In 2011, Abraham Foxman, then the CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, wrote in a Washington Post op-ed: “We must always be wary of those whose love for the Jewish people is born out of hatred of Muslims or Arabs.”
This warning was written in the aftermath of a mass murder in Oslo, Norway carried out by far-right terrorist Anders Behring Breivik. Ninety minutes before he detonated a bomb in Oslo, Breivik emailed out a lengthy manifesto — entitled “2083: A European Declaration of Independence” — to over 1,000 recipients. The document, which calls for the expulsion of all Muslims from Europe, quotes extensively from Robert Spencer, the self-proclaimed Islamophobe who is scheduled to speak on campus next Tuesday. As Stanford grapples with this upcoming event, Foxman’s statement is all too pertinent.
Robert Spencer frames himself as a defender of the Jewish people, often invoking incidents of extremist violence against Jews to corroborate his anti-Muslim agenda. As an American Jew, I am deeply frustrated and infuriated by those who espouse racist hatred and claim to have the Jews’ best interests at heart. I do want to acknowledge that the opinions I express reflect my individual understanding of Jewish history, values and identity. (For a communal Jewish response to Robert Spencer’s scheduled visit, see the recent open letter in condemnation of the event, to which the Jewish Students Association is a signatory.) Of course, I have trouble grasping how any Jewish person could accept an ideology whose proponents are often found in coalition with white supremacists and neo-Nazis, but I want to make explicit that I am speaking as an individual and do not claim to represent all Jews.
Jews are made vulnerable in any society that discriminates and persecutes on the basis of religious and ethnic identity. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s oft-quoted remark, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” is more than just a platitude. If a society can deny freedom of religion to one group, it can employ the same mechanisms to systematically limit Jewish religious practice and denigrate Jewish communities. Throughout American history, Jews have been leading defenders of civil liberties and equal rights for good reason. Despite our relative privilege, we will always be a minority in America. Public indifference, or open hostility, to the rights of any minority group is an implicit threat to the well-being of the Jewish people. When hatred remains unchecked or gains ground, Jews have little reason to expect that anyone will come to our defense when we face discrimination or existential danger.
Fortification of civil liberties, strong bulwarks against intolerance and deep commitment to a pluralistic society are the best safeguards of Jewish freedom and the most important pillars of our security. In a society where these institutions and principles do not apply to Muslims, Jews have no guarantee that they are stable. Any platform for Islamophobia is well-equipped to double as a platform for anti-Semitism. No matter how vociferously Robert Spencer proclaims to respect and defend the Jews, his ideology gives license to our oppression.
Spencer also consistently rebukes the claim that “Muslims are the new Jews.” He rejects the idea that the same phenomena that gave impetus to systemic oppression and genocide of Jews underlie anti-Muslim rhetoric and policies. He also maintains that the threat of Islamophobia to Muslims cannot be compared to Nazism’s threat to Jews, writing, “[N]o one is calling for or justifying genocide of Muslims now; there is no individual or group remotely comparable to the National Socialists in any genuine sense.” This claim is not only despicable but also objectively false, as the ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar tragically demonstrates.
I am also compelled to bring up a seminar I am taking that explores the historical origins of anti-Semitism. One of the main theses of the class is the notion that hatred accumulates. Anti-Jewish theological interpretations, legislation and imagery did not develop in a vacuum. Stereotypes, persecution and violence only gained traction because subtler forms of anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism were already ingrained in the cultural consciousness, as hatred and exclusion were legitimized throughout generations. Across ages and empires, the existing repertoire of anti-Jewish assumptions gave justification to denigration and oppression. The Holocaust would not have been possible without thousands of years of anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism that emerged in increasingly catastrophic forms and that, left largely unchecked, accelerated over time. Nazism was only a thinkable outcome because hateful ideologies, with many parallels to Spencer’s, gained widespread acceptance and intensity throughout the history of the Western world.
Spencer’s worldview evokes one particular event that we studied: the trial of the Talmud in 13th-century Paris. The Talmud is the body of Jewish teachings that interpret the words of the Torah. As historians John Friedman, Jean Connell Hoff and Robert Chazan describe in “The Trial of the Talmud: Paris, 1240,” Christian religious and secular authorities were appalled that the Talmud is much longer than the Torah itself, which suggested that Jews were more devoted to human analysis than to G-d’s own word. Christian officials insisted that the Talmud “contained so many falsities and offensive things that they are a source of shame to those who repeat them and horror to those who hear them.” Calling the Talmud a fundamentally anti-Christian document, critics pointed to passages that depicted Jesus burning in excrement in Hell and portrayed Mary as a whore. These passages from the Talmud were not fabricated, but were unjustly taken out of context and highlighted as representative of an entire faith tradition. Spencer’s hostile readings of the Qu’ran follow the same pattern.
In 13th-century Paris, thousands of copies of the Talmud were seized and burned, which not only deprived Jews of their religious practice but also planted the seed for later anti-Jewish attitudes and policies. I should not need to reiterate that a misinformed societal view of a faith should never limit the rights of its adherents, but I find it important to note that Jews have a special historical impetus to denounce such blatant misreadings.
As much as I am frustrated and infuriated that Spencer cites Jewish well-being to corroborate his claims, this is trivial in the context of his entire worldview. The most abhorrent aspect of Spencer’s ideology is the blatant Islamophobia that he embraces, justifies and proliferates. I cannot fathom how I would feel if a self-proclaimed anti-Semite were given a platform to speak on this campus, and I am in awe of the Muslim community’s courage in the face of this affront to their identity and security. Even if one of his stated aims is to protect the Jewish community, Robert Spencer brings nothing of value to the Stanford student body — as a Jewish student, his presence at Stanford is simply insulting. No matter how much Spencer positions himself as a defender of the Jewish people, his rhetoric only serves to undermine our rights, threaten our security and resurface the tragedies we have suffered throughout history.
Contact Courtney Cooperman at ccoop20 ‘at’ stanford.edu.