Genocide and Antisemitism

Marcelo Guimarães Lima, Child from Gaza, pencil on paper, 2024


The West's unconditional support for Israel reveals that the West never believed its own lie about the universality of human rights

I, Semite…

Let's start with this: I am a Semite. Or rather, if anyone in this world can be a Semite, then I am a Semite.

This is not to say that I am a descendant of Shem, son of Noah, who, frankly, I don't know if he ever existed.

In fact, being a descendant of peasants, I have no family coat of arms or family tree that would allow me to accurately reconstruct my family past, even if it was an invented past.

But, as far back as the collective memory of my ancestors goes back, it is known that we are Arabs and that we have always spoken Arabic.

As we know, someone one day decided to classify linguistic families and call the one that brings together the languages ​​that originated and spoken in the Middle East “Semitic”. There is no great doubt about the fact that the Semitic languages ​​are related to each other and that they derive from the same proto-language. The name given to the group may make more or less sense, but it is the established name.

It is less certain that there are “Semitic peoples” who, in a similar way, result from the same genetic cradle, whether descendants of a mythical Shem or not.

What does this mean, concretely?

The Arabic language, spoken by anyone, continues to belong to the linguistic family that brings it closer to and relates it to Hebrew or Aramaic. On the other hand, an examination of my DNA might demonstrate that, although I only know the past of my ancestors who lived in Lebanon, my entire family has its origins in Iran, for example, whose language, Persian, belongs to another family linguistics other than Semitic.

Semitic identity in genetic terms, therefore, is something whose existence is uncertain, especially if thought of in terms of purity.

So, when I say that if anyone can be a Semitic, I certainly am, this means that, being a descendant of Lebanese who always spoke Arabic, I speak a Semitic language and the probability that I am a descendant of the people where the Semitic languages ​​arose is relatively larger.

Others may say the same as me, but I don't see anyone who can say more.

Please note that this has no relation to the faith or religion that I may profess or practice; There are Arabs and Arabic speakers, Muslims, Christians, Jews…


Someone one day, towards the end of the 19th century, conceived the term “anti-Semitism” to refer to what was previously known as “hatred of Jews” and which could also be called “Judeophobia”.

The moment in which the term appears would not have been accidental; it was related to the emergence in importance of “scientific” theories about races.

It was also the time when an ancient problem was the subject of more intense discussions in Europe: the question of the integration of European Jews into the societies in which they found themselves and their belonging to emerging national identities.

That phenomenon of hatred of the Jew, in its specifically European – and later Western – form that occurred in circumstances in which Jews, at the same time, were part of the European social fabric and were seen – and saw themselves – as partly foreigners, came to be called “anti-Semitism”.

I think I read somewhere something that suggested the following conclusion to me: calling hatred of Jews anti-Semitism was in itself a gesture of hatred towards Jews.

Adherence to a religious belief, Judaism, became racial, genetic identity. The Jew could be European, even if hated for his religious specificity, but the same could not be said of the “Semite”.

The Semite was not just another; he was the inferior other, barbaric, uncivilized, destined for colonial domination and exploitation.

In other words, to call the Jew a “Semite” was to say, not that he was just an inferior European, but that he was as foreign as the Arab, that he was neither different nor better than the Arab.

This racial reading of what was once religious belonging prevailed until the genocide of European Jews during World War II.

Ironically, and tragically, the same biological conception of the identity of the “Jewish people” became the cornerstone of the State of Israel and what is intended to be its character as a “Jewish State”.

Anti-Semitism, as hatred of the Jew or Judeophobia, whether one thinks of the Jew as a member of a religion or as racially inferior, because he is a Semitic, is a phenomenon as serious as any other type of religious, racial or class prejudice.

Not being innocent or naive, I say that prejudice is human nature. And I say that what we can call a civilizational achievement is the understanding of the fact that we need to fight against our inclination to prejudice.

While we cannot – nor should we, I think – police feelings, we must combat expressions of prejudice and their implementation in acts of discrimination.

This is true for Judeophobia, for racism, for Islamophobia…

One discriminatory act may be worse than another, depending on the circumstances, but, if it is true that all human beings are equal in dignity and that all people – whatever the meaning of the term – are deserving of the same respect, so there is no hierarchy between racism and prejudice.

Antisemitism and Genocide

As serious as discriminatory behavior may be, I don't think there is any doubt that there are more serious things.

Among these most serious things is genocide. As a phenomenon, the destruction, in whole or in part, of a racial or ethnic group, and as a crime, committed by individuals or by States, genocide should outrage and mobilize us more than any other phenomenon or crime.

It is true that each of us, as human beings, may recognize ourselves as belonging to one group or another and, for this same reason, may be more sensitive to the prejudice that affects us than others. Likewise, we can feel more intensely a genocide that affects our group or a group with which we feel closer, culturally, religiously, ethnically.

This is natural. But, if we truly believe in the profound equality of human beings, we must know that there are no more serious or less serious racisms and also that there are no genocides that are acceptable while others would be unacceptable.

Thus, it is perfectly legitimate for a Jewish person, or an institution that brings together and represents Jews, to have special sensitivity to instances of Judeophobia or anti-Semitism – in the consecrated sense of the word – and to fight especially against this type of prejudice.

This sensitivity and this struggle, however, cannot be carried out, for logical and moral reasons, at the same time as prejudice and discrimination against other groups are exercised.

Even more so, it cannot be conceived that one should fight against any type of racism or discrimination at the same time as defending the commission of genocide, and other war crimes and crimes against humanity, which have other groups as their victims.

If in fact the foundation of our fight against anti-Semitism is found in the belief in the equality of human beings and their equal dignity, there would be an insurmountable contradiction in the defense of genocide.

And yet, this behavior, which I consider particularly indecent, has been the behavior of many individuals and institutions in Brazil and around the world.

And what adds insult to obscenity is that not only does it claim to fight against anti-Semitism at the same time as it defends the genocide of the Palestinians, but it also uses the accusation of anti-Semitism against those who denounce the genocide, to defend it even further. more perfect.

The acts of genocide and other crimes being committed against Palestinians by Israel do not help in the fight against anti-Semitism.

The persecution of those who criticize Israel, brandishing the accusation of anti-Semitism against everyone, does not help in the fight against anti-Semitism.

The unconditional support of certain individuals and institutions for Israel raises doubts about the sincerity of its belief in the equality of human beings.

The same unconditional support for Israel, on the part of the West, reveals that this West – its leaders, above all – never believed its own lie about the universality of human rights…

* Salem Nasser He is a professor at the Faculty of Law at FGV-SP. Author of, among other books, Global law: norms and their relationships (Alamedina). []

Originally published on the author's substack.

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