Islamophobia and the Einsatzgruppen


Hatred of Muslims in Europe and the United States is a growing political industry

The Racist Scourge


LONDON — Soon after I was born my father moved our family from Britain back to his native South Africa to become dean of the school for black medical students at the University of the Witwatersrand. Blacks were obliged to live separately from whites, a principal reason for his having left Johannesburg in the first place.

Damon Winter/The New York Times

Roger Cohen

Once he arrived to hear an Afrikaner policeman scoffing at a young black woman who was close to qualification as a doctor: “You think you’re some clever student, but really you’re just a Kaffir.” (The insult is now legally actionable in South Africa.)

Racism is stupidity’s recourse. There are plenty of stupid people in the world. Apartheid survived for almost a half-century, a system based on the view that the only thing blacks were good for was to work as hewers of wood and drawers of water. It had its American parallels: Jim Crow laws were on the books for almost a century.

That was the first year of my life, with the black Wits students. My father returned with the family to England. We’d go back regularly to South Africa. I remember the jacarandas, the faraway horizons, the firm yellow peaches. Beauty was too abundant. A shadow lurked. That’s how I absorbed racism, like a twinge, the first hint of a dangerous microbe in your blood.

These things shape you. The Jews in South Africa tended to view the blacks as a large buffer against their own persecution even as they were more engaged than most in trying to break the system. It’s a grotesque thought, but if you’re busy persecuting tens of millions of blacks you don’t have much time left over for tens of thousands of Jews. This thought did occur to the Jews, whose families (many of Lithuanian origin), had fled European pogroms and so avoided the ditches to which Hitler’s Einsatzgruppen would have dispatched them.

As a South African Jew, watching blacks without passes being bundled into the back of police vans was discomfiting. But this was not mass murder after all. You tried to look away.

Racism is a mind game. It makes its victims grateful for small mercies until such time as they rise in uncontainable anger.

I was schooled early by South Africa in racism’s poison. The Michels, my maternal family, lived in a spread only half-jokingly referred to as Château Michel. From beach to pool to barbecue the living was large, with its undertow of disquiet.

I felt as an infant the I-might-drop-you hostility in a black maid’s arms. I wondered at the blacks swimming in a filthy harbor when whites-only sand stretched for miles. I caught the illicit glances as an adolescent, flirtation as crime. I listened to the meat-chomping justifications, bigotry dressed up as scientific theory.

Years later in Lagos, watching Fela Kuti in a disco where I was the only white among a thousand blacks, I understood the word “minority.” The thing I’ve been most grateful for in journalism is the ability to cross lines: of racism and bigotry, for example. The blacks in South Africa weren’t even a minority. They were a majority corralled into serfdom.

Over in England things were O.K. I got called a “yid” for a while at school. I look up Jew in the Oxford English Dictionary of the day. Definition 1: A person of Hebrew descent; a person whose religion is Judaism. Definition 2: A person who behaves in a manner formerly attributed to Jews; a grasping or extortionate person.” There you go.

Nothing makes my blood boil like racism. I got a lot of angry mail over a recent column about Norway’s rightist mass murderer and his sympathy with “racist Islamophobia.” Muslims are not a race, the writers claimed.

Funny, several of the angry notes were from Jews, who seemed to have forgotten that not being a race but a religion had scarcely saved Jews from racist persecution: Perhaps the Einsatzgruppen just got in a semantic muddle before opening fire. Perhaps the Malaysian soccer crowd who just booed Chelsea’s Yossi Benayoun, an Israeli player and a Jew, were not really racists. Dream on.

Hatred of Muslims in Europe and the United States is a growing political industry. It’s odious, dangerous and racist. Thanks to my colleague Andrea Elliott, we now know the story of the orchestration of the successful anti-Shariah campaign in the United States, led by a Hasidic Jew named David Yerushalmi who holds that “most of the fundamental differences between the races are genetic.” The rightists in Europe using anti-Muslim rhetoric are true heirs to the Continent’s darkest hours.

I’m glad that at an impressionable age my Dad told me of a dumb white cop with power telling a smart young black woman with promise she was “really just a Kaffir.” The settings change, the vile stupidity does not.



Journalist - Newsweek, Gothamist, City Limits, The Villager, etc. Tracking the rise of nationalist movements in Europe since the September 11, 2001 attacks in New York. Twitter:
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