The Volokh Conspiracy

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Karen Armstrong: Islamists murdering French Jews "had nothing to do with anti-Semitism"


English author Karen Armstrong is widely identified as one of the Western world's most popular writers on religion. She recently said the following in an interview with a Dutch blog: "The supermarket attack in Paris [in which four Jews were murdered] was about Palestine, about Isis. It had nothing to do with antisemitism; many of them are Semites themselves. But they attempt to conquer Palestine and we're not talking about that. We're too implicated and we don't know what to do with it."

Some apologists for Islamist anti-Semitism suggest that while anti-Semitism is wrong, one should try to understand that the source of the anti-Semitism is Israel's policies in "Palestine." Suggesting that it's somehow rational and perhaps acceptable to hold all Jews around the world morally culpable for the real or imagined misdeeds of the Israeli government is bad enough.

Armstrong seems to go further, and suggests that Islamists murdering French Jews isn't a result of anti-Semitism nurtured or exaggerated by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and isn't about hating Jews at all, but is in fact somehow related to (I think, it isn't entirely coherent) ISIS's attempt to conquer Palestine, as if murdering Jews in France is a logical battlefront in the war on the Israeli government.

Making matters worse, Armstrong deploys the old "they can't be anti-Semites because they are (or in this case may be) Semites themselves" canard. There are only two sorts of people who make this sort of argument. First, there are those who are too ignorant to know that "anti-Semitism" doesn't mean "hatred of all Semitic peoples," but hatred of Jews.

One must give Armstrong the benefit of the doubt, and assume that no one of her stature in writing about religion could possibly be that ignorant. And even if we didn't get give her the benefit of the doubt, she used the term "anti-Semitism" correctly at least as long ago as 2005, even while discussing anti-Semitism in the Muslim world, so ignorance won't do as an explanation.

Second, and this is the camp that Armstrong must fall into, there are those who make the argument disingenuously, as a convenient way of deny the obvious fact of widespread Arab anti-Semitism. I see this often, for example, in the comments section of the VC from those who choose to defend Hamas's open anti-Semitism. Armstrong goes beyond even that, denying Islamist anti-Semitism even among non-Arab Islamists, because "many" Islamists are Semites. (Memo to Armstrong: even being of Jewish descent doesn't preclude the possibility that someone is anti-Semitic).

As near as I can tell, what seems to motivate this sort of nonsense [at least in Armstrong's case] is fear that acknowledge widespread Muslim/Arab anti-Semitism will stoke "Islamaphobia." Why Jews, who face far more day-to-day danger from anti-Semitic violence in Europe than Muslims do from hostility to Islam, should be considered expendable in the service of this "anti-Islamaphobia" is beyond my comprehension. But it's precisely the attitudes of folks like Armstrong that have most European Jews contemplating whether there is any future for them in their home countries-the problem is not simply violence by Islamists against Jews, but the sense that society at large has no intention of taking it seriously or trying to do anything about it.