Since 1945, certain Arab countries have been the only places in the world where hard-core, Nazi-style anti-Semitism is publicly and officially endorsed and propagated.
In the Western world, since the defeat of the Nazi Reich, anti-Semitism, though by no means dead, is clandestine or hypocritical, and cannot be openly avowed by anyone with serious political ambitions or cultural pretensions. In the Soviet bloc, though extensive use is made of anti-Semitic themes and symbols in both domestic and foreign propaganda, anti-Semitism as such is denounced and condemned, and the war against the Jews is waged under other flags, such as secularist anti-Judaism and socialist anti-Zionism. While the influence of such anti-Semitic classics as Canon Rohling's Talmud Jew and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion can sometimes be seen very clearly in polemical literature ostensibly directed against Jewish clericalism and Zionism, these works are not cited by name, and copies are apparently not available. In the Western world, where there is no comparable control of publications, these books are still being reprinted, but they are nowadays confined to the lunatic fringe, and their direct influence is minimal.
In the Arab world, by contrast, these two books are the most frequently cited authorities on Jewish matters—not only on Israel and Zionism, but on Jews and Judaism in general; not only in the context of the present time or since the beginning of Zionist settlement, but throughout the three thousand years of recorded Jewish history. Nor are these publications confined, as in the West, to the lunatic fringe. They are published by major, sometimes government, publishing houses; they are endorsed and sometimes introduced by prominent political, religious, and intellectual figures; they are quoted on national television and radio programs and in some of the most respected newspapers and magazines; they form the basis of discussions of Jews and Judaism in many school, college, and teacher-seminary textbooks.
In 1970, in a book published by the PLO Research Center in Beirut, the writer, As'ad Razzuq, protested against the use of such tainted materials, which “are regarded with contempt by the civilized world,” and which dishonor and discredit the Arab cause. At that time he listed twenty-six books based directly or indirectly on Rohling. His protest had no effect, and since then there have been many more such books. There are at least nine different Arabic translations of the Protocols, and innumerable editions, more than in any other language including German. One version, published in 1961, was introduced by the famous and respected author ‘Abbas Mahmud al-‘Aqqad; another, published in about 1968, was translated by the brother of President Nasser. Until a few years ago, the reader with access only to Arabic would not have known that the authenticity of the Protocols had ever been called into question, the sole discordant voice coming from some Marxist critics who reject personal explanations of history, such as those relied upon in the Protocols, but without indicating that they are a fabrication.
More recently, a few Arab writers have shown at least some awareness of this, but they still display a curious reluctance to abandon the Protocols entirely. One described them as “of questionable authenticity.” An article in the Cairo newspaper al-Ahram (February 22, 1974) observes judiciously that “the prevailing opinion at the present time is that the Protocols are a forged document.” This cautious formulation no doubt represents some progress, but leaves a number of questions unanswered, such as who forged them and what they represent. Here the article is remarkably equivocal, and the unwary reader might be left with the impression that if the Protocols were not actually fabricated by Jews, they nevertheless accurately reflect the image which the Zionists hold of themselves and which they desire to project to others. For the most part, however, their authenticity has been taken as axiomatic, and Arab writers on Jewish matters have sometimes assigned the Protocols the third place among the pillars of Judaism, after the Bible and the Talmud.
The Protocols have at different times been publicly recommended or cited by Presidents Nasser and Sadat of Egypt, President ‘Arif of Iraq, King Faysal of Saudi Arabia, Colonel Qaddafi of Libya, and numerous other kings, presidents, prime ministers, and political and intellectual leaders. In addition to local use and distribution, agencies in several Arab countries, and latterly also in revolutionary Iran, have undertaken the distribution of the Protocols and related literature all over the world, and notably in countries in Africa and in South and Southeast Asia not previously affected.
