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The new anti-Semitism

A document once used by the Nazis to stir up hatred of Jews and long known to be a forgery is once again being circulated, this time by Muslim scholars.
We got to Abdel-aziz al-Rantisi a couple of weeks before the Israelis almost did. Our yellow taxi-bus had taken us down an anonymous side-street in Gaza city, and stopped outside a grey-black four-storey apartment block. There was no decoration on the ground or first floors, just bare concrete steps, with no banisters. One flight up we passed a room in which a sub-machine gun sat, ownerless, on an armchair beside a sunny window. Mr Rantisi was in the room above.
The Hamas leader, a famous hardliner in that organisation of hardliners, was going, I hoped, to answer a specific question. Why, in article 32 of the Hamas covenant, was there an approving reference to a document, an anti-Semitic forgery of the early twentieth century, once described by a leading historian as a ‘warrant for genocide’?
The Protocols of the Elders of Zion - supposedly a transcript of a meeting of the world’s top Jews, called to discuss the achievement of world domination - was concocted by an ultra-orthodox member of the Tsar’s secret police, Sergei Nilus in about 1903. By the early 1920s it was being widely circulated in Europe and America, was later taught in the schools of Nazi Germany and is now to be found on any good neo-nazi web-site near you. It is the classic of Holocaust-era anti-Semitism, portraying the Jews as a conniving, Machiavellian race, plotting how to gain power well beyond their puny numbers, through manipulation and money.
So what on earth is it doing in the twenty-first century manifesto of an Islamic movement? The Covenant says that ‘the Zionists’ want an Israel that extends from Cairo to Basra, and then next stop, the world. ‘Their plan,’ says Mr Rantisi’s Covenant, ‘is embodied in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and their present conduct is the best proof of what we are saying.’
Rantisi is serious and measured (he was once a paediatrician). His windows are veiled against surveillance, there is a picture of Hassan al Banna, murdered leader of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, on the wall. ‘When I first heard about this document,’ says Rantisi reasonably, ‘I didn’t want to believe it, but then I saw what was happening in Palestine, and I could see that it was genuine.’ That is his answer.
It was also (and this is no cheap point) Hitler’s answer. In Mein Kampf, the future Fuhrer allowed that many people thought that the Protocols were a forgery. He was sure they embodied the truth. ‘The best criticism applied to them,’ he said, ‘is reality.’
Everything in the Middle East is propagandised. For those Israelis who do not want a settlement such as the road map, this kind of thing is evidence that the enemy is as implacable and hate-filled as were, say, the Nazis. For the Israeli government it constitutes a powerful supporting argument for armed vigilance. Jewish and pro-Israel groups consume the material put out by monitoring groups such as the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) and Palestinian Media Watch, and shudder collectively.
There is a great deal to shudder about. The amount of anti-Semitic literature, journalism and television in Arab countries is voluminous. The more sophisticated Arab governments, however, who tolerate this stuff, understand the need to turn a less contorted face to the West, with its anti-racist liberal campaigners. They play it down, or ignore it. It isn’t easy, though.
When you are confronted with the collected anti-Semitisms of the post-11 September Arab world, what is most striking is the weirdness of journalists and politicians raiding the ancient political sewers of old Europe for arguments. Take the example of what is called the ‘blood libel.’ This is the old medieval story of how Jews kidnap Christians, kill them and use their blood in arcane rituals. We had a spate of these tales in England in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, and many Jews lost their lives as a result.
So what on earth is the blood libel doing in a column in the respected Egyptian mass daily paper Al-Ahram, in a book by the Syrian defence minister and in broadcast sermons from various Palestinian mosques? The libel in question is the 1840 Damascus case, in which several Jews (including a David Harari) ‘confessed’ to the Ottoman authorities - under torture - to kidnapping a priest and stealing his blood.
Holocaust denial is another widespread feature of Arab discourse, but for different reasons. In a school in Gaza, a middle-aged teacher of English interrupted my interview of several of his pupils, and launched into a tirade against the Jews. Were they not behind all wars? Had they not caused trouble wherever they were? Had they not caused troubles even for the Germans? ‘When?’ I asked him. ‘Before the reign of Hitler,’ the teacher replied.
