Muslim Anti-Semitism

By Bernard Lewis
Middle East Quarterly
June 1998

 

Bernard Lewis is Cleveland E. Dodge Professor of Near Eastern Studies Emeritus at Princeton University. He recently received the 1998 Atatürk International Peace Award.

What has come to be known as the peace process—the developing dialogue between the state of Israel on the one hand and the Palestinians and some Arab governments on the other—raised hopes that it would lead to a lessening of hostility and more specifically of anti-Semitism. In some quarters this did indeed occur. But in others the peace process itself has aroused a new Arab hostility to Jews, among both those frustrated by its slowness and those alarmed by its rapidity. As a result, anti-Semitism in recent years has conquered new territory and risen to a new intensity.

EUROPEAN INFLUENCE

European anti-Semitism, in both its theological and racist versions, was essentially alien to Islamic traditions, culture, and modes of thought. But to an astonishing degree, the ideas, the literature, even the crudest inventions of the Nazis and their predecessors have been internalized and Islamized. The major themes—poisoning the wells, the invented Talmud quotations, ritual murder, the hatred of mankind, the Masonic and other conspiracy theories, taking over the world—remain; but with an Islamic, even a Qur'anic twist.

The classical Islamic accusation, that the Old and New Testaments are superseded because Jews and Christians falsified the revelations vouchsafed to them, is given a new slant: the Bible in its present form is not authentic but a version distorted and corrupted by the Jews to show that they are God's chosen people and that Palestine belongs to them.1 Various current news items—the scandal over Swiss banks accepting Nazi gold stolen from Jews, the appointment of Madeleine Albright as secretary of state, even the collapse of the Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI)—are given an anti-Semitic slant. Jewish world plots—against mankind in general, against Islam, against the Arabs—have become commonplace.

One of the crimes of Israel and of the Zionists in these writings is that they are a bridgehead or instrument of American or, more generally, of Western penetration. For such, America is the Great Satan, Israel the Little Satan; Israel is dangerous as a spearhead of Western corruption. The more consistent European-type anti-Semites offer an alternative view; that America is the tool of Israel, rather than the reverse, an argument backed by a good deal of Nazi-style or original Nazi documentation. In much of the literature produced by the Islamic organizations, the enemy is no longer defined as the Israeli or the Zionist; he is simply the Jew, and his evil is innate and genetic, going back to remote antiquity. A preacher from Al-Azhar University explains in an Egyptian newspaper that he hates the Jews because they are the worst enemies of the Muslims and have no moral standards, but have chosen evil and villainy. He concludes: "I hate the Jews so as to earn a reward from God."2

The argument that "we cannot be anti-Semitic because we ourselves are Semites" may still occasionally be heard in Arab countries, though of course not in Turkey or Iran. But some of the more sophisticated spokesmen have become aware that to most outsiders this argument sounds silly or disingenuous. Some writers make a serious effort to maintain the distinction between hostility to Israel and Zionism and hostility to Jews as such. But not all. President Khatami of Iran, in his interview on CNN, pointed out—correctly—that "anti-Semitism is indeed a Western phenomenon. It has no precedents in Islam or in the East. Jews and Muslims have lived harmoniously together for centuries." A newspaper known to express the views of the "Supreme Guide" Khamenei rejected this statement as untrue: "The history of the beginnings of Islam is full of Jewish plots against the Prophet Muhammad and of murderous attacks by Jews . . . unequivocal verses in the Qur'an speak of the hatred and hostility of the Jewish people against Muslims. One must indeed distinguish between the Jews and the Zionist regime, but to speak in the manner we heard was exaggerated and there was no need for such a presentation."3 The Egyptian director of a film about President Nasser reports a similar complaint by the late president's daughter. She objected to a passage in his film indicating that "Nasser was not against the Jews, but against Zionism, because she wanted to portray her father as a hero of the anti-Jewish struggle."4

Spokesmen of the government of Iran usually disclaim anti-Semitism; they refrain from overtly anti-Semitic phraseology and proclaim their readiness to tolerate Jews—of course within the limits prescribed by the Shari‘a (Islamic law). This however does not prevent them from embracing the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the hundred-year old Russian forgery alleging a Jewish plot to take over the world. These are frequently reprinted in Iran in book form and were even serialized in a daily newspaper "as a reminder to the reader."5 Iranian networks also distribute copies of the Protocols internationally in various languages. In Egypt the Protocols formed the basis of an interview published in a popular Egyptian magazine with Patriarch Shenouda, head of the Coptic church.6 The interviewer starts by introducing the Protocols as an authentic historical record and questions the patriarch, whose comments on Jews and Judaism seem to be based on the information supplied to him by the interviewer, and derived from the Protocols and another popular anti-Semitic forgery, the pseudo-Talmud.

