A Fantasy Both Toxic and Tragic: Antisemitism and Islamist Militants

Prologue: Things I don’t want people to do with this essay.

Do not use this essay to justify the huge number of Gazan civilians that the Israeli army has killed in the current war. That is not my purpose in writing it. I am frightened by the forms of antisemitism in the Islamic world discussed in this essay, and I strongly believe that no analysis of the power dynamics or the problems that need to be addressed to bring justice to Israelis and Palestinians is complete without dealing with it. But that doesn’t cancel out or negate the simultaneous fact that Israel’s government has maintained horribly unjust policies of occupation and domination towards the Palestinians for decades. Nor does it give Israel a free pass to fight Hamas in a way that kills this many civilians. I am and remain a progressive Zionist who opposes Israeli policies that violate international law or cause the death of innocents.

Do not use this essay to portray Islam as a whole as an evil religion or a religion that is hopelessly antisemitic. That would be the same mistake someone would make if they portrayed Judaism as an evil religion by only examining the subgroups within Judaism that promote openly racist or supremacist beliefs about Arabs or, in some cases, all non-Jews. Those Jewish subgroups don’t represent the vast majority of the world’s Jews, but they are loud, sometimes violent, and they’ve grown their ranks and political power in the past couple decades. In fact, some representatives of these Jewish extremist groups are presently serving in Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet. In other words, in my religion we’ve got our own work to do about hateful and supremacist zealotry. Same goes for Christianity. And probably every major religion on Earth. That’s the broader context in which I am focusing on several extreme strands within Islam that are poorly known or understood in the wider Western discourse about the Middle East.

The Houthis and the Israel-Hamas War

For several months, the Houthis in Yemen have entered the war between Israel and Hamas, aligning with Hamas and threatening to expand the war into a wider regional conflict. Houthi forces have fired ballistic missiles at Israel and attacked ships near the Bab-al-Mandeb Strait, one of the world’s most important shipping narrows. In response, a U.S.-led coalition of 12 nations has brought naval military resources to the area in order to protect commercial vessels seeking to traverse the strait, and there have been clashes involving Houthi and U.S. forces.

There has been a horrible civil war going on in Yemen for years. It has been, among other things, a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The war has brought on humanitarian crises of starvation, disease and mass displacement among the general population.

Iran backs, supplies and trains the Houthi rebel forces, while the Saudis have supported and actively joined in combat on behalf of the forces loyal to the internationally recognized regime. Both the Houthis and the Saudi-led coalition forces have been accused by human rights organizations of multiple war crimes. The Houthis have intentionally fired rockets at civilian centers in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The Saudi air force has bombed Houthi targets without precision and has killed large numbers of civilians unnecessarily. (That dynamic sounds awfully familiar.)

There are several factions fighting each other in Yemen. There is a Shia vs. Sunni element to the conflict, but it is more complex than that. There is a group seeking independence for southern Yemen fighting the others, and ISIS and Al-Qaeda have had their own militants fighting the other parties as well. One of the 21st century’s worst nightmares has been playing out in Yemen, repeatedly shattering the lives of millions of ordinary people with physical destruction, famine, and outbreaks of illness due to the collapse of sanitation structures.

The Houthi slogan

One of the main visuals you’ll find if you Google the Houthis is a widely used image featuring their official slogan. It’s ubiquitous in banners and signs at their rallies and on the streets in the parts of Yemen they currently control. Here it is:

Translation: “God is the Greatest. Death to America. Death to Israel. A Curse Upon the Jews. Victory to Islam.”

The slogan is everywhere in Houthi media and central to Houthi identity. It is chanted in summer camps[1] and schools, and it serves as their popular trademark.[2] And, with no shame whatsoever, it preaches a particular, religiously informed hatred of Jews, a specific kind of antisemitism that has its foundation in an extremist strand of modern Islamic teaching. I’m being precise with my language here because (a) as a religion with nearly 2 billion members, Islam has a huge number of different sects, sub-sects, schools of thought and differing interpretive traditions; (b) I don’t want to make the error of allowing an extremist fundamentalist group’s version of a major religion stand for the whole of that religion; and (c) this particular kind of Islamic antisemitism is playing an active role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and is important to understand with accuracy and clarity.

“A building in Dhamar, Yemen, bearing the Houthi slogan banner,” Credit: Own work | Abdullah Sarhan – Creative Commons License

So, what exactly is going on with the Houthi movement’s slogan, especially the part about cursing the Jews? After all, the Houthis are a political movement whose goals are:

  • to end the marginalization of Zaidi Shi’ite Muslims, a sub-sect of Shia Islam prevalent in parts of Yemen;
  • counter the corruption and pro-U.S. leanings of the official government;
  • promote more equitable economic development among Yemen’s different internal ethnic and religious groups; and
  • join in other religious and political struggles in the region.

I realize that the last of these goals includes support for groups like Hamas, but again I wonder, why are Jews so central to Houthi political identity that they merit the attention of two of the three lines in their slogan that express hatred and enmity? There are literally only 50 Jews living in Yemen today, and they are poor villagers. Why are “the Jews” — not even just the State of Israel — so important to the Houthis?

Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi’s teachings

To learn more, I looked to the teachings of the Houthi movement’s founder, Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi (1959-2004). His teachings, preserved primarily in a book called Malazim (“Fascicles”), form a key set of religious and political texts for the Houthi movement today.

I read a lengthy speech he gave in December 2001 that goes on at length about who he claims the Jews are.[3] According to al-Houthi, we Jews are essentially the people that the Protocols of the Elders of Zion claims us to be (he cites the fictional slanderous work in the speech).[4] The Jews control media, finance, industry and governments, pulling strings behind the scenes in the hope of dominating the world and — this is important — using clever mass-scale manipulation of ideas and culture to confuse Muslims into straying away from a correct interpretation of Islam and then into apostasy.

Al-Houthi argues that a correct interpretation of the Qur’an’s passages that discuss the Jews reveals that although they began as God’s favored people, they ultimately brought Divine curses upon themselves. Initially, the Jews were treated with all of God’s love, and forgiven by God many times upon their failures of proper belief. But then God warned them, through their own prophets, that if they persisted in unbelief, God would curse those guilty of that crime.

Eventually, al-Houthi writes, the Jews betrayed God during the lifetime of the Prophet Muhammad. The Jews of Muhammad’s time knew, he claims, that the Qur’an represented the true fulfillment of the teachings of their Jewish scriptures, and they knew that Muhammad was the true messenger of their own God; but they were so jealous that the Prophet was descended from the lineage of Ishmael, and not Isaac, that they denied him despite knowing the truth of his blessed identity. This particular betrayal served as a crowning example of their loathsomeness to God.

Al-Houthi states: “The Jews are very dangerous if they turn to the side of evil, and this is their dominant characteristic. Finally, and especially after Islam, it has become their dominant characteristic now in all parts of the world, the tendency towards evil, to deception, to misleading, to mixing truth with falsehood … .”

He goes on in this vein.

The Houthis believe that no one has the right to agree to a territorial compromise or an agreement that recognizes Jews and Palestinians as co-equal parties.

In the same speech he discusses the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and he makes it clear that no one — not even the Palestinians themselves — has the right to enter into an agreement with the State of Israel. No one has the right to agree to a territorial compromise or an agreement that recognizes Jews and Palestinians as co-equal parties to a conflict that needs to be resolved through diplomacy, give-and-take, and a willingness to recognize the legitimate rights and claims of the Other. Jews have no such rights. They have an insidious agenda aimed at weakening Islam, they already control much of the world, and they are cursed by God.

Al-Houthi promotes what the scholar and writer Reza Aslan calls a cosmic war. The Houthis’ enemy — in this case, the Jews — is God’s enemy. Compromise with this enemy is both a trap and an unforgivable sin. This enemy is talented and cunning, and it has stealthily infiltrated nations and institutions around the world, including parts of the Muslim world. Anyone who strays from the call to battle this enemy in the way that “proper faith” demands is misguided at best, or a collaborator with evil forces at worst.

Mind you, we have our cosmic warriors in Judaism as well: Itamar Ben-Gvir, Bezalel Smotrich and the settlers ambushing Palestinian villages in the West Bank and chasing them out of their homes while the Israeli government looks the other way. Christians have theirs, like Rev. John Hagee and those who routinely demonize Muslims and “love” the Jews as catalysts in their own imagined end-times drama.

Returning to the Houthis, their particular formulation of antisemitism is similar to that found in Hamas’s original charter,[5] along with many other Muslim Brotherhood teachings, the TV broadcasts of Hezbollah, as well as the teachings of Iran’s clerical leaders. Even though those groups represent different sects and streams within Islam, they share a very specific embrace of a kind of antisemitism that could only exist within the last century or so.

It’s a fusion of several elements, including:

