Al-Ahram Weekly Online   2 - 8 January 2003
Issue No. 619
Focus
Current issue
Previous issue
Site map
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875
Text menu
Comment Recommend Printer-friendly

Contaminated goods

Osama El-Baz* reminds Arab and Islamic proponents of anti-Semitism that they are purveying shoddy goods of purely Western make. The article is an abridged version of a three-part study published in the Arabic daily Al-Ahram

Osama El-Baz Over the last three centuries European society has given rise to an idiosyncratic series of events and ideas that are absolutely specific, both geographically and historically. The peoples of the Middle East, like other non-Europeans, remained remote from these developments, not only in terms of physical distance but also in terms of their outlook on human nature and their own social and psychological circumstances. They have found -- and continue to find -- it difficult to comprehend the nature of such developments, to understand the ethos and spirit that gave rise to an important body of humanitarian thought. Europe witnessed several revolutions and widespread social upheaval while simultaneously experiencing rapid and intensive scientific and technological progress. It also witnessed many manifestations of a blend of blind prejudice and a sense of inherent superiority over other "uncivilised" and "backward" peoples producing, among other things, an imperialist colonial movement, which proceeded in tandem with a vaunted spirit of enlightenment and the prodigious philosophical, intellectual and practical accomplishments that benefited all mankind.

Another manifestation of the irrationality peculiar to the European mindset was the prevalent attitude towards Jews, collectively and as individuals. Jews were inferior and the object of suspicion because they were "different" in their religion, appearance and behaviour. And it was precisely these differences that served as pretexts for intimidation, persecution and, at times, the annihilation of entire populations. Fear and hatred of Jews existed across all of Europe and assumed its most virulent forms in the Russian pogroms and, later, in the Nazi holocaust.

It was during this period of glaring inconsistency between leaps forward in material and intellectual progress and jumps backwards in moral attitudes and behaviour that the term anti-Semitism was first used, coined in Germany in 1873 by Wilhelm Marr. Subsequently, some European intellectuals would distinguish between "anti-Jewish" and "anti-Semitic" sentiments.

The former, they argued, denotes prejudice of a purely religious nature, and is grounded in the Jews non-acknowledgment of Jesus Christ as the Messiah and their responsibility for his crucifixion. Anti- Semitism, on the other hand, was directed against a group of people, a volk, thought to share certain physical and behavioural characteristics that have no direct bearing on religious affiliation. The term thus signified a hatred of Jews based on ethnic and racial prejudices and, consequently, assumed secular connotations. According to this distinction "anti-Jewish" ceases once a Jew converts to Christianity whereas "anti-Semitism", a fundamentally racist concept, persists and pursues its victim regardless of religion.

Because anti-Semitism is a secular concept and not contiguous with religious affiliation, its proponents required particular proofs to back the theory. Among the most broadly disseminated "proofs" were the notorious Protocols of the Elders of Zion and the tales of Christian blood in Jewish matzo. Although such claims have never been corroborated, their widespread currency fuelled hatred and fear of Jews.

The so-called Protocols -- of which there were 24 in the original 110-page version -- were attributed to a cabal of rabbis who ostensibly published them in 1897, with the purpose of recording their conspiracy to create a global empire subject to Jewish rule. Freemasons, liberals, secularists, atheists and socialists were variously accused of conspiring with these rabbis to achieve their dream of world domination.

There is a large body of evidence suggesting the Protocols were a forgery. It is hardly credible that a handful of individuals from a small minority should meet and set down their scheme to rule the world in a 110-page pamphlet that would be exposed sooner or later. Several experts have also pointed to a work that appeared in 1864 by Maurice Joly, Dialogue in Hell Between Machiavelli and Montesquieu, or Politics in the 19th Century, which has many stylistic similarities to the Protocols. And is it not a little strange that a group of rabbis would write a document of this type without using a single word of Hebrew, the language of the Torah and Talmud, or Yiddish, the language of Ashkenazi Jews which is still used in newspapers in Europe and the Americas today?

