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memri
April 23, 2003 No.
135

Harbingers of Change in the Antisemitic Discourse in the Arab World

In the past, manifestations of antisemitism in the Arab world aroused no domestic criticism to speak of. Moreover, Western criticism of antisemitism only increased antisemitic statements in the Arab press, and sparked no rethinking. For example, the February 1998 conviction of French Holocaust denier Roger Garaudy and the March 2000 conviction of British Holocaust denier David Irving enraged the Arab world and brought about increased Holocaust denial in the Arab world, along with greater insistence that Jews had cast their hegemony on the entire world.[1]

In the past two years, however, the Arab media has reflected significant criticism of, and reservations regarding, manifestations of antisemitism in the Arab world. The following are noteworthy examples of this kind of reaction in the Arab media, and a discussion of their causes and characteristics.

I. Calls to Cancel the Beirut Holocaust Deniers' Conference

An international conference of Holocaust deniers had been planned for late March 2001, in Beirut. Organizing the conference were the Los Angeles-based Institute for Historical Review and the Swiss organization Verité et Justice. Arab intellectuals opposed to the conference called for canceling it. A communiqué issued by 14 well-known Arab intellectuals read in part: "Arab intellectuals are outraged by this antisemitic undertaking. We wish to warn Lebanese and Arab public opinion about this and call on Lebanese authorities to ban this inadmissible conference."[2]

The communiqué was signed by the Lebanese poet Adonis, the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, the Algerian historian Muhammad Harabi, Algerian author Jamal Al-Din ibn Sheikh, Moroccan author Muhammad Baradeh, and the Lebanese authors Dominic Awdeh, Elias Khouri, Gerard Khouri, and Salah Sathithiyyeh, as well as Syrian authors Fayez Mallas and Farouq Mardam-Bey, Palestinian authors Khalda Said and Elias Sanbar, and Palestinian-American academic Edward Said.[3]

In an article titled "The Protocols of the Elders of Beirut," columnist Joseph Samaha wrote in the Arabic-language London daily Al-Hayat: "Holding the conference in Beirut brings no honor to the Lebanese capital. Perhaps its conceptual, political, and economic damage are inestimably greater than its benefit, which from the outset was nearly nonexistent. The conference will convene forgers of history who have stood trial in their own countries. This is, in effect, a conference against the truth… This is a conference against consciousness…"

"The conference defends the Nazi hangman and his crime against the Jews and others, in the name of the Palestinian and Arab victim. This is a Western-Western settling of accounts, in which the Palestinian problem plays a role of false witness…"

"Precision in all things regarding the Zionist use of the Holocaust is vital. Important opinions on this matter are held by people who refuse to attach their name to the name of [French Holocaust denier Robert] Faurisson and his ilk… Lebanon has too many fakes, and it does not need The Protocols of the Elders of Beirut."[4]

Also writing in Al-Hayat was columnist Abd Al-Wahhab Badrikhan, who focused not on Holocaust denial per se but on the damage the conference would do to Lebanon's image: "Some Arab intellectuals have condemned, and rightly so, the dubious call to convene a conference in Beirut with the aim of casting doubt upon the Jewish Holocaust [carried out] by the Nazis… While this conference will make no impression on the issue of the Holocaust, the damage caused to Lebanon will be certain. Lebanon aspires today to tackle its economic crisis, and for this it needs international economic institutions. Thus, this clandestine conference, which may be no more than a political move or Internet maneuver, will thwart Lebanese efforts, even if it can be assumed that this is not one of the goals that fill the heads of the anonymous participants…"[5]

In early March 2001, the U.S. State Department asked the Lebanese government to cancel the conference. Initially, the Lebanese government denied all knowledge of the upcoming conference, but following increased American pressure, on March 23, Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri announced its cancellation.[6]

II. Saudi Editor Apologizes for Publishing Blood Libel

In March 2002, the Saudi government daily Al-Riyadh published a blood libel authored by Dr. Umayma Ahmad Al-Jalahma of King Faysal University in Al-Dammam, Saudi Arabia, that included a graphic description of how Jews supposedly murdered non-Jewish youths to obtain blood for pastries for the Purim holiday.[7] The article, which appeared in translation in the Western media, was harshly criticized in the U.S. Following condemnation by Congress, the U.S. State Department, and even President Bush himself, the newspaper's editor, Turki Al-Sudeiri, a member of the Saudi royal family, published an apology for the article and fired its author.[8]In his apology, Al-Sudeiri wrote: "I checked the article and found it not fit for publication because it was not based on scientific or historical facts, and it even contradicted the rituals of all the known religions in the world, including Hinduism and Buddhism."