Clearly, the argument sometimes put forward that the Arabs cannot be anti-Semitic since they themselves are Semites lacks all merit, and indeed the mere use of this argument is in general an indication of either ignorance or bad faith. Semite, like Aryan, is a classification of language, not of race or nationality. The misuse of both these terms originated in the same quarters, and serves the same purpose. In any case, anti-Semitism has never been directed against any but Jews, and this has been well understood by all concerned. The Nazis, who may be recognized as the most authoritative exponents of anti-Semitism, saw no difficulty in simultaneously hating Jews and courting Arabs, and there were not a few Arabs who likewise found no difficulty in responding to that courtship. No people on earth is immune from the universal human disease of ethnic or racial hostility, and the Arabs are no exception.
The question should be put in a different form. Obviously, Arabs are as liable as Germans, Russians, Jews, or anyone else to develop hostilities against other peoples, and their history and literature bear ample testimony to this. But are Muslims subject to what has hitherto been regarded as a specifically and indeed exclusively Christian disease—a certain attitude to Jews arising from the gospel narratives of the foundation of the Christian faith, and inculcated in countless generations of children through education, worship, literature, art, and even music? According to the Qur'an, Jesus was a prophet and not the son of God, and the crucifixion never took place. The prophet Jesus was taken away by God to safety, and a simulacrum or illusion crucified in his place. There is therefore in Muslim theology and literature no accusation of deicide, and consequently no doctrine of collective and hereditary guilt for that crime; nor is there any such intimate relationship with the earlier religion as to make continued Jewish existence a challenge to Muslim verities.
In considering these questions, it may be useful to distinguish three types of hostility which, though they may sometimes overlap and interact, are nevertheless different.
The first of these may be defined as opposition to Israel, and also to the Zionist movement from which Israel developed. Zionism is an ideology, which men of good faith and good will may accept or reject, without being necessarily inspired by prejudice. Israel is a state, engaged in a political conflict, over real not imaginary issues, with other states and peoples. Such a conflict may generate prejudice; it may be affected by prejudice; but the hostility to which it gives rise is not necessarily, in itself, an indication of prejudice. This point is particularly important in a region where violent language is normal and accepted in the expression of political conflicts or even disagreements.
A second type of hostility, more difficult to define, is what one might call common, conventional, in a sense even “normal” prejudice, sometimes giving rise to “normal” or “conventional” persecution. Hostility to neighbors of another family, another tribe, race, faith, or origin is part of the universal condition of mankind. Relations are always troublesome between majorities and minorities, between neighboring states and peoples, between rulers and ruled. There is no lack of examples in other parts of the world of minority groups, sometimes from a different religion, race, or culture, who play some specific economic role, and are hated and persecuted as a result. The fate of Indians in East Africa and Chinese in Southeast Asia are examples. Hostility to Jews may sometimes be caused, or at least aggravated, by similar causes.
The third type is anti-Semitism—a hatred which is unique in its persistence, its universality, its profundity, and above all its theological and psychological origins. Unlike other forms of ethnic and racial prejudice, anti-Semitism goes beyond mere denigration or even persecution, and attributes to its adversary a quality of cosmic and eternal evil. Conventional prejudice and persecution can be very terrible, but they differ from anti-Semitism as does conventional from nuclear war.
In what follows, the term anti-Semitism will be limited to the third category defined above—that special and peculiar hatred of Jews, which has its origins in the role assigned to Jews in certain Christian writings and beliefs concerning the genesis of their faith, and which has found modern expression in such works as the Protocols and similar portrayals of a universal Jewish plot against both God and mankind.
In this specialized sense, anti-Semitism did not exist in the traditional Islamic world. True, Muslim religious and other literature provide ample evidence of prejudice against Jews, and Muslim history records not a few cases of persecution. But—and this is surely the crucial point—these attitudes and these persecutions were not accompanied by the demonological beliefs and conspiratorial fantasies that are characteristic of Christian anti-Semitism in both medieval and modern Europe, and do not differ significantly from the hostility and persecution to which other religious minorities, besides the Jews, have been from time to time subject.
