March 1, 2004 Special Dispatch No. 671

Al-Ahram on the Aftermath of a MEMRI Report about the Display of the 'Protocols of the Elders of Zion' at the Alexandria Library

March 1, 2004
Egypt | Special Dispatch No. 671

On December 3, 2003, MEMRI released a report [1] from the Egyptian weekly Al-Usbu' about a display at the Alexandria Library in Egypt of 'The Protocols of the Elders of Zion' as an authentic document, placed next to the Torah in an exhibit on Jewish books, as well as a high-ranking museum official's accompanying antisemitic comments. Following MEMRI's report, the museum came under pressure, including strong criticism from the U.S. State Department, the United Nations, and the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, which conducted a visit to the library and confirmed the display of the Protocols, as well as its subsequent removal.

Written in advance of a conference being hosted March 12-14 at the library on the subject of reform in the Arab world, [2] the following are excerpts from an article from the February 19-24, 2004 issue of the Egyptian Al-Ahram Weekly about the aftermath of MEMRI's report: [3]

The Removal of a Display of the 'Protocols of the Elders of Zion' "In the short period since its inauguration on 16 October 2002, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina has become an important force for the promotion of rationality, scientific outlook, and enlightened values in Egypt and the region. It has received over 750,000 visitors and organised an amazing 250 events in its first year. The common thread running through all these lectures, conferences, exhibits, and events is the promotion of the values of tolerance, openness to the other, dialogue, and understanding.

"But the truly interesting story is that it has become a rallying point for Egyptian intellectuals who believe in these values. In an unprecedented situation hundreds of writers, intellectuals, and academics signed a declaration to defend the library from the charges of a rabble of extremists who had been attacking the library and the values for which it stands. The attacks appeared in some newspapers, and even in parliament, where fundamentalist representatives decried what in their view was the subservience of the library's management to pressures from the U.S. and Israel.

"The incident that started it all was the display of a copy of the first edition of the Arabic translation of the 'Protocols of the Elders of Zion' in a special showcase devoted to rotating exhibits of curiosities from the library's collection.

"An irresponsible local newspaper, doubtless trying to spice up its pages, misrepresented the facts and claimed that the book was headlining an exhibit at the library of Alexandria and that it was being displayed next to the Torah. The paper also claimed that a senior official at the library had stated that the book was more important than the Torah. The paper, which has a very small circulation, was widely ignored, until the article was translated into Hebrew and published in Israel, and into English and picked up by MEMRI in New York [sic]. [4] Protests swept the Internet and angry or disbelieving questions were heard from many, many quarters."

Director of the Library Responds

"This prompted Dr. Ismail Serageldin, the director of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, to issue a statement on 6 December, 2002 [sic]. [5] Posted on the library's Web site as of 6 December 2003, it reads as follows:

"Public statement by Ismail Serageldin: 'Recent press reports concerning the presence of the first Arabic translation of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion in an exhibition in the Bibliotheca Alexandrina deserve a prompt and clear reply.'

"'Preliminary investigations determined that the book was briefly displayed in a showcase devoted to rotating samples of curiosities and unusual items in our collections. The book was never displayed alongside the Jewish Torah, nor has it ever been stated that it is a holy book or the basis for a Jewish constitution. The book is well-known as a 19th century fabrication to foment anti-Jewish feelings.'

"'The book was promptly withdrawn from public display, but its very inclusion showed bad judgment and insensitivity, and an internal administrative review is underway to determine whether further actions are to be taken.'

"'The Bibliotheca Alexandrina is profoundly committed to its role as a centre of learning and a place promoting tolerance, dialogue, and understanding between peoples, cultures, and civilisations. We are honoured to work with distinguished international partners in promoting these universal ideals.'"

After Removing Protocols, Library is Accused of 'Disloyalty'

"Incidentally, the administrative review suggested that henceforth proposed exhibitions should be reviewed by a staff committee ex-ante, and that media relations should be channelled through the library's media office, which would assume the responsibility of follow-up with inaccurate stories when they appear.

