March 15, 2007

Dr Kuntzel's Middle East

The pro-war leftwing blog Harry's Place carries an article today about Dr Matthias Kuntzel who was to give a paper at Leeds University on the subject of the relationship between the Middle East, Naziism and anti-semitism. The paper was cancelled following concerns from the University about the security of Dr Kuntzel and his auditors after threats. I don't know the substance of what went on and don't want to comment more about what happened than just a bare outline of the facts. No doubt others will proceed to do that elsewhere.

But the substance of Dr Kuntzel's arguments about Islam and the relationship between current levels of anti-semitism in the Middle East and the activities of the German Nazi party in the 1940s, as laid out here deserve some attention. My own view for what its worth is that Dr. Kuntzel's methodology is flawed but that he is not a racist. In discussing anti-semitism he is very careful to say that this is not an inherent property of Islam nor of Muslims, its a property of certain Muslims at a certain point in time- in that sense what he is saying is similar to me arguing that medieval Europe was anti-semitic or that modern Europe is Islamophobic, both statements could be right or wrong, neither are racist because neither imply that it is an essential property of Europe or Europeans to be either anti-semitic or Islamophobic. Historians are entitled to investigate the origins of prejudice and to try and account for it- and it is indisputable in my view that various societies have been throughout history prejudiced. To argue that they have been is not racist, nor is an argument which seeks to find the cause of that prejudice racist. What would be racist would be to argue that Arabs were neccessarily by virtue of being Arab, antisemitic, or religious prejudice would be to argue that Muslims were neccessarily antisemitic (given that Kuntzel comes close to saying that Christians might be more predisposed to Anti-semitism, in reality an accusation of Christo-phobism might be more realistic).

Dr Kuntzel's Case
His argument though focuses on a historical case and draws forward from it some political parallels. I disagree with both his history and with his politics and I think that it is interesting to point out why. Dr Kuntzel is not a racist but he is an essentialist- he beleives in an evolving Arab mind which is subject to influences. That is the central flaw in his thesis. His argument is that thanks to three particular political movements. He argues that Islamic anti-semitism is a revolution against modernity. Often anti-semitism whether in 20th Century Europe or the Middle East has drawn on the image of the cosmopolitan Jew (often lending money)- a tragic irony given that most Jews in both the Middle East and Europe during periods of anti-semitism have not been at all similar to that stereotype. The second argument he puts forward is that there was a relationship between Nazi German propaganda, especially Radio Zeesen, and the growth of Anti-Semitism in the Middle East. Thirdly he argues that Nazi arguments continued to be heard in the Middle East long after the death of Naziism in Germany- though he labels no Nazi personell who left Europe to disseminate this propaganda he only suggests that the Mufti of Jerusalem, briefly sheltered by the Germans, was allowed back into Palestine.

The first argument seems to me to be very perceptive- Kuntzel quotes plenty of Arab modernizers expressing pro-Jewish views and definitely throughout the Arab world, the rise of the Islamic radical was coordinated with the rise of the concept of takfir, of expelling the non-Muslim from society. The second point he makes though is problematic in my thinking- Radio Zeesen's success suggests to me a very local and temporary phenomenon- there must have been receptiveness within the Arab community as a whole at the time for the calumnies of the Germans to have found a reception. As for the third argument, I'm slightly mystified, he cites the Mufti of Jerusalem as having escaped from Nazi Germany and the sustenance of Nazi myths by Arab authorities, but that's the key it wasn't Nazis doing this but Arabs. It strikes me that the causes of anti-semitism in the Middle East are much more complicated than what happened in Europe- they have more to do with a reaction to modernity than with either of his other two causes and any Nazi arguments were lifted into an Islamic context but Nazi Germany itself is a minor factor in the growth of Middle Eastern Anti-Semitism.