While in Christendom the Jews were the only non-Christian minority, in the Islamic world they were one among several, and in most places not the most important. It is true that the Qur'an and other early Muslim writings express a preference for Christians over Jews. For while the Prophet had few encounters with Christians, he came into conflict with the Jewish tribes of Medina, and this conflict, with the bitterness which it engendered, is reflected in the Qur'an and in the biographical traditions. But the conflict ended in their destruction, not his; and this made it possible for Muslims to adopt a more relaxed and less embittered attitude toward their Jewish subjects.
If the Qur'an and early traditions show far greater hostility to Jews than to Christians, the Muslim law makes no such distinction, but treats both subject religions on a footing of equality with each other. In practice, in medieval and in Ottoman times, Jews often fared rather better than Christians, for the obvious reason that unlike their Christian compatriots, they were not suspected of treasonable sympathies with the Christian enemies of the Islamic empires.
The Islamic society and polity have now existed for more than fourteen centuries, in vast areas of Asia, Africa, and, for long periods, southwestern and then southeastern Europe. Clearly, the treatment of Jews, and the attitude toward them of governments and majorities, varied greatly from time to time and from place to place, in accordance with both internal and external circumstances. While, therefore, it is difficult to generalize, this much may be said with reasonable certainty—that they were never free from discrimination, but only occasionally subject to persecution; that their situation was never as bad as in Christendom at its worst, nor ever as good as in Christendom at its best. There is nothing in Islamic history to parallel the Spanish expulsion and Inquisition or the Russian pogroms, let alone the Nazi Holocaust; there is also nothing to compare with the progressive emancipation and acceptance accorded to Jews in the democratic countries of the Christian and post-Christian West during the last three centuries. While prejudice was always present in Islamic lands, it was often muted, rarely violent, and mostly inspired by disdain and contempt rather than by the explosive mixture of hate, fear, and envy that fueled the anti-Semitism of Christendom.
The 19th and 20th centuries, however, brought major changes, mostly to the detriment of Jews and also of other non-Muslim minorities and sometimes even of Muslim ethnic minorities. Three factors in particular contributed to the beginning and development of European-style anti-Semitism in the Islamic world. The first of these was the rise to world domination of the European empires, and the consequent enhancement of the influence of the local Christian subject populations within the Islamic states. Much attention has been given by scholars to the transfer and acceptance in the Islamic world of such European notions as liberalism, constitutionalism, and later socialism. But there were other ideas that traveled by the same route, among them anti-Semitism.
Thus it was from their Christian subjects that the Ottomans first heard about the blood libel, previously unknown to Muslim literature and history. European consular and clerical missions, and their local protégés and disciples, played some part in the introduction and propagation of these ideas. The years of the Dreyfus crisis, for example, saw the appearance of the first specifically anti-Semitic books published in Arabic: these were translations of anti-Semitic writings produced in France.
The impact of these books was very limited, however. The translations were made by Christian Arabs, and were printed in very small editions. They had only a small effect within the Christian communities, and virtually none outside. And even within the eastern Christian communities, they were resisted by leading Christian Arab writers, who condemned the introduction of this kind of hate literature.
The promotion of anti-Jewish ideologies among the Arabs by Europeans did not end with the Dreyfus affair, though, apart from the activities of a few cranky individuals, Western countries were no longer involved, at least not until the advent of the Nazis. In the period immediately following World War I, the campaign of anti-Semitism launched by the White Russians produced some repercussions in the Middle East, if of limited extent. But then came Nazi Germany, which from 1933 to 1945 devoted considerable efforts to wooing Arab opinion. These efforts were very successful at the political and strategic levels—in mobilizing Arab support against the common enemies, the Western democracies and the Jews, and in propagating Nazi philosophy about the nation, the party, and the state. They were less successful in promoting Nazi anti-Semitism among the Arabs, who with a few exceptions continued to express their hostility to Jews in traditional religious and modern political, rather than anti-Semitic, ways. Nazi influence in the Arab world did not end with the collapse of the Third Reich, but was continued by Nazi émigrés, many of whom found a refuge and new tasks in Nasser's Egypt and elsewhere.
