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.

In fact, it was this very discrimination and irrational hatred that drove the need for a safe Jewish homeland, after Theodor Herzl anticipated the deadly turn the already-rampant European anti-Semitism would take. It is this continued anti-Semitism that apparently vindicates Israel’s most segregationist policies, invoking fears from centuries of persecution.

Moreover, unjustified hatred of the Jewish people reduces any criticism of Israel’s practices to mere bigotry. There are concrete reasons to be at odds with Israel, reasons that include arbitrary arrests, evictions, settlements, and harassment, and simply the fact that most Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem aren’t recognized as voting citizens. Anti-Semitism—whether imported or home-grown—shatters those reasons into splinters of irrational fear.

To lump the Palestinian struggle—for human rights, for recognition, for nationality—in with an age-old prejudice isn’t reductionist; it’s downright absurd. In one fell swoop, a misguided bigot can manage to invoke the very sentiment that forced Jews out of Europe; make me, a Palestinian, part of the same anti-Semitism that led to Israel’s creation; and diminish all legitimate criticism of Israel to a species of European Jew-hating. It would almost be artful, if it weren’t so depressing.

When it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, misconceptions and generalizations reign supreme. Of course, that’s true of any complicated political situation. But what’s particular (and particularly damaging) about this case is that those misconceptions often come as much from outside the region as within it. Israeli Jews don’t always expect hostility from me, as a Palestinian (in fact, they often don’t). It’s the Diaspora Jews, it’s the people in the West who read the news, who see “Palestinian” as synonymous with “Jew-hater.” But it’s crucial to understand that, for any Palestinian, anti-Semitism—whether actual, perceived, or simply expected—is our worst enemy. At a very basic level, differentiating between irrational prejudice and informed criticism of Israel is what keeps Palestinian discourse legitimate.

So, to set the record straight: I’m a Palestinian, and I don’t hate Jews. That’s not a contradiction; it’s a personal, political, and moral imperative.