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Mahmoud Abbas’ Antisemitic Outburst

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Our Zoom call this week, cosponsored with Jewish Currents, will be at a special time: Thursday at 11 AM EDT.

Our guest will be Dana El Kurd, assistant professor of political science at the University of Richmond and author of the book, Polarized and Demobilized: Legacies of Authoritarianism in Palestine. Dana is one of the world’s authorities on what has happened to the Palestinian national movement since the Oslo agreement and how it produced the current leadership of Mahmoud Abbas. She’s also a signatory to the new “open letter” condemning Abbas’ comments about the Holocaust. This conversation will be co-sponsored with Jewish Currents.

As usual, paid subscribers will get the link this Wednesday and the video the following week. They’ll also gain access to our library of past Zoom interviews with guests like Thomas Friedman, Ilhan Omar, Omar Barghouti, Benny Morris, Noam Chomsky. and Bret Stephens.

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Sources Cited in this Video

Mahmoud Abbas’ comments on September 3, with translation by MEMRI.

The BBC confirms MEMRI’s translation.

Palestinian intellectuals condemn Abbas’ comments.

Two studies debunking the claim that Ashkenazi Jews descend from the Khazars.

Abbas claims that European Jews lack roots in Israel-Palestine. Right-wing Jews say the same about Palestinians.

Things to Read

In Jewish Currents (subscribe!), Joshua Leifer details the ethnic cleaning of Palestinian communities in Area C of the West Bank.

Jeet Heer reminds us that ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt, who now rightly complains about Elon Musk’s mainstreaming of white nationalism, once called him “the Henry Ford of our time”— and meant it as a compliment!

Amira Hass on the tragedy of Palestinian “lone-wolf” attacks.

Lara Friedman dives deep into the legal attack on Palestinian free speech.

A California synagogue begins the work of supporting reparations and return for Palestinian refugees.

See you on Thursday at 11 AM,

Peter


VIDEO TRANSCRIPT:

Hi. Our call this week is going to be at a different time than usual. It’s going to be on Thursday at 11am. Thursday at 11am. And our guest is going to be Dana El-Kurd, who’s a professor of political science at the University of Richmond, and an expert on the Palestinian national movement, and the author of an important book called Polarized the Demobilized: Legacies of Authoritarianism in Palestine. And she’s going to talk about Mahmoud Abbas. This is going to be co-sponsored with Jewish Currents.

I think it’s really important to talk about the comments that Mahmoud Abbas was revealed to have made last week, which were in my view antisemitic. Of course, people who are not sympathetic to the Palestinian cause and don’t really support Palestinian rights jumped on this to say: ‘look at these Palestinians. They’re so hateful.’ But I think it’s important that people who support Palestinian rights also engage in this, not just kind of ignore things that are difficult or uncomfortable, but really, actually engage with them. Part of the reasons Dana is one of the signatories of a really excellent letter that’s also been signed by Ahmad Khalidi and Rashid Khalidi and Tareq Baconi and a lot of very important Palestinian scholars denouncing Abbas’s comments. But I think the comments need to be denounced and condemned and I’ll explain why, but they also need to be understood. It’s really important to distinguish between justification and understanding. They should be condemned as antisemitic and also one needs to try to understand why Mahmoud Abbas might be speaking in this antisemitic way. Because if you don’t, then the implication then becomes—and I think this is an implication that is promoted by many people who are not sympathetic to the idea that Palestinians deserve basic rights—which is to say, ‘well you know the Palestinians just kind of genetically, inherently hate Jews, so like what are you gonna do? You certainly can’t give them basic human rights because they’re basically people who don’t deserve them, right?’ And I think that’s what happens if you don’t both condemn these comments but also try to give an understanding of where they come from. So, I’m gonna try to do that a little bit, but I think Dana because of her deep research on the Palestinian national movement, and how it ended up that we got to a leader like Mahmoud Abbas, is really the best person to have that discussion with.

So, just to back up and say a little bit about what it was that Abbas said. So, on September 3rd, he made some comments that were translated by a group called MEMRI. Now, what MEMRI does is basically they translate comments about Palestinian and maybe other Arab leaders from Arabic into English, and they usually look for the most incendiary, offensive statements to translate. But just because they’re looking for those things doesn’t mean that their translations are necessarily wrong. And in this case, the BBC confirmed that the translation of what Abbas had said was right. And Abbas said two things in particular that were very incendiary. The first was that European Jews are not Semites because they don’t come from the Middle East. They are descendants from the Khazars who were in this Tatar kingdom whose people supposedly converted Judaism in the year 900, and that’s where the Ashkenazi Jews came from.

Now, my understanding of this—and I’m including a couple links—is that this has been pretty much debunked by scholars who have looked into it. That’s not to say that all of the Ashkenazi Jews can necessarily trace all their ancestry back to biblical Israel. I mean, 2,000 years is a long time, and certainly there was probably intermarriage and all kinds of things. But I think that Mahmoud Abbas is not bringing this up in a kind of forum for scholarly conversation. There’s a clear political delegitimizing agenda here. And that’s really what’s problematic. It’s not just kind of scholarly musings or scholarly research, right? Why is Abbas raising this question? First of all, he wants to say that you can’t accuse Palestinians of antisemitism if they have hostility to Jews because your Eastern European Jews aren’t Semites.