Given the revolutions and upheavals Europe experienced in the late 19th and early 20th centuries it is likely that the Protocols were produced by conservative elements seeking to halt what they perceived as decline by attributing it to a vast conspiracy masterminded by European Jews. One needs only read the opening pages of the Protocols to realise its fraudulent nature. In the first protocol, for example, the authors attribute to themselves the vilest traits: "Through the press we have gained our influence while we remained behind the curtain. Through the press we accumulated gold, and we did not care that that caused rivers of blood to flow." Senior clergymen of any religion do not voluntarily level such charges against themselves and their coreligionists and then disseminate them on paper.

The blood in the matzo myth has a long history. In its original form Jews were accused of killing a Christian, preferably a child, on Easter to mock Christ on the day commemorating his crucifixion. Since Easter and the Jewish Pesach, or Passover, fall at the same time in the year, the tale evolved to include the claim that the Jews used the blood of their victims in religious rituals, particularly in making matzo, the unleavened bread used to commemorate the Exodus. It was also said that Jews used blood in the manufacture of medicines.

Some Arab writers, commentators and individuals belonging to groups that describe themselves as Islamic have evinced a crude sympathy for Nazism despite the fact that it is alien to the beliefs and practices of Arab and Muslim peoples. Nazism is founded on a fanatical racist theory, expounded by Hitler in Mein Kampf, that holds that the Aryan race is inherently superior and therefore has the right to subjugate other peoples. Towards the Jews, the Nazis adopted what they called the "final solution", rubric for a programme of systematic physical extermination. Jews were not the only group to suffer such barbarity. The Nazis also targeted gypsies, Slavs, the infirm, crippled and indigent.


Click to view caption
Nazi soldiers clearing out the Warsaw ghetto in 1943 (top); Israeli soldiers rounding up Palestinian youth in 2002
'The Arab cause is just and there is no excuse for borrowing from a legacy inconsistent with the tenets of our beliefs and the realities of our history, no excuse for not presenting our cause in its proper logical and moral framework'
Those who admire Hitler for his demagogic hold over the masses or for his enmity to Britain, once the occupying power over Egypt and other Arab countries, would do well to recall the disasters he inflicted on his people. Hitler executed those who opposed him. He masterminded the horrors of the concentration camps into which the Jews and other "undesirables" in Germany and the countries occupied by the Nazis were rounded up and eventually exterminated in vast numbers.

Some writers have questioned the numbers of Jews that died as the result of Nazi atrocities. It is also true that some Jewish writers, such as Norman Finklestein in The Holocaust Industry, maintain that Zionist organisations capitalised on the Holocaust, an exploitation that has tarnished the memory of the victims of the concentration camps, including the author's mother.

What concerns us here, however, is not scale of the tragedy, or how it was later used, but rather that it happened at all. Jews in Europe were the victims of a rabid anti- Semitism. To anthropologists and ethnologists, the term "Semitic" refers to all peoples, Jews, Arabs and others descended from Abraham. The apologists for anti- Semitism, however, do not use the term in its technical sense, but rather to target Jews in Europe and this, in turn, gave rise to such concepts as the "Jewish character", "Jewish morals", "Jewish culture", and "Jewish people".

Such notions are founded on two fallacies. The first is that Jews share inherent biological, physical and moral traits and tend towards specific occupations. These allegedly distinct ethnic, behavioural and cultural traits make the Jews a singular race. To the proponents of such concepts Jews are "alien", the "other".

Anti-Semitism, as here defined, is a purely European phenomenon, a manifestation of specific psychological, sociological and historical realities. And if, in the 20th century, this phenomenon has sometimes extended beyond the European continent, it has never done so with anything approaching Europe's fanaticism.

Have the Arabs or Muslims ever been anti- Semitic, in the sense of anti-Jewish? I believe that the impartial scholar must reply in the negative. Above all, the Arabs believe that they, like the Jews, are descended from Abraham and that they are thus cousins. Sharing the same cultural and ethnic origins, Arabs can hardly regard Jews as inherently "different". It does not stand to reason that Arabs could harbour hatred or a sense of superiority towards people that share the same ethnic origins.