I. POLITICAL

Arab opposition to the peace process as such, or to the manner in which it is being conducted, is of three major types: political, economic, and Islamic.

The first is basically a continuance of what went before—ideological polemic against
Zionism and political warfare against the state of Israel. Ideological or political opposition as such is not based on prejudice, but it affects and is affected by prejudice.

This kind of opposition and the prejudice associated with it continue to flourish and even to spread in spite of, and in some quarters because of, the peace process. It has been aggravated by some of the actions of the new Israeli government and still more by the utterances of some of its followers. Israeli extremists cannot really be blamed for the anti-Semitic propaganda in the Egyptian and other Arab media, which had already reached high levels of scurrility before the change of government and policy in Israel in June 1996; they have, however, undermined the efforts of well-meaning Arabs to counter these campaigns.

An example of reporting and comments on the news may be seen in reports of the suicide bombing in Ramat Gan on July 24, 1995. This act was disclaimed, even denounced, by responsible Palestinian and other Arab leaders. It was acclaimed by many others, from the center and the left as well as in the fundamentalist Islamic press. A leading article in a Jordanian leftist weekly by its editor, Fahd ar-Rimawi, acclaims the heroism of the Hamas bomber who "sent seven Zionist settlers to hell and thirty others to the casualty wards" and goes on to denounce those who had condemned the attack as hypocrites or worse.7 That Ramat Gan is near Tel Aviv, part of Israel since the foundation of the state, makes the description of its inhabitants as "Zionist settlers" the more noteworthy. The Jordanian fundamentalist Ziyad Abu Ghanima rails against those who "shed torrents of tears in mourning for filthy Jewish blood while sparing their tears when Palestinian or Lebanese blood is shed by the hands of the Jews, may God curse them."8

II. ECONOMIC

More dangerous than this old-guard resistance is a new active opposition to the peace process that arises from the process itself, from a fear that the prowess which the Israelis had demonstrated in the battlefield would be equaled or even exceeded in activities with which Jews are more traditionally associated—in the factory, the counting house, and the marketplace. A certain Israeli brashness and lack of understanding of the courtesies and sensitivities of Middle Eastern society have often exacerbated such fears.

According to this perception, Israel has changed its tactics. It has now switched from warlike to peaceful methods to pursue its nefarious design of penetrating and dominating the Arab world. Some see dark menace in every Israeli attempt at communication and cooperation. The expansion of trade links means economic exploitation and subjugation; the development of cultural links means the subversion and destruction of Arab-Islamic culture; the quest for political relations is a prelude to imperial domination. These fantasies, absurd as they may seem to the outsider or indeed to any rational observer, nevertheless command wide support in the Arab media and particularly in Egypt.

For exponents of this view, European anti-Semitism provides a rich reservoir of themes and motifs, of literature and iconography, on which to draw and elaborate. Shimon Peres's book, The New Middle East,9 with its somewhat idyllic view of future peaceful cooperation between Israel and the Arab states for economic improvement and cultural advancement, has appeared in several Arabic translations. The purpose of these translations is indicated in the blurb of one of them, published in Egypt:

When the Protocols of the Elders of Zion were discovered about two hundred years ago [sic] by a Frenchwoman [sic] and disseminated in many languages including Arabic, the international Zionist establishment tried its best to deny the plan. They even claimed that it was fabricated and sought to acquire all the copies in the market in order to prevent them from being read. And now, it is precisely Shimon Peres who brings the decisive proof of their authenticity. His book confirms in so clear a way that it cannot be denied that the Protocols were true indeed. Peres's book is the last but one step in the execution of these dangerous designs.10

The Protocols remain a staple, not just of propaganda, but even of academic scholarship. Thus, according to an article in an Egyptian weekly,11 the University of Alexandria accorded the degree of master of arts to the writer of an important "scientific treatise" dealing with the economic role of the Jews in Egypt in the first half of the twentieth century. The description of this dissertation makes it clear that its author relied very heavily on the Protocols and on the methodology of research that they provided.

