranean, but as far north as Ireland and Iceland, and razed and looted whole villages, and kidnapped, historians estimate, about 1 million white Europeans (and killed many more) who were taken back to North Africa, enslaved, and forcibly converted. The historian Giles Milton has just written White Gold about this forgotten part of European history, focusing on one Thomas Pellow.
Anidjar is not a historian. He fails to understand the threat that Muslims continued to pose, for roughly a thousand years, through these raiding and slaving expeditions. If Europeans regarded Muslims as “the enemy,” it was not out of some need, like a small child with an imaginary friend, but because the Muslims, impelled by the doctrine of jihad-conquest that is in Qur’an, hadith, and sira, were militarily threatening. Those Muslim raids came to an end only in the 19th century, first with the American attacks on the Barbary Pirates, and then, in 1830, with the French conquest of Algeria.
But why read Bat Ye’or, or Bernard Lewis or even the great actor and Shakespeare scholar Harley Granville-Barker, when you can quote philosophers like Emmanuel Levinas and Franz Rosenzweig, and “critics” like Derrida, Foucault, and Said, e tutti quanti.. It would not do to subject the belief-system of Islam, or the history of Jihad-conquest, to critical or historical examination, not when you are in the business of symmetrically reducing “Jew” and “Arab” to the identical status of victims. Why bother investigating the belief-system of Islam, with its Manichaean division of the world between Believer and Infidel with which the canonical texts of Islam are full, instinct with hatred for all who are not Muslim all hates are equally ill-founded.
But Anidjar thinks of himself as a literary scholar, and that fatally vitiates all of his musing, and all of his cobbling-together of the oddest kinds of “evidence” or quasi-evidence. When, for example, he suggests that Shylock is the Jew, and Othello the Muslim, he reveals that he simply is no Shakespearean scholar; phrases such as “the distinction between Shylock and Othello, between Jew and Moor, is already breaking down as the image of the black ram begins to loom.” He completely fails to realize that throughout the play, Othello is depicted as a Moor, but a Christian, in the service of Venice against the Turk.
Neither history nor literature are Anidjar’s strong suits. He is a philosophizer, and “the Jew, the Arab” is filled to the brim with such portentous meditations as:
The Jew, the Arab, that is to say, the enemy, constitutes the theologico-politicial. It is through “them” that it becomes what it is. As a philosophical problem, the massive absence of the metaphysical question ….
This goes on for hundreds for pages.
And once he leaves Europe, he no longer maintains the fiction of “equal victimhood.” When it comes to the Middle East, he knows nothing of the treatment of the Jews of the Middle East. His denunciation of the loi Crémieux shows that he does not understand what the Jews endured under Muslim rule. He even begins to invent a new kind of being– “c’est bien … l’Arabe, de l’être juif arabe qu’il faudra parler et au nom duquel il faudra lutter.” What is this “être juif arabe” – this “Jew-Arab creature” in whose name one must continue to struggle? It is a fiction, an ideological hippogriff, created only so that “the Arab” may claim for himself, at the hands of Europe, a false victimhood, based on the real victimhood of Jews.
The only conceivable reason for this course being offered is that it attempts to present the Arab as victim, at the hands of Europe, and later, at the hands of the “Zionists.” If his treatment of Europe and Islam is a travesty, one should not be surprised to see that his view of Israel is similarly loaded. Not realizing that not all Jews were from Europe, that many never left the Middle East, and unaware, it seems, both of the demography and the land-ownership in what became Mandatory Palestine (where nearly 90 percent of the land was owned by the Ottoman state, and then passed to the mandatory authority, and then to the successor state, Israel), and unaware of the true definition of “colonialism,”
Here is how he discusses Israel:
The argument I want to make is that it is absolutely essential to continue to insist on the colonial dimension of Zionism, and colonial in the strict sense, absolutely. The claim that there was no colonial basis for Israel is ludicrous. People were citizens of countries and were acting on behalf of Western powers, and Western powers understood this very well. As did Herzl, of course, and others. So Israel is absolutely a colonial enterprise, a colonial settler state, to be precise.
And “why,” Anidjar asks in an interview, “did the Western powers want and agree with the destruction of Palestine for the benefit of Israel? Why to the ‘Holy Land’? For Anidjar the answer always goes back to Europe, or at least its “Christian, Western powers”:
The question must be asked and the answer must engage “the Muslim question.” For to ignore this question is to renew and increase the invisibility of the Christian role in the pre-history and the history of colonialism and post-colonialism…There is rather an extreme investment in the continuation of the war of Israel against Palestine, that is to say, in maintaining the conditions that make this war possible.
And finally, Anidjar asks:
There is, in fact, a level at which I simply lack all understanding. Can anyone seriously claim that the problem with Islamic countries is Islam?
And the answer to that rhetorical question, I’m afraid, is obvious – and it is not the answer that Gil Anidjar was expecting.
Hugh Fitzgerald wrote this piece for Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum, which is designed to critique and improve Middle East Studies at North American colleges and universities.
This piece is part of a series of studies on Middle East Studies at Columbia University. We invite you to read Fitzgerald's introductory essay and the entries in alphabetical order.