During his historic visit to Syria last May, Pope John Paul II was unexpectedly upstaged by the country’s young new president, Bashar
al-Assad. Greeting the pontiff at the airport in Damascus, Assad used the occasion not to declare his own hopes for mutual understanding among the world’s great faiths but—rather less in keeping with the spirit of the moment—to mount a vicious attack on the Jews. They have “tried,” he inveighed in the presence of the Pope, “to kill the principles of all religions with the same mentality with which they betrayed Jesus Christ,” and in “the same way they tried to betray and kill the prophet Muhammad.”
So spectacular a venting of hate could hardly pass unnoted, and thus, for the duration of a news cycle, the usual fare of Middle East reporting—rock-throwers and settlers, bombings and retaliatory strikes, ceasefires and “confidence-building” measures—gave way to tongue-clucking over the charged words of the Syrian president. As the New York Times lamented, Assad had not only “marred” the Pope’s visit but had reinforced his own “growing reputation for irresponsible leadership.” So the coverage generally went, admonishing a new leader whose inexperience and immaturity had seemingly led him to embrace, as the Times put it, “bigotry.”
Largely ignored amid all this was a far bigger story—a story not about a petty tyrant but about the poison that rose so readily to his lips. As few journalists either knew or thought it worthwhile to relate, such sentiments as Assad expressed are hardly uncommon in today’s Arab world. Wherever one looks, from Cairo and Gaza to Damascus and Baghdad, from political and religious figures to writers and educators, from lawyers to pop stars, and in every organ of the media, the very people with whom the state of Israel is expected to live in peace have devoted themselves with ever-greater ingenuity to slandering and demonizing the Jewish state, the Jewish people, and Judaism itself—and calling openly for their annihilation. Only by turning a determinedly blind eye to this river of hatred is it possible to be persuaded that, after all, “everybody” in the Middle East really wants the same thing.
The anti-Semitic propaganda that circulates in such abundance in the Arab world draws its energy in large part from the technique of the “big lie”—that is, the insistent assertion of outrageous falsehoods about Israel or the Jews, the more outrageous the better. The examples are truly numberless. In Egypt and Jordan, news sources have repeatedly warned that Israel has distributed drug-laced chewing gum and candy, intended (it is said) to kill children and make women sexually corrupt. When foot-and-mouth disease broke out recently among cattle in the Palestinian Authority (PA), the Israelis were quickly accused of intentionally spreading the illness (despite the immediate mobilization of Israeli veterinary groups to treat the animals).
Especially garish have been the fabrications directed at Israel’s response to the now year-old intifada. Earlier this year, at the world economic forum in
Davos, Switzerland, a thunderstruck audience heard Yasir Arafat himself declare that Israel was using depleted uranium and nerve gas against Palestinian civilians. Official PA television obligingly furnished “evidence” for this charge, broadcasting scenes of hapless victims racked by vomiting and convulsions. Another recent film clip from Palestinian television offered a “re-enactment” of an assault by the Israeli army on a Palestinian house, culminating in the staged rape and murder of a little girl in front of her horrified parents. As for Israeli victims of Arab terrorists, the PA’s Voice of Palestine radio assured its listeners in April that Israel was lying about the assassination of a ten-month-old girl by a Palestinian sniper in Hebron; in fact, the commentator explained, the baby was retarded and had been smothered by her own mother.
The Arab press has also helped itself to the rich trove of classical European anti-Semitism. Outstanding in this regard has been Al-Ahram, Egypt’s leading government-sponsored daily. One recent series related in great detail how Jews use the blood of Gentiles to make matzah for Passover. Not to be outdone, columnist Mustafa Mahmud informed his readers that, to understand the true intentions of the Jews, one must consult The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, in which the leaders of the international Jewish conspiracy acknowledge openly their “limitless ambitions, inexhaustible greed, merciless vengeance, and hatred beyond imagination. . . . Cunning,” they allegedly declare, “is our approach, mystery is our way.”*
In a class of its own is the effort of Arab and Islamic spokesmen to distort or dismiss the record of Nazi genocide. Indeed, nowhere else in the world is Holocaust denial more warmly or widely espoused. A conference of “scholars” held in Amman in mid-May concluded that the scope of the Nazi war against the Jews had been greatly exaggerated, a claim enthusiastically parroted by the Jordan Times. On Palestinian television, Issam Sissalem of the Islamic University of Gaza recently asserted that, far from being extermination camps,
Chelmo, Dachau, and Auschwitz were in fact mere “places of disinfection.”
