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Muslims, Jews, and the Dangers of ‘Meta-Narratives’

Donald Trump's bellicose anti-Muslim rhetoric is frightening.
Jwslubbock/wikimedia commons
Jwslubbock/wikimedia commons
Dr. Yehuda Kurtzer is president of the Shalom Hartman Institute. Yehuda is a leading thinker and author on the meaning of Israel to American Jews, on Jewish history and Jewish memory, and on questions of leadership and change in American Jewish life. Yehuda led the creation of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America in 2010 as a pioneering research and educational center for the leadership of the North American Jewish community, and teaches in

Originally published on Times of Israel

Even if he is unelectable (which I still believe is the case); even if this is all the stuff of pre-election season demagoguery, or worse, an extremely effective manipulation of our opportunistic media culture; even if his latest comments are eventually “walked back” by a mealy-mouthed non-apology or “clarification”; even with any caveats, Donald Trump’s bellicose anti-Muslim rhetoric is frightening.

It is frightening on at least three levels: For the Americans among us who now live under a cloud of unwarranted suspicion, this rhetoric invites and incites an often-violent “othering” which has concrete implications for people’s daily lives. For American political culture, we see the unraveling of civil discourse through manipulation of mass media via an obscene shortcutting through scapegoating and the assertion of a non-existent fifth column. These moves resurface the worst moments in our democracy as the constant buzzing and stinging of social media. And for the society at large, we see how low, easily traversed, and readily visible lies the boundary between authentic democracy and tyrannical populism.

Beyond our obligations as citizens, co-religionists, and actually just as humans created in the image of God, to stand up for the civility required in the democracy that we cherish, and to stand with American Muslims caught in this assault on their loyalty and fidelity to America, we have a special obligation as Jews to see in this insidious anti-Muslim rhetoric something deeply recognizable and familiar to our own experience. Altruism, in other words, converges quickly on Jewish self-interest.

The most common arguments offered for Jewish engagement against this form of Islamophobia are usually chronological: they appeal either to the Jewish past, and our long historical experience as an unwanted and suspicious minority, or they appeal to the Jewish future, citing Pastor Martin Niemoller’s famous comment about silence in the face of persecution and the inevitability of how such persecution has a creeping quality.

These are credible textual and historical arguments, and I too am moved by the staggering simplicity of the biblical obligation that we remember our own status as outsiders as a moral catalyst to how we see our place in the world and our debt toward others. Moreover, I believe that in spite of the gifts of the American experience, our success story here should never lull us into the belief that we will never revisit the persecution of our distant and proximate ancestors (on this land, or any other). The appeal to past and future is familiar terrain in navigating the ethics of the present.

The ‘Clash of Civilizations,’ Donald Trump, and ‘Star Wars’

But there is a further argument calling on Jewish responsibility in this moment, and that looks to a correlation between Jewishness and Muslim-ness today. The present-day demonization of American Muslims is based on a mythic meta-narrative that imagines a clash of civilizations in which there can be no neutrality. As many have pointed out, this myth is being embraced both by extremist Muslims and by certain American politicians; in fact this narrative is granted a whiff of authenticity, because some of the parties see themselves implicated in this story, even as the overwhelming populations implied in these “civilizations” do not.

Mythic narratives provide order and meaning in disordered conflicts, and mythic narratives do not require an adherence to lived realities in order to matter in shaping identities. In Michael Walzer’s phrasing in Exodus and Revolution, “the story is bigger than the events.” In our present-day example, the clash of civilizations is a Great Story or even The Great Story. It is no lost irony to see Donald Trump dominate the news channels at the same time as the latest “Star Wars” episode, with its simplistic, convenient, and epic portrayal of the forces of good/light against the forces of evil/darkness is being released.

We know this story and have seen it before, and the efforts to channel it to resolve America and Europe’s hopelessness or cluelessness in dealing with an essentially undefeatable set of anarchic enemies are as predictable as they are terrifying. After all, our civilization becomes implicated in such a clash. Where does such a civilization – ours, not theirs – begin and end? Can such a civilization be plural, open, and democratic – hallmarks we cherish – in such a binary framing? (Short answer: No.)

Meantime, we Jews too are living through a moment of the re-rising of a great mythic narrative about the Jews that has never gone away, that of Jews as the essential other to Western civilization, other in our essence, and the essential – archetypal – other.

Here too, a fundamentally hateful ideology is granted legitimacy by virtue of the fact that some Jews embrace and believe this narrative to be true. The story of Jew as essential other, lives and breathes today in corners of Jewish conservatism for which Jewish full penetration into the social order could never be actualized. As well, this ideology permeates corners of nationalistic Zionism that have come to embrace – even if reluctantly, as the way of the world – Israel’s isolation as the inherited legacy of Jewish othering.

But the fact that this ideology is embraced by some Jews does not inherently grant legitimacy to the pernicious consequences that it yields for Jews when it is wielded by others. Rising European anti-Semitism, the dehumanizing militancy of the anti-normalization efforts of the BDS movement, and Israel’s growing isolation among the nations of the world, all reflect the continuity of an anti-Jewish narrative – a hateful exceptionalism – that has long preceded, and will long outlive, its current manifestations.

When Jews and Muslims stand together in a moment like this, it is not merely in fulfillment of past debts, nor in consideration of future needs. Jews and Muslims must see in this moment the rise of devastating meta-narratives that strip us of our agency and are destructive to both communities, narratives that sadly are often cast against one another. All must resist the seductive simplicity of these mythologies; navigating the challenges of real life is difficult enough.

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