The bravery of the youth of Tunisia, Egypt, Syria and Libya can’t be denied. It isn’t pepper spray that they’ve been facing. Nor can the idealism of the Arab Spring be denied. The people of the Middle East are finally awakening to the promise of liberty.
There is another truth, however, that shouldn’t be denied. The desire of Arabs to be free of their spiteful and pitiless dictators is sometimes expressed in grotesquely anti-Jewish terms.
On the surface this makes no sense: Arabs are rising up against Arabs, so what does this have to do with the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion”? There has been a tendency in the Middle East to blame the general wretchedness of life on the hidden and malevolent hand of Israel, or more generally -- and more prejudicially -- on “the Jews,” but the Arab Spring’s approach at first seemed radically different. Tunisians, Egyptians, Syrians and Libyans were engaged in demonstrations against the actual causes of their day-to-day misery, rather than against Israel. In Tahrir Square, in the early days of the revolution, Israel seemed an afterthought.
But now in Cairo, and across the Arab Middle East, Israel and the Jews are serving once again as universal boogeymen. Once dictators used anti-Semitism to divert their citizens’ attention away from their own problems. Now expressions of the most ridiculous conspiracy theories seem to rise up organically.
This truth doesn’t conform to the generally accepted narrative of the Arab Spring, but ignoring it won’t make it disappear.
Libya provides an interesting example. Its late, unlamented dictator, Muammar Qaddafi, was a terrible anti-Semite, and often argued for the elimination of Israel. At the beginning of his reign, he expelled several thousand Jews (members of a community that predated the Muslim conquest of Libya by hundreds of years). His regime confiscated Jewish property, converted synagogues into mosques and razed Jewish cemeteries. And yet some of the revolutionaries who overthrew him fomented the charge that he was at least part-Jewish, and that his regime operated on behalf of Zionism.
When a Libyan Jew in exile returned to Tripoli earlier this year, he was nearly lynched by a mob that surrounded the shuttered synagogue he was hoping to restore. “There is no place for Jews in Libya,” read demonstrators’ signs. In the Forward, Andrew Engel, who recently visited Libya and discovered endemic anti-Semitism there, described one popular rap song that went, “The anger won’t die, the one who will die is Qaddafi, his supporters and the Jews.”
The Syrian ruler, Bashar al-Assad, is also utterly hostile to Israel and to Jews. He supports Hezbollah and Hamas, each of which seeks the physical elimination of the Jewish people. And yet the Syrian opposition finds it beneficial to spread the lie that Assad is a Jewish agent.
According to a translation posted by the Middle East Media Research Institute, the Syrian writer Osama Al-Malouhi wrote recently on an opposition website that Jews “want that sucker of Syrian blood to remain and continue to prey and suck blood. They not only want their security, but also to enjoy the sight of Syrian blood being spilled.” He went on, “Asking myself why Jewish support of Bashar increased after they saw rivers of Syrian blood this mass-murderer spilled in Syrian towns, an old image leapt to my mind, of Jews bleeding people and using their blood to prepare matzas. Logic does not accept this, but the facts prove it.”
Even in Tunisia, which is commonly thought of as the most moderate of Arab states, the leader of the powerful and putatively reasonable Islamist party, Ennahdha, recently stated that he brings “glad tidings that the Arab region will get rid of the germ of Israel,” according to the Middle East scholar Martin Kramer.
‘Betray, Conspire, Extort’
Cairo is rife with anti-Semitism. On my last visit, I met with leaders of ostensibly liberal parties who were convinced Jews were conspiring to bring about the collapse of the Egyptian economy (something that Egypt’s military rulers are accomplishing all by themselves). One suggested to me that George Soros, Benjamin Netanyahu and a certain “Dr. Rothschild” were working jointly to buy the Suez Canal from Egypt.
A BBC journalist named Thomas Dinham recently wrote of his own encounter with anti-Semitism in Cairo. Dinham, who is neither Israeli nor Jewish, told of one potentially dangerous confrontation: “Someone pushed me from behind with such force that I nearly fell over. Turning around, I found myself surrounded by five men, one of whom tried to punch me in the face. I stopped the attack by pointing out how shameful it was for a Muslim to assault a guest in his country, especially during Ramadan.” He went on, “I was appalled by the apology offered by one of my assailants. ‘Sorry,’ he said contritely, offering his hand, ‘we thought you were a Jew.’”
Expressions of anti-Semitism are common even at the higher reaches of Egyptian politics. Presidential candidate Tawfiq Okasha, speaking on the television station he owns, recently said, “Not all the Jews in the world are evil. You may ask: Tawfiq, what is the ratio? The ratio is 60-40. Sixty percent are evil to varying degrees, all the way to a level that words cannot describe, while 40 percent are not evil.” He noted that French President Nicolas Sarkozy is “one of those Jews who adhere to the Zionist ideology, which is one of the worst ideologies.”
Okasha did concede that, while even among the 40 percent of non-evil Jews there is only one in a million who is blameless, it is possible to “coexist” with this sort of Jew because they “do not betray, conspire, extort or view others as Gentiles.”
In Cairo today, this might count as a progressive idea.
The Arab Spring should liberate people not only from oppressive rulers, but also from self-destructive and delusional patterns of belief. Anti-Semitism, the “socialism of fools,” not only threatens the Israel-Egypt peace treaty and dehumanizes Jews. It also undermines rationality. It prevents its adherents from seeing the world as it is -- and it will only be an impediment to actual change in the Arab world.
(Jeffrey Goldberg is a Bloomberg View columnist and a national correspondent for the Atlantic. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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