February 27, 2004 Special Reports No. 26

What Is Arab Antisemitism?

February 27, 2004 | By Menahem Milson*
Special Reports No. 26

The resurgence of antisemitism has two distinguishable new characteristics: a) the anti-Jewish positions are presented as a just response to Israel's conduct in its conflict with the Palestinians; and b) the Arab media are the source of most of this anti-Jewish propaganda. This calls for special attention to the issue of Arab antisemitism, which is quite distinct from that of Muslim attitudes to Jews and Judaism prior to the modern era. These two subjects, though interrelated in various ways, have totally different historical contexts and should therefore be treated separately. Arab anti-Jewish propaganda comprises three major components:

1) Anti-Jewish opinions derived from traditional Islamic sources;

2) Antisemitic stereotypes, images, and accusations of European and Christian origin;

3) Holocaust denial and equating Zionism with Nazism (this, of course, is of Western provenance, but its pivotal role warrants special attention).

Within the categories of traditional Islamic elements, special attention is paid to the depictions of Jews as apes and pigs, which dehumanize Jews as despised beasts and provides justification for their destruction.

Arab antisemitism has also adopted many of Europe's classic antisemitic myths, even those that Western antisemites have discarded as too primitive. The most obvious examples are: the notorious blood libel,' The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,' and the charge – rather strange for Muslims – that the Jews killed Jesus. Moreover, the most common trend today in Arab anti-Zionist writing is the equation of Zionism with Nazism. Articles and public discussions in the Arab world frequently point out an ostensible similarity between the ideologies of the two movements, particularly with regard to racism – and Israeli forces are regularly compared to the Nazis.

Arab antisemitism must be closely monitored and its many manifestations translated and exposed, in the hope that exposure will lead to international protests and diplomatic pressure on the states guilty of propagating it.

What Is Arab Antisemitism?

The resurgence of antisemitism in recent years in France and elsewhere in Europe has led to the realization that antisemitism – previously presumed to have been on the wane since World War II – once more poses a major threat to Jews. This antisemitic resurgence has, however, two distinguishable new characteristics: (a) the anti-Jewish positions are presented as a just response to Israel's conduct in its conflict with the Palestinians; and (b) Arab media are the source of most of this anti-Jewish propaganda. This calls for special attention to the issue of Arab antisemitism, which is quite distinct from that of Muslim attitudes to Jews and Judaism prior to the modern era. These two subjects, though interrelated in various ways, have totally different historical contexts and should therefore be treated separately.

It is indeed unfortunate that the status of the Jews as a tolerated minority in the Muslim world before the advent of Zionism has come to figure prominently in the competition between Jews and Arabs to enlist public opinion. The lay reader is often at a loss between the arguments on both sides. On the one hand, he hears that Jews (and Christians) had the status of a protected minority under Islam, and that Jews in Muslim Spain enjoyed a golden age of peace and prosperity; on the other, he is told that Jews and Christians had no legal equality and were never anything other than second-class citizens. These conflicting versions are put into a balanced perspective by Bernard Lewis:

Even at its best, medieval Islam was rather different from the picture provided by Disraeli and other romantic writers. The golden age of equal rights was a myth, and belief in it was a result, more than a cause, of Jewish sympathy for Islam. The myth was invented by Jews in 19th-century Europe as a reproach to Christians – and taken up by Muslims in our own time as a reproach to Jews.

Like most powerful myths, this story contains an element of historic truth. If tolerance means the absence of persecution, then classic Islamic society was indeed tolerant to both its Jewish and its Christian subjects – more tolerant perhaps in Spain than in the East, and in either incomparably more tolerant than was medieval Christendom. But if tolerance means the absence of discrimination, then Islam never was or claimed to be tolerant, but on the contrary insisted on the privileged superiority of the true believer in this world as well as the next. [1]

This paper is confined to the subject of Arab antisemitism as a contemporary media phenomenon; it deliberately avoids discussion of Muslim attitudes to Jews and Judaism prior to the modern era. However, this does not suggest that the effects of a centuries-old tradition can be underestimated. As can be expected, medieval Islamic stereotypes of the Jew clearly inform the Arab response to Zionism and Israel.

