History Lesson

The roots of Arab Anti-Semitism 

Radical Islam’s favorite Western tradition. 

Since Sept. 11, many Americans have been surprised by the prevalence and depth of anti-Semitism in the Arab world. Rumors that we recognize instantly as fabrications—such as the claim that 4,000 Jews were warned in advance about the World Trade Center attacks—are accepted unquestioningly in Arab countries. Reporters undergoing Middle East crash courses are discovering that even states at peace with Israel, such as Egypt, routinely propagate anti-Semitic propaganda of a virulence not seen in mainstream Western politics since World War II.

This anti-Semitism isn’t just the sort of everyday stereotyping or genteel snobbery or even official intolerance that’s familiar, if mostly obsolescent, in the West. No, this is the strong stuff: fantasies that Jews ritually slaughter children and oversee secret conspiracies to rule the world. What’s more, unlike, say, Noam Chomsky, most Arab anti-Semites don’t bother with the protestations about how they only oppose Israel’s Palestinian policies and don’t really hate Jews per se. In their usage, Zionist, Israeli, and Jew are pretty much interchangeable terms.

Finally, and most important, Arab anti-Semitism isn’t confined to the fringes of society. Whereas in Israel, as in other Western countries, overt bigotry is scolded, ignored, or kept out of politics, mainstream Arab culture promotes extreme anti-Semitic ideas through schools, newspapers, television, popular culture, and official ideology. It’s hardly even controversial.

Bernard Lewis’ classic book Semites and Anti-Semites provides insight into how this condition came to be. As he notes, anti-Semitism in Arab countries (and non-Arab Islamic states such as Iran) has risen as Jew-hating in the areas formerly known as Christendom has plummeted. For example, whatever one thinks of the extent of anti-Semitism still extant within the Catholic Church, most Westerners consider the 1964 decision by the Second Vatican Council to repudiate claims that Jews killed Christ to be a mark of progress, to say the least. In Islam, however, centuries of teaching that the Jews didn’t kill Christ have now given way to an embrace of the very claims Christians have renounced. When Vatican II convened, it was Arab and Muslim organizations that most vehemently opposed exculpating the Jews of deicide—the Quran notwithstanding.

Traditionally, Islam did not demonize Jews. In Muslim lore, Jews registered as only minor figures, drawing neither special hatred nor fondness. It was Christianity, in fact, whose teachings first propounded anti-Semitism. At first it was a fairly straightforward business: Jews didn’t view Christ as the messiah, and so they were denounced or oppressed. When times got bad, they were exiled or persecuted.

Over time, Christian anti-Semitism acquired a racial dimension along with its religious thrust. This had significant consequences. After all, when Jew-hating was rooted in religion, a Jew could convert to Christianity and become, as it were, fully kosher. But when states began forcing Jews to convert—or face expulsion or execution—the authenticity of the Jews’ conversions became suspect. After Christians conquered Spain from the Muslims in 1492, they forced Jews and Muslims to convert, flee, or die. Many Jews converted yet practiced their old faith secretly, leading church officials to make new rules discriminating against all so-called conversos.

In the 19th century, anti-Semitism became increasingly racialized. The Enlightenment certainly made life better for Jews, at least in Western Europe, where religious tolerance took hold. Yet the Enlightenment also brought new “scientific”—or, as we now say, pseudoscientific—notions that human beings belonged to different races, some superior to others. Under these notions, Jews (as well as Africans, Arabs, and others) were deemed to be biologically and thus immutably inferior to white or “Aryan” Europeans.

Alongside racism, 19th-century Europe also saw the spread of nationalism: the idea that every people deserved its own state. Nationalism served to justify the repression of “alien” peoples, especially Jews—not just in eastern Europe, where Jews lived in ghettos, insulated from their Polish or Russian compatriots, but even in Western Europe, where many Jews were assimilated and considered themselves full citizens of their countries. This new form of ideological anti-Semitism—seeing the Jews as an alien and inferior people amid Christian European nations—finally got its name in 1879, thanks to an Austrian journalist named Wilhelm Marr.

By this point, the ideology of anti-Semitism had bred elaborate theories about the Jewish people’s evil. In some cases, ancient religious bigotries were updated, as in the “blood libel” that Jews killed Christian children to use their blood in making Passover matzot. (In Germany, Austria-Hungary, Ukraine, and elsewhere, Jews were actually tried in court on such charges.) In other cases, the slanders were new, as with the publication of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a document fabricated by Russian secret police that purported to divulge the Jews’ conspiratorial plans for world domination.