"The information included in the article was no different from the nonsense always coming out in the 'yellow literature,' whose reliability is questionable. The understanding of this serious mistake escaped Ms. Al-Jalahma, as did the understanding that Jews everywhere in the world are one thing, while Jews belonging to the Zionist movement that acts to annihilate the Palestinians are something else, and completely different. In Israel itself there are moderate Jews such as Yisrael Shahak, who fought Zionist racism and exposed it in many of his studies. There are others like Shahak, and our dispute with phenomena such as Sharon must in no way cause us to generalize the emotions of hatred to all Jews. Furthermore, in principle, an idiotic and false news item regarding the use of human blood in the food of other human beings, whoever they may be, should not be published, since this does not exist in the world at all…"[9]

III. Criticism of Antisemitic Series on Egyptian Television

During the month of Ramadan (November-December) 2002, Egyptian and other television stations across the Arab world aired a 41-part Egyptian-produced television series called "Horseman Without a Horse" based on the notorious forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.[10]The broadcast of the series sparked an internal debate in the Arab media, due particularly to the publicity the series received in the West. Most of those contributing to the debate praised the series' producer for his "national" work of art. Yet as more episodes were screened, Western pressure increased. The pressure included a request from the U.S. State Department to the Egyptian government to stop the series from being aired. As the pressure rose, more and more Arab intellectuals condemned the series' use of the Protocols and stated that they were a forgery.

The Egyptian Organization for Human Rights condemned the broadcasts, saying that while freedom of expression and artistic freedom must be protected, these freedoms must not be exploited "to propagate events that might incite hatred based on religion, race, color, or gender." The organization stressed that most historians had made it clear that the Protocols were a fake, and demanded that the Arab television networks airing the series note this fact to the viewers, thus "respecting the Arab citizen's right to receive the correct information."[11] Organization secretary-general Hafez Abu Sa'adeh told The Associated Press: "Supporting the Palestinian cause doesn't need forged Protocols. What is happening on the ground [in the Palestinian territories] is more reprehensible than anything else."[12]

The secretary-general of the Palestinian Information Ministry, Ahmad Dahbour, wrote: "…The Protocols of the Elders of Zion are a stupid pamphlet full of nonsense, that depicts an international conference of the [forces of] evil, led by yellow-faced people capable of grasping the world in their hands… like a boiled egg and squashing it. The conflict with the Zionist enterprise is graver and more dangerous than these nonsensical words. If we do not present Zionism as it is - a nationalistic, racist European movement that emerged at the periphery of the old colonialism and imperialism - we will make ourselves easy prey…"[13]

Writing in Al-Hayat's movie column, Ibrahim Al-Arabi opposed the airing of the series: "…By means of the series, the art of Arab television managed to place itself at the heart of a lengthy debate, going back over 150 years, about the book, which today is known with certainty to be a 'fabrication' by the Russian Czar's secret police aimed at justifying attacks on the Russian Jews. This book always served fascist, racist, and antisemitic regimes, for stepping up persecution of the Jews - with a more disastrous result for the Arabs than for the Jews.[14]

The Egyptian government officials' argument that they could not stop the program from being aired because Egypt guaranteed freedom of expression was also rejected by the Arab intellectuals.[15]

