How Anti-Jewish Jokes Hurt the Palestinian Cause

An Arab student born in East Jerusalem explains why there's nothing funny about the hatred that drove Jews out of Europe.
A Palestinian woman in the West Bank waits for medical services at a mobile clinic. (Alberto Barbierro/Flickr)

It happens every time I visit the U.S., and it’s happened increasingly over the last five years. I say I’m Palestinian (usually after trying out the less inflammatory “I’m from Jerusalem” and then being pressed for detail). There’s a pause, and then—“Oh, so... is it a problem for you that I’m Jewish?”

There it is. The assumption that because I am Palestinian, I harbor animosity toward Jews—and not just Israeli Jews, but all Jews, all the time, everywhere. It was one of the first questions I got asked when my new roommate met me at the beginning of my college career, and again as I mingled at my first-ever internship lunch. It was what made a Jewish kid switch seats and move across the room from me during a seminar—he was worried, I was later informed, about sitting next to a Palestinian. It’s happened time and again, yet it still takes me by surprise.

Despite this initial hurdle, I’ve formed close relationships with many Jews—and that, in turn, often inspires condescension from others. It’s adorable that one of my closest friends is Jewish; it’s inspiring to see us eating together and making jokes. Such comments may be meant benignly, but they deftly reduce a 60-odd-year struggle for political independence to a squabble between siblings.

I try to explain, as mildly as I can, that my having Jewish friends doesn’t signify the end of the grim state of affairs in the region. I point out that, historically, Arabs and Jews actually lived pretty well together. In spite of rhetoric to the contrary, the Mideast crisis isn’t a case of why-can’t-they-just-get-along. It isn’t about ethnic differences. It isn’t hummus vs. hoummous.

Sometimes, instead of a pleased-and-patronizing outsider, I find myself confronted with sneaky, lurking, real anti-Semites who unabashedly come out of the woodwork when they hear that I’m Palestinian. “Hey, wanna hear a good one?” a stranger will ask conspiratorially. I cut him off before he finishes his joke, as soon as I can tell where it’s headed. “Dude,” I say. “You have no idea how badly you’ve misread this situation.”

It’s not just that I get how hurtful this type of discrimination can be. As both a Palestinian and an Arab in a post-9/11 world, I’ve been on the receiving end of it. It’s not even just because I can picture the faces of the Jews I know and love, for whom those jokes would strike deep and painfully resonant chords.

There’s another reason I despise these jokes. The Jews I meet might assume that I sympathize with the bomb-wielding extremists who want to push Israel into the sea. (To be clear: I do not.) But these closet anti-Semites assume that I sympathize with a species of historically European anti-Semitism —the kind that involves jokes about Jews hoarding money and controlling the media, the kind that involves big noses and black hats, the kind that led to the Jews’ persecution in the West. And those canards have nothing to do with Palestinians.

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Nuzha Nusseibeh is a freelance writer currently living in Scotland.

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