Until the late 19th century, anti-Semitism as an ideology remained largely absent from Arab and Muslim culture. In the Quran and in Islamic commentary, Jews are significant not for rejecting Muhammad but for succumbing to his followers. In Arab literature, they are sometimes portrayed as hostile or vindictive, but their humility and weakness is a much more common theme. Islamic governments did not often persecute Jews either, the way European states did, and when Jews faced discrimination, it was no different from what Christians endured. Unlike in Europe, Jews in Islamic lands were not expelled or forced to convert or, with a few exceptions, consigned to ghettos.

That all started to change around 1900. First, colonialism brought a growing European influence into the region, and both political and religious authorities from Europe promoted the idea that Jews engaged in ritual murders. Second, traditional Islamic authority was under challenge from Western liberalism, and the Jews provided a convenient scapegoat. During the 1908 Turkish revolution, the so-called Young Turks seized power in the Ottoman Empire and installed a constitutional regime that expanded freedom of religion. In arguing against the revolution, Muslim conservatives latched onto anti-Semitic propaganda, claiming that secret Jewish machinations lay behind the new regime.

Finally, there was Zionism. Starting in the mid-1800s, Jews turned to Zionism—their own nationalism—as a solution to escalating European persecution. Since biblical times, Jews had maintained a small presence in the ancient kingdom of Judea (which in the late 19th century Europeans began calling Palestine), and Zionists saw the land as the ideal refuge for them, a Jewish National Home.

Zionist immigration began in earnest in the 1880s, and soon Jewish settlers ran into conflicts with local Arabs. At first, however, the friction centered on grazing rights, land titles, and other property matters; it didn’t carry nationalist or religious overtones. Yet as crude anti-Semitic ideas circulated more widely, the view of Jews as greedy, devious, and bent on world domination became bound up with the Arab critique of Zionism. Possibly the first major expression of the now-common view that Jewish settlement was really a beachhead for a takeover of the region was published in 1909 by the Turkish journalist Yunus Nadi, who warned—without any evidence at all—that the Jews aimed to establish “an Israelite kingdom comprising the ancient states of Babel and Nineveh, with Jerusalem at its center.” The conspiratorial notion of the Jews as plotting to take over the world quickly developed.

Then came the Holocaust, which not only marked the pinnacle of European anti-Semitism but encouraged it in the Arab world as well. Because Arab leaders shared the Germans’ hostility to Britain and France—the dominant colonial powers in the Middle East—they were eager to make common cause with Hitler, despite Nazi belief that they, like the Jews, were inferior to Aryans. The mufti of Jerusalem, among others, actively spread propaganda about “Anglo-Saxon Jewish greed” while praising the Nazi war effort. Even years later, sympathy for Nazism could be easily found in Arab culture. When Israel apprehended Adolf Eichmann in 1960, a Saudi newspaper headline read, “Capture of Eichmann, Who Had the Honor of Killing Five Million Jews.”

If the Holocaust nurtured Arab anti-Semitism, it also helped to discredit such bigotry in the West. Indeed, it helped mobilize support for a Jewish state internationally. In 1948, Israel was finally granted independence. As if to welcome their new neighbor into the region, the Arab countries promptly invaded. Israel repulsed the attacks, and in the three Arab-Israeli wars that followed (1956, 1967, 1973), the Jewish state managed to survive and even to expand its territory. Most controversially, it took over the Gaza Strip from Egypt and the West Bank from Jordan, which were home to large numbers of Palestinian Arabs.

With Israel’s military successes and its willingness to occupy Arab lands until a peace treaty could be struck, Arab anti-Semitism hardened into official doctrine, as it has remained for many decades now. Propagandists, looking to rationalize their losses to a supposedly inferior people, came to depict the Jews as craven lackeys of a mightier power—the United States—a theme that can be heard in Osama Bin Laden’s rhetoric today. And it was not just propaganda: Arab countries passed laws that discriminate not against Israelis or Zionists but against all Jews, simply for being Jews.

Islamic teaching, too, has been radically retrofitted to accommodate the new anti-Semitism. Whereas traditional Muslim accounts depict the fate of the Jews as tragic, that of a people too benighted to follow Muhammad the Prophet, current Muslim scholarship in the Arab world imaginatively rereads the Quran for evidence of the Jews’ devilish nature. Meanwhile, films showing sympathy for the Jews or depicting the Holocaust are censored, while staples of old-fashioned European anti-Semitism—cartoons portraying greedy hook-nosed Jews, popular novels with conspiratorial Jewish villains, public lectures drawing on phony scholarship like the Protocols—became staples of the new Arab culture.

What Americans have been seeing after Sept. 11, we have to conclude, is hardly new. It’s only new to those who never before bothered to look.