Arab Nationalism was never anti-Jewish. It was not founded on an ethnic or religious basis, but rather on the basis of common bonds of language, culture and interests shared by all Arab speaking peoples. Its aim was to unify these peoples and mobilise their moral and material energies towards the defence of vital interest, the expulsion of the "colonialist enemy" and the restoration of freedom and dignity. Only then could the Arab Nation play a part in world civilisation commensurate with its cultural legacy, safeguard the collective security of the Arab peoples, and secure their right to progress. If anything, therefore, the "other" in that epoch were the colonisers.

Rather than setting itself in juxtaposition to Judaism or Christianity, Islam presents itself as an extension of the Judeo-Christian tradition. The Qur'an pays tribute to all the Jewish prophets, recognises the Jewish and Christian faiths and establishes Islam as the culmination, or seal, of divinely revealed messages. The attitude of Islam towards Jews, whom it regards as one of the "peoples of the Book", should be seen within the context of the principles it establishes for the relationship between man and his fellow man. The Qur'an and the Sunna are replete with strictures calling for peace, mutual tolerance, justice and equality among the "People of the Book".

Because of the spirit of tolerance inherent in Islam, Muslims, Jews and Christians coexisted in harmony from the beginning of the Islamic Empire, through the Ummayid and Abbasid eras until the end of the Ottoman Empire. Nor should we forget that in Spain both Jews and Muslims, who had lived peacefully for seven centuries, suffered at the hands of the Christian inquisitions. It is also interesting to note that when French Jews began to flee the Nazi occupation of France the only country to offer them refuge was Morocco under the late King Mohamed V.

This leads us to a second important question: did the spirit of brotherhood between the Arabs and Muslims, on the one hand, and Jews on the other, continue after the creation of the state of Israel. Sadly, one must answer that this spirit was impaired for a number of reasons. Firstly, the methods used by the founders of Israel against the Arabs of Palestine were brutal. Secondly, Israel, and the Zionist movement abroad, frequently used Jewish and Israeli interchangeably. This confusion caused Arabs to wonder whether the conflict that had erupted in Palestine and later spread to other Arab countries was between the Arabs and Israel or between the Arabs and Jews.

Right-wing parties in Israel espoused expansionist beliefs inimical to peaceful coexistence in the region. The call for Eretz Israel, a greater Israel extending from the Nile to the Euphrates, naturally provoked alarm among neighbouring countries.

Since its creation, Israel has also routinely discriminated between its Jewish and Arab citizens, excluding the latter from military service and certain civil rights. Indeed, some claim that political society in Israel discriminates between Ashkenazim and Sephardim Jews.

Israeli leaders have always insisted on the necessity of preserving the "Jewish identity" of the state. This stress on the ethnic composition of the state has contributed to the rift between Jews and Arabs and gives the impression that Israeli society is racist.

Religious political movements on both sides have also generated the erroneous impression that the conflict is between Judaism and Islam. That such rhetoric presents the two religions as incompatible deepens the gulf and creates the impression that the conflict is a battle for existence in which only one side can survive. And many Jewish and Zionist groups abroad, especially in the US and Europe, wittingly or not, have contributed to augmenting the gap between Arabs and Jews by misrepresenting the nature of the Arab-Israeli conflict as a form of protracted feud with deep historical roots. They exacerbate matters further in their anti-Islamic rhetoric and activities while blindly defending the extremist policies of Israel. It must be stressed here, however, that not all Jewish groups and individuals abroad are prey to such attitudes; many remain insistent upon the distinction between Israel and Judaism and do not hesitate to openly criticise Israeli policies.