Following pressure levied from different directions, Egyptian Television decided to replace the original opening sequence declaring, "Some of the events [depicted here] are real, and some are imaginary; some have already taken place, and some will take place in the future," with one that, while it did not completely rule out the possibility that the Protocols were authentic, clarified that the series "is not aimed at proving the authenticity of the so-called Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which have not been historically proven to be correct…"[16]Furthermore, the foreword in a new edition of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, published in Egypt in July 2002 following great viewer interest in the series, refers to the possibility that the Protocols are a forgery. The foreword explains the view that the Protocols are a secret Jewish plan to take over the world, but also sets out "a different approach, found particularly in the West and among Jewish intellectuals," that "the Protocols are an example of racist literature and hate literature."[17]

American congressmen's harsh reactions to the series led to an Egyptian response on the highest diplomatic level. In December 2002, President Mubarak's political advisor Osama Al-Baz published a series of articles in the Egyptian government daily Al-Ahram[18]in which he offered an extensive analysis of antisemitism, debunked some of the most notorious antisemitic myths, particularly the Protocols, the blood libel, and Holocaust denial, and stated that antisemitism originated in Europe and not in the Arab or Muslim world.[19]

"With regard to the false Protocols," Al-Baz explains in his analysis, "there is a great deal of proof and evidence showing that these Protocols are forged." He sets out in detail historical research findings regarding their origin, and states: "Anyone who looks through these Protocols carefully will easily find two important facts: First, most of the topics to which the Protocols refer are completely Russian… which shows that the author of the false documents was Russian in his concepts and interest, and that he expressed the opinion of the Russian ruling class during the last years of its rule. Second, the Protocols make the Jews simultaneously responsible for something and for its opposite. They are responsible for good and evil, for revolution and counterrevolution, for capitalism and communism…"

"In addition," he continues, "it should be taken into account that Hitler used these false Protocols to incite the German people against the Jews, and to claim that they are conspiring against it, destroying the German economy, and acting to bring down the foundations of the state by conspiring with foreign elements because they are disloyal to the state in which they live. All this [he did] so as to attain his goal, which was essentially to purge Germany and the countries it conquered of Jews. This caused the physical destruction of many of Europe's Jews."

"With regard to the story of the matza [mixed with] blood, which is used by many to this very day," Al-Baz states, "it began with accusing the Jews of customarily murdering a Christian, preferably a child, during Easter in order to mock the Messiah on the holiday marking His crucifixion… This accusation spread every time a Christian child disappeared.It was enough for someone to say they saw the child near the Jewish neighborhood for some of the Jews in the neighborhood to be accused of murdering the boy, and taking his blood to be offered as a sacrifice or for [medical] treatment. The punishment for this charge was usually extremely cruel, and usually led to the hanging of the accused." Al-Baz added, "No one said that an incident of this kind took place in a Muslim country, except for the case that it is claimed happened in Damascus in 1840… but no one can present sufficient evidence to prove it…"[20]

Al-Baz also specifically mentions some anti-Jewish slogans of Muslim origin, and says that their use is wrong. "It is not in the interests of the Palestinian cause and the Palestinian people that some among us repeat slogans that threaten Jews, such as 'Khybar, Khybar, Yah Yahud, jaysh Muhammad saya'ud (Khybar, Oh Jews, Muhammad's army will return).'[21]The army of Islam during the time of the Messenger, and during the time of the righteous Caliphs, [and the rulers] who came after them, did not threaten the Jews and did not frighten peaceful people; rather, it responded to aggression, prevented damage [to Islam], and defended the Muslim land and their rights… Our religion prohibits us from aggression and injustice, and teaches us to live in brotherhood with others as long as they desire the same…"

"Each one of us [Arabs] must know that when he harms the Jews collectively as a race or as a people – and thus presents himself as one who expresses inhuman racist approaches that are outmoded – he harms the interests of his nation."

In his articles, Al-Baz also differentiated between criticism of Israel and antisemitism, and states, "Anyone who criticizes Israel does not need antisemitic claims to reveal the damage necessarily caused by its policy…"[22]

In his recommendations to the Arab side on how to improve relations with Israel and the Jews, Al-Baz emphasized that "the mistake is to say that all the Jews are evil or good, and that by belonging to the Jewish religion they are implicitly guilty of certain faults or necessarily must behave differently than others." Similarly, Al-Baz explains that the Arabs must distinguish between Jews and Zionists, and realize that not every Jew is a Zionist or Israeli and that there is disagreement even among Israelis, and not all are extremists.