Contemporary Antisemitism in the Arab Media

It is sometimes argued that in countries with state-controlled media, the public tends to develop a healthy resistance to the party line and to cultivate its sympathies and antipathies independently of the media. Can one suppose that the public in Arab countries, accustomed as they are to distrusting the official media, dismiss the antisemitic materials which these media serve up as 'official (that is, false) propaganda?' However, there is no basis for such an optimistic assumption. There is a widespread prevalence of centuries-old stereotypes, which may very well create a predisposition to accept negative images of Jews and Israelis when presented in contemporary media.

Arab antisemitism as a modern political, ideological and media phenomenon correlates to the emergence of Zionism and the birth of Israel as a sovereign nation. This correlation becomes obvious when you look at the date of appearance of antisemitic publications in Arabic: the first Arabic novel with distinctly antisemitic themes, in 1921; in 1927, the first Arabic translation of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. There is clearly an increase in the number of antisemitic publications in Arabic from 1947 on. It would, however, be erroneous to construe Arab antisemitism as a function of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The Reluctance to Address Arab Antisemitism

Considering the sheer quantity of anti-Jewish material in Arab publications of all sorts over the last century, it is impossible not to notice that Israeli and Jewish academics have all but ignored it.

There are some exceptions worthy of mention, in Israel and elsewhere: Yehoshafat Harkabi's The Arabs' Position in the Israeli-Arab Conflict (Hebrew, 1968) has remained to this day the seminal work on the subject. [2] Harkabi did not hesitate to refer to the phenomenon plainly as antisemitism. This was followed by Bernard Lewis's 1971 article "Semites and Antisemites" and further work by him on this issue. There have been a few others: Rivka Yadlin, Norman Stillman, Bat Ye'or, Ron Nettler. But these remained the exception: the overwhelming majority of Middle Eastern experts, in Israel and abroad, have shunned the subject.

The explanation of this phenomenon involves a combination of psychological factors and ideological and political motives. One must bear in mind that the entire Zionist enterprise was intended to solve the problem of antisemitism. Hence, the discovery that the hatred which Jews thought they had escaped when they left Europe is endemic in the Middle East was something many people preferred to suppress or deny.

There is, perhaps, another, more political, motivation behind the unwillingness to deal with Arab anti-Jewish attitudes: the fear that the exposure of antisemitic sentiment on the Arab side would reinforce political intransigence in Israel and play into the hands of those political groups which oppose any territorial compromise. This concern is not without reason.

However, those who favor a compromise-solution-oriented Israeli policy must recognize that deliberately ignoring Arab antisemitism is not only intellectually wrong but politically counterproductive. Failure to monitor Arab antisemitism would be reckless negligence; it must be closely studied. It is an unfortunate, distressing fact that Arab antisemitism is now the most dangerous form of hatred for Jews, wherever they are, since the late 1930s. It is especially so because of the close collaboration between Arab antisemites and their Western counterparts.

What is Arab Antisemitism?

The obvious definition is: if it's anti-Jewish, produced by Arabs, in Arabic and intended for Arab audiences – it's Arab antisemitism. In addition, Arab antisemites also frequently address foreign audiences to recruit their support.

The Distinctive Features of Arab Antisemitism

The following conclusions have been formed on the basis of extensive monitoring by MEMRI of a wide variety of Arabic publications and forums (newspapers, magazines, television programs, Friday sermons in mosques, books and websites).

Arab anti-Jewish propaganda appears to comprise three major components:

a) Anti-Jewish opinions derived from traditional Islamic sources

b) Antisemitic stereotypes, images and accusations of European and Christian origin

c) Denial of the Holocaust and the equation of Zionism with Nazism (this too is of course of Western provenance, but its special pivotal role warrants special attention).