With the rapid rise of Soviet influence in the Arab countries from the mid-50's, this phase came to an end, and anti-Jewish polemics in the Arabic media acquired a new ideological underpinning and a new vocabulary. One of the stock accusations against the Jew in the Nazi era was that he was a Bolshevik and a revolutionary, and responsible for the destruction of Russia by the Soviets. This was of course an unsuitable idea for Soviet Russia to spread among its new allies and protégés. These charges were therefore dropped, except in a few places like Saudi Arabia, where they survive to the present day. Elsewhere, such words as socialist, revolution, and even Bolshevik became terms of praise instead of blame, and therefore not appropriate for denouncing Jews.
In a grotesque twist, this accusation was replaced by a new one—that Jews were racist, and Zionism a form of Nazism.
These charges, previously unknown among the Arabs, spread very rapidly, and their appearance was recognized as a sign of Soviet influence. The campaign at the United Nations to denounce Zionism as racism, culminating in the famous resolution of 1975, was clearly a Soviet far more than an Arab enterprise, and was needed for Soviet domestic as well as international purposes.1 Since then, readers and viewers all over the world have been treated to the strange spectacle of some of Hitler's former allies denouncing Hitler's foremost victims as racists and Nazis.
The second factor which worsened the position of virtually all religious and ethnic minorities under Islam was the breakdown and ultimate collapse of the old political structures and of the loyalties and traditions associated with them. Tolerance comes more easily from a position of strength. It is far more difficult when one is defeated, conquered, and subjugated, and when one's own tolerated subjects seem to be in alliance with the conquering enemy. The old dynastic and communal system had worked fairly well. The new patriotic and nationalist loyalties and structures which replaced it, despite their proclaimed adoption first of libertarian and later of egalitarian doctrines, were far less able to tolerate any kind of diversity, and far harsher therefore in their treatment of religious, ethnic, and ideological minorities. For a while, the resulting hostility was directed more against Christians than against Jews. But the Jews were fewer, weaker, and far less able to call on the protection of the great powers. They therefore presented a more tempting target.
It is possible that these two developments would in themselves have sufficed to make the position of the ancient Jewish communities in the Arab lands untenable. They were finally and unequivocally doomed by the third factor, the struggle resulting from the growth of the Jewish resettlement in Palestine, the establishment of the state of Israel, and the series of Arab-Israeli wars that followed.
In the early years of the present century there was a movement of liberal patriotism among the urban elite of the Ottoman empire, in which Muslims, Christians of various denominations and nationalities, and Jews cooperated in a joint struggle to realize shared political objectives. This continued briefly even after the defeat and destruction of the Ottoman empire, and in the early post-World War I years a few Jews played some role in Arab political activities. This was not, however, of long duration. The new nationalism, which doomed some minorities and endangered all of them, soon affected the Jews as well. The struggle in Palestine removed whatever slender chances there might have been for a recovery. Almost from the beginning of the Palestine Mandate, anti-Jewish feeling grew stronger and stronger, not only in Palestine but, one after another, in most other Arab countries.
From the first, anti-Semitism played some part in this. Thus, for example, a memorandum presented by a group of Arab notables to the British Colonial Secretary in 1921 quotes extensively from the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. But this kind of anti-Semitic literature remained a minor element in the Arab propaganda against the Jews, most of which rested on the revival and development of the themes and symbols of traditional Islamic anti-Judaism, and continued to do so, with few exceptions, right through the 1920's and indeed until the 1950's. True, there was some slight increase in the anti-Semitic literature available in Arabic. The Protocols were translated several times, as were some other anti-Semitic classics, and some of the books translated at the time of the Dreyfus affair were reprinted in new and larger editions. But this literature was marginal to the main Arab struggle.
