Soon after the September 11 terror attack on the twin towers, Sheikh Muhammad al-Gamei'a, Imam of the Islamic Cultural Center and Mosque of New York City suddenly decided to return to Egypt. In his role as a New York Imam, al- Gamei'a had participated in scores of interfaith meetings together with Christian and Jewish clergy, and had been a genteel presence, expressing moderate views. That is why, a few days after his hasty departure, friends and colleagues in New York City were astounded to hear of an interview with al-Gamei'a in which he accused "the Jews" of having engineered the September 11 attacks in order to discredit Islam.
The interview, which had been posted on the unofficial web-site of Al Azhar, the Islamic world's premier institute of higher learning, revealed a world view based on the notorious "Protocols of the Elders of Zion" read with Islamic-tinted glasses. Al-Gamei'a claimed that Americans "knew very well that the Jews were behind this ugly act," but could not talk about it openly because "the Zionists control everything, the political decision-making, the big media organizations, and the financial and economic institutions. The Jewish element is as Allah described it," he continued, "They disseminate corruption in the land..." They have always unjustly broken agreements, murdered the prophets and betrayed the faith... all the time, disseminating corruption, heresy, homosexuality, alcoholism, drugs. They do this to impose their hegemony and colonialism on the world."
For al-Gamei'a, anti-Semitism was not merely an intuitive distrust of Jews, but a fully fleshed out theory of history. "These people always seek out the superpower of the generation and develop a symbiotic relationship with it. Before this, they rode on the back of England and on the back of the French empire. After that, they rode on the back of Germany. But Hitler annihilated them, because they betrayed him and violated their contract with him."
Al-Gamei'a's "proof" that the Jews were behind the attacks was an odd mixture of Arab feelings of inferiority and inflated estimations of Jewish power: "If we look closely at the incident we find that only the Jews are capable of planning such an incident, because it was planned with great precision of which Osama bin Laden or any other Islamic organization or intelligence apparatus is incapable."
Al-Gamei'a's turn to a virulent form of anti-Semitism upon his return to Egypt is far from an isolated occurrence. In the wake of September 11, with the eyes of the media, perhaps for the first time, focused on the Islamic world, wild anti-Semitic conspiracy theories have been consistently reported as a staple component of public opinion. Israelis have long been vaguely aware of the existence of Arab anti-Semitism - most of us have seen reproductions of the Der Sturmer-like caricatures that are often published in Egyptian newspapers. But the intifada al-Aqsa (the second intifada), and perhaps even more so the September 11 attacks, have clarified for many of us the extent and danger of this phenomenon.
One important lesson of the past year is that Israel should have taken the Palestinian incitement to hatred seriously, and America should have paid more attention to bin Laden's declaration of war against the West. Words count. Portraying Jews as a demonic people aimed at destroying Islam and enslaving mankind may be a warning that the deployment of weapons of mass destruction against Israel is not an unimaginable next step.
For hundreds of years, the virulent form of anti-Semitism that is now endemic in the Islamic world has been the heritage of the Christian West. In Christianity, the Jews had a starring role: they were the killers of Christ, and some Christians believed that they reenacted this ultimate evil by drinking Christian blood every Passover. In Islam, the Jews were more like shlemeils than God-slayers: the Jewish tribes in Arabia opposed Muhammad, but he easily defeated them. Although the Koran contains numerous harsh statements about Jews, the bottom line in Islam was that Jews were protected under Islamic law as long as they accepted Islamic political authority and the social and political limitations this imposed. Prejudice against Jews existed, and at periods of turmoil this prejudice sometimes turned violent, but eras of cooperation and relative peace were also often characteristic of Jewish life under Islam.
Threatened and defensive
Anti-Semitic ideas infiltrated into the Arab world, according to Bernard Lewis, one of the greatest living scholars of Islamic history, as Islam expanded into the West. Christian converts to Islam and Greek Orthodox Christians who found themselves living under Islamic rule introduced anti-Semitism, including the notion of the blood libel, into the Middle East. In the first half of the 19th century, Christian Arabs, who were in continuous contact with Western Christians, brought numerous blood libel charges against Jews living in the Ottoman Empire. Often, money was at the root of this evil. In many cases, the Jews were the Christians' business competitors. Attempts to inflame Arab passions against the Jewish minority "were actively encouraged by Western emissaries of various kinds, consular, commercial, priests and missionaries," writes Lewis, in his book "Semites and anti-Semites", and blood libels were often accompanied by calls for commercial boycotts. In the 1840 Damascus blood libel, the most famous of such cases in the Arab world, it was Capuchin monks who made the false accusation, backed energetically and vociferously by the French consul. Interestingly, Islamic political authorities often attempted to quell the blood libel accusations, and Islamic intellectuals attacked Christian prejudice on the pages of newspapers and journals.