  • modern conspiratorial antisemitism claiming that behind the scenes, “the Jews” control or seek to control finance, politics, culture and industry, and that they have a long term plan to rule the world. These groups embrace the Protocols of the Elders of Zion in their rhetoric. Soon after its publication in the early 1900s, this notorious forgery was exposed as an absurd fabrication and recognized as hateful nonsense by much of the world; however, in parts of the Islamic world the Protocols continues to be presented as a legitimate exposé of the secret plans of the leaders of a global Jewish conspiracy to enslave the rest of humanity.
  • a particular interpretation of the Qur’an that claims that its essential teaching about the Jews is that they are deservedly cursed by God, combined with the claim that the Jews are working tirelessly today to subvert and distort the “correct” understanding and practice of Islam in order to cause Muslims to fall out of favor with God. The fight against the Jews is central to the fight to “purify” Islam.
  • a harsh rejection of interpretations of the Qur’an that present a more classically Islamic respect for the ongoing spiritual legitimacy of Judaism and Christianity. These tolerant beliefs date back to the very earliest years of Islam. Nevertheless, according to this modern antisemitic strand of Islamic ideology, these tolerant beliefs are actually misguided and false interpretations of Islam that have been subtly and strategically pushed into Islamic discourse by Jews seeking to confuse and warp “true” Islam.
  • a belief that we are living in a crucial time of cosmic war between the forces of good and evil. The Jews are the most dangerous of Islam’s enemies because they have already achieved much of their plan for world domination. But if Muslims heed the call of the faithful (as defined by these particular groups) and fight hard against the Jews and their powerful puppets, like the United States, they will prevail. The central struggle in this cosmic war is the fight to rid Palestine of Zionism, which is a “cancerous” part of the Jewish plan for world domination. There can be no compromise with the State of Israel. There must only be an Islamic state in Palestine, governed by the beliefs of what these groups consider to be “correct” Islam.
  • a recycling, with minor modifications, of false conspiracy theories about Jews and Zionism that were developed and circulated by the Nazis and the former USSR, respectively.
  • Hamas’s original charter and al-Houthi’s writings make the recurring claim that Communism was a Jewish plot,[6] intended in part to foment unbelief among Muslims (atheism), thus separating millions of Muslims from God’s protection and corrupting Islamic society. That idea is recycled out of the Nazi propaganda playbook with an important, minor modification. Instead of Islam being the target, the Jews were seeking to undermine and weaken through the lure of Communism, the Nazis had taught that the Jews developed Communism to confuse and corrupt the German people into abandoning the cause of safeguarding the “purity” of the Aryan race, thereby preventing Aryans from achieving their dominant destiny among the nations. In both cases, there’s an extraordinary fantasy about the Jews that is being taught: specifically, that the Jews conspired to develop a global social-political movement, communism, whose purposes appeared to be something noble (equality and justice for the world’s oppressed workers), but whose real purpose was to lure decent Germans/Muslims into false beliefs that degrade and corrupt a pure understanding of Aryan destiny/Islam. That the Jews could operate secretly and manipulatively on a such an international scale and shape world politics and warfare towards their own chauvinistic agenda serves to illustrate just how dangerous an enemy they are

The Houthi fantasy about the Jews borrows from Nazi beliefs and the Protocols before them — about the Jews as a dangerous, talented nearly superhuman cabal threatening the proper world order.

  • Recurring claims about Zionism being an international conspiracy with much bigger aims than establishing a sovereign Jewish state in part of historical Palestine echo Soviet propaganda.[7] Beginning with Stalin, the Soviet Union developed and spread the false claim that Zionism was much bigger in scope than just seeking to create a Jewish state in the Middle East; rather, it was an international conspiracy designed to destroy the USSR itself. Swap out the Zionist threat to the USSR with Zionism as an international conspiracy threatening the purity of “true Islam” and voila: there’s your minor modification.

A form of antisemitism based on a fantasy about the Jews

In sum, what we have here is a religious fantasy about the Jews. It’s a fantasy that is shaped by the fusion of three patterns:

  1. aggrandizing maximally harsh interpretations of certain Qur’anic texts that are critical of Jews and claiming those texts apply to the Jews as a whole today;
  2. ignoring or minimizing the importance of Qur’anic texts that demand respect for and protection of Jews and Christians; and
  3. promoting some of the worst elements of modern conspiratorial antisemitism.

This element of fantasy is really important to understanding how this form of antisemitism works. Collective public fantasy, taught and repeated by respected authorities, is a recurring element of anti-Jewish bigotries and of systems of oppression that have marginalized, expelled and murdered Jews for many centuries.

Before the modern era, antisemitic hatreds were based on religious fantasies about the Jews, amplifying religious texts depicting the Jews negatively in the New Testament, in the writings of early Church fathers, as well as in specific portions of the Qur’an and Hadith literature. The modern, scientific era ushered in a new set of equally demonizing fantasies about the Jews, but shifted the analysis about Jews to non-religious discourses about race, economics and social history.

With the rise of the industrial, modern era and print mass-media, pseudo-scientific theories about race spread, providing new “scientific” justification narratives for European colonization, domination and exploitation of non-white populations around the world. Notable German antisemites of this era took longstanding Christian practices of creating negative fantasies about the Jews and transplanted them from the realm of Christian religious discourse into the emerging, racialized Nazi worldview.

Instead of the Jews as betrayers of Jesus cursed by God, the Nazis crafted the fantasy of the Jews as a pernicious race, bent on defiling the natural racial order of the world as it “should be,” i.e. with Aryans running the world and various lower races serving as laborers or slaves under the Aryans. In this racial schema, Jews were viewed as the lowest and most despicable of all races, too dangerous to permit to live. In the Nazi fantasy (and in today’s White Nationalist fantasies), the Jews are the most threatening force in the world to achieving “correct racial order,” because they are highly intelligent and devious, conspiring to disrupt “racial purity” in order to seize control of the world for themselves.

The Houthi fantasy about the Jews could only exist within the last 70 years or so. It borrows from the Nazi beliefs described above, and from those of the Russian authors of the Protocols before them, about the Jews as a dangerous, talented, nearly superhuman cabal threatening the proper world order, and then it goes about the business of presenting a series of Qur’anic “prooftexts” that, when understood “correctly,” confirm and validate the fantasy.