One might possibly understand those Arab writers and media figures who attack Jews on the basis of the racist fallacies and myths that originated in Europe had the Arab cause not been firmly grounded in just demands. But the Arab cause is just and there is no excuse for borrowing from a legacy inconsistent with the tenets of our beliefs and the realities of our history, no excuse for not presenting our cause in its proper logical and moral framework. Most Israeli policies and attitudes are refutable because they fail to acknowledge the methods by which Israel was created, the uprooting and expulsion from their homeland of a people. It is also clear that many Israeli governments pursued policies inimical to the cause of peace and in violation of agreements signed by previous governments. It is possible to expose the fallacies and dangers of Israeli policy through rational argument and there is no excuse for borrowing from an alien, inhuman and outmoded anti- Semitic lore.

Perhaps it is useful to simplify the issue for the reader by posing two questions. First, let us suppose that the Jewish state was founded on a land other than Palestine and accepted by the indigenous inhabitants of that land. Would the Arab and Islamic peoples have objected to such a state and entered into conflict with it? Second, if the people who had founded a non-Arab state in Palestine were not Jews -- if they were Christians, Buddhists or even non- Arab Muslims -- would the Arabs of Palestine and elsewhere have been anymore welcoming of that foreign implant?

The answer to both of these questions is no. The origin of the Arabs' conflict with Israel has nothing to do with the ethnic or religious affiliations of its founders. It has everything to do with the threat to a portion of the Arab national entity, which was eventually severed off and handed to a foreign people as a solution to a problem in which the Arabs had no hand in creating. Arab opposition to Israel never emanated from antagonism by Arab Muslims and Christians towards Jews and Judaism. The Arab conflict with Israel has always been, and should always be depicted as, a contemporary conflict over usurped national rights.

In light of the foregoing I have a number of recommendations to make to fellow Arabs and Muslims and then to Israel and its supporters abroad. Firstly, to Arabs and Muslims I say:

We must uphold the correct perspective on our relationship with the Jews, as embodied in the legacy of Arab civilisation and in our holy scriptures. This legacy holds that ours is not a tradition of racism and intolerance, that the Jews are our cousins through common descent from Abraham and that our only enemies are only those who attack or threaten to attack us.

It is an incontrovertible fact that Hitler forced the Jews of Germany and the other countries he occupied to wear the Star of David and to place that symbol on the outside of their homes. This was to facilitate rounding them up and dispatching them to concentration camps. Although that star is the emblem on the Israeli flag, if used by others to allude to the Jews it evokes painful memories of one of the most hideous forms of racist persecution. I therefore advise against using this symbol when criticising Israeli officials and policies, all the more so since there is no need to import such outmoded and abhorrent practices from another culture.

In addition to avoiding over-generalisations whereby we attribute to all Jews responsibility for the actions of some, I counsel against conspiracy theorising. It is all too easy to suggest that Jews or Israelis who criticise Israeli policy are simply playing the role assigned to them as part of a greater scheme to deceive the Arabs and the rest of the world. History cannot be condensed into a series of conspiracies.

It is also important, in this regard, that we refrain from succumbing to such myths as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and the use of Christian blood in Jewish rituals.

We should not sympathise in any way with Hitler or Nazism. The crimes they committed were abominable, abhorrent to our religion and beliefs.

We should simultaneously take close heed of the positive aspects of Jewish affiliations. For example, one cannot help but to admire Britain's Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sachs who, in an interview with the Guardian on 27 August 2000 harshly criticised Israeli policies as radically contradictory to true Jewish values.

We must bear in mind that not all Jews are Israelis or Zionists. It is sufficient, here, to recall that some of the most outspoken critics of Israel have been Jews, such as the late American Rabbi Elmer Berger, Naom Chomsky, Henry Seigmann and Anthony Louis. It is imperative that we continue to draw a distinction between Jewish, on the one hand, and Zionist or Israeli on the other. Nor should we regard all Jewish groups outside of Israel as necessarily pro- Israel and anti-Arab. Most frequently, such groups' sympathy for Israel emanates from their concern for the security and safety of Jewish people everywhere. Such anxieties are understandable: Jews, numbering approximately 14 million, form a very small minority of the world's population and, more importantly, as the atrocities suffered by the Jews under the Nazis have made them wary of any resurgence of anti- Semitism that could lead to other acts of genocide.