The translation of European anti-Semitic tracts into Arabic began in the second half of the 19th century. Most of the tracts were written in French; all were translated and published by members of the Christian Arab community. The first such translation, published in Beirut in 1869, was a forgery that purported to be the confessions of a Moldavian rabbi who had converted to Christianity; in the tract, he told of the horrors of the Jewish religion. In 1890, under the influence of the Dreyfus Affair, a Christian author named Habib Faris published a book in Cairo called "The Talmudic Human Sacrifices," an anthology of material culled from European sources. The notorious Protocols of the Elders of Zion," concocted in 1895 in Paris apparently by the Russian Czar's secret police, was translated into Arabic for the first time by an Arab Christian, and published in the journal of the Latin community in Jerusalem in 1926. It was not until 1951, in Cairo, that a Muslim translated the Protocols, which, according to a journalist recently returned from Jordan, is now being sold in English translation in every hotel she stayed in.
From the beginning of the 20th century, pressures mounted that would eventually result in the creation of an authentically Islamic anti-Semitism. Large swathes of the Arab world were beginning to fall under the domination of European colonial powers; Islam began to feel threatened and defensive. When the secularizing Young Turks overthrew Sultan Abdul Hamid II, ruler of the Ottoman Empire, in 1908, their opponents accused the Young Turks of being supported by Jews.
Gradually, anti-Zionism became a major concern for some Arab writers and journalists, and ideas emerged that prepared the way for the merging of anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic themes. As early as 1909, an influential Turkish journalist named Yunus Nadi published an article called "Down with Zionism Always and Forever" in which he claimed that Zionists were plotting to create "an Israelite Kingdom comprising the ancient states of Babel and Nineveh with Jerusalem at its center." At the apparent prompting of the French consul, he added that Jews were doing this to serve as the vanguard of German influence in the Middle East. As Bernard Lewis writes: "The theory that Zionism aimed not at a Jewish National Home but at a Jewish Empire was often repeated by later polemicists; the argument that Zionism and the Jewish National Homes were puppets or agents of one or the other imperial powers also became commonplace." First, the Zionists were accused of serving the Germans or the French, afterwards the British or the Soviets, and finally the Americans.
In the 1930s, nearly two decades after the Balfour declaration aroused further Arab suspicions and hostilities, a growing convergence of German and Arab enmities allowed Nazi-style anti-Semitism to penetrate the Arab world. Although technically the Arabs were also "Semites" disdained by the Nazis, both the Germans and Arabs had hatred of the British and the French in common. To the top of this list was added the Jews. Although early in the Third Reich, a Jewish homeland in Palestine was, in fact, thought of as a convenient dumping ground for Europe's Jews, soon, a covenant between anti-Zionist Arab leaders and the Nazis began to emerge. Leaders on both sides chose to finesse or ignore the implications of the kind of anti-Semitism featured in "Mein Kampf". An article in the Nazi Party newspaper, published in 1937, explained that Arabs had been at least partly "Aryanized" through mixing with Armenians and Circassians. While some Nazis even argued that "Mein Kampf" should be emended to make clear that only Jews and not Arabs were meant as objects of Hitler's rage and disdain, the sacred text did not bear emendation.
The Nazis used radio broadcasts to propagandize in the Arab world. Attacks on their common enemy, the Jews, were a major feature of these broadcasts. At the same time, Hajj Amin al Husayni, the mufti of Jerusalem and leader of the Palestine Arab Higher Committee, obsessively pursued links with fascist Italy and Nazi Germany and lived out the war years in the Axis countries. Amin's long term goal, he said, after preventing Jewish settlement of Palestine, was to lead, in alliance with Germany, a Holy War of Islam against world Jewry that would result in the final solution to the Jewish problem.