When a part of a society’s core mythic story of itself depends upon the demonic status of another people, a culture of confirmation bias is bound to result. So when on Oct. 7 Hamas goes on a mass-murder spree, including repeated acts of torture and sexual violence, and boasts about it by posting visuals of their violence on social media, celebrations and moral justifications circulate in such a society. And then, when Jews counter-attack against Hamas, their violence can only be viewed as the violence of a wicked, Divinely cursed people. And when those same Jews go too far in their military response and kill tens of thousands of civilians in the course of fighting Hamas, the entire fantasy is further re-confirmed.

Someone not in the grip of this antisemitic fantasy might look at what has happened since Oct. 7 and see human rights violations and war crimes on both sides, and lament the human character flaws that lay behind so much dehumanizing conduct and cruelty being committed by both sides. Someone not in the grip of this fantasy might even judge that what Hamas did was horrific, but that at this point, Israel has killed so many civilians, including children, in its attempt to destroy Hamas that it needs to be restrained and held accountable for its war crimes, too. These are examples of morally nuanced, complex thoughts and judgments that people observing this ongoing crisis might have outside the consciousness of this antisemitic fantasy.

But from inside the thought-world of this fantasy about “the Jews,” there is no room for any compassion for Hamas’s victims on Oct. 7. There are only the heroic actions of Hamas versus the evil actions of Israel and “the Jews.” There is no way to distinguish between morally justifiable acts of self-defense by Israel and morally questionable or clearly objectionable acts of violence by Israel. Rational moral evaluation has been thrown out.

Similarly, there is no room to support compromise and future co-existence based on pragmatic political agreements that might bring greater justice to Palestinians and Israelis without fulfilling the maximalist religious wishes of either. Such compromises are seen as evil. Only total victory is acceptable to God.

Overcoming the obstacles that these beliefs present to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is essential for some kind of future peace agreement to have a chance to endure. That’s why I believe that one of the major issues that needs to be addressed in order to find a fair and sustainable resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the problem of the power that this kind of antisemitic myth has among multiple Islamist movements and the potentially hundreds of millions of people under its influence.

Overcoming the obstacles that these beliefs present to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is essential for some kind of future peace agreement to have a chance to endure.

When antisemitism is part of revolutionary prophecy

The antisemitic ideologies of Hamas, Hezbollah, the Muslim Brotherhood, the clerical regime in Iran and the Houthis share another important common feature. Their antisemitic teachings have all been promoted by modern-day founding prophets who are beloved in each of these movements.

Each of these groups has its own complex history and context. Each of them arose in part to fight for marginalized people in their own societies struggling under the oppression and injustice of their own national rulers, who often were serving the colonial and imperial interests of European and American powers. And each of them has centered the religious teachings, including scholarly Qur’anic exegesis and passionate sermons, of their own modern-day prophets. For the Muslim Brotherhood (from which Hamas descends), these prophets include figures like Sayyed Qutb. For the Iranian regime, it is Ayatollah Ali Khomeini. And for the Houthis, it is Hussein al-Houthi.

These particular prophets have also been committed to political revolution in support of various forms of Islamism, the term used to describe religious-political ideologies seeking to establish states ruled by Islamic clerics who will ensure that their citizens live in a society that has been purified of outside elements that corrupt and undermine “true” Islam. In their respective nations, the prophetic figures leading these movements have championed the poor, the disenfranchised and the victims of government corruption. They have led movements that have provided badly needed human services to the downtrodden and the exploited in countries, often being run by Western-backed dictators who exploit their country’s resources for their own gain and use brutal methods of suppression of all form of dissent within their borders.

Prophets are incredibly important; even secular revolutions have theirs. What interests me here is that, in the case of this group of Islamist prophets, their message of liberation from oppression is fused with the kind of antisemitism I’ve described above, and it carries the religious force of a package of beliefs endorsed by God.

Dr. Yolanda Pierce writes that a prophet is “engaged in a theological project not from the center but from the margins — taking seriously the people, thoughts, ideas and experiences of the disinherited, those who ‘struggle for bread and shelter.’ A prophet who truly discerns the will of God must expose oppression and injustice, and be willing to stand for right, even when it is not popular or prudent.”[8]

But what happens when a prophet gets some things right, but gets other things horribly wrong — so wrong that if their total program was actually put into practice, it would result in the brutal oppression of all those who don’t comply with the revolutionary leaders’ Divinely inspired agenda?

That is what has happened, for example, in Iran, where the remaining Jewish community lives under uncomfortably close scrutiny, and where religious minorities like the Baha’i are routinely arrested, imprisoned, tortured and executed. Iran — the shining example of revolutionary victory by an Islamist movement over a brutal, Western-backed regime — is a state that uses secret police to crush dissent; deploys morality police to force its own citizens to adhere to a specific set of religious practices; persecutes and executes LGBTQ+ people; and severely limits the rights of women and girls, punishing dissent by women with state-sanctioned sexual violence and torture. (Incidentally, in the parts of Yemen now ruled by the Houthis, similar laws restricting the basic rights of women have been implemented.)

