Are Arabs Anti-Semitic?
Mr. Greenberg writes Slate’s "History Lesson" column and is working on a book about Richard Nixon's place in American politics and culture.Since Sept. 11, many Americans have been surprised by the prevalence and depth of anti-Semitism in the Arab world. Rumors that we recognize instantly as fabrications--such as the claim that 4,000 Jews were warned in advance about the World Trade Center attacks--are accepted unquestioningly in Arab countries. Reporters undergoing Middle East crash courses are discovering that even states at peace with Israel, such as Egypt, routinely propagate anti-Semitic propaganda of a virulence not seen in mainstream Western politics since World War II.
This anti-Semitism isn’t just the sort of everyday stereotyping or genteel snobbery or even official intolerance that’s familiar, if mostly obsolescent, in the West. No, this is the strong stuff: fantasies that Jews ritually slaughter children and oversee secret conspiracies to rule the world. What’s more, unlike, say, Noam Chomsky, most Arab anti-Semites don’t bother with the protestations about how they only oppose Israel’s Palestinian policies and don’t really hate Jews per se. In their usage, Zionist, Israeli, and Jew are pretty much interchangeable terms.
Finally, and most important, Arab anti-Semitism isn’t confined to the fringes of society. Whereas in Israel, as in other Western countries, overt bigotry is scolded, ignored, or kept out of politics, mainstream Arab culture promotes extreme anti-Semitic ideas through schools, newspapers, television, popular culture, and official ideology. It’s hardly even controversial.
Bernard Lewis’s classic book Semites and Anti-Semites provides insight into how this condition came to be. As he notes, anti-Semitism in Arab countries (and non-Arab Islamic states such as Iran) has risen as Jew-hating in the areas formerly known as Christendom has plummeted. For example, whatever one thinks of the extent of anti-Semitism still extant within the Catholic Church, most Westerners consider the 1964 decision by the Second Vatican Council to repudiate claims that Jews killed Christ to be a mark of progress, to say the least. In Islam, however, centuries of teaching that the Jews didn’t kill Christ have now given way to an embrace of the very claims Christians have renounced. When Vatican II convened, it was Arab and Muslim organizations that most vehemently opposed exculpating the Jews of deicide—the Quran notwithstanding.
Traditionally, Islam did not demonize Jews. In Muslim lore, Jews registered as only minor figures, drawing neither special hatred nor fondness. It was Christianity, in fact, whose teachings first propounded anti-Semitism. At first it was a fairly straightforward business: Jews didn’t view Christ as the messiah, and so they were denounced or oppressed. When times got bad, they were exiled or persecuted.
Over time, Christian anti-Semitism acquired a racial dimension along with its religious thrust. This had significant consequences. After all, when Jew-hating was rooted in religion, a Jew could convert to Christianity and become, as it were, fully kosher. But when states began forcing Jews to convert--or face expulsion or execution--the authenticity of the Jews’ conversions became suspect. After Christians conquered Spain from the Muslims in 1492, they forced Jews and Muslims to convert, flee, or die. Many Jews converted yet practiced their old faith secretly, leading church officials to make new rules discriminating against all so-called conversos.
In the 19th century, anti-Semitism became increasingly racialized. The Enlightenment certainly made life better for Jews, at least in Western Europe, where religious tolerance took hold. Yet the Enlightenment also brought new"scientific"--or, as we now say, pseudoscientific--notions that human beings belonged to different races, some superior to others. Under these notions, Jews (as well as Africans, Arabs, and others) were deemed to be biologically and thus immutably inferior to white or"Aryan" Europeans.
Alongside racism, 19th-century Europe also saw the spread of nationalism: the idea that every people deserved its own state. Nationalism served to justify the repression of"alien" peoples, especially Jews--not just in eastern Europe, where Jews lived in ghettos, insulated from their Polish or Russian compatriots, but even in Western Europe, where many Jews were assimilated and considered themselves full citizens of their countries. This new form of ideological anti-Semitism--seeing the Jews as an alien and inferior people amid Christian European nations--finally got its name in 1879, thanks to an Austrian journalist named Wilhelm Marr.
By this point, the ideology of anti-Semitism had bred elaborate theories about the Jewish people’s evil. In some cases, ancient religious bigotries were updated, as in the"blood libel" that Jews killed Christian children to use their blood in making Passover matzot. (In Germany, Austria-Hungary, Ukraine, and elsewhere, Jews were actually tried in court on such charges.) In other cases, the slanders were new, as with the publication of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a document fabricated by Russian secret police that purported to divulge the Jews’ conspiratorial plans for world domination.