The Elephants in the Room
So if Dr Kuntzel's theory is not racist neither is it particularly credible- I would isolate a couple of factors he has left out. Firstly there is no discussion in his paper of varying anti-semitism levels in various countries- unfortunately I haven't found any polling data on this but I don't beleive that all countries exhibit the same levels of anti-semitism in the region- differences may be telling. Secondly no matter what the attitudes of the elites at the time, the effect of Jewish immigration to Palestine and thse eventual 1948 war (no matter who was to blame for it) was bound to create tension within the neighbouring areas. If you think of the way that immigration in the UK has been blamed for stimulating latent racism recently- then think of that magnified by four and with a couple of wars thrown in. Racism thrives in atmospheres of rapid change and in atmospheres of conflict. The historical change in anti-semitism Dr Kuntzel beleives occured at some point between 1920 and 1960, exactly the period of time that the state of Israel was founded and that Arabs and Jews fought a series of wars. (To take an analogy, in 1870 Britain was much more anti-French than anti-German, by 1945 after fighting two wars with France against Germany, that had changed.) Thirdly there is the role of Arab regimes- Dr Kuntzel nowhere addresses the point that for many dictatorial regimes anti-semitism is useful. Take Syria- an Allawite government is despised by many Muslims but the Syrian government can appear patriotic by playing off against a bigger enemy- Israel. Similarly the Saudis have to persuade their population about why oil wealth hasn't contributed to the average citizen's lifestyle- blame the Jews is a good strategy for evading responsibility. Fourthly Kuntzel presents us a picture of universal love followed by universal hatred- but is this correct. I would imagine that there was plenty of anti-semitism in Islamic societies before the 1920s and that there is plenty of philosemitism now- the question is the way that the balance has moved and the reasons for that. In Europe and the US plenty of anti-semitism still exists but the general climate has moved against it- it could revive at any moment. The picture is much more complicated than Dr Kuntzel has made it appear and there will be factors I haven't even mentioned here. There isn't one cause of Middle Eastern anti-semitism, there are many- some related some unrelated.

Dr Kuntzel and his policy prescriptions
Dr Kuntzel also makes some policy prescriptions based on his evidence. Again I would suggest that even if we were to accept his historical argument his policy prescriptions seem to me to be erroneus. He identifies a key cause of Middle Eastern semitism to be the propaganda of Nazi anti-semitism but nowhere does he argue that we need to answer such propaganda with our own propaganda- a Radio Free Arabia- nowhere does he say that we need to ally with modernising elements within Arabic society. His argument is that force not appeasement will teach the Arabs not to be anti-semitic- but it wasn't force even on the basis of his own logic that made them anti-semitic. He argues that we can ignore Arabic protests because their protests are unrelated to our actions but to a visceral anti-semitism. There I think he is wrong and actually crosses into racism- because the implication is whatever an Arab says is racist per se- something that in my view is complete folly. That belief comes out of the central synthesising element of his thesis that all Arabs can be represented in a singular evolution.

Conclusions to be drawn
I have spent so long fisking Dr Kuntzel, not because I beleive that he in himself is very significant but because I beleive that we should not get sidelined into debating whether Leeds were right to ban him, and holding him up as an academic martyr. Dr Kuntzel is insignificant- his ideas are key and they are easily accessible and I beleive seriously flawed. Dr Kuntzel has done some good work- particularly on the links between resentment of modernity and a fear of the Jew as a manufactured image (not a reality) and also on the Nazi propaganda campaign inside the Middle East. His work though is deeply flawed- if he had stopped by adding to scholarship rather than rejecting other explanations it would have been fine. But to suggest that that is the whole story of anti-semitism in the Middle East is wrong. Dr Kuntzel's policy prescriptions arising from that are also wrong and need refutation- even upon the basis of his own arguments he maintains a flawed position. And given that his history is so flawed, his policy ideas that flow out of it are equally problematic.

There is a last point though- Anti-semitism has existed for aeons. Dr Kuntzel wants us to imagine that anti-semitic argument (by his third argument) are largely Nazi- that's not true, Martin Luther, most of the Popes, many atheists and many Muslims were all anti-semitic. I would suggest that this link of anti-semitic argument to Naziism is not merely been made to rule out anti-semitism but also to rule out appeasement. Kuntzel wants us to respond to Arab aggression against Israel in the same way that we responded to German aggression against Poland- the point though is that the phenomena of German Nazi anti-semitism and anti-semitism in the Middle East aren't the same- they may lead to different places and they may also be only successfully dealt with in different ways. We need to be careful about drawing historical parallels.

History can help us when we study politics- but we must be careful in the way that we write it and use it- Dr Kuntzel has not been careful enough in my judgement. Whether his paper should have been withdrawn or not, is not for me to say- but I can say that in my judgement, the paper is deeply flawed and needs considerable attention. That is not a reason to withdraw it- but it is a reason for its arguments to be picked apart- I wish Dr Kuntzel could have delivered it because maybe he might have then gone back, rewritten some sections and used his talents to deliver to us something more worthy of them.


james higham said...

There is considerable evidence that the Palestinian region [though not by that name] was sparsely populated by shifting groups prior to and early in the 20th century.

When the Jews expressed an interest in that particular piece of turf, the Arabs became immensely interested in turn. Something lies largely idle until someone starts to develop it and bingo, this focuses land rights claims by the others.

james higham said...

"Local Arabs in the 1930s still did not have any sense of Palestinian identity; rather, they saw themselves as Syrians.

"There is no such country {as Palestine}! 'Palestine' is a term the Zionists invented! There is no Palestine in the Bible. Our country was for centuries part of Syria." (comments by Auni Bey Abdul-Hadi to the Peel Commission, Jerusalem Post, November 2, 1991)

Over time, however, the creation of a distinct Palestinian nationality was created because of the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict.