He called on the Arabs to stop interpreting matters relating to the Jews in terms of conspiracy, to stop expressing sympathy for Hitler and Nazism, and not to use the symbol of the Star of David in drawings and cartoons critical of Israeli policy and officials. This, he says, is because Israel is very sensitive about this symbol, "which arouses in the Jews painful memories [of the yellow patch of the Nazi era] and symbolizes the height of repression, terror, and racism."[23]

Al-Baz also objects to the use of the common anti-Jewish slur "apes and pigs," saying, "We must not make improper use of the Koran by describing the Jews as the sons of apes and pigs, as it is clear that the words of the Koran on the matter of this metamorphosis do not mean that all the Children of Israel or the Jews were punished with this punishment… Similarly, we do not know for certain whether the transformation was physical or used as a metaphor and an image…"[24]

IV. A New Recommendation by Al-Azhar: Stop Calling Jews 'Apes and Pigs'

In March 2003, Al-Azhar University's Institute for Islamic Research issued a recommendation not to describe contemporary Jews as "apes and pigs." The meeting during which the recommendation was drafted was headed by Sunni Islam's highest-ranking cleric, the sheikh of Al-Azhar, Muhammad Sayyed Tantawi.

Calling Jews "apes and pigs" is very common in the antisemitic discourse of the Arab world, particularly in Islamist circles. For the most part, the term is used as a synonym for Jews, or in strings of epithets originating in the Koran and Muslim tradition regarding Jews.[25]Sheikh Tantawi himself, in an April 2002 sermon, called Jews "the enemies of Allah, the sons of apes and pigs."[26]

According to reports on Al-Bawaba[27]and in Al-Watan,[28]Al-Azhar's discussion on calling Jews "apes and pigs" followed a request to the Islamic Research Institute from the Egyptian Foreign Ministry to examine the matter. This request came after the Egyptian Embassy in Washington D.C. reported that there was anger in American society over Muslim preachers and clerics calling Jews these names.

Also, as noted above, three months before, Osama Al-Baz criticized calling Jews "apes and pigs" in his series of articles in Al-Ahram.

Conclusion

Over the last two years, there has been a change in the attitude of some shapers of Arab public opinion towards antisemitic statements. This change may reflect the impact of translating material from the Arab media into Western languages. This exposure of the material in the Western media, and the resulting criticism in the West, particularly the U.S., in the media, government, and Congress, induces shapers of Arab public opinion to back down from their antisemitic stances – or at least to refrain from making antisemitic statements.

It also appears that the increase in antisemitic propaganda in the Arab media since the beginning of the Al-Aqsa Intifada two and a half years ago has led some Arab intellectuals to rethink the matter and reject antisemitic statements. Some have expressed total objection to antisemitic ideas, explaining that they are based on false accusations of the Jews. Others reject antisemitic propaganda out of practical considerations, realizing that being perceived as antisemitic and, even more, as propagating antisemitism harms both the Arab image and Arab chances of gaining positive international public opinion.

It is still too early to say whether this is an ongoing and consistent trend among some Arab intellectuals or merely passing statements, and whether these critical stances will change the nature of the anti-Jewish discourse in the Arab world. However, the number of those criticizing antisemitism in the Arab world is still relatively small, and most are unwilling to rethink and reject Arab antisemitism.

The most significant example of such entrenchment is that of the editor of the Egyptian government daily Al-Ahram, Ibrahim Nafi', who published a blood libel in his newspaper.[29]When that issue of the paper was distributed in France, the French Jewish organization LICRA[30]read a translation of the article and subsequently filed a complaint, which led to a criminal investigation of Nafi' for incitement to antisemitism.

When Nafi' launched a campaign in support of his right to publish such material, Arab and European intellectuals rushed to his aid. Since the August 2002 announcement that Nafi' was to be subpoenaed in Paris, his newspaper, Al-Ahram, has been inundated with declarations of support from Egyptian and Arab public figures and organizations. Various organizations such as the Arab Lawyers' Association in Britain have expressed willingness to help with his legal defense, while clerics, politicians, diplomats, newspaper editors, journalists, jurists, intellectuals, businessmen, financiers, and many Arab organizations published statements of solidarity.