One problem facing all of us who care about finding a fair and sustainable resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is dealing with the tremendous emotional and psychological power that these particular Islamist prophets — several of them martyrs as well — have over many of their followers, because their liberatory and revolutionary message is fused with this antisemitic fantasy defining “the Jews” as a global enemy cursed by God. Generations of children have been raised on these core doctrinal beliefs (the Houthi movement began as a project that set up and funded a series of youth summer camps and has focused on youth education as a priority from its beginnings). How do you convince people that the Jews are not in fact the people of this fantasy, but rather, are just people? No better and no worse. A people who have been in the position of the oppressed and the oppressor, as have most peoples. A people who, yes, have been and continue to oppress the Palestinian people, but who have also been decimated and repeatedly oppressed themselves, and who share humanity with oneself?

In fairness, the Palestinians have to be wondering something similar about the far-right messianist Jewish settler movement that has been similarly indoctrinating new generations of believers into a distorted form of Judaism that regards Jewish ownership of all of the ancient biblical land of Israel as an inviolable Divine imperative, and that often uses dehumanizing language or genocidal biblical references to the Palestinians. Those subgroups within Israeli society have strong representation in the current coalition government of Israel, but until now, they have never had their own militia as their Islamist counterparts do. That may be changing.

Since the war began on Oct. 7, the Israeli government has relaxed rules that had limited personal gun ownership and has encouraged Jewish Israelis to arm themselves. There has been a massive surge in sales of personal firearms, and the most radical settlers have availed themselves of the opportunity to build their own stockpiles of guns. Some of these radicals have stated repeatedly that should the Israeli army ever try to require settlers to leave their West Bank settlements as part of a peace agreement, they will go to war against the Israeli army to defend their homes. Some of these modern-day zealots are followers of their own modern-day prophets — venerated rabbis of recent times who have spelled out their own exegesis of Jewish sacred texts, which, of course, confirms their political beliefs in Jewish supremacy and the necessity of ousting Palestinians from their lands in order to do “God’s will.”

If there is ever a peace agreement between Palestinians and Israelis — and if we want it to be sustainable — one of the things we’re going to need is some kind of spiritual and mental detox program for members of both peoples who have been swallowed by the uncompromising, rigid belief systems of these neo-fundamentalist movements and their modern-day prophets. Because such a detox program cannot be mandatory while still respecting peoples’ human rights to personal choice of religious beliefs, it would have to be voluntary but offered and supported by a major effort on the part of both peoples to build, staff, invite and encourage Jews and Palestinians who have been brainwashed to detox. There also needs to be a commitment to follow mutually agreed standards for school curricula in a future Israel and Palestine and to invest heavily in youth programs that bring kids from both peoples together to build shared civic norms of mutual respect and co-existence, and develop future leaders of a different kind of relationship between the two peoples.

Western progressives, Palestine solidarity and anti-Zionism

One thing you won’t find in the kind of Islamist antisemitism I’ve been describing is the popular idea in Western progressive politics that Zionism should be regarded quite separately from Judaism — a kind of “Judaism good/Zionism bad” frame of discussion. That discussion is connected to the current debate within parts of the Jewish community over whether one has to be a Zionist in order to be a good Jew, or whether anti-Zionism is a form of antisemitism.

I’m not going into a long sidebar here about those debates within the Jewish community. I’ll just tell you what I believe in brief: no, opposing Zionism doesn’t automatically mean someone is antisemitic; no, you don’t have to be a Zionist to be a faithful and good Jew; and finally, it’s complicated because people define Zionism differently, and sometimes people who self-describe as Zionist actually support the same political opinions and ideas as other people who don’t.

What I think is important to mention here on this topic is that the desire to uncouple Zionism from Judaism is a key part of much Western progressive political discourse on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It’s also a key part of the international community’s human rights discourse on Israel and Palestine. Within these communities of discourse, it’s important to people who oppose Zionism to make the argument that their anti-Zionism is entirely opposed to antisemitism, especially when those people happen to be Jewish. (I’m not saying they’re right or wrong here; I’m just being descriptive in order to further illustrate the point that in these particular discourses there’s a strong desire to distinguish between Zionism and Judaism.)

Within these discourses, progressives who oppose Zionism today are often people who have concluded that Zionism was a morally problematic path taken that has ended up having too many unfair and cruel consequences for Palestinians to be justified. Zionism is also sometimes criticized in this discourse as an ideology that has attempted to replace religious Jewish values of social justice with an amoral or even idolatrous modern nationalism that serves colonial and oppressive interests.

When this discourse shifts to considering what options are available now to change course and establish a new, just order between Israelis and Palestinians, it looks for political solutions that are not based on Zionism, but are instead based on establishing social equality; on restoring Palestinian rights to what they should have been had Zionism not disrupted them; and on redefining national identity in this particular land on a basis of pluralistic democracy. I’ll also note that this is a discourse that rejects religious mandates for how the land that is home to Palestinians and Israelis should be ruled, including religious mandates from groups like Hamas, though its focus tends to be on condemning the ways in which Israel imposes Jewish religious domination unfairly on Palestinian Muslims and Christians.