"Dr. Serageldin's statement led to a tide of anger among local extremists who raised questions in parliament, sent letters to the newspapers, and published articles claiming that characterisation of the book as a 'fabrication intended to foment anti-Jewish feelings' was a disloyal, unpatriotic act by the director, and that the library was subservient to the interests of the Zionist lobby and the state of Israel and the U.S. Furthermore, they claimed that the library was curtailing freedom of expression by removing the book from display.

"Undaunted, Dr. Serageldin appeared on Egyptian television in an hour-long interview, a large part of which was devoted to this issue. Despite the efforts of the interviewer, he not only stood by his decisions and his statement, he took the battle to the extremist fringe who were attacking the library, explaining both the role of the library and the reality of the book's history as a piece of hate literature. He called those who defended or promoted the book 'stupid' and confused. He stated that the attacks against the library were indefensible and harmed the cause of Muslim and Arab rights.

"He rejected the extremists' accusations of subservience to foreign interests, and he saw no substance in claims that free speech was being curtailed since the book, along with many other books that other groups found offensive (for example Salman Rushdie's 'Satanic Verses') are available to researchers who come to the library. Display, though, is another matter. He reaffirmed the library's mission, and his determination not to be intimidated by extremist groups."

A Petition Supporting the Library

"The affair was heating up. Some distinguished intellectuals took up their pens and wrote individual essays… And the floodgates opened. Over 500 signed the declaration below:

"Declaration of support for the Library of Alexandria: 'The Egyptian intellectuals, signing this declaration, announce that they are motivated by a commitment to, and deep understanding of, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina's mission in promoting intercultural dialogue and to be the world's window on Egypt and Egypt's window on the world. We refuse to let it be dragged down by becoming the target of internal or external condemnations, for it is indeed an Egyptian institution with an international mandate devoted to the advancement of knowledge and high culture.'

"'Accusing the library of antisemitism is a totally baseless accusation, which cannot be justified by the fact that a copy of the 'Protocols of the Elders of Zion' was briefly displayed in an exhibit at the library, despite the book's total lack of credibility. Likewise, the withdrawal of the book from public display, though it remains available at the library for researchers who request it, cannot be construed as an attack of freedom of expression (for the library's philosophy is based on the protection of free speech), nor can it be seen as taking a position opposed to Islam or Arabism, or other similar false and misleading claims.'

"'We demand of opinion makers and writers to desist from pushing our institutions that have earned the respect and support of the world into these harmful political demagogueries. We affirm our commitment to insist on legitimate Arab rights in keeping with international conventions and agreements; seriously pursue our efforts to gain the respect of the world's cultural and scientific communities to understand and support our cause(s); and support the Bibliotheca Alexandrina in its pursuit of excellence and in the fulfilment of its mission and mandate.'

"The declaration was signed by over 500 of Egypt's most eminent intellectuals and a large number of university professors.

"Dr. Serageldin said that he was gratified that these eminent intellectuals and university professors considered the library their own, as they should. He also reiterated that 'the battle for tolerance and understanding is never done, that the currents of obscurantism, extremism, and xenophobia must be countered by rationality, openness, and unflagging determination in the defence of free speech and the search for the truth.'

"The library, he said, was well on its way to becoming the kind of institution that the whole world expects it [to] be, an heir to the ancient Bibliotheca Alexandrina, which for over six centuries stood for the values of ecumenism, tolerance, and understanding, a beacon the legacy of which inspires our actions to this day."

[1] Please see Jewish Holy Books On Display at the Alexandria Library: The Torah & the 'Protocols of the Elders of Zion', December 3, 2003, 'Jewish Holy Books On Display at the Alexandria Library: The Torah & the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.'

[2] Al-Ahram (Egypt), February 19-24, 2004.

[3] Al-Ahram (Egypt), February 19-24, 2004.

[4] MEMRI is based in Washington, DC. In addition, the article was translated into English.

[5] The response was issued in 2003, not 2002.

Share this Report:

Help Fight Extremism - Support MEMRI

MEMRI is a 501(c)3 organization. All donations are tax-deductible and kept strictly confidential.