The Islamic Component

Apes and Pigs

An extremely common insult directed at Jews, not only in Friday sermons but also in political articles, is that they are, or are descended from, apes and pigs. This abusive reference is based on a number of Qur'anic verses which state that some Jews were turned into apes and pigs by God, as a punishment for violating the Sabbath. [3]

This insult should not be dismissed as mere vulgar invective, nor should the belief that Jews were transmogrified into apes, pigs or other creatures be seen merely as a sign of primitive magical thinking. Repeated reference to Jews as despised beasts dehumanizes them and provides justification for their destruction. The following are just few examples of the use made of this insult in a variety of forums:

In one of his sermons, Saudi Sheikh Abd Al-Rahman Al-Sudayyis, imam and preacher at the Al-Haram mosque – that is the Ka'ba mosque in Mecca, the most important shrine in the Muslim world, said:

"Read history and you will understand that the Jews of yesterday are the evil fathers of the Jews of today, who are evil offspring, infidels, distorters of [God's] words, calf-worshippers, prophet-murderers, prophecy-deniers... the scum of the human race whom Allah cursed and turned into apes and pigs… These are the Jews, an ongoing continuum of deceit, obstinacy, licentiousness, evil, and corruption..." [4]

The image has pervaded the public consciousness, even that of children. In May 2002, Iqraa, the Saudi satellite television station, which, according to its website, seeks "to highlight aspects of Arab Islamic culture that inspire admiration … to highlight the true, tolerant image of Islam and refute the accusations directed against it," interviewed a three-and-a-half-year-old "real Muslim girl" about Jews, on "The Muslim Women's Magazine" program. The little girl was asked whether she liked Jews; she answered, "no." When asked why not, she said that Jews were "apes and pigs." "Who said this?" the moderator asked. The girl answered, "Our God." "Where did He say this?" "In the Qur'an." At the end of the interview, the moderator said with satisfaction: "No [parents] could wish for Allah to give them a more believing girl than she... May Allah bless her and both her father and mother." [5]

Salim 'Azzouz, columnist for the Egyptian opposition daily Al-Ahrar, which is affiliated with the religious Liberal Party, described Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon in May 2000 as follows: "They fled with only the skin on their bodies, like pigs flee. And why say 'like,' when they actually are pigs and apes?"

The Promise of the Stones and the Trees – Wa'd al-hajar wa-'l-shajar

Another very popular anti-Jewish traditional motif is "The Promise of the Stone and the Tree." A widely quoted prophetic tradition (hadith) affirms that before the Day of Judgment, the Muslims will fight the Jews and kill them. Seeking refuge, the Jews will hide behind stones and trees, and the stones and trees will call out, "Oh Muslim, oh Servant of Allah, a Jew is hiding behind me. Come and kill him." Shortly before the war in Iraq, a preacher in Baghdad's largest mosque quoted this hadith on television, as he brandished a long sword; his cry, "We shall cut off their heads!" swept his audience of thousands into ecstasy.

Western Elements

Arab antisemitism has adopted all Europe's antisemitic myths, even those that Western antisemites have discarded as too primitive. The most obvious examples are: the notorious blood libel, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and the charge – rather strange for Muslims – that the Jews killed Jesus.

The Blood Libel

The Blood Libel is still current in the Arab and Muslim world, and crops up even in the most important government newspapers. Some writers rehash and recycle these familiar accusations, putting a new twist on them, such as, for example, that on the Jewish holiday of Purim, Jews use human blood for their traditional pastries.

Blood libel accusations in the Arab media are most commonly encountered in the context of criticism of Israel's actions against the Palestinians. One instance of this caused the Paris Supreme Court, in August 2002, to subpoena Ibrahim Nafi', editor of the Egyptian daily Al-Ahram. Nafi' was charged with incitement to antisemitism and racist violence for having permitted the publication of an article entitled "Jewish Matza is Made from Arab Blood" in the October 28, 2000 edition of Al-Ahram.The article connected the 1840 Damascus blood libel with Israel's activity in the occupied territories. [6]

It is worthwhile noting that the charges against Nafi', who is chairman of the Arab Journalist Union, aroused a storm of protest and outrage throughout the Arab world. They were described in the Arab media as "intellectual terrorism," "a blow to freedom of expression," "a Zionist attack on the Egyptian press," "extortion by the Zionist lobby in France," and even as "an insult to the entire Arab press," as Nafi' is its senior representative.

