Perpetuating hatred is wrong

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Perpetuating hatred is wrong
Aref Assaf

Re: Coverage of the documentary “Protocols of Zion“.

There is no doubt about the almost universal belief that anti-Semitism is a curse of untold proportions. Hatred of the Jewish people throughout Christian Europe and recently around the world requires a universal condemnation as well. Consequently, the mere mention of “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” entails mortified charges of anti-Semitism against anyone who questions the protocols’ existence or historical fulfillment. Levin’s documentary, “Protocols of Zion” is a new  HBO/Cinemax film described by a film critic as “an energetic 93-minute journey into the world of Jew hatred.” Sadly, by inserting un-savvy Arab-Americans’ viewpoints from Paterson, NJ, the filmmaker entraps our Arab-American community as a monogamous Jew-haters.  Mr. Levin tells us that it is not the Jews who are conspiring to dominate the world; it is the Arabs and might as well add the world’s Muslims, who have conspired to forever hate the Jews. The film is a sinister and a racist and a prejudicial attempt to bash Arabs and demonize them. By so doing, Mr. Levin has mastered the art of ethnic stereotyping.

While no historical evidence has been found for the existence of such protocols, strong evidence, however, points to agents of czarist Russia as creating and first publishing the anti-Semitic “Protocols” in 1905, a time of great civil unrest in a country known for its history of animosity toward Jews. It purported to be an account of a meeting by Jewish elders on their secret plans for world domination.

The fact remains that only a small minority of Arabs and Muslims have ever read the Protocols or, and more important, believe them to be true. Doubtless, there exists in the Arab world a most troubling anti-Jewish sentiment and we must not only acknowledge it but also affirmatively deal with. It was only last year when Egyptian television aired a serialized month long depiction of the Protocols. Interestingly, this year’s Ramadan TV series can be considered a departure for soap operas in the Arab world. For the first time Arabs are facing to their own troubling stereotyping of others by confronting radicals and hate mongers head on. (See also Article in The Guardian)

The root cause of animosity between Arabs and Jews is markedly detached from European anti-Semitism- notwithstanding the persistence of the critics of anti-Semitism in equating the two. It is of course rather awkward to talk about Anti-Semitism to the exclusion of acts against Arabs who comprise more than 95% of the worlds Semitic peoples. Largely, Arab anti-Semitism is the result of the dispossession of the Palestinian people and the continued Israeli occupation of Arab lands. As such, Palestinian anti-Semitic sentiments are not based on their views of the validity of the Protocols or necessarily aimed at the Jewish people. They are rather borne out of the actual experience they have been subjugated to since the creation of the State of Israel and the continued manipulation of their lands, resources, and expulsion from their native lands. This, of course, must not be construed as our support for terroristic acts by Palestinians. Palestinian and by extension Arab anti-Semitism- are simply a natural expression of the unequal and often violent relationship that describes the occupier and the occupied. To this end, one expects better relations to follow an end to t Israel’s occupation and the restitution of Palestinian rights.

The film pointedly omits coverage of post 9-11 anti-Arab and Muslim stereotyping, discrimination and yes-even murder of innocent people. Post 9-11 shall always be known as a dark period in America’s civil rights march when every Arab and Muslim came to be seen as a terrorist. Mr. Levin’s documentary deliberately minimizes the role of American movie-making industry, which has for generations perpetuated derogatory and indeed repulsive images of the Arab people, defiled their culture and history. Sadly, I would point out further that known Jewish producers have financed many of these movies.

Three factors explain the fervor and resilience of anti-Arab racism and Islamophobia today. First, the European West finds its historical foundations in the imperialist view of the Arab/Muslim world as violent, backward and uncivilized- thanks to 19-century Orientalist scholars who depicted the Arab world as inferior and as such justifying colonization. Secondly, racism against Arabs in films and popular culture has become a money-making venture. Even before 9-11, Arabs were portrayed almost exclusively as terrorists, rich greedy sheikhs, belly dancers or backward desert dwellers.
Thirdly,  and of pivotal importance, is the direct relationship between anti-Arabism and Islamophobia and American foreign policy that has waged wars directly or indirectly on the Arab and Muslim world for decades for geopolitical reasons without any regard for its inhabitants. It is easier to justify control of a region when you demonize and dehumanize its people and culture.