In contrast to this progressive/human rights analysis, within the narrow religious worldview of the strands of Islam that embrace the kind of antisemitism I’ve described above, there is no separation between Zionism and Judaism — or perhaps I should say, between Zionism and “the Jews.” The Jews are dangerous, conspiratorial and cursed by God, and they became that way centuries before Theodor Herzl ever was born. Zionism, the birth of the State of Israel, the Nakba of 1948 and even the massive number of civilians that have recently been killed by Israeli armed forces in response to Hamas’s attacks of Oct. 7 are all manifestations of the conspiratorial evil and harm that the Jews bring about.

And this is one of the reasons why, during this ongoing war, we have sometimes seen mass demonstrations in Western cities in solidarity with Palestinians in which some of the signs and chants led by some of the protesters include overtly antisemitic statements. And, as a result, some of the secular left-wing people who’ve attended these demonstrations have ended up afterwards saying that they were deeply upset and surprised by some of what they saw and heard.

Personally, I won’t take part in any kind of Palestinian solidarity event that positions secular progressives as allies of Islamist ideological movements. I feel that way not only because of the specifically toxic nature of the antisemitism that is part of Islamist movements’ ideological foundation, but also because the total revolutionary program they seek to establish once they win is a human rights nightmare. I’m not saying I don’t believe in the importance of political coalitions when fighting for justice, and I agree with the general idea that it’s important to be willing to work with groups one disagrees with on some issues when there’s a common cause that could advance in society through the work of an effective coalition.

But for me, as a political progressive, I won’t be an ally to movements that teach and advocate for a new order in which I and my people cannot exist with our basic dignity, or possibly even our lives, intact. I won’t be an ally to movements whose ideologies promote the God-ordained supremacy of their religious sect, or to movements that would strip women or LGBTQ+ people of their basic rights. There are those in progressive political circles who would say that in taking such a position, I am committing the moral errors of Orientalism and failing to understand the moral imperative to show solidarity with national, racial and ethnic groups that have historically been oppressed by Western imperialism, regardless of whether their beliefs about human rights align with mine. Some in this camp argue that the notion of universal human rights itself is tainted by Western colonialist thought and therefore should not be used by Westerners to judge the morality of non-Western liberation movements.

I disagree with this line of argument on multiple levels. I am not going to unpack all my reasons for that here, but suffice it to say that I believe that the heart of international progressive politics should rest on the foundational belief that there is a universal basis for fundamental human rights that holds a stronger moral claim on us than any form of post-colonial identity politics. Unfortunately, at their worst, progressive groups in the West support movements centering post-colonial national or ethno-religious identity politics so uncritically that they can’t see when they are serving as allies to movements whose revolutionary goal is to establish a reactionary, religious, right-wing regime.

One of my intellectual heroes, Fred Halliday, writes about the importance of progressives being discerning about how they engage in international solidarity. He stresses the importance of universal human rights as a benchmark that progressives should use to determine whether to provide full solidarity, qualified solidarity or no solidarity to various revolutionary movements fighting battles of liberation against unjust powers. Here’s a quote from him I turn to a lot:

One should not accept at face value what people who are struggling say: they may well be committing atrocities of their own. At the extreme end you have the PKK, the Shining Path, the Khmer Rouge and so forth. They may often be involved in inter-ethnic conflicts where they use a progressivist language to conceal what is in fact chauvinism towards another community. It goes for both Israelis and Palestinians. It goes for the IRA in Northern Ireland. It goes for the Armenians and the Azeris in Nagorno-Karabakh, and other cases. So solidarity should not be taken at face value. Solidarity should be critical of what people say and do, while also being guided by the longer-term evaluation of people’s interests and rights and material social progress.[9]

Revolutionary resistance movements can go wrong, can promote horrible ideas, and sometimes when they eventually win and take power, they are far more horrible human rights violators than the oppressive rulers they’ve overthrown. It’s sad that this basic observation about human beings can be acknowledged and intelligently explored by popular young adult fictional works like The Hunger Games books, but can be completely denied by progressive political movements in the name of a “revolutionary solidarity” that refuses to apply universal human rights criteria to non-Western militant groups because doing so would supposedly be a perpetuation of Western patterns of oppression. That logic oversimplifies the realities of many violent conflicts and leads to morally compromised acts of international solidarity by some Western progressives with groups like Hezbollah, Hamas and the Houthis. It also offers uncritical acceptance of these specific groups’ claims to authentically represent the oppressed communities they champion, discarding the possibility that they may be actively engaged in suppressing all other centers of power within their own communities, or that they may be engaging in atrocities of their own against their own people or in partnership with other governments.

Bringing the focus back on the war between Israel and Hamas, I’d like to say one more thing. Refusing to take part in rallies or public statements that give solidarity to antisemitic Islamist groups does not mean the moral alternative is to give unqualified support to Israel or to remain silent. I feel that the moral calling of this time is threefold:

  1. to support and call for actions that protect the lives of Palestinian civilians in Gaza and to demand the release of all the Israeli hostages;
  2. to affirm the rights of Palestinians and Israelis to live in safety, dignity and equality in a future, mutually agreed political resolution of their conflict (whether it’s two-states, one-state or some creative confederation — whatever the parties can agree to and then sustain);
  3. to reject antisemitism, anti-Arab racism and Islamophobia as evil and undemocratic beliefs that must be opposed by all who struggle for a just and fair resolution of the conflict.

