Ralph Nader is without a doubt one of the truly transformational figures in contemporary American history. We drink cleaner water, breathe purer air, drive safer cars and are better protected at work and at play, because of the movement he led.
Ever the innovator, Ralph has taken on a new challenge: to force open discussion about topics that had previously been considered "off-limits" by "main-stream media, legislative bodies or the electoral arena." His project, called "Debating Taboos" sponsors televised debates bringing these controversial issues into the public square.
This past week, I participated in one of these, on the topic -- "Is there a double standard in the response to anti-Semitism against Arab Americans compared with the response to anti-Semitism against Jewish Americans?" Some who had been invited to participate in the discussion declined. They acknowledged that "anti-Arabism" and Islamophobia are a problem but dismissed Nader's formulation of the topic as "utterly misconceived," "misleading and even tendentious." They argued that the word "anti-Semitism" can refer only to Jews.
In reality, however, Nader has a point since historically the animus that has inspired bigotry directed against Arabs and Muslims, on the one side, and Jews, on the other, has been cut out of the same cloth. It was a largely Western phenomenon that emerged in full force with the emergence of the modern state system in Europe and was directed against two Semitic peoples -- one which the West found living within its midst and which it identified as an internal threat; and the other which the West confronted as an external challenge, but which it similarly defined as a threat.
As a result, both groups suffered a history of vilification and dehumanization enduring persistent and systematic campaigns of intense violence. Jews were segregated, tormented, targeted, and forced to endure repeated pogroms, leading to the horrors of the Holocaust. The dehumanization campaigns against Arabs, on the other hand, were used to justify imperial conquest, the colonization of Arab lands, and efforts to eradicate their identity in the Maghreb and their dismemberment and dispersal in the Levant.
Three decades ago I collaborated in a study of political cartoons and other forms of popular culture comparing the depiction of Jews in Tsarist Russia and pre-Nazi Germany with those of Arabs in the U.S. in the '70s and '80s. In both content and form, the treatments given to each of the two groups were virtually identical. The two most prevalent German and Russian depictions of Jews paralleled the two most common images of Arabs projected in U.S. cartoons. The fat grotesque Jewish banker or merchant found its counterpart in the obese oil sheikh, while the image of the Jewish anarchist, communist, subversive terrorist, morphed into the Arab and now Muslim terrorist. They differed only in attire. Both were seen as alien and hostile. They were accused of not sharing Western values, being prone to violent conspiracies, being lecherous usurpers of "our" wealth -- and therefore threats to Western civilization.
To Nader's point -- it is a sad but true fact that while it has become unacceptable to publicly express or manifest bigotry against Jews, anti-Semitism against Arabs -- and increasingly, by extension, against Muslims -- remains a part of our popular culture and our political discourse. For several reasons this type of bigotry against Jews has become unacceptable. For one, the collective memory the horror of the Holocaust looms large. Then there is the fact that we have developed a familiarity with the rich diversity within the Jewish community and are aware of the many contributions Jews have made to our common heritage. Images of Jews of all types are present in our popular culture. Finally, there is the reality that Jewish community organizations with many allies across the ethnic, religious and political spectrum have made it clear that there is a price to pay for public manifestations of bigotry. (It has not gone away, to be sure. Rather, its proponents have become marginalized and gone underground).
Arabs and Muslims, on the other hand, are still portrayed as more violent, less humane, not sharing our values, less rational, more prone to anger and less trustworthy than the rest of us. And these notions are fueled on a daily basis by our popular and political cultures.
Hollywood, in particular, has an Arab and Muslim problem with negative stereotypes abounding. But our political culture is no better. For more than a decade now, some political leaders have been engaged in poisonous discourse targeting Arabs and Muslims -- culminating in recent years in the mass movement to block the building of an Islamic Community Center in lower Manhattan, a rash of referenda and legislation to block the imposition of Sharia law in over two dozen states, and declarations by presidential candidates insisting that Muslims would have to take special loyalty oaths before allowing them into public service. And it has been revealed that many in our military and law enforcement agencies have received deeply flawed and biased training about Arabs and Muslims. And while this hate has had devastating consequences for Arabs and Muslims--in crimes against their persons and rights, discrimination, and profiling--the purveyors of the hate have received nary a slap on the wrist.
Racist books like Raphael Patai's The Arab Mind continued to be used to train our military through the end of the Iraq war. The likes of Michael Savage and Ann Coulter remain on the air and retain cult-like followings. Obsessed anti-Arab and anti-Muslim writers and bloggers are quoted by presidential candidates, law enforcement agencies, and hate criminals, alike.
And it is clear that there is a double standard at work in all of this. Ask yourself what the reaction would be if Arab Americans wrote books about Jews like those written by David Horowitz, Daniel Pipes, and Robert Spenser -- what would we call them? What would the reaction be if Herman Cain had suggested that American Jews or Mormons or any other religious group be required to take a loyalty oath before serving in government? And what if an Arab billionaire made and distributed millions of copies of movies charging that there was a massive and violent Jewish conspiracy to take over the West, would presidential candidates be lining their campaign coffers with his millions as they are with Sheldon Adelson?
The bottom line is that Nader is right to have encouraged this debate because there is a shameful double standard and it must end. And the sooner Americans address this problem and correct it, the better our country will be.
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