Jews, Islam, and Orientalism

Irmin Vinson

In Western history the Spanish Reconquista stands as an important landmark. Spain had once belonged to Islam, but with Reconquest the long Islamic intrusion which had begun in 711 was brought to an end, apparently decisively. From a Christian perspective the Reconquista was the gradual expulsion, beginning in the eleventh century and ending in the fifteenth, of Muslim unbelievers from the southwestern corner of Christendom; from a racialist perspective it was a literal culture-war of Europeans against Moors, waged by Spaniards, Frenchmen and Portuguese, the chivalry of White Europe. In simple political terms, comprehensible to anyone regardless of political affiliation, it was the end of foreign domination. Southern Spain had been under Muslim occupation for almost eight hundred years, and with the fall in 1492 of Granada, the last Muslim kingdom in Spain, the Reconquista was complete. Under Ferdinand and Isabella, the most successful chapter in Spain's history was just beginning.

Three centuries later the German-Jewish poet Heinrich Heine (1797-1856) would envision this epochal Reconquista much differently: "On the tower [in Cordova] where the muezzin called to prayer there is now the melancholy tolling of church bells. On the steps where the [Muslim] faithful sang the words of the Prophet, tonsured monks are acting out their lugubrious charades." For Heine Islamic Spain -- here represented by formerly Muslim Cordova, reconquered in 1236 -- had fallen victim to "the dark tricks of history," and the Reconquista, far from being a righteous European triumph over an alien and expansionist adversary, marked a terrible cultural disaster. The Spain that emerged from her national victories was spiritually impoverished and intellectually desolate, filled with the sterile ceremonies of mindless Catholicism. Spain, in short, was better off Islamic. The wrong side had won.

Heine's lines are from his poem "Almansor," which was based on his play of the same title. They are quoted in Martin Kramer's introduction to The Jewish Discovery of Islam, a collection of essays discussing Jewish contributions to the European investigation of the Muslim world. Kramer, the collection's editor, treats Heine's poetic lament for Muslim losses as an example of European Jewry's "heightened empathy and sympathy for Islam," but another motive is also clear. Heine sympathized with the Muslim invaders of Europe because he disliked Europeans. His enemy's enemy was his friend. Empathy for Islam was hostility to Christian Europe. Thus at the end of "Almansor" the poem's Muslim protagonist, though baptized a Christian (a formality that Heine himself would undergo in 1825), feels the growing anger of Cordova's famous cathedral, once a mosque in the happy days of Islamic occupation, and dreams of seeing the desecrated mosque crash vengefully down upon the Spanish congregants below, "while the Christian Gods shriek and wail."

Kramer, an expatriate American Jew who works at Tel Aviv University's Moshe Dayan Center, planned The Jewish Discovery of Islam as a Jewish response to the Palestinian literary critic Edward Said's poisonously influential Orientalism (New York: Vintage, 1978), easily the most destructive anti-Western book of the past half-century. The object of Said's attack was the academic discipline of Orientalism, the study of the East and its various cultures, especially Islam. European scholarship, he argued, had defined and essentialized Islam as a hostile and culturally inferior Other, while ignoring the profound interconnections between East and West. Orientalism, an expression of the West's arrogant Eurocentrism, had created a distorted representation of the East's inferiority and then proceeded to justify and extend European colonialism on the basis of the self-interested simulacrum it had produced. "Orientalism," Said wrote, "was ultimately a political vision of reality whose structure promoted the difference between the familiar (Europe, the West, 'us') and the strange (the Orient, the East, 'them')," and in an oft-quoted pronouncement he alleged that "every European, in what he could say about the Orient, was consequently a racist, an imperialist, and almost totally ethnocentric" (Orientalism, 43, 68). Said's Orientalism has become the bible of fashionable Third Worldism and the central document of postcolonial studies, which it did much to spawn. As a result of its remarkable influence the term "Orientalism," which once denoted an arcane discipline specializing in esoteric languages and odd religious practices, has become a powerful slur, not much different from "racism." And like anti-racialism, Saidian anti-Orientalism denies our right to see the world through our own eyes, to see the Islamic world as indeed Other, substantially different from the West in ways that traditional Orientalism had enumerated. If today we view the burqa-shrouded women of Afghanistan as symptoms of a strange and primitive culture, then we are guilty of Eurocentric Orientalism, because we immorally claim for ourselves the right to judge the Muslim Other by our own standards.

