“When someone is acting heartlessly, we say, ‘Your blood is blue.’ And then we normally add, ‘Like the Jews.’” The other students chuckled and some glanced in my direction, waiting for my response or perhaps my permission. I laughed. After all, this language lesson’s bigotry was very tame compared to other conversations I had had in Jordan. One of my parents is Jewish, and my Jewish identity has always been light, but for those Americans and Arabs I discussed my heritage with, I might as well have been wearing payots, tzitzis, and a star of David skullcap.
After all, I was a demon, of sorts. Belief of my damning existence was everywhere, but I was definitely not supposed to actually be there. In Jordan, every day and nearly every facet of society was a reminder that I was dirty—the very embodiment of an “Other.” A whole genre of anti-Semitic “history” and literature mocked me in every bookshop, a whole field of anti-Semitic media from historical documentaries to music videos followed me on every television, and an interpretation of Islam that demonizes Judaism frequently bewildered me in conversations.
I heard and overheard countless anti-Semitic remarks in the summers I have spent in Egypt and Jordan. In my experience, arguments about politics almost inevitably turned to “those Jews,” and conspiracy theories wafted comfortably through a room like cigarette smoke. It was suffocating.
I anticipated encountering anti-Semitism, but I expected it to be avoidable. I could not anticipate, nor could I have truly imagined, its systemic nature.
According to a Pew Poll released in July of this year, Muslims throughout the Arab World hold remarkably and consistently negative views on Jews. The favorability ratings of Jews in the Arab World (and its important periphery, i.e. Iran, Turkey, and Pakistan) range between one and five percent. A necessary caveat, of course, is that a question such as: “Do you hold a favorable, neutral, or unfavorable of x group?” does not provide data that can necessarily be categorized as bigotry. On the other hand, this poll in conjunction with an understanding of the role of Israel—rarely distinguished from “Jews”—in contemporary Middle Eastern thought reveals a region mired in rigid anti-Semitism.
Too often we forget that nearly 850,000 Jews from regions as far from Palestine as Morocco, Yemen, and Iran fled or were expelled—often brutally and without property—from their historical lands following Israel’s creation in 1948. The emergence of Israel coincided with the existential political rebirth of the Arab world. For those countries neighboring Israel in particular, hatred of Israel earned the legitimacy of the state, and anti-Semitism became an accepted, government-sanctioned ideology in a sea of ideologies barred by oppressive states.
The exaggerated attention given to Israel, particularly in the form of conspiracy theories, remains the clearest evidence of anti-Semitism. Take, for instance, the popularity of “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” a fraudulent treatise—originally of Russian origin—all about the pending Jewish plans for world domination. It is Harry Potter for skinheads. According to research conducted by the famed Princeton historian Bernard Lewis in “Semites and Anti-Semites,” former Arab leaders like King Faisal of Saudi Arabia, President Sadat of Egypt, President Nasser of Egypt, and President Arif of Iraq all read “The Protocols” as historical truth. Of course, it is difficult to gauge the popularity of these anti-Semitic books and anti-Semitic conspiracy theories among the general public. However, consider that in no state in the Arab world do even 30 percent of the people believe Arabs were involved in 9/11. I harbor no doubts that the popularity of conspiracy theories about Jews is similarly popular.
Evidence that anti-Semitism remains a provocative force in the Middle East abounds today, as it did before. Western pundits recognize the cynicism of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s consistent referral to a “Zionist” agenda, but not the astounding gullibility of his audience to that popular concern. Moreover, one cannot understand the full reality of Egyptian mobs storming Israel’s embassy in Egypt without acknowledging how Egypt’s justified distaste for Israel, a natural byproduct of two lost wars, grew out of proportion.
Let me be clear: Israel sowed and sows seeds of hatred. Sometimes, its actions were inevitable. But, at other times, costly mistakes were made. Polling data on Israeli views of Muslims reveal that the negative sentiments are very mutual. In fact, only 9 percent of Israeli Jews have a “favorable” rating of Muslims. Undoubtedly, anti-Muslim views among Israeli Jews are strong. However, I would posit that thanks to the physical presence of Muslims and the ever-critical eye of the world, Islamophobia is not pervasive in Israeli society or politics to anywhere near the same degree of anti-Semitism in the Arab world. Nonetheless, Israel’s Islamophobia remains relevant in modern politics as well.
The truth is that I could show you thousands of articles and clips in mainstream Arab media across decades that prove the mainstream nature of anti-Semitism in the Arab world. If you think the political movers are removed from this movement, I could show you countless statements of prominent Arab leaders, of past and present, with revolting statements on Holocaust denial, “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” and other delirium. But, anti-Semitism, like any other form of bigotry, can only be partially comprehended through statements or polling data. Pointing out the grave and bigoted misconceptions about historical truth and present reality in the Arab World should not in any way free Israel from criticism or open Arabs to bigotry or generalizations. Nonetheless, stating the truth ought to matter regardless of its possible implications. And the myopic and all-consuming nature of anti-Israeli sentiments in the Arab World is too pervasive and unique to be explained solely by Palestine’s internal politics.
Quite simply, one cannot understand mass politics in the Arab world without admitting the role of anti-Semitism. It matters.
Eric T. Justin ’13, a Crimson editorial executive, is a social studies concentrator in Currier House.