Among these are (according to Arab media sources): top clerics such as the Sheikh of Al-Azhar, Muhammed Sayyed Tantawi and Egyptian Coptic Patriarchal Aide Father Yohanna Qalta; politicians and representatives such as Egyptian State Council Chairman Abd Al-Rahman Azouz, Chairman of the Egyptian People's Assembly Ahmad Fathi Sroor, Chairman of the Egyptian Shura Council Mustafa Kamal Hilmi, Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa, and Jordanian Ambassador to Cairo Hani Al-Mullqi; jurists such as the attorney for French Holocaust denier Roger Garaudy Dr. 'Ali Al-Ghatit and Arab Lawyers Association Chairman Sameh 'Ashur; journalists such as editors of the Egyptian opposition papers Al-Wafd, Al-Ahali, Al-Midan, Al-Usbu, Al-Arabi and Al-Zaman and the Palestinian Journalists Association; businessmen and financiers such as the chairman of the Union of Chambers of Commerce, Industry, and Agriculture in the Arab Countries Khaled Abu Isma'il, Egyptian Businessmen's Association Chairman Jamal Al-Nader, and Egyptian Bankers Union chairman Bahaa Al-Din Hilmi; Arab organizations and associations and their members such as Arab Pharmaceutical Industries Association, Egyptian Physicians' Association Chairman Dr. Hamdi Al-Sayyid, the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, and Arab Artists' Association Chairman Dr. Fawzi Fahmi; and foreign functionaries and organizations such as Union of Journalists in Finland President Tekka Laine [sic], French international law professors and lawyers [no details mentioned] and Rabbi Yaakov Koenig, leader of the world Jewish group Neturei Karta.[31]

*Yigal Carmon is President of MEMRI.


[1]Events such as Jorg Heider's run for the Austrian premiership in October 1999 and the Stockholm International Forum on the Holocaust in January 2000 also brought about an increase in expressions of antisemitism in the Arab media.

[2]AFP (France), March 15, 2001.

[3]Le Monde (France), March 16, 2001. The intellectuals who signed the communiqué were accused of unconditionally accepting the Zionist narrative and of pressuring Arab leaders to endorse their approach, while disregarding the negative ramifications of their deeds, such as damage to freedom of expression. These attacks motivated Edward Said to withdraw his support of the communiqué. On April 2 2001, he explained that he had added his signature to the communiqué "on condition that no request would be directed at any government to ban the conference," while the Lebanese government was in fact asked to ban it. Three months later, Mahmoud Darwish said that the cancellation of the conference was "a violation of human rights and a blow to the revisionist historians' right to scientific research." See http://www.tau.ac.il/Anti-Semitism/asw2001-2/arab.htm.

[4]Al-Hayat (London), March 13, 2001.

[5]Al-Hayat (London), March 19, 2001.

[6]The intellectuals' communiqué and the conference's cancellation were sharply criticized by other Arab intellectuals, and engendered an initiative to hold an alternative conference. On May 13, 2001, some 200 Arab journalists and members of associations opposed to normalization with Israel met in Amman, Jordan, to discuss the conference's cancellation. The two main spokesmen at this conference were Hayat 'Attiyeh, a Lebanese journalist residing in Amman, and Jordanian journalist 'Arafat Hajazi; the two focused on comparing Zionism with Nazism and denying the Holocaust. See http://www.tau.ac.il/Anti-Semitism/asw2001-2/arab.htm.

[7]See MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 354, http://www.memri.org/legacy/report/696#_ednl.

[8]See MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 357, Editor of Saudi Government Daily Al-Riyadh: Statement on 'Purim' Blood Libel Articles. While Dr. Al-Jalahma was dismissed by Al-Riyadh, she continued voicing similar views, stating at theArab League's Zayed Center for Coordination and Follow-Up on April 9, 2003 that the war in Iraq was timed to coincide with the start of Purim; see MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 494, Author of Saudi Blood Libel and Professor at King Faysal University Lectures at Arab League Think Tank: 'U.S. War on Iraq Timed To Coincide With Jewish Holiday Purim'. Dr. Al-Jalahma now writes for Al-Watan, another Saudi daily.