Until the late 19th century, anti-Semitism as an ideology remained largely absent from Arab and Muslim culture. In the Quran and in Islamic commentary, Jews are significant not for rejecting Muhammad but for succumbing to his followers. In Arab literature, they are sometimes portrayed as hostile or vindictive, but their humility and weakness is a much more common theme. Islamic governments did not often persecute Jews either, the way European states did, and when Jews faced discrimination, it was no different from what Christians endured. Unlike in Europe, Jews in Islamic lands were not expelled or forced to convert or, with a few exceptions, consigned to ghettos.
That all started to change around 1900. First, colonialism brought a growing European influence into the region, and both political and religious authorities from Europe promoted the idea that Jews engaged in ritual murders. Second, traditional Islamic authority was under challenge from Western liberalism, and the Jews provided a convenient scapegoat. During the 1908 Turkish revolution, the so-called Young Turks seized power in the Ottoman Empire and installed a constitutional regime that expanded freedom of religion. In arguing against the revolution, Muslim conservatives latched onto anti-Semitic propaganda, claiming that secret Jewish machinations lay behind the new regime. Finally, there was Zionism. Starting in the mid-1800s, Jews turned to Zionism--their own nationalism--as a solution to escalating European persecution. Since biblical times, Jews had maintained a small presence in the ancient kingdom of Judea (which in the late 19th century Europeans began calling Palestine), and Zionists saw the land as the ideal refuge for them, a Jewish National Home. Zionist immigration began in earnest in the 1880s, and soon Jewish settlers ran into conflicts with local Arabs. At first, however, the friction centered on grazing rights, land titles, and other property matters; it didn’t carry nationalist or religious overtones. Yet as crude anti-Semitic ideas circulated more widely, the view of Jews as greedy, devious, and bent on world domination became bound up with the Arab critique of Zionism. Possibly the first major expression of the now-common view that Jewish settlement was really a beachhead for a takeover of the region was published in 1909 by the Turkish journalist Yunus Nadi, who warned--without any evidence at all--that the Jews aimed to establish"an Israelite kingdom comprising the ancient states of Babel and Nineveh, with Jerusalem at its center." The conspiratorial notion of the Jews as plotting to take over the world quickly developed.
Then came the Holocaust, which not only marked the pinnacle of European anti-Semitism but encouraged it in the Arab world as well. Because Arab leaders shared the Germans’ hostility to Britain and France--the dominant colonial powers in the Middle East--they were eager to make common cause with Hitler, despite Nazi belief that they, like the Jews, were inferior to Aryans. The mufti of Jerusalem, among others, actively spread propaganda about"Anglo-Saxon Jewish greed" while praising the Nazi war effort. Even years later, sympathy for Nazism could be easily found in Arab culture. When Israel apprehended Adolf Eichmann in 1960, a Saudi newspaper headline read,"Capture of Eichmann, Who Had the Honor of Killing Five Million Jews."
If the Holocaust nurtured Arab anti-Semitism, it also helped to discredit such bigotry in the West. Indeed, it helped mobilize support for a Jewish state internationally. In 1948, Israel was finally granted independence. As if to welcome their new neighbor into the region, the Arab countries promptly invaded. Israel repulsed the attacks, and in the three Arab-Israeli wars that followed (1956, 1967, 1973), the Jewish state managed to survive and even to expand its territory. Most controversially, it took over the Gaza Strip from Egypt and the West Bank from Jordan, which were home to large numbers of Palestinian Arabs.
With Israel’s military successes and its willingness to occupy Arab lands until a peace treaty could be struck, Arab anti-Semitism hardened into official doctrine, as it has remained for many decades now. Propagandists, looking to rationalize their losses to a supposedly inferior people, came to depict the Jews as craven lackeys of a mightier power--the United States--a theme that can be heard in Osama Bin Laden’s rhetoric today. And it was not just propaganda: Arab countries passed laws that discriminate not against Israelis or Zionists but against all Jews, simply for being Jews.
Islamic teaching, too, has been radically retrofitted to accommodate the new anti-Semitism. Whereas traditional Muslim accounts depict the fate of the Jews as tragic, that of a people too benighted to follow Muhammad the Prophet, current Muslim scholarship in the Arab world imaginatively rereads the Quran for evidence of the Jews’ devilish nature. Meanwhile, films showing sympathy for the Jews or depicting the Holocaust are censored, while staples of old-fashioned European anti-Semitism cartoons portraying greedy hook-nosed Jews, popular novels with conspiratorial Jewish villains, public lectures drawing on phony scholarship like the Protocols became staples of the new Arab culture. What Americans have been seeing after Sept. 11, we have to conclude, is hardly new. It’s only new to those who never before bothered to look.
This article first appeared in Slate.