Well, this seems to me is really a red herring, right? The point is that antisemitism is a term that emerges in Germany in late 19th century, and it basically becomes a synonym for Jew hatred or Judeophobia. Now it’s true, it’s not a great term because it’s based on kind of 19th century ideas of race. And that’s why I think people who use the term, who are thoughtful now, generally use it without a hyphen, just as one word—antisemitism—to kind of make the point that there’s no actual thing called ‘semitism’ that you’re against. It’s just a basically a word that’s become a synonym for Jew hatred. If I could snap my fingers, I would get rid of the term and substitute it for Judeophobia or Jew hatred or something. But the term is out there. And so, if you basically say, ‘well, it can’t be antisemitism because Jews aren’t really Semites,’ that’s kind of a stupid thing to say because everyone should know that when you use the term antisemitism, what you really mean is hostility to Jews without getting into this thing about who is and who is not a Semite.

The other point that Mahmoud Abbas made is that Hitler didn’t kill the Jews because they were Jews. He killed them because they had a particular—this is Abbas’ phrase—‘a social role in Europe.’ He makes reference to usury and money lending, and then Abbas says this was the explanation also given by Karl Marx, right? Now, again, there are scholars who certainly have all kinds of important and interesting debates about the origins of European antisemitism, origins of the Holocaust. It may be indeed that there are scholars who point to the fact that the Jews’ economic position in Europe as a kind of class of people who were kind of often wedged in a very dangerous, precarious way between the peasantry and the nobility, and people who are playing a certain economic function because of their social distance from Christians, that this may have produced resentment and been fodder for people to whip up hatred against Jews.

But again, Mahmoud Abbas is not introducing that in this context at all, right? One has to ask the question, why is he bringing this stuff up, right? And the reason he’s bringing this stuff up is because he wants to delegitimize Zionism, right? He is bringing this stuff up because the core to justifications of Zionism, or the idea that Jews are returning to the place that they were from—A—and B, that the Holocaust shows that Jews could not be safe in the diaspora, and so Jews needed a state of their own. Now, not everybody emphasizes those two points in the same way, but they’re very common justifications for Zionism. So, what Mahmoud Abbas is trying to do is undermine the justifications for Zionism. But instead of talking about the ways in which Zionism has hurt Palestinians and the ways in which Zionism, at least in its many of its manifestations, may be at odds with principles of human rights and equality, what he’s actually doing is kind of—without really knowing what the heck he’s really talking about—he’s globbing on to certain things that he’s heard that would try to delegitimize Jewish identity and the Jewish experience in in order to try to discredit Zionism.

And it reminds me a little bit of the kinds of things you hear from Louis Farrakhan, right? So, the Nation of Islam has these kind of crazy ideas that white people come from this mad scientist named Yakub, who created white people on this island of Patmos. Now, like, why does Farrakhan talk this way, right? I mean, this is again, this is kind of nonsensical, crazy stuff. And it’s hateful stuff, too, right? But it’s because he’s trying essentially to dehumanize and discredit and delegitimized white people in response to what has been done to Black people. But he’s doing it in precisely the wrong way. And what’s striking to me about Abbas’ statements is the way in which they kind of rehearse the very same kind of dehumanizing things that Jews say about Palestinians. So, his claim about Jews is, well, Jews aren’t really from here, right? Well, actually, that’s the same thing that you find certain right-wing Jewish writers saying about Palestinians. The writer Joan Peters, for instance, whose book was very influential for Alan Dershowitz, you know, claimed that basically Palestinians only really came to Palestine from the Arab Peninsula once the Zionists got there and started to make it a really prosperous place. Right, so you see the inversion of Peters saying the Palestinians aren’t from here, and Mahmoud Abbas is saying the Jews aren’t from here.

Or similarly, when Mahmoud Abbas says, ‘well, the Jews brought their suffering on themselves,’ right? The reason they suffered so much in Europe was because they were doing these bad things like usury and money lending. Again, it’s quite similar to people who say, ‘well, if the Palestinians are suffering now, they’ve really just brought it on themselves. If they didn’t do all these bad things, then they wouldn’t be suffering under apartheid without basic rights,’ right? Both have the function, I think, of basically trying to say that the other group is not a legitimate national group that has genuinely experienced suffering, and genuinely deserves to be treated equally and to be recognized as a people. And as I’ve argued, I think the idea that one can recognize that there are two peoples, both of whom deserve national self-determination within a context of political equality in one equal binational state.

I was really, really, really heartened to see the letter by Palestinian intellectuals—many of the most prominent Palestinian intellectuals signed the letter—denouncing Abbas’s comments. And because part of the reason that I think it’s important to see those comments is that there’s a tendency in the kind of popular discussion about Palestinians to talk about moderates and extremists, right? But what’s critical to understand in understanding Abbas is that the people who are denouncing Abbas’ antisemitism and saying that there’s no tolerance for antisemitism in the national movement are not moderates. These are people who are actually in some ways much more principled opponents of Israel and even of Zionism than Abbas is, right? Because the irony of Abbas is that on the one hand, he’s making these antisemitic comments. On the other hand, he’s serving as Israel’s subcontractor in controlling the West Bank. In some ways, he’s the kind of best possible person you could have from Israel’s perspective, because on the one hand, he discredits the Palestinian national movement. On the other hand, he helps you repress the Palestinian national movement through his military cooperation with Israel. And the people who are denouncing him who are people who have a principled belief in the idea of human equality and equality between Israelis and Palestinians, they’re criticizing Abbas for both things—both for his collaboration and for his antisemitism. And that’s not a contradiction because they want a genuine freedom movement that offers a vision of equality, does not participate in Israeli oppression, but opposes Israeli oppression in a way that also affirms the humanity of Jews and the right of Jews to live equally. And that’s the statement in all of this that gives me hope. And that’s why I’m really excited to be speaking to Dana, who’s one of the signatories of that statement on Thursday at 11. I hope many of you will join us.

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Peter Beinart