Within the parameters of these three principles, there is plenty of room for differences of opinion about some of the specifics of how best to advocate for an end to the current war, proper accountability for those who have committed war crimes, and a more just, peaceful and sustainable future. I look for opportunities to speak out and take action with organizations that affirm these principles.

Final thoughts: Understanding the problem of Houthi antisemitism, and its correlates in Hamas and other Islamist groups, in its proper proportions

We need to be able to see this form of antisemitism within parts of the Muslim world in its correct size and proportion — not bigger, not smaller. It is not the result of a grand “clash of civilizations” between the West and Islam. In fact, as I pointed out earlier, this particular form of antisemitism could not exist without the influence of specific antisemitic ideas that emerged out of Germany and Russia.

But neither is this form of antisemitism a minor moral blemish of little import in understanding the Middle East today. It is not a concern that is being overblown by people who don’t understand “nuance,” and it can’t be dismissed by attempts to claim that calling out this antisemitism is a form of Orientalist bias. That argument doesn’t make sense because this particular form of antisemitism relies in good measure on malignant ideas that come from the West. Condemning this antisemitism is not hostile to Islam or to oppressed Middle Eastern peoples.

And yet, defenders of the Houthis or Hamas, including among some Western progressives, sometimes deploy an “Orientalism” defense against people who demand that these groups be held to account for promoting this form of antisemitism. There is an important role for factoring cultural differences and historical patterns of oppression into working on problems in the Middle East, including Israel and Palestine. And there is an important role for factoring in ongoing power dynamics and patterns of oppression playing out in different parts of the Middle East. But that analytical principle should not be allowed to supercede all other analytical principles, including basic common sense. The Houthi signs say “a curse upon the Jews.” Their teachings promote the Protocols and the belief that Jews control the world behind the scenes. This is … the best word that comes to mind right now is … bullshit. This is also hate. And antisemitism. To claim otherwise is gaslighting.

The proper moral response to these ideas and beliefs, from anyone in any culture, is to reject them utterly and without reservation. The fact that the United States and Saudi Arabia play an oppressive role vis-à-vis specific religious and ethnic groups in Yemen, including Zaidi Shi’ites, doesn’t mean that whatever the Houthi revolutionary leaders who have organized the Zaidi resistance teach and do is morally right. And similarly, the fact that Israel and the United States have collaborated in the oppression of Palestinians for decades doesn’t mean that whatever Hamas does is morally justifiable. That’s not how human beings work.

Bottom line: There are several governments and revolutionary movements within the Islamic world that teach a mythic narrative about their very identity that centers a dishonest and demonizing fantasy about the Jews, in which the Jews are the ultimate enemy of Islam and in which any form of compromise with the Jews (including a two-state solution to Israel/Palestine) is forbidden by God. These teachings influence tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions, of people, and that’s not good. This demonizing fantasy is part of what made the actions of Hamas on Oct. 7 possible. It’s part of what makes it possible for Iran to host conferences that support Holocaust denial. And it is integral to how these governments and movements legitimize their ruthless punishment of dissent and religious liberty within the societies they rule.

Furthermore, the groups that promote these antisemitic beliefs spend a lot of energy trying to discredit mainstream Muslim leaders and schools of thought that don’t see Islam as they do, that don’t see “the Jews” as world-controlling demonic baddies. Groups like Hezbollah, Hamas and the Houthis are embattled with multiple other Arab and/or Muslim leaders. These groups have killed a lot more Muslims who disagree with them about what Islam is supposed to be than they have Jews. And yet, they are part of the problem with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and we need to figure out how to deal with it along with everything else. I believe that it is big enough a problem that it needs to be a standard part of any human-rights-based analysis of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

————

Notes:

The Houthi movement is also known as Ansar Allah (“supporters of God”), with varying spellings in English transliteration. Their English language website is https://www.ansarollah.com/en/.

Some of what I learned for this essay came from the 2021 honors thesis of a student at the University of Michigan, Jalal Mawri, available online at this link.

I also learned from an article by another college undergraduate student, Hannah Klapprodt. “Summer Camps and Civil War: Deconstructing the Huthi Rebellion in Yemen” appeared in The Cornell International Affairs Review in their Spring 2019 issue.

I learned from Wikipedia’s articles, “The Houthi Movement” and “Hussein al-Houthi,” and from bits and pieces from the Encyclopedia Britannica and the “Google translate” translation of al-Houthi’s December 2001 lecture, from the original Arabic on the Ansar Allah website. I saw excerpts and analysis of this particular speech on several websites.

I started to read a 2020 article published by the Embassy of the Republic of Yemen called “Familiar but Distinct: Understanding the Houthi Ideology and its Consequences on Yemen,” but it is so clearly a propaganda piece by the Houthis’ main opponent in war that I stopped reading pretty quickly. I’m sure none of the sources available are 100% objective, but I tried to avoid analytical essays that were clearly partisan.

[1] Klapprodt, Hannah, Summer Camps and Civil War: Deconstructing the Huthi Rebellion in Yemen, in The Cornell International Affairs Review, Spring 2019.