A campaign attacking Israeli agricultural techniques and products—the one area in which there has been real cooperation with Egypt—accuses the Israelis of selling hormonally altered fruit that kills men's sperm. (They also supposedly supply Egyptian women with hyper-aphrodisiac chewing gum that drives them into a frenzy of sexual desire.) Other stories accuse the Israelis (or simply "the Jews") of supplying Egyptian farmers with poisoned seeds and disease-bearing poultry "like time bombs";12 of deliberately spreading cancer among the Egyptians and other Arabs by devising and distributing carcinogenic cucumbers and shampoos; of promoting drug consumption and devil worship; and of organizing a campaign to legalize homosexuality to undermine Egyptian society. A Syrian paper even claims that Arafat made peace because he himself is a Jew.13

III. ISLAMIC

The strongest, most principled, and most sustained opposition to the peace process is offered in the name of Islam, especially by the government of Iran and its agencies, and by other Islamic parties and organizations. Islamic opposition has the considerable advantage of being ideologically formulated and logically consistent and of using familiar language to appeal to deep-rooted sentiments. This gives to arguments based on Islam far greater cogency and power than those based on nationality and race. Nevertheless, spokesmen for Islamic movements do not disdain to use racist arguments, and specifically, to draw on the rich resources of hatred provided by European anti-Semitism. Standard anti-Semitic themes have become commonplace in the propaganda of Arab Islamic movements like Hizbullah and Hamas, in the pronouncements of various agencies of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and even in the newspapers and other publications of Refah, the Turkish Islamic party whose head served as prime minister in 1996-97.

Most of these accusations are familiar and can be traced to their European sources. Others arise from local circumstances. Thus, for Turkish anti-Semites, the misdeeds of the Jews include the downfall of the Ottoman Empire and the recent troubles in Bosnia. In Iran, American sanctions and the resulting economic hardships are ascribed to sinister Jewish influences in Washington.

Other accusations are clearly transference or projection; for example, Israelis are allegedly told by rabbis that if they die while killing Palestinians they will go straight to paradise. Some are traditional Islamic accusations against the Jews, based on well-known passages in the Qur'an and hadith (sayings and actions attributed to the Prophet Muhammad). Some are borrowed or adapted from the standard armory of European anti-Semitism. Increasingly, the second and third motifs are combined.

REWRITING HISTORY

These different kinds of propaganda all share the technique of rewriting or obliterating the past, and in particular removing anything that might arouse compassion or evoke respect for the Jew. Standard themes include recasting ancient history, Holocaust denial, and equating Jews with Nazis.

Ancient history. The rewriting makes Jews disappear from the ancient Middle East. The historical museum in Amman tells through objects and inscriptions the history of all the ancient peoples of the region—with one exception. The kings and prophets of ancient Israel are entirely missing. I was able to find only three references to Jews. The first explains (in English) the inscription on the Mesha Stele as "thanking the Moabite god Chemosh for deliverance from the Israelites." (The Arabic explanation reads, "from the tyranny of the Israelites.") The second appears in an alcove containing the Dead Sea scrolls produced by a "Jewish sect." The third is a reference to "the militant Hasmonean Jews [who]. . . established their own reign in Palestine and the northern part of Jordan. Most of the Greek cities welcomed the Roman army headed by General Pompey as a liberator from Jewish oppression."

Textbooks used in schools under the Palestinian Authority lack even these few allusions to ancient Jewish history. For them, the history of Palestine begins with the retroactively Arabized Canaanites and jumps from them to the Arab conquest in the seventh century C.E., entirely omitting the Old Testament, its people and their history.

Holocaust denial. Either the Holocaust never happened, or if it did, it was on a small scale and—some add—the Jews brought it on themselves. Another favorite line is that the Zionists were the collaborators and successors of the Nazis. This remarkable version of history commands increasing Arab support, as is evidenced by the reception accorded to Roger Garaudy, a French ex-Communist convert to Islam who has published a book entitled The Founding Myths of Israeli Politics.14 These myths are three: the religious myth of the Chosen People and the Promised Land; the Holocaust myth of Jewish extermination and Zionist anti-fascism, and the new myth of the modern Israeli miracle, actually due to foreign money procured by Jewish lobbyists. Garaudy's sources include apologists for Hitler, post-Zionist Israeli revisionists, and European anti-Americanists.

Garaudy's Middle East tour in the summer of 1996 was a triumph. In Lebanon he was received by the prime minister and the minister of education, in Syria by the vice president and several other ministers. He gave a number of highly publicized lectures and interviews in both countries and was welcomed by major literary and other intellectual bodies. In Jordan and Egypt he was not officially received but was welcomed with the same or greater acclaim in literary circles. The government-sponsored Arab Artists Union elected him an honorary member—the first since the Federation was established more than twenty years ago. The editor-in-chief of Egypt's semi-official Al-Ahram newspaper conferred a press prize on Garaudy in recognition of the "fresh air" that he had contributed to the debate. He was even invited to contribute a series of ten articles to an Arabic weekly published in London by BBC's Arabic service.15

Garaudy's welcome, however, was not unanimous. Some fundamentalists, while approving his views on Israel, questioned his understanding of Islam. In Morocco he was acclaimed by some newspapers, but his public appearances were canceled. "The universities," said the minister of higher education, "will not open their gates to anti-Semites."