Said, though wrongly labelled an anti-Semite for his criticism of Israel, carefully avoided distinguishing Jewish from non-Jewish Orientalists. All were European and therefore all equally "racist." Kramer's book is an attempt to remedy that deficiency. Jewish Orientalists, Kramer explains, did not suffer from the essentialist, polarizing prejudices of their non-Jewish colleagues: "The work of Jewish orientalists -- liberals and Marxists, Zionists and assimilationists, believers and atheists -- subverted the idea that East and West were polar opposites. Much of Europe debated whether the Jews belonged to one or the other; Jews replied that the question itself lacked validity. The work of Jewish orientalists at every turn challenged the tendency to interpret Islam or Judaism sui generis, and their message was remarkably uniform: Islamic history (like Jewish history) can be subjected to the same analytical tools as Europe's; Europe's civilization rests also on Islamic (and Jewish) foundations; Islam (like Judaism) is no anachronism, but undergoes constant adaptation, and would accommodate even European modernity. Jews urged European respect for peoples bearing cultures of extra-European origin, precisely because the Jews were the most vulnerable of these peoples, residing as they did in the very center of Europe." Jews, in other words, were de facto anti-Orientalists well before Edward Said launched his attack on Eurocentric Orientalism.

All of this will sound familiar to readers of Kevin MacDonald's Culture of Critique, which documents how ostensibly neutral Jewish scholarship has often served a hidden racial agenda. Jewish scholars wrote sympathetically about Islam in order to attack Europe indirectly. While maintaining the pretense of disinterested objectivity they sought to dismantle categories that helped Europeans to define themselves, and by challenging generalizations about Muslims they hoped to inhibit similar generalizations about Jews. Their principal target was Europe's confident belief in its cultural superiority, and insofar as Christian Europe defined itself in contrast to Islam, they would attack Europe by elevating its opposite and by challenging the boundaries between East and West and Islam and Christendom that formed parts of Europe's insufferable self-image. We can think of this, keeping in mind the example of Heine's sublimated hatred, as restrained aggression expressed through a calculated sanitizing of Islam, with the aim of undermining Europe's identity and eliminating its suspicion of the Muslim outsider. As Heinrich Heine placed his own racial aggression in the thoughts and experiences of the fictional Muslim Almansor ben Abdullah, so Jewish scholarship concealed its anti-European aggression in the learned pages of sympathetic studies of Islam.

Kramer is bold in assessing the effects of this intellectual subversion: "The respect for Islam that Jews had done so much to disseminate not only survived in Europe but served as the basis for Europe's tolerance of Muslim minorities after the war. The mosque-like synagogues erected by Jewish communities in the nineteenth century prepared Europe to accept the real mosques which Muslim communities erected across the continent in the twentieth." Bernard Lewis, the most distinguished of modern Jewish Orientalists, recently predicted in Die Welt that "Europe will be Islamic by the end of the century"; for this demographic catastrophe Kramer claims credit on behalf of Islamophile Jewish scholarship. That may be too great a burden for the musty tomes of half-forgotten Jewish Orientalists to bear, but Jewish promotion of Islam does provide at least a partial explanation for the massive loss of European will that has allowed the growing Muslim invasion once again assailing the continent, this time without (as yet) any significant resistance. And there can be no doubt that the West's old view of Islam as hostile and alien, a reasonable response to a long history of Muslim invasions, has been almost entirely eradicated. When NATO elected to empower Muslim terrorists in Kosovo by bombing Serbs in Belgrade, that nominally Western decision powerfully signaled the breakdown of our former cultural self-image. Any reflexive assumption that Serbs are Europeans and Muslims alien outsiders had vanished. For this, if Kramer's analysis is correct, we can blame Jews.