The idea of an independent nationality for Palestinian Arabs crystallized after the 1967 Six Day War." [Wiki]
Mark Twain, who visited Palestine in 1867, described it as:

"...[a] desolate country whose soil is rich enough, but is given over wholly to weeds-a silent mournful expanse....A desolation is here that not even imagination can grace with the pomp of life and action....We never saw a human being on the whole route....There was hardly a tree or a shrub anywhere. Even the olive and the cactus, those fast friends of the worthless soil, had almost deserted the country."

As late as 1880, the American consul in Jerusalem reported the area was continuing its historic decline. "The population and wealth of Palestine has not increased during the last forty years," he said.

Dawood Barakat, editor of the Egyptian paper Al-Ahram, wrote: "It is absolutely necessary that an entente be made between the Zionists and Arabs, because the war of words can only do evil. The Zionists are necessary for the country: The money which they will bring, their knowledge and intelligence, and the industriousness which characterizes them will contribute without doubt to the regeneration of the country."

According to Sherif Hussein, the guardian of the Islamic Holy Places in Arabia:

The resources of the country are still virgin soil and will be developed by the Jewish immigrants. One of the most amazing things until recent times was that the Palestinian used to leave his country, wandering over the high seas in every direction.

His native soil could not retain a hold on him, though his ancestors had lived on it for 1000 years. At the same time we have seen the Jews from foreign countries streaming to Palestine from Russia, Germany, Austria, Spain, America. The cause of causes could not escape those who had a gift of deeper insight.

They knew that the country was for its original sons (abna'ihi¬l¬asliyin), for all their differences, a sacred and beloved homeland. The return of these exiles (jaliya) to their homeland will prove materially and spiritually [to be] an experimental school for their brethren who are with them in the fields, factories, trades and in all things connected with toil and labor.

Though there was certainly enmity and fear, there was also pragmatism woven into the Arab attitude at that stage.

Once it became clear that wholesale migration was planned in a zionistic manner, the attitude quickly changed.

Gracchi said...

Well I don't think that deals with the issues I raised.

Kuntzel's view by the way is opposed to yours- he offers cites from Egyptian ministers welcoming the Jews in.

The issue though is whether or not Palestinian identity exists is not something I think that alters my point that the rise of anti-semitism might be connected to the events in teh Middle East and not to Nazi propaganda as much. Anyway that is only a small part of my argument.

Pappusrif said...

Without any doubt, there are Arabs, Muslims as Christians who are anti-semites, but I have the impression that Dr. Kuntzel wants to make us believe that we would have returned, of a blow of malefic rod, at the Thirties. Is it true that there is displacement of the sources of the anti-semitism of Europe to the Middle East? I don’t think we can compare this anti-semitism (the muslim's one) to that of the Thirties. And there was no displacement. It in a precise geopolitical context, that of the conflict Israelo-Arab. The behaviors of Middle Easterns are justified by a feeling of solidarity with the Palestinians - that I can understand. It seems to me that there is a battle of opinion that the pro-Israel intellectuals are willing to win (if it’s not already done). The acts/behaviors of Palestinians may be explained primarily by the increasingly unbearable conditions under which they live, by oppression and humiliations. Is solidarity with Palestinian, anti-semitism ? For the pro-Israelis, the violence of the Palestinians is explained by their anti-semitism, which would be maintained and reinforced by an education with hatred.

If Judaism and Zionism tend to merge, how to denounce, effectively, anti-semitism (which takes sometimes the mask of the antizionism ? The charge of anti-semitism fuses towards all those which dare to criticize the Israeli policy. It is not because one does not agree with such or such position of a Jew or the Jewish State, which one is anti-semite. The anti-semitism is the refusal to regard the Jew as a normal and equal being (an arab is also semite, that is confusing). It is a form of organized political action (example Nazism), of which the goal is to put the Jews aside. It is not what occurs today in the Middle East.


Gracchi said...

I'm not sure there Pappusrif. I think there is anti-semitism in the Middle East- holocaust denial and the protocols of the elders of Zion proliferate- I think its causes are more complicated than Dr. Kuntzel admits though.

As to the Palestinian point- the issue I think is that a genuine greivance can shade into racism. On the Israeli side therefore genuine concern with the Jewish state shades into anti-Arab racism- examples of which I personally have heard from some Israeli nationalists. On the Palestinian side concern with the Palestinian state can shade into anti-semitism. That's not to say in either case it always does- the vast majority of Jews I've met who are pro-Israel are not racist for example and we have to be careful about flinging the accusation around on that I agree with you. But I do think there is anti-semitism out there.