To Israel and its supports abroad I advise the following:

In response to the demand lodged by the leaders of Arab parties in Israel with the central electoral board, Israel should immediately redefine itself as "a state for all its citizens" rather than "a democratic Jewish state".

Israel should cease reiterating such claims to the effect that the Arabs want to "throw it into the sea". This allegation flies in the face of the resolutions of successive Arab summit conferences, beginning with that in Fezin 1982 which called for the need to use all possible means to reach a just peace in the Middle East, through to the Cairo summit of 1996 in which Arab leaders resolved that peace was their strategic goal and the Beirut summit of 2001 which adopted the peace initiative of Crown Prince Abdallah Bin Abdel-Aziz.

Israel must call a complete halt to all settlement activity, including the expansion of existing settlements.

Israel must cease its attempt to justify its attacks against Arabs and Muslims on the grounds that it is combating terrorism. Israel is aware that the crimes it has committed -- officially sponsored assassinations of Palestinian leaders, killing Palestinians in their beds while asleep, firing missiles at peoples' homes, demolishing buildings with people still inside, opening fire at random on pedestrians -- are terrorist.

Israel must stop acting as though it aims to undermine Arab and Islamic interests. It should exercise the utmost self-restraint and objectivity in its behaviour towards the Arab and Islamic world and refrain from attempts to set countries against one another.

Israelis and Zionists in general should cease accusing anyone who criticises Israel of being anti- Semitic. This unwarranted misuse of the term blurs the distinction between an unacceptable racist phenomenon and legitimate criticism of a state's policies and practices.

Israelis must acknowledge that Arabs are right to want to end Israeli occupation of their land, a demand backed by the provisions of international resolutions and humanitarian law. It should be a sobering thought to Israelis and Jews abroad that Israel's inhuman practices against the Palestinians have unleashed a new tide of anti-Semitism in many European countries.

Israel must acknowledge that the legitimacy of the creation of Israel will remain incomplete as long as Israel persists in evading its legal and moral obligations and in preventing the establishment of a state for Palestinian people who had lived on that land, uninterruptedly, for thousands of years. If Israel is truly sincere in affirming the legitimacy of its existence, it must practically demonstrate its agreement to the establishment of an independent Palestinian state, enter immediately into serious peace negotiations on the Palestinian and Syria tracks and withdraw unilaterally from the stretch of land it still occupies in southern Lebanon.

Israelis should dismiss from government those officials who incite racial hatred against Arabs or espouse the notion of "transfer" of Palestinians in the occupied territories or even in Israel itself. Transfer is not a far remove from ethnic cleansing.

Israel should issue an official declaration, deposited with the UN General-Secretariat, stating that Israel has no expansionist designs on Arab territories. It should further state that it will refrain from demanding military superiority over all the Arabs, a demand that fuels Arab suspicions.

President Mubarak has issued a call to make the Middle East a region free of weapons of mass destruction. Israel should signal its approval of this initiative and demonstrate its sincerity in this regard by entering into negotiations towards eliminating its nuclear arsenal in tandem with the elimination of other weapons of mass destruction in the region.

Finally, a word to both sides: I believe that it is in everyone's interests to overcome the accumulated rancour of the past and the pains of the present and not to yield to the culture of despair. We must set our sights towards a better future in which all can live in peace and security instead of remaining rooted in a cycle of bloodshed, destruction and ruined opportunities.

* The writer is chief political advisor to President Hosni Mubarak.

© Copyright Al-Ahram Weekly. All rights reserved

Comment Recommend Printer-friendly

Issue 619 Front Page
Egypt | Region | Focus | International | Economy | Opinion | Letters | Culture | Features | Living | Heritage | Travel | Sports | Profile | People | Time Out | Chronicles | Cartoons | Crossword
Batch View | Current issue | Previous issue | Site map