This combination of factors has sustained a high level of insensitivity and racism towards Arabs and Muslims for many years. Unlike some other forms of racism where there have been some incremental improvements, for Arabs, the same stereotypes used twenty years ago or even a century ago are still  -” fit-to-print” in newspapers, films, news analysis and even academic discourse.

The author Jack Shaheen has devoted years documenting these trends and this is well documented in his two books, The TV Arab and Reel Bad Arabs, respectively. Mr. Shaheen demonstrates in painful detail the degree to which Arabs continue to serve as bad people in Hollywood’s visual lexicon. Shaheen meticulously examined more than 900 American-made films over the past century and then wrote a historical overview of negative stereotyping of Arabs. According to Shaheen over 25 major movies released in the last ten years, show our military killing Arabs. This includes such “hits” as Iron Eagle, Death Before Dishonor, Navy SEALS, Patriot Games, the American President, Delta Force 3, Executive Decision, True Lies, etc. This is truly a case of an epidemic avariciousness. New York columnist Russell Baker wrote, “Arabs are the last people except for Episcopalians whom Hollywood feels free to offend en masse.”  Levin’s documentary is but the latest addition to these seemingly innocent attempts at exposing hatred but indeed, they perpetuate it and permit it upon others… Hollywood has profiteered from Arab bashing and demonization and has engaged in a most sustained negative stereotyping of the Arab American community.

Hatred and discrimination is a sad commentary about the human condition. However, it is indeed libelous and morally bankrupt, however, to always imply that only hatred aimed at Jews is worth exposing, confronting, and making documentaries about it. Without equally confronting anti-Arab sentiments spewed by radical Jews whether in Brooklyn, NY or in Israel, one must seriously question the motives and sincerity of the filmmaker. By not saying that hatred is wrong when aimed at every human race, Mr. Levin reduces his mission to that of an apologist for Israeli policies. For his mission to be noteworthy, Mr. Levin should sequel his latest production with another one exploring the vitriolic hatred of and ensuing incitement of violence against Muslims and Arabs.  We systematically and collectively suffer from the wrath of ethnic stereotyping and racial profiling, a direct result of an untold number of movies, books, public discourse and even official governmental legislation.

The documentary is a cruel form of racialization which is the process of selectively adopting ideas about Arabs and Muslims (or anyone who seems like them, such as South Asian Sikhs) as being fundamentally different from others. Racialization is at the root of the seriously naive “Why do they hate us” question. Consequently, because Arabs and Muslims can never be part of “us,” it seems impossible to get to the complex, multilayered issues of race and identity, to examine worthy critiques of U.S. policy or to explore the intersection of race, gender, class, and nationalism. Instead, racialization preempts rational discussion about power relationships and various communities in favor of racist books about the “Arab mind,” “Introductory Islam,” or what is “behind the veil.” In other words, Arabs and Muslims are so different that they need to be explained and now even feared, whereas we can take for granted that white, Jewish and Christian Americans are the norm.

Ethnic stereotyping, whether by possibly well-meaning people such as Marc Levin,  Hollywood or by the FBI, solidifies the wedge between what we call “mainstream” culture and those who are perceived to be on the outside of it. Anti-Arabism and Islamophobia are so much a part of the political and cultural discourse on Arabs and Muslims in American society today that most do not even recognize it as racism.  What is most needed is a grand scale effort to draw attention to the achievements that many Arabs and Jews have accomplished to bring the two communities together. Arundahti Roy, one of the world’s most celebrated novelists, said it best when she said: “Our strategy should be not only to confront empire but to lay siege to it. To deprive it of oxygen. To shame it. To mock it. With our art, our music, our literature, our stubbornness, our joy, our brilliance, our sheer relentlessness — and our ability to tell our own stories. Stories that are different from the ones we’re being brainwashed to believe.”

Dr. Aref Assaf,  President, American Arab Forum

Read the two articles in the NJ papers about the movies and the depiction of NJ Arab Americans as not entirely innocent of the charge of Anti-Semitism.