French president Jacques Chirac has spoken of "a Europe whose roots are as much Muslim as Christian." The idea is bizarre, and traditional scholarship conceptualized French national history in precisely contrary terms. France was spared the Islamic invasion that swept across Spain by Charles ("the Hammer") Martel's victory in 732 at the Battle of Poitiers; France could become French only because she had first defeated Islam. Ideas, like people, have a lineage, and we can be certain that Jacques Chirac's fantastic belief in Europe's Muslim roots cannot be traced back to the polarizing interpretations of Eurocentric Orientalists. It is a subversive Jewish idea that has made its way into the conventional mind of a politician, much as the widespread myth of Muslim religious tolerance -- an idea George Bush is fond of mentioning in his many homilies on Islam the religion of peace -- was (to quote Bernard Lewis) "invented by Jews in nineteenth-century Europe as a reproach to Christians...." Both ideas are false, but it was once useful for Jews to circulate them.

We should take note of the philo-Semitic environment in which Jews worked to subvert Europe's cultural self-understanding. Among the Gentile Orientalists who numerically dominated the discipline in the 1800s, the most prominent White racialist was the brilliant Ernest Renan (1823-92), who believed that Jews were Europeans, which is to say that Renan was not much of a racialist at all. "Jewish scholars," Kramer writes, "were not to be regarded as Semitic specimens, but as fellow Europeans, who could participate as intellectual equals in Europe's discovery of Islam." The subversive, Islamophile Orientalism of Jewish scholars flourished in an academic environment characterized by low levels of anti-Semitism, but clearly this racial tolerance did not emotionally bind these Jews to the West. In the academic history Kramer outlines tolerance was not repaid with gratitude and cultural loyalty; it simply afforded Jews a position of safety from which to pursue their racial interests and launch their campaign against Europe. A scarcity of anti-Semitism is always an open invitation to Jewish misbehavior, because it frees Jews from inspection of their motives.

Kramer himself is no tolerant Islamophile, and he feels none of the "heightened empathy and sympathy for Islam" that he honors. He is an anti-Muslim neoconservative, and like all neoconservatives he advocates a hard American stance against the Muslim world, including the bombing of Iraqi cities and the destruction ("democratization") of anti-Zionist Muslim nations, all for the betterment of Israel. "The moment America's commitment to Israel seems diminished in Arab eyes," he argues elsewhere, "the region is destined to spiral into war." Kramer praises the tolerant Jewish Orientalists of bygone centuries because they are safely dead, and he has no intention of following their example. In their covert race war against Western civilization Jews once benefited from sanitizing Islam and from making the strange seem familiar, yet retaining the old model of Jewish Orientalism would provide no advantages today. Islam has very few virtues, but anti-Semitism is, luckily, among them. Muslims hate the West, but they hate Jews and Zionism even more. The recent Jewish discovery of deep, apparently ineradicable Muslim anti-Semitism has convinced neoconservative Jews like Martin Kramer that in our era any "heightened empathy and sympathy for Islam" would be a dangerous mistake. Kramer can boast of how, in his opinion, Jewish scholarship helped bring millions of violent Muslims back into Europe, but he knows that today Muslims are a formidable enemy of Jews and the Jewish state, and so he and his fellow neoconservatives have assumed a new role as truth-telling opponents of Islamism and vigilant defenders of the West, a West whose center of gravity is located in Tel Aviv.

Originally published on National Vanguard. Kramer's Introduction to The Jewish Discovery of Islam is online at his website. For discussion of Jewry's Muslim Problem, see the essays by Kramer's friend and colleague Daniel Pipes: American Muslims vs. American Jews and The End of American Jewry's Golden Era. There is an English translation of Heine's "Almansor" here. For a review of Prof. MacDonald's Culture of Critique, see Cherchez le Juif.


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