The Protocols of the Elders of Zion

Since 1927, when it was translated into Arabic, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion has been used frequently in anti-Jewish discourse in the Arab world, to back up claims that there is a "Jewish plot to take over the world." Many Arab shapers of public opinion cite this fabricated document to show how the Jews' malicious plan, as set out in the Protocols, is now coming to fruition. The Jews are accused of using devious methods for accomplishing their goal: controlling the economy and the media, corrupting morals and encouraging international and internal conflict.

The use of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion in the Arab media became a topic of discussion worldwide in late 2002 with the screening of the Egyptian television series Knight Without a Horse throughout the Arab world over Ramadan (November-December). [7] In Ramadan 2003, also for prime-time screening, there was a series devoted to smearing the Jews and "exposing" their evil machinations. The Syrian-produced series, Al-Shatat (The Diaspora) , purported to show Jewish life in the Diaspora and the emergence of Zionism, and was broadcast by Hizbullah's Al-Manar satellite station . It included gruesome scenes such as the ritual murder of a Christian boy and the ritual murder of a Jew who married a Gentile. The series also shows how Amschel Rothschild, the founder of the purported secret world Jewish government, instructed his sons from his deathbed to start wars and corrupt society all over the world to serve the financial interests and the political goals of the Jews.

It is interesting to note that the producers of Al-Shatat, conscious of the previous years' outcry against Knight Without A Horse, took pains to screen a disclaimer at the beginning of each episode stating that the series was not based on the notorious Protocols of the Elders of Zionbut on historical facts and research, including writings by Jews and Israelis.

When the Protocols are mentioned in the Arab media, they are referred to as unquestionably authentic. To be sure, there are many Arab writers who are well aware that the Protocols are a forgery. Nevertheless, most of them, with few exceptions, continue to make use of the Protocols, because, they argue, "it does not matter whether they are fact or fiction: their 'predictions' have largely come true."

One example of this is an article by Lebanese Christian journalist Ghassan Tueni: "Had we not known that the Protocols of the Elders of Zion were forged by Russian intelligence in the 19th century … we would say that what is happening in the world today is exactly what world Jewry planned, due to the great similarity [between what's actually happening and] what is falsely attributed to [world Jewry]. [I refer] to the conspiracy to take over the world and to plunder it; to the deeds [of world Jewry] everywhere, and to the financial, political, and military status [world Jewry] has attained. This is in addition to their attempt to destroy everything that others hold sacred." [8]

There are, as mentioned above, a few notable exceptions, among them some prominent figures, who publicly denounced the Protocols as forgeries. These include Syrian philosopher Dr. Sadeq Jalal al-'Azm, President Mubarak's advisor Usama al-Baz, and Dr. Abd al-Wahhab al-Masiri, an Egyptian authority on Jewish history and author of an Arabic-language encyclopedia of Judaism.

The Jews Murdered Jesus

This ancient Christian accusation has become standard in Arab antisemitic discourse.

One example: Arafat advisor Bassam Abu Sharif referred in the Saudi London-based daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat to the statue of the Virgin Mary damaged by Israeli fire during the siege of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. He wrote, "The sad smile of the Virgin Mary as she shields her son the Messiah did not prevent the soldiers of the Israeli occupation from taking up positions to shoot at the face of this Palestinian angel [i.e. Jesus] and murder the smile… so as to murder what they hadn't managed to murder throughout 2,000 years. In Bethlehem, a new crime was committed. This, of course, was a failed attempt to murder peace, love, and tolerance, just as their forefathers tried to murder the prophetic message when they hammered their nails and iron stakes through the body of the Messiah into the wooden cross." [9]

Calling the Jews Christ-killers in anti-Jewish Arab propaganda is particularly ironic, because according to Islamic belief, Jesus did not die on the cross, and the Christians are distorting the truth.