Murderous anti-Jewish riots in Iraq in 1941, in Egypt, Syria and Libya in 1945, and massacres in Aleppo and Aden in 1947 demonstrated how the anti-Semitic propaganda of the Nazis, the activism of the Mufti, and increasing tension over the emergence of a Jewish state in Palestine combined to completely erase the distinction between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism. New forms of Arab nationalism also left less room for the tolerance of minority groups than had existed in the Ottoman Empire. In addition, the odd relationship that had developed between the Nazis and some Arab countries continued after the war. Egypt, for one, became a magnet for ex-Nazis. Nazi war criminal Johannes von-Lirs, an expert in anti-Semitic literature, was one of a number of Nazis welcomed warmly by Egypt for their "expertise in Jewish affairs". Von-Lirs was greeted by none other than Mufti Hajj Amin al Husayni. In his speech welcoming Von-Lirs, Husayni remarked: "We thank you for venturing to take up the battle with the powers of darkness that have become incarnate in world Jewry."
After the formation of the State of Israel, the ongoing conflict with the Arab nations continued to produce a spate of anti-Semitic literature of many different kinds. With the Soviet penetration into the Middle East in the1950s, attacks on Zionism and Judaism in Arab countries in the Soviet sphere often focused on racism. Judaism was portrayed as a racist religion. Jews had always been "racists," learned tracts proved, perhaps even genetically so. But alongside the "secular" charge of Jewish racism, another trend had been quietly developing: the Islamization of anti-Semitism. The Koran and Hadith (Muhammad's oral teachings) were reread in a new light, in order to highlight and emphasize potential anti-Semitic themes. The conflict between Muhammad and the Jewish tribes, a minor incident in traditional Islamic teachings, was transformed by Islamic scholars in Egypt and elsewhere into a central trauma and an indication of the continuous Jewish attempts to undermine Islam which were to come.
Israel's humiliating defeat of the Arabs in 1956 and 1967 intensified Arab anti-Semitism. The defeats could only be explained by elevating the Jews, as some Christians had already done, to the status of representatives of cosmic evil. Thus, the appeal of the Protocols, which purports to reveal an international Jewish conspiracy already quite advanced, to take over the world. Starting in the 1950s, the Protocols began to be published in innumerable editions in the Arab world. Ironically enough, it was the PLO research center that often served as the voice of sanity during the 60s and 70s, castigating Arab writers for relying on known forgeries or distortions in attacking Judaism and the Jews.
An 'invented tradition'For many years, Arab anti-Semitism was virtually ignored as a subject of serious research in Israel. Except for Yehoshafat Harkabi's groundbreaking work on Arab attitudes towards Israel, little was written about Arab anti-Semitism. Ten years ago, this lacuna was at least partly remedied by the opening of the Center for Research into Anti-Semitism at Tel Aviv University, which launched a special project on anti-Semitism in the Arab world. Esti Webman has been working on this project since its inception, and is collaborating with Dr. Meir Litvak of the Dayan Center in researching Arab Holocaust denial.
One of the startling things about the contemporary Arab world, according to both Webman and Litvak, is that the Oslo accords, instead of diminishing anti-Semitism, actually seemed to have the opposite effect. Although some leaders toned their anti-Semitic rhetoric down after Oslo, in Friday afternoon sermons in the mosque and in the popular press, Shimon Peres' vision of "a new Middle East" served to reinforce the idea that Israel was the spearhead of a drive for global Jewish domination. The growing reality of economic globalization in the 1990s also became a factor in the spread of anti-Semitism. Some Arab thinkers saw Israel as the regional policeman of an America bent on global economic control. Others saw things in reverse: it was the Jews who were using the United States in order to spread a Jewish-controlled economic order across the globe. Either way, economic globalization and global consumer culture was seen as a threat to Islam. Islamic feelings of anxiety at the notion of an Arab world opened to Western culture were directed against the peace process and against Jews. With the notion that the Jews controlled America's finances and media already deeply rooted in much of the Arab world, globalization was seen as proof that the Protocols were real, that Jews were indeed taking over the world.
For the Palestinians specifically, says Webman, the Oslo accords often meant decreased freedom of movement as the West Bank was cut up into areas A, B, and C. The average Palestinian saw no economic benefits from the accords, despite the hopes that had been raised. Oslo itself came to be viewed by many Palestinians as proof of a conspiratorial reality, where the truth was the opposite of what met the eye. In the guise of an historic peace treaty, Oslo was in actuality a form of surrender to Israel and the United States.