Jews as Nazis. Denying or minimizing the Holocaust facilitates another favorite theme—that Jews, far from being victims of the Nazis, were their collaborators who now carry on their tradition. Cartoons depicting Israelis and other Jews with Nazi-style uniforms and swastikas have now become standard. These complement the Nazi-era hooked noses and blood-dripping jagged teeth. The memory of both the Jewish victims and Arab admirers of the Third Reich is totally effaced. To maintain this interpretation of history, some measure of control is necessary, extending even to entertainment. Schindler's List, a film portraying the suffering of the Jews under Nazi rule, is banned in Arab countries. Even Independence Day, which has nothing to do with either the Nazis or the Middle East, was denounced in Arab circles because it has a Jewish hero, and that is unacceptable. The film won approval for release in Lebanon only after the censors had removed all indications of the Jewishness of the hero—the skullcap, the Hebrew prayer, the momentary appearance of Israelis and Arabs working side by side in a desert outpost. A Hizbullah press liaison officer explained his objection to the film. "This film polishes and presents the Jews as a very humane people. You are releasing false images about them."16

While visits to Arab bookshops or to religious bookshops in Turkey reveal a wide range of anti-Semitic literature, any kind of corrective is lacking. The Arab reader seeking guidance on such topics as Jewish history, religion, thought, and literature will find virtually nothing available. Some material on modern Israel (e.g., that produced by the former Palestine Research Center in Beirut) is reasonably factual. But most of what is available is either lurid propaganda or used as such. Translations from Hebrew are few and fall mainly into three categories: accounts of Israeli espionage, memoirs by Israeli leaders (Rabin, Peres, Netanyahu), with explanatory introductions and annotations, and writings by anti-Zionist and anti-Israel Jews.

SIGNS OF IMPROVEMENT

The peace treaties negotiated and signed between governments will remain cold and formal, amounting to little more than a cessation of hostilities, until peace is made between peoples. As long as a high-pitched scream of rage and hate remains the normal form of communication, such a peace is unlikely to make much progress.

But there are some signs of improvement, of the beginnings of a dialogue. Statesmen, soldiers and businessmen have been in touch with their Israeli opposite numbers, and some of these contacts have so far survived the change of government in Israel. Intellectuals have proved more recalcitrant, but even among them, there have been signs of change. A few courageous souls have braved the denunciation of their more obdurate colleagues to meet publicly with Israelis and even on rare occasions to visit Israel.

A number of Arab intellectuals have expressed disquiet and distaste with the vicious anti-Semitism that colors so much of the debate on the Arab-Israel conflict. The trial of Roger Garaudy in Paris in February 1998 for a violation of the Loi Gayssot, making Holocaust denial a criminal offense in France, evoked strong reactions in the Arab world. In general, there was an outpouring of vehement moral and substantial material support. But there were some dissenting voices. In the first of a number of articles condemning the cult of Garaudy, Hazim Saghiya drew attention to the contrast between Western and Arab criticisms of the trial in Paris. Western critics took their stand on freedom of expression, even for odious ideas. Arab critics, he observed, have in general shown little concern for freedom of expression; it was Garaudy's ideas that they liked.17 Several other writers in the Arabic press expressed disapproval of the cult of Garaudy, and more generally, of Holocaust denial.

There were other hopeful signs. In January 1997 a group of Egyptians, Jordanians, and Palestinians, including intellectuals, lawyers, and businessmen, met with a similar group of Israelis in Copenhagen and agreed "to establish an international alliance for Arab-Israeli peace." Their declaration is not confined to pious generalities but goes into detailed discussion of some of the specific issues at stake. Needless to say, the Arab participants in this enterprise were denounced and reviled by many of their colleagues as dupes, traitors or worse.