On April 13—observed in Israel as Holocaust Remembrance Day—the official Palestinian newspaper Al-Hayat al-Jadida featured a column by Hiri Manzour titled “The Fable of the Holocaust.” Among his claims: that “the figure of 6 million Jews cremated in the Nazi Auschwitz camps is a lie,” promulgated by Jews in order to carry out their “operation of international marketing.” A few weeks later, at a well-attended pan-Islamic conference in Teheran, Iran’s supreme leader, the Ayatollah
Khamenei, used his opening remarks to make a similar point. “There is proof,” he declared, “that the Zionists had close ties with the German Nazis, and exaggerated all the data regarding the killing of the Jews . . . as an expedient to attract the solidarity of public opinion and smooth the way for the occupation of Palestine and the justification of Zionist crimes.”
Occasionally, to be sure, the same organs of anti-Semitic opinion that deny the Holocaust do find it necessary to affirm that it took place—but only so that they can laud its perpetrators. A columnist in Egypt’s government-sponsored Al-Akhbar thus expressed his “thanks to Hitler, of blessed memory, who on behalf of the Palestinians took revenge in advance on the most vile criminals on the face of the earth. Still, we do have a complaint against [Hitler], for his revenge on them was not enough.”
Another variation on this theme is the now incessant comparison of Israel itself to Hitlerite Germany. In the eyes of Al-Ahram, “the atrocities committed by the Israeli army show . . . how those who complain about Nazi practices use the same methods against the Palestinians.” For its sister Egyptian paper, Al-Akhbar, the ostensibly dovish Israeli foreign minister Shimon Peres is in actuality “a bird of prey, a master in the killing of the innocents,” and a man responsible for deeds that “make Israel worse than the Nazis.” In May, a columnist for Egypt’s Al-Arabi wrote, “Zionism is not only another face of Nazism, but rather a double Nazism.” Unsurprisingly, President Assad of Syria also favors such language, recently asserting that “Israel is racist, [Prime Minister] Sharon is racist, the Israelis are racist. They are more racist than the Nazis.”
The effect of this relentless vilification is not difficult to discern. In the Arab world, where countervailing sources of information about Jews and the Jewish state are rare to nonexistent, Israel has been transformed into little more than a diabolical abstraction, not a country at all but a malignant force embodying every possible negative attribute—aggressor, usurper, sinner, occupier, corrupter, infidel, murderer, barbarian. As for Israelis themselves, they are seen not as citizens, workers, students, or parents but as the uniformed foot soldiers of that same dark force. The uncomplicated sentiment produced by these caricatures is neatly captured by the latest hit song in Cairo, Damascus, and East Jerusalem. Its title: “I Hate Israel.”
From such hatred it is but a short step to incitement and acts of violence. Arab schools teach not just that Israel is evil, but that extirpating this evil is the noblest of callings. As a text for Syrian tenth graders puts it, “The logic of justice obligates the application of the single verdict [on the Jews] from which there is no escape: namely, that their criminal intentions be turned against them and that they be exterminated” (emphasis added). In Gaza and the West Bank, textbooks at every grade level praise the young man who elects to become a shahid, a martyr for the cause of Palestine and Islam.
The lessons hardly stop at the classroom door. Palestinian television openly urges children to sacrifice themselves. In one much-aired film clip, an image of twelve-year-old Mohammed
al-Dura—the boy killed last September in an exchange of fire between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian gunmen—appears in front of a landscape of paradise, replete with fountains and flowers, beckoning his peers to follow.