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Jeffrey R. Woolf - 2/13/2003
Too bad that while Professor Smith can read Arabic, he doesn't understand English. Professor Lewis, in Semites and AntiSemites clearly states that the penetration of racial anti-semitism o the Arab/Muslim world was NOT the result of the settlements (unless he includes Tel Aviv and Ashdod under this category as do all Arabic maps of which I am aware). The thought process which resulted in the revival of the worst that Christian Europe could spew against the Jews was the result of the defeat of the Arab armies by the dhimmi/infidel Jews. The process started in 1948 and continues to this day.
So, Professor Smith, call a spade a spade. Arab animosity is due to the presence of a dhimmi polity on waqf, ruling over Muslims. Nothing short of its dissolution, as recently pinted out by the Palestinian imam of Al-Aqsa (you do read Al-Hayyat Al-Jadida, don't you?) will bring peace. Salaam, you must know, can only exist between Muslims, not between Muslims and non-believers.
Aragorn - 9/23/2002
Professor Smith is no less guilty of spreading propaganda than he accuses David Greenberg of being. To wit-the hatred spewed by the various governments of the Arab and Islamic world, including the spreading of the blood libel, the mass production of the "protocols", and the indoctrination of each and every generation with a virulent hatred that would have made Streicher proud, are all "political" and will automatically disappear with a peace settlement. Therefore, talk of it is mere propaganda.
Israeli racism, meanwhile, a fringe phenomenon (Moledet, now Ihud Ha'Leumi, never got more than the minimum two seats in parliament-and will Prof. Smith please show where he got his figures of 35-40% of the settlers support Ze'evi and Kahane's views?), is "real". Thus while Prof. Smith says that both sides are to blame, it is clear that he believes that there is more blame on the Israeli side.
What is there to say about this comment? Professor Smith is apparently unaware that many of the anti-semitic comments which Harkabi mentioned were documented prior to 1967 - that is, before there was any occupation to complain about. As Harkabi demonstrated, moreover, the Arabs did not just object to this or that Israeli policy, they objected to the very existence of the state of Israel, and words like curbing the aggression and the expansionism of Israel were mere code words for annihilating Israel proper.
I was not aware, moreover, that spewing such poison was, or ever will be in any way a legitamite or excusable political act or protest. The publication of the "protocols" was also inspired for political reasons (curbing communist agitation)-does this make it any less despicable or excusable? Does an objection to a policy excuse spreading the very material that lead to the extermination of millions?
Prof. Smith's assertion that the hatred will stop with the signing of a peace aggreement is pure poppycock. One need only visit the site of MEMRI to see the hatred that is still spewed by Egyptian newspapers, a country Israel has been ostensibly at peace with for over twenty years. The PA's educational program during the Oslo years was full of virulent hatred as is documented by the Center for Monitoring the Impact of Peace. Only very recently have things improved somewhat. Surely Prof. Smith does not think us so naive to believe that such brainwashing will disappear overnight.
That the widespread phenomenon of anti-semitism in the Arab world, politically inspired or not, in its sheer volume, can in any way be compared to a small group in Israel is, quite frankly, an insulting insinuation.
Professor Smith would do well to study comparing the amount (expressions, publications, articles) of hatred in the Arab world (political, media etc) against the few attitudes he drudged up which were racist on the Israeli side. Perhaps then he'll realize the lopsidedness of his views.
charles d smith - 11/24/2001
David Greenberg's article [11/12/01] "Are Arabs Anti-Semitic" is an excellent example of the propaganda being brought to bear as the likelihood of American pressure on Ariel Sharon's policies increases. To be sure, one can find examples of Arab references to Jews that can be clasified as anti-Semitic, but Greenberg's own source, Bernard Lewis, qualified his remarks in SEMITES AND ANTI-SEMITES by noting how these expressions were triggered by attitudes towards Israeli policies. These attitudes have hardened in light of Israeli settlement expansion since the Oslo Accords of 1993 in knowing violation of the accord's principles, but Greenberg's charge that this reflects "official doctrine" is a smear, not a statement of fact. These expressions still constitute what Y. Harkabi called "political anti-semitism" [ARAB ATTITUDES TOWARDS ISRAEL] that would disappear with a peace settlement. Finally, any consideration of such views must consider Israeli attitudes toward Palestinians, such as the late Rehavam Ze'evi's view of them as "lice," "vermin," and a "cancer" to be removed by transfer from the territories; Ze'evi, Tourism Minister in Sharon's cabinet, was assassinated in retaliation for Israel's assassination policies. His comments reflect the opinions of 35-40% of the West Bank settlers, followers of the late Meir Kahane whose Kach party was outlawed by the Israeli Knesset as "racist" and "terrorist" in 1988; Ze'evi's Molodet party took up Kahane's call for transfer. In short, there is much to condemn on both sides, but one must remember that the Israeli settlers have major input into Israel's coalition politics and influence over any real decision by the Sharon government to enter into negotiations. Their aim is to preserve Israel's control of the West Bank and pressure the U.S. Congress to back them. Greenberg's piece is one part of that effort.
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