[2] Mawri, Jalal, Ansar Allah in Yemen: History and Ideology, p. 6.

[3] Original Arabic text online on the Houthi-sponsored site, https://www.ansarollah.com/archives/6695. Google translation to English at this link.

[4] Here’s the part of the speech I’m referring to:

“The Jews know, they know the effect of faith when there is faith in the nation, and they know that if it is established — and they know that if they are able to turn us into infidels — they did not want us to be Jews. They said in their documents called [The Protocols of the Elders of Zion] that they did not want Muslims or Christians to be Jews. They did not deserve to be Jews, but if they were infidels, they would be misguided. They would be such and such and so on to lose divine victory, divine support, and what faith can give.

They would like us to be infidels and he did not say: [They would like us to be Jews]. They are not busy calling us to be Jews. Why do they not want us to be Jews and would like us to be infidels? Their main concern is that we do not have a faith that can grant us God’s support and care, so it will be difficult for them to confront us, and difficult for them to attack us… so that they may corrupt us and turn us into infidels, this is what they want.

Then he also says in another verse, he says about them: ‘And they desire that you should stray from the path, and God knows best your enemies. And God is sufficient as a guardian, and God is sufficient as a Helper.’ (Qur’an 4:44-45) and after that He says: ‘Among those they are Jews who distort words from their proper places.’ (Qur’an 4:46) … until the last verses.

Their hatred to see Muslims in goodness, in progress, in prosperity. … This is something they work hard to prevent the nation from achieving. Indeed, we are here in Yemen as an example, not to mention the rest of the Arab countries, and the issue is one: our food, our clothes, our medicines, the various luxuries that we use, soap, shampoo, various drinks, various perfumes, the very, very many things that we consume, most of which are foreign companies in the hands of Jews.”

[5] In 2017, Hamas published A Document of General Principles and Policies, often referred to as a revision of their original 1988 charter. In this document Hamas shifts away from the openly antisemitic passages of the 1988 document and makes the claim that its battle is not against Judaism but only Zionism. However, Hamas has not repudiated the 1988 document, which clearly regards Zionism as a part of Judaism and “the Jews’” conspiracy to dominate the world. Later in this essay I examine the difference between how modern Islamist ideologies view Zionism as part of the “spiritually toxic and destructive” nature of Judaism as opposed to the way that progressive Western political discourse seeks to decouple Zionism from Judaism. Scholars and analysts of many different political views have been debating whether the 2017 Hamas document represents a sincere shift away from the kind of antisemitic ideology described in this essay, whether it represents a pragmatic and tactical repositioning, or whether it reflects internal splits within Hamas about how the organization needed to evolve.

[6] Here’s a quote from his December 2001 speech:

“They were behind communism, as was known, and almost everyone who spoke about communism, and everyone who wrote about communism, all confirm that communism was behind the Jews.

Didn’t they work through communism to make people unbelievers and atheists in God Almighty? This disbelief spread within Islamic countries, and there were communist parties in every country, even in Yemen. The south in Yemen was ruled by a truly atheistic, atheist, socialist communist party, an extension of communism in Russia, and communism reached many regions and countries. ‘They will turn you back into disbelief after you have believed.’ ” (Qur’an 3:100)

This is in relation to their orientation towards misguidance, towards corruption, towards mixing truth with falsehood, as He said about them: ‘And they strive through the earth [to spread corruption] (from Qur’an 5:64) towards their hard work to turn Muslims into unbelievers. This is something that God Almighty said about them.”

[7] Here is a relevant section from the Hamas Covenant (1988):

“World Zionism, together with imperialistic powers, try through a studied plan and an intelligent strategy to remove one Arab state after another from the circle of struggle against Zionism, in order to have it finally face the Palestinian people only. Egypt was, to a great extent, removed from the circle of the struggle, through the treacherous Camp David Agreement. They are trying to draw other Arab countries into similar agreements and to bring them outside the circle of struggle.

The Islamic Resistance Movement calls on Arab and Islamic nations to take up the line of serious and persevering action to prevent the success of this horrendous plan, to warn the people of the danger emanating from leaving the circle of struggle against Zionism. Today it is Palestine, tomorrow it will be one country or another. The Zionist plan is limitless. After Palestine, the Zionists aspire to expand from the Nile to the Euphrates. When they will have digested the region they overtook, they will aspire to further expansion, and so on. Their plan is embodied in the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” and their present conduct is the best proof of what we are saying.

Leaving the circle of struggle with Zionism is high treason, and cursed be he who does that. ‘For whoso shall turn his back unto them on that day, unless he turneth aside to fight, or retreateth to another party of the faithful, shall draw on himself the indignation of Allah, and his abode shall be hell; an ill journey shall it be thither.’ (Qur’an: The Spoils – verse 16). There is no way out except by concentrating all powers and energies to face this Nazi, vicious Tatar invasion. The alternative is loss of one’s country, the dispersion of citizens, the spread of vice on earth and the destruction of religious values.”

[8] This quote is from Dr. Pierce’s foreword to the 2022 edition of Howard Thurman’s Meditations of the Heart.

[9] From an interview with Halliday: https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/who-is-responsible-interview-with-fred-halliday/

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