A recent incident evoked disquieting memories of the rampage of the Egyptian gendarme Sulayman Khatir in 1985 when he shot at Israeli visitors, killing several and disabling nine of them. It also provided an encouraging contrast. On March 13, 1997, a Jordanian soldier, Ahmad Daqamsa, suddenly started firing at an Israeli girls' school outing, killing seven children and wounding several more before being overpowered by his comrades. In a gesture of contrition and compassion, King Husayn of Jordan a few days later crossed into Israel and called in person to offer his condolences to the bereaved families. Reactions in Jordan were mixed. Some of his people joined the Israelis in acclaiming this act of courage, human decency and generosity of spirit. Others, while condemning the murders, thought the king's response excessive. Others again made the murderer's home a place of pilgrimage. But there was nothing comparable with the outpouring of support that, for a while, made Sulayman Khatir a popular national and even intellectual hero in Egypt.

Closer contact between the two societies may bring interesting, perhaps even valuable results. Israel with all its faults is an open, democratic society. A million Arabs are Israeli citizens; two million Palestinians have lived or are living under Israeli rule. Although this rule has often been harsh and arbitrary, by the standards of the region it has on the whole been benevolent. Two contrasting incidents illustrate a direction of possible change. During the intifada, a young Arab boy had his wrist broken by a baton-wielding Israeli soldier. He appeared next day, bandaged and in a hospital, denouncing Israeli oppression—on Israeli television. In 1997 a lawyer in Gaza submitted an article to a Palestinian journal describing the investigation by the Israeli police of the prime minister and other members of the Israeli government, and suggesting that similar procedures might be adopted by the Palestinian Authority. The editor of the journal did not publish the article but instead referred it to the attorney general who ordered the arrest and imprisonment of its author.

Growing numbers of Arabs see—and some even make—this point. It did not pass unnoticed that the only public investigation of the Sabra and Shatila massacre was a judicial inquiry held in Israel. No such inquiry was held in any Arab country. The principal perpetrator of the massacre, Elie Hubayqa, a Lebanese Christian militia leader at that time allied with Israel, subsequently went over to the Syrian side and has for some years past been arespected member of the Syrian-sponsored government in Beirut. The election for the Palestinian Authority held in January 1996, acclaimed as the freest and fairest held in the Arab world, contrasted the more sharply with the show election held a little earlier in Lebanon in the presence of a different neighbor.

The Royal Institute for Interfaith Studies in Amman, under the patronage of Crown Prince Hasan, is concerned with Judaism as well as with Islam and Christianity. It has invited Jewish scholars from Israel and elsewhere to contribute to its activities and to its English-language journal.18 This attempt to present Jewish beliefs and culture in objective terms, even to allow Jews to speak for themselves, is rare, and perhaps unique, in the Muslim world.

The last word may be left to ‘Ali Salim, one of the first Egyptian intellectuals who dared to visit Israel. He said: "I found that the agreement between the Palestinians and the Israelis was a rare moment in history. A moment of mutual recognition. I exist and you also exist. Life is my right; it is also your right. This is a hard and long road. Its final stage is freedom and human rights. It will not be strewn with roses but beset with struggle and endurance. One cannot make peace just by talking about it. There is no way to go but forward, to achieve peace with deeds and not just words."19

 

1 Ash-Sha‘b, Jan. 3, 1997; Al-Watan (Muscat), Feb. 12, 1997.
2 Al-Ittihad, Dec. 20, 1996.
3 Jumhuri-i Islami, Jan. 8, 1998.
4 La Presse de Tunisie, Jan. 26, 1998.
5 Ettela'at published the Protocols in 1995 in more than 150 installments.
6 Al-Musawwar, Dec. 27, 1996.
7 Al-Majd, July 31, 1995.
8 Shihan, July 29, 1995.
9 Shimon Peres with Arye Naor, The New Middle East (New York: Henry Holt, 1993).
10 Muhamad Hilmi ‘Abd al-Hafiz , trans., Ash-Sharq al-Awsat al-Jadid (Alexandria: n.p., 1995).
11 Akhir Sa‘a, Dec. 25, 1996.
12 Ash-Sha‘b (Cairo), Mar. 14, 1997.
13 Ath-Thawra, Oct. 4, 1995.
14 Les mythes fondateurs de la politique israelienne (Paris: Samizdat, 1996).
15 Al-Mushahid as-Siyasi, May 4, 11, 18, 25; Jun. 1, 8, 15, 22, 29; July 6, 1997.
16 Al-‘Ahd, Nov. 15, 1996.
17 Al-Hayat, Jan. 15, 1998.
18 Interfaith Newsletter, Mar.-Sept. 1995; Interfaith Monthly, Sept. 1995.
19 ‘Ali Salim, Rihla ila Isra'il, (Cairo: Akhbar al-Yawm, 1994), p. 8.

 

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