[9]Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), March 19, 2002. http://server1.alriyadh.com.sa/leqa/leqa.asp.

[10]See MEMRI streaming video of segments of series, http://www.memri.org/video/index.html.

[11]Al-Quds (Palestinian Authority), November 19, 2002.

[12]The Jerusalem Post (Israel), November 19, 2002.

[13]Al-Hayat Al-Jadida (Palestinian Authority), November 14, 2002.

[14]Al-Hayat (London), November 1, 2002.

[15]See for example Daoud Shiryan, Saudi columnist for the London Arabic-language daily Al-Hayat, on November 6, 2002, and Egyptian intellectual Mamoun Fendi, who lives in the U.S., in the London Arabic-language daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, on November 11, 2002. It should be noted that at the same time Egyptian government elements were claiming that they could not censor the series, they did intervene regarding television broadcasts about heir apparent Jamal Mubarak, son of President Mubarak.

[16]Al-Watan (Qatar), November 29, 2002.

[17]Following the explanations of these two approaches is a note by author Hassin Abd Al-Wahad, who says that "Zionism and the Jews themselves bear the responsibility for the validation of the authenticity of the Protocols" because of "Israel's crimes against the Palestinian people and the Arabs" and because of "the Jews' certain control of the U.S." He expresses his surprise that although the Jews deny that the Protocols are authentic, all world developments and events are in line with what the Protocols say. See The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, Akhbar Al-Yaum Press, July 2002, pp. 5-15.

[18]Al-Ahram (Egypt), December 23, 24, and 25, 2002. See MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 454, Egypt's Response to Accusations of Arab Media Antisemitism.

[19]Nonetheless, a few months after Al-Baz's articles appeared, Egyptian diplomat Alaa Roushdy defended his country's broadcast of the series at a U.N. Human Rights Commission meeting in Geneva, saying, "We know that the Protocols are based on historic truth." See Weisenthal Center Report, March 25, 2003, www.wiesenthal.com/social/press/pr_print.cfm?ItemID=7378.

[20]For more on the Damascus blood libel, see MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 99 on the book by Syrian Defense Minister Mustafa Tlass. The Damascus Blood Libel (1840) as Told by Syrian Defense Minister Mustafa Tlass.

[21]Khyber was the wealthiest and most powerful Jewish town on the Arabian Peninsula. In 628, it was conquered by the Prophet Muhammad, who permitted its Jews to continue working their land provided they gave half the harvest to the Muslims in Al-Madina. During the time of the second caliph, Omar bin Al-Khattab, the Jews were expelled from Khyber and their lands were distributed among the Muslims.

[22]Al-Ahram (Egypt), December 24, 2002.

[23]Al-Ahram (Egypt), December 25, 2002.

[24]Al-Ahram (Egypt), December 25, 2002.

[25]For more on Jews as "the sons of apes and pigs" see MEMRI Special Report No. 11, Based on Koranic Verses, Interpretations, and Traditions, Muslim Clerics State: The Jews Are the Descendants of Apes, Pigs, And Other Animals.

[26]www.palestine-info/arabic/palestoday/readers/mashhoor/22_04_01.htm.

[27]www.albawaba.com, March 6, 2003.

[28]AL-Watan (Saudi Arabia), March 14, 2003, http://www.alwatan.com.sa/daily/2003-03-14/first_page/first_page01.htm.

[29]The blood libel appeared in the article "Jewish Matza is Made from Arab Blood." The article connected the 1840 Damascus blood libel with Israel's actions. See MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 150, Leading Egyptian Newspaper Raises Blood Libel.

[30]Ligue Internationale Contre le Racisme et L'antisémitisme.

[31]For more on the affair of Nafi's subpoena and individuals and organizations expressing support for him, see MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 107, French Legal Authorities Investigating Editor of Major Egyptian Daily for Antisemitism.