It is noteworthy that through the most difficult times in Mandatory Palestine, and even during the period of German connections and powerful Nazi influence, the specifically anti-Semitic element remained minor. While, as we have seen, Nazi political philosophy exercised some influence, and the Nazi war against the Jews won enthusiastic support, there were few, apart from such as the Mufti of Jerusalem and his circle, who espoused the Nazi doctrine of anti-Semitism, and relatively few anti-Semitic works were available in Arabic. Hatred was deep and violent, and expressed in the strongest language, but it was still in the main traditional rather than anti-Semitic in its themes. Even the wars of 1948-49, the establishment of Israel, and the departure of the Palestinian refugees, while they engendered powerful and intense feelings, do not seem to have contributed significantly to the output of published anti-Semitism.
The real change began after the Sinai War of 1956 and was accelerated after the Six-Day War of 1967. During these years, first a trickle and then a torrent of anti-Semitic books, articles, films, radio and television programs, newspaper and magazine pieces, saturated the media in the Arab countries of the Middle East and, to a much lesser exent, affected North Africa. The favorite works were Rohling's Talmud Jew and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which appeared in literally dozens of translations and adaptations, and rapidly came to dominate virtually all discussion of the Jews and Judaism, in the media and in academic circles. In addition to these two, numerous other anti-Semitic classics from continental Europe were translated and adapted, as well as some of the more recent writings of French, British, and North American fascists. Along with the themes and imagery, the Arabic media also adopted the iconography of European anti-Semitism (though it is interesting that in this respect cartoonists seem to follow East European rather than Central or West European models).
So far there has been very little attempt to resist this universal spread and adoption of anti-Semitism, and very little attempt even to provide an alternative source of information for the young Arab reader who may wish to learn something about this peculiar people, the Jews. No doubt, the Arab intelligentsia has its own equivalents of Émile Zola, who would wish to protest against this pollution of the intellectual waters, and, as already noted, there were indeed such in earlier and freer times. But the present political and intellectual atmosphere in the Arab and Islamic world, including the émigré communities, is not conducive to dissent.
Aside from themes borrowed and adapted from Christendom, there are now anti-Semitic innovations that are explicitly Islamic, or at least presented in Islamic terms. The most important of these is the restatement of the story of Muhammad's relations with the Jews. Instead of being a minor nuisance, ineffectual and unsuccessful in their plots against him, Jews are now presented in a role which obviously reflects the narrative of the Christian gospels. They are depicted as a dark and evil force, conspiring to destroy the Prophet, and continuing as the main danger to Islam from that time to this. Given the importance of the biography of the Prophet in Muslim education, the adoption of this theme is by far the most potent instrument for the dissemination of anti-Semitism among the mass of the Muslim population.
An obvious question arises: how is it that while the Arabs did not to any extent adopt European-style anti-Semitism during the struggle in Palestine, the 1936 rebellion led by the Mufti, the alliance with the Nazis, the rise of Israel, and the departure of the Palestinians, they suddenly began to do so in the late 50's, 60's, and 70's? An answer may be found in the wars of 1956 and 1967.
The war of 1948-49 was a hard-fought struggle, which lasted many weeks, and in which Israel won the prize of survival at a high cost. By contrast, the Israeli victories of 1956 and 1967 were swift and overwhelming, and for the vanquished presented a terrible problem of explanation. This problem was made more difficult by the general description, in the Arabic media, of Israelis and Jews in general as cowardly and lacking in all the martial virtues. An article in the Egyptian armed forces weekly of November 16, 1964 remarks: “The Jew in his very soul and character has not the qualities of a man who bears arms. He is not naturally prepared to sacrifice for anything, not even for his son or his wife. . . .” An Egyptian literary critic, commenting on the cliché-ridden portrayal of Israelis in fiction and drama, asked: “Before this kind of presentation, I put the question: if the Israelis were really like that, how could they have inflicted a defeat upon us?”
How, indeed? If the Israelis are as corrupt and cowardly as their image in Arabic literature, then their humiliating victories become even more inexplicable, or at least require explanations beyond the normal processes of rational thought. To a rapidly increasing extent, the literature of anti-Semitism has provided such an explanation.
1 See my article, “The Anti-Zionist Resolution,” Foreign Affairs, October 1976.