Holocaust Denial and Zionism is Nazism

The most common trend today in Arabanti-Zionist writing is equating Zionism with Nazism. Articles and public discussions in the Arab world point out an ostensible similarity between the two movements' ideologies, particularly with regard to racism. They claim that just as the Nazis believed in the superiority of the Aryan race, the Zionists believe in a "Chosen People" – i.e. the Jews; it follows that neither movement rules out military expansion.

An additional claim is that the Zionists collaborated with the Nazis to annihilate the Jewish people; since the Zionists considered Palestine the only appropriate destination for Jewish emigration, they refrained from engaging in strictly humanitarian efforts to rescue Jews. Such claims are the focus of a 1982 doctoral dissertation by top Palestinian Authority official and PLO Executive Committee Secretary-General Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, at Moscow's Institute of Oriental Studies. The Arabic version of the dissertation was published in 1984. [10]

Another of these claims refers to the current political situation in the Middle East. Actions by Israel and the Zionists against the Palestinian people are equated with the Nazis' crimes against the Jews – or said to be even worse.

The political significance of these claims is clear: if there was no Holocaust, the Germans need feel no guilt toward the Jews; on the other hand, if there was no Holocaust, then the Germans – and the rest of the Western world – owe a debt of guilt to the Palestinians. If Jews are doing to the Palestinians what the Nazis did to the Jews, then Germans need feel no shame. This is the nexus which connects Middle-Eastern antisemitism to Western antisemitism, creating a strategic antisemitic axis.

Demonizing the Jew

As a 'logical' conclusion of all the above comes the demonization of Jews, individually and collectively. Despite the information accumulated about the identities of the perpetrators of the September 11 terrorist attacks – officials, journalists, and religious leaders throughout the Arab and Muslim world have continued to claim that the perpetrators of the attacks were not Arabs or Muslims. The claim that American and or Jewish/Israeli elements carried out the attacks has become an accepted, common myth in the Arab world. According to some versions of this grotesque fantasy, it is U.S. President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell who masterminded the attacks. [11]

What Can Be Done?

Finally, the question is: what should be done? The first step is to understand the dangers which Arab antisemitism presents. It shapes public opinion throughout the Arab world and creates an atmosphere in which Jews, individually and collectively, are not considered to be fully human. This is in itself an obstacle to peace; the peace agreements which Israel signed with Egypt and Jordan have not led to normalization. Countering Arab antisemitism is, therefore, not merely a matter of combating falsehood and prejudice: it is a vital component in the struggle to improve relations between Jews and Arabs.

On a practical level what needs to be done is the following: Arab antisemitism must be monitored and its manifestations must be made available to Western media and opinion-makers. Its publications must be translated into Western languages in the hope that exposure of these virulent materials will lead to international protests and diplomatic pressure on the relevant Arab governments and institutions.

To be sure, there are those who argue that this kind of response draws attention to the views of a minority of cranks who would otherwise go unnoticed. This position overlooks the fact that much of this anti-Jewish hate literature appears in mainstream newspapers and magazines – many of which are government sponsored – and on highly popular and influential TV channels. Turning a blind eye to Arab antisemitism will only encourage the most extreme elements in the Arab world to flourish unchecked and increase their malignant political influence.

Recent experiences have shown that Arab governments and intellectuals are not indifferent to protests and outside pressures. Usama al-Baz's articles last December, in which he denounced antisemitism, were a welcome step forward. Equally significant is the news (published in the Saudi daily Al-Watan on March 14, 2003) that the Institute of Islamic Studies at Cairo's religious Al-Azhar University has recommended that Muslim preachers refrain from comparing Jews to pigs and apes. It is doubtful that either of these steps would have been taken were it not for the recent protests and criticism in the U.S. Congress and media. [12]

For all these reasons, it is obvious that there is no alternative but to continue unremittingly with the tedious task of monitoring and exposing the appalling products of Arab antisemitism.

