“Conceptions of the Muslim as Enemy — Conceptions of the Jew as Enemy.” This was the title of a conference held on December 8 at Berlin’s Center for Research on Anti-Semitism. The stated aim of the conference was to employ the template of anti-Semitism in order to analyze an allegedly new form of kindred prejudice: “Islamophobia.”
The announcement of the conference sparked a raging controversy in Germany. It has been all the more intense due to the fact that the Berlin-based center is the most well-known and influential research institution of its kind in Germany and, arguably, in all of Europe. The Berlin center played a leading role, for example, in the development of the European Union’s much-cited “working definition” of anti-Semitism. Critics like journalist and author Henryk Broder and the political scientist Matthias Küntzel have charged the Berlin center with, in effect, abusing its prestige in order to relativize anti-Semitism and obscure the real threat of Islamic extremism.
The fact that Küntzel published some of his criticisms in English in the Wall Street Journal undoubtedly placed the Berlin center and its director Wolfgang Benz under greater pressure to respond. Küntzel’s criticisms in the WSJ were, however, very much hedged with politically-correct obbligatos. (For example: “It is certainly necessary to oppose the demonization of Muslims and discrimination against them, which often have racist motivations. The Berlin center, whose research covers prejudices in general, is right to address this issue.”)
The actual German debate has been much more of a gloves-off affair. Thus, for example, Broder observed:
Of course, you can compare everything and anything. You can compare Cologne to a city, the [German media prize] the Bambi with the Oscar, a currywurst with a delicacy, or even academic “Anti-Semitism experts” with bean-counters. But to mention anti-Semitism in the same breath as Islamophobia is as off-base as talk of “chicken concentration camps” to refer to ordinary chicken farms.
(The expression “chicken concentration camps” [Hühner-KZs] is in fact commonly employed by German “animal rights” activists.)
“There are hundreds of phobias,” Broder continued, challenging the pertinence of the comparison:
These include such highly original ones as “alliumphobia” — the fear of garlic; “babushkaphobia” — women’s fears or aversion vis-à-vis their grandmothers; “eurotophobia” — the fear of female genitalia; and “glucodermaphobia” — fear of the film that forms on warm milk when it is left standing for too long. Persons who suffer from phobias avoid what they fear. They don’t take the elevator, don’t go out onto public spaces, and steer clear of reptiles. An anti-Semite, on the other hand, feels compelled to seek contact with the object of his aversion. Anti-Semitism is not a phobia, but rather a kind of psychotic obsession. … The director of a Center for Research on Anti-Semitism ought to know that.
Reacting to the criticisms in a variety of venues, Benz insisted that as “prejudice researchers” it is normal that the members of the Berlin center would turn their attention to other forms of prejudice like “Islamophobia.” This raises the obvious question why the center is called precisely the “Center for Research on Anti-Semitism” and not rather the “Center for Research on Prejudice in General.” (Asked during a panel discussion that closed the conference [German audio available here] whether it would not in fact be more sensible henceforth to employ something like the latter name, Benz said that he was “energetically” opposed to such a suggestion. Other than to note that anti-Semitism was part of the Berlin center’s “brand name,” however, he did not explain why.)