In early June, just two weeks after the fatal collapse of a Jerusalem wedding hall, PA television broadcast a sermon by Sheikh Ibrahim Madhi praying that “this oppressive Knesset will [similarly] collapse over the heads of the Jews” and calling down blessings upon “whoever has put a belt of explosives on his body or on his sons and plunged into the midst of the Jews.” Slogan-chanting mass demonstrations, with Israeli and American flags aflame and masked gunmen firing shots into the air, reinforce the message. One need look no further to understand how children grow up wanting to be suicide bombers—a pursuit that won a fresh wave of media acclaim after a bombing at a Tel Aviv discothèque took 21 Israeli lives and that according to a recent poll has the approval of over three-quarters of Palestinians. “This missile,” wrote an ecstatic Palestinian columnist, meaning the bomber himself, “carried a soul striving for martyrdom, a heart that embraces Palestine, and a body that treads over all the Zionist invaders.”
Virulent anti-Semitism is no less essential in maintaining the region’s most militant and totalitarian-minded regimes. Such standing as Syria’s Bashar Assad now enjoys in the wider Arab world derives in large part from his unceasing denunciations of Israel and the Jews. For his part, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein has repeatedly made known his readiness to destroy the “criminal Zionist entity.” Should his own efforts not suffice, he has even sought divine aid, ending his speech at the recent Arab summit with the pithy entreaty, “God damn the Jews.”
As for “moderates” like King Abdullah of Jordan and President Mubarak of Egypt, offering a wide latitude to anti-Semitic vituperation enables them to demonstrate their own populist bona fides, to show their sympathy with the Arab “street.” Do they themselves endorse such views? Of course not, they hasten to declare, disingenuously suggesting that nothing can be done about it since under their regimes even government-owned newspapers and television stations possess the right to speak their mind.
That moderate Arab leaders have remained mum in the face of rising anti-Semitism may be all too understandable, considering their overall records as statesmen. The West’s moral and political leaders should be another matter, but they are not. In the days after Assad’s anti-Semitic diatribe in Damascus, one waited in vain for the Pope—the same Pope who has recognized the state of Israel and visited the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem—to utter a word of protest. The incident was, in many respects, a replay of then-First Lady Hillary Clinton’s refusal to confront Suha Arafat when, at an event in Ramallah two years ago, the wife of the PA’s president accused Israel of deliberately poisoning Palestinian air and water. And if any of the assembled leaders at the world economic conference in Davos thought to protest Yasir Arafat’s lies publicly, their intervention has not been recorded.
One source of the general silence may be a subtle form of racism, or what George W. Bush in another context called “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” The Arabs, it is implicitly suggested, are a backward people, not to be held to the civilized standards of the West. In this reading, rabid anti-Semitism is just another feature of Arab culture—the same ancient culture that is often also portrayed, with reason, as one of the world’s most civilized and sophisticated.
Many Westerners who fastidiously ignore the Arabs’ outrageous lies and insults about Jews also believe that the Arabs do, after all, have a legitimate grievance against Israel, however excessively they may at times express it. Once the substantive demands of the Palestinians or the Syrians are met, this line of thought goes, their hatred of Israel and the Jews will likewise subside, it being just a form of politics by other means. Throughout the Oslo years, the government of Israel itself seemed to share this attitude, systematically ignoring or explaining away the Arabs’ unremitting verbal incitement.
But if we have learned nothing else from the latest intifada, it is that the Arab world’s grievance against Israel has little to do with the minutiae of dividing up territory and political authority. It has to do instead with the entire Zionist project, with the very existence of a Jewish state in the Middle East. What Westerners (including some Israelis) dismiss as so much unfortunate rhetoric is an exact articulation of that grievance, whose goal is not to achieve but to prevent accommodation. For how can one accommodate a people who are nothing but murderers of children, instruments of world conspiracy, sworn enemies of religious and historical truth, and perfecters of Nazi brutality—a people who according to Islamic authorities must be driven out and killed, their body parts “spread all over the trees and electricity poles”? No, anti-Semitism in the Middle East is not just politics by other means; it is an end in itself.
Commentary magazine with permission
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FIAMMA NIRENSTEIN, an Italian journalist who writes from Israel for the daily La Stampa and the weekly Panorama, is the author of Israel: Peace in War. Her article, “The Journalists & the Palestinians,” appeared in our January issue.
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Schoenfeld, Senior Editor
*These and other translations from the Arab press have been made available by the Middle East Media and Research Institute
(MEMRI), whose website is located at