* Menahem Milson is professor of Arabic Literature at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and MEMRI's academic advisor. This article is based on a February 20, 2003 lecture at the Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Antisemitism.

[1] Bernard Lewis, Islam in History: Ideas, Men and Events in the Middle East (London: Alcove Press, 1973), pp. 134-35.

[2] Y. Harkabi, Emdat ha'aravim besikhsukh yisrael 'arav ("The Arabs' Position in the Israeli-Arab Conflict," Tel Aviv: Devir, 1968); an English version was published under the title Arab Attitudes to Israel (Jerusalem: Keter, 1972).

[3] Qur'an, 2:65, 5:60, 7:166. Two of these texts (2:65 and 7:166) specify that violation of the Sabath was the cause of the transmogrification. In one instance (5:60), this is mentioned as a punishment brought upon ahl al-kitab ("the people of the book," a term signifying both Jews and Christians) who refused to accept the true faith.

[4] See Based on Koranic Verses, Interpretations, and Traditions, Muslim Clerics State: The Jews Are the Descendants of Apes, Pigs, And Other Animals (November 1, 2002), by Aluma Solnick, 'Based on Koranic Verses, Interpretations, and Traditions, Muslim Clerics State: The Jews Are the Descendants of Apes, Pigs, And Other Animals'.

[5] Iqraa Television (Saudi Arabia), May 7, 2002.

[6] An infamous affair in which a group of Damascene Jews were accused of the ritual murder of an Italian Capuchin friar, Thomas, and his Muslim servant. The incident reflected the manipulation of Christian antisemitism and popular Muslim anti-Jewish sentiment aggravated by the struggles of the European powers that were vying at that time for influence in the Ottoman Empire.

[7] On November 6th, 2002 (the first night of Ramadan), some Arab television channels (including the Egyptian State Television) aired the first segment of a 41-part serial called "A Knight Without a Horse," which is based on "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion."It should be noted that the nights of Ramadan are considered peak time of television viewing in Arab and Muslim countries. The series sparked protests in the West, with the U.S. State Department calling on the Egyptian government to prevent the broadcast – a demand that was rejected out of hand by Egyptian Information Minister Safwat Al-Sharif. The series aroused much debate in the Egyptian and Arab press. Most writers supported the airing of the series, but a few criticized Egypt's obsession with antisemitic writings. The series was viewed and approved for broadcast by a committee appointed by the Egyptian Censor. A committee from the Egyptian Radio and Television Association declared the series "a landmark in the history of Arab drama." The Egyptian Information Minister stated that "the dramatic views expressed by the series contain nothing that can be considered antisemitic." See MEMRI's Inquiry and Analysis Series Nos. Arab Press Debates Antisemitic Egyptian Series 'A Knight Without a Horse', Arab Press Debates Antisemitic Egyptian Series 'Knight Without a Horse' - Part II and Arab Press Debates Antisemitic Egyptian Series 'Knight Without a Horse'- Part III (Nov. 8, Dec. 10 and Dec. 20, 2002, respectively).

[8] Al-Ayyam (Palestinian Authority), March 28, 2000. The article is taken from the Lebanese daily Al-Nahar.

[9] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), March 20, 2002.

[10] See Yael Yehoshua, "Abu Mazen: A Political Profile" (MEMRI, Abu Mazen: A Political Profile, April 29, 2003) chapter V (Zionism and Holocaust Denial).

[11] A NEW ANTISEMITIC MYTH IN THE MIDDLE EAST MEDIA: The September 11 Attacks Were Perpetrated by the Jews(Washington, DC: MEMRI, 2002).

[12] Yigal Carmon, "Harbingers of Change in the Antisemitic Discourse in the Arab World" (MEMRI, Inquiry Harbingers of Change in the Antisemitic Discourse in the Arab World, April 23, 2003).

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