Even before opposition to the Oslo accords, the Hamas Covenant had ruled out any compromise with Israel. At stake in the Middle East conflict was not just the future of Palestine, but the outcome of a cosmic battle between the Jews and Islam. Article 22 of the Hamas Charter, as quoted by Litvak in an article called "The Islamization of the Palestinian Israeli Conflict" is openly based on the Protocols. The Covenant describes how the Jews control the world media with their money and have established secret organizations throughout the world - such as the Freemasons and the Rotary Club "for the destruction of societies and the fulfillment of Zionism." They have "caused revolutions all over the world in order to fulfill their goal". But God, according to Hamas, has other plans. Ibrahim Quqa, one of the founders of Hamas, formulated God's plan in a most chilling way. God brought the Jews back to Palestine, Ququ contended, "not in order that it would be a home and land for them, but to serve as their graveyard, so that he would rid the whole world from this pest."
Reformulating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a religious war between good and evil also meant de-legitimizing any option of ultimate compromise. Palestine, according to Hamas, is a "waqf," a religious trust belonging to the entire nation of Islam until resurrection, which cannot be negotiated away by one generation or one part of the Islamic whole. This depiction of Palestine is "invented tradition", according to Litvak and has no basis in the Sharia (Islamic religious codex).
Another "discovery" of Arab anti-Semitism has been Holocaust denial. As early as 1945, representatives of the Arab League were claiming that "Jews had not suffered more than anyone else" during World War II. Holocaust denial has been a continuous feature of mainstream Arab culture since then, with major figures such as Gamal Abdul Nasser and King Faisal of Saudi Arabia taking an active part in disseminating that the Holocaust was a lie or a gross exaggeration. The Islamic movements among the Palestinians have alternated between applauding Hitler for killing the Jews and denying the Holocaust ever took place. The current mufti of Jerusalem made remarks along similar lines last year: "Six million died?" Let us desist from this fairy tale exploited by the Jews to buy international solidarity for Israel." The PLO - or at least some of its prominent members - has taken another kind of tack, arguing that the Zionists and the Nazis together planned the Holocaust. Mahmoud Abbas (also known as Abu Mazen), of Beilin - Abu Mazen; fame wrote his PhD thesis for the University of Moscow in 1982 on the Zionist collaboration with the Nazis in the extermination of European Jewry. Asked recently on a Palestinian TV talk show whether he wished to retract his views on this matter, he held fast to his thesis.
The myth has become realityThe September 11 attacks and their aftermath have melded Islam together with the most virulent, conspiratorial form of anti-Semitism as never before. The process which began with the translation of French anti-Semitic tracts into Arabic by Christian Arabs has now been completed. Bin Laden has succeeded in starting, in the mind of the Islamic masses, a war between Islam and the global forces of evil. In order to coat the West with the color of evil, and at the same time not to alienate potential sympathizers among European Christians, bin Laden's apologists have offered the explanation that this war of the worlds is not directed against the West, but against Western support for the Jewish state, and that it is the Jews, in fact, who are pushing the West to war. In other words, Islam, no longer impotent, is fighting against the Elders of Zion, who are riding the back of the United States. The myth has become reality.
What can one do in the face of the resurgence of anti-Semitism in the Arab world? First of all, it is important to remember that there have always been pockets of resistance to anti-Semitism within the Arab world. Secondly, it is comforting to remember the relative shallowness of the Islamic anti-Semitic tradition. If the right catalyst existed, memories of Islamic tolerance could conceivably replace the current poison, for rabid Islamic anti-Semitism is less than one hundred years old.
Perhaps most importantly, Israel and the Jews must stop being passive in the face of anti-Semitism. Words must be taken seriously, for they do matter. Anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial must be combated aggressively and unashamedly. Anti-Semitic practices, like the Saudi Arabian denial of entry to all Jews, whichever passports they bear, are unacceptable and should be exposed as racist.
But all this, on its own, is not enough. The anti-Semitism that has infected much of the European and Third World Left, as well as the Arabs, is at least partly the result of a vacuum of meaning. Thus far, this vacuum has been filled by the fantastical imaginings of our worst enemies. The return of the Jews to the land of Israel is an historic act of great significance to the family of nations. That the people of the Bible has been resurrected as a sovereign country - a claim we make just by calling ourselves Israel - is something that resonates in the collective unconscious of humanity, demanding interpretation. If we do not provide an interpretation, if we don't fill Israel with a meaning for humanity, beyond our internal myth of Holocaust and redemption, we risk having the rich significance of Jewish return cannibalized by the forces of evil.
Rabbi Micha Odenheimer is a social activist and a contributing editor for Eretz Acheret Magazine