Judeonationalism: calling out antisemitism to discredit Muslims

Accusations of antisemitism are an effective strategy to discredit Muslims and their views, argues Sanne van Oosten. This 'Judeonationalism' mirrors other forms of instrumentalisation of vulnerable groups. 'Femonationalism' and 'homonationalism', for example, exploit gender equality and gay rights to marginalise cultural others, particularly Muslims

Prejudice

Against the backdrop of the war on Gaza, Jewish people across the world are experiencing increasing antisemitism, face to face and in their online lives. Indeed, antisemitism was on the rise even before the 7 October attacks in Israel.

Yet when political leaders choose to speak out against antisemitism, often a Muslim antagonist is just around the corner. This begs the question: are politicians' concerns about antisemitism genuine? Or are they exploiting antisemitism to discredit Muslims, and the causes Muslims are more likely to support?

Recent research shows that, on average, people are quite unlikely to discriminate against same-sex parents, women and even ethnic-minority politicians. There is, however, much debate about whether this shift is genuine or the result of social desirability bias. Some scholars point to the increasing tendency – among educated people, in particular – to conceal their prejudice in order to portray themselves as civil.

Antisemitism, homophobia, racism and sexism are all socially unacceptable. What makes prejudice against Muslims more palatable?

It seems, however, that many people don't bother to conceal their bias against Muslims. This manifests particularly in prejudice against Muslim representation in politics and in the labour market. Muslims remain a group that is highly stigmatised, discriminated against, and politically underrepresented in most western societies. Moreover, people are not afraid to admit it.

Nowadays, the vast majority would agree that expressions of antisemitism, homophobia, racism and sexism are 'uncivil'. What, therefore, makes prejudice against Muslims more palatable than these other forms of prejudice?

Civil norms

Research suggests that current-day nationalism is embedded in civil norms. In western societies, gender equality is a common topic in debates on Muslim integration. For example, field experiments show that bystanders are less likely to help a Muslim woman in a hijab who has dropped a bag of lemons than they are to help a non-Muslim lemon-dropper. However, if those same bystanders have listened to the Muslim woman on the phone shortly before dropping her lemons, and she was vocally supporting gender equality, they are more likely to step in and help.

This resonates with the literature on femonationalism, which contends that political actors weaponise gender equality to justify who does and does not belong. The reasoning is that drawing attention to sexism among Muslims creates confusion in people with an egalitarian worldview who would otherwise support women’s rights and oppose anti-Muslim discrimination.

Drawing attention to sexism among Muslims creates confusion in people with an egalitarian worldview

Similarly, homonationalism questions the justification of Islamophobia by pointing to homophobia among Muslims. Homonationalist narratives posit gay rights as being undisputed in Western countries, in contrast with other supposedly backward, homophobic cultures, particularly in Muslim-majority countries.

Scholars have long debated whether using women’s and gay rights to discredit cultural others is genuine or instrumental. To explore this genuine/instrumental conundrum, a recent UK survey experiment divided respondents into two random groups. The control group read a newspaper article about protests by British parents over LGBT school lessons. The other group read the same article, except the protesters pictured were in Muslim dress and had Arabic names. Those who saw the newspaper article featuring Muslim protesters were significantly more likely to support LGBT rights, especially those respondents with anti-immigration attitudes.

We need more research into whether politicians deliberately mobilise LGBT narratives. But the abovementioned UK survey already shows that purported support for LGBT rights may not be entirely genuine.

Judeonationalism

Much research has been published on the impact of narratives of women’s and gay rights to discredit or support Muslims. More recently, antisemitism has been exploited for the same cause. In the shadow of the Holocaust, accusations of antisemitism inevitably stifle modern-day debates on Israel and Gaza.

On 7 March 2024, I coined the term 'Judeonationalism' in a magazine article. My aim was to show how effective antisemitic narratives are in discrediting Muslims.

Survey research shows that Muslims in Europe are indeed less likely to support gender equality and homotolerance. Muslims are much more likely than Christians to agree that 'Jews cannot be trusted'. The data also shows that strong criticism of Israel correlates with antisemitism, though moderate criticism does not.

So, when a political leader denounces antisemitism, how can we tell whether they truly mean it, or whether they have an ulterior motive?

Contemporary antisemitism

The problems with antisemitism on the left of the political spectrum are well documented. But data show that antisemitism is much more prevalent among right-wingers. Left-wing voters hold significantly less antisemitic attitudes than moderates. Right-wing voters, meanwhile, most notably those on the far right and those who believe in conspiracy theories, are significantly more likely than moderates to hold antisemitic attitudes.

Increased antisemitism stems from the same far-right online actors who previously promoted anti-Muslim speech

The difference is particularly stark among far-right voters aged 18–30. This demographic is by far the most likely to hold antisemitic views, particularly the belief that Jews hold 'too much power'.

Nonetheless, among left- and right-wing voters, there is more anti-Muslim than anti-Jewish sentiment, particularly on the right. Research on the relationship between online antisemitic and Islamophobic language shows that increased antisemitism stems from the same far-right online actors who previously promoted anti-Muslim speech. Indeed, anti-Muslim prejudice and antisemitism share a cultural logic, though anti-Muslim prejudice is much more common.

Destructive animosity

Ultimately, increased Islamophobia leads to an alternation between anti-Muslim prejudice and antisemitism. Strengthening anti-Muslim attitudes strengthens antisemitism. Pitting Muslim and Jewish communities against each other will thus fail to create safety or equality for either group, no matter how much people claim they are acting in Jewish interests.

In short, every time political leaders speak out against antisemitism, ask yourself the question: is it genuine or instrumental? The subsequent discrediting of cultural others could serve as a hint that it might be the latter.

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.

Author

photograph of Sanne van Oosten
Sanne van Oosten
Postdoctoral Researcher, Centre on Migration, Policy and Society (COMPAS), University of Oxford

Sanne's research focuses on intergroup conflict, migration attitudes, politics, public opinion and voting behaviour.

She in an expert in data analysis using (conjoint) experiments, meta-analyses, and survey data.

Sanne is completing her PhD in political science at the University of Amsterdam, where she researched minority voting and political representation.

Her current research focuses on discrimination against Muslim, Black and Roma minorities by employers, landlords, and childcare providers and the resultant impact on the well-being and identification of these minorities.

This research is part of the Horizon 2020 project EqualStrength.

Sanne's previous work has been published in journals such as Legislative Studies, Electoral Studies, Public Integrity and Acta Politica.

@SBvanOosten

@sbvanoosten.bsky.social

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