A few blocks away I met Dr Musa Al-Zubut, chairman of the Palestinian Legislative Council education committee, who had been trying to go and meet his colleagues in Ramallah for several weeks, but had been prevented by the Israelis. He was explaining why the history books for the new Palestinian curriculum contained no reference to the Holocaust. Zubut said he knew that the Holocaust was ‘of course’ exaggerated. It was not, he said, ‘1 per cent of what we have suffered in Palestine.’ Besides, even if every Jew had been killed, what was that to do with the Palestinians?
Is this anti-Semitism? Or is it a profound ignorance about European history? Gaza is bad, but in two days in September 1941 at Babi Yar near Kiev, 34,000 Jews were shot by the Einsatzgruppen. The problem is that, for Palestinians, this is the ace of trumps in the suffering stakes.
Elsewhere in Gaza, some of the most combustible imams preach against the Jews on the basis, they claim, of the Quran itself. A relatively new emphasis on certain passages leads these religious leaders to proclaim the eternal untrustworthiness of Jews, going back to the days of the Prophet. In this country last May, a Muslim preacher from Stratford, East London, was convicted of several counts of incitement to murder, partly based on a taped sermon entitled ‘No Peace with the Jews.’ Faisal claimed that his views were merely those of the Quran, which - if true - would be profoundly worrying.
But if you read the Quran, and talk to Muslim scholars, it soon becomes clear that the book lends itself to interpretation, and that Faisal’s and the Gazan imams’ is an eccentric one. Mohammed’s travails include run-ins with unbelievers of all kinds including Jews, who - naturally - are wrong and perverse for not comprehending the transcendent truth of all that he says. But who’s good and who’s bad is a recurring theme among the religious. Look at the current argument in the Anglican church concerning homosexuality.
And Jews are not the only target. Article 17 of the Hamas Covenant takes aim at the Zionists for trying to wean good Muslim girls away from the faith in ways undescribed, using the agency of ‘Freemasons, Rotary Clubs, espionage groups and others, which are all nothing more than cells of subversion and saboteurs’. So bang goes the Rotary Club outing to Gaza City.
And this raises the question about the political nature of Muslim anti-Semitism. Christian anti-Semitism was founded in the first place on the perception that the Jews had murdered the messiah, and in a competition for converts that occurred in the fourth and fifth centuries AD. Islamic countries, who had no such problem, often took in Jews who had been expelled from places such as England and France. They might have been second-class citizens, but they were alive and often valued.
In Europe in the nineteenth century this religious anti-Semitism turned racial. Now there began to be talk of the purity of blood and the horrors of miscegenation. Jews were not just objects of fear, but of disgust; they were less than people. In the Stephen Roth Institute at Tel Aviv University, there is a large collection of racist and anti-Semitic writings and artefacts. Some of it you have to see to believe. Like the 1936 board game Juden Raus (Jews Out), a sort of amalgam of Monopoly and Halma, where the objective was to collect as many hideous-looking Jews as you could, and get them off the board.
At the institute, Esther Webman, the director, talked to me about anti-Semitism in the Arab world, and told me of her own internal debate. In her view this anti-Semitism was not the race hatred of the Nazis. Indeed Islamic countries may suffer from many things, but racism is not really one of them. But the sheer proliferation and tone of some of the material was deeply worrying. If this is what people thought about you as a group, she implied, then what hope was there for peace?
It is the contention of more moderate Arabs (particularly Palestinians) that a just settlement would dampen down the ferocity of an anti-Jewish rhetoric with which many of them are plainly ill-at-ease. Other claim that this is mostly, in reality, anti-Zionism. In Cairo I met the film producer Mounir Radhi. A self-proclaimed anti-racist, his last film concerned the relationship between a Muslim and a Coptic boy in a suburb of the Egyptian capital. His next, however, will be about the events in Damascus in 1840. But in Radhi’s project the blood libel has gone through a strange metamorphosis. Father Tomas is still killed by David Harari, but not for his blood. No, now he is murdered to prevent him speaking about a Zionist plot to move Jews from Damascus to Palestine.
Radhi is almost certainly sincere, but his story is nonsense. There were no Zionists in
1840, and Damascus and Palestine were then part of the same Ottoman province. This
is just a mutation of the blood libel to suit modern politics, with Jews (sorry, Zionists) plotting to steal land rather than blood. Radhi may be an anti-racist, but he is perilously close to being an anti-Semite.
Still, it is mildly encouraging that Radhi’s film does not show mad Jews eating blood-baked matzohs, in the way that the Syrian defence minister believes they did. And even more encouraging that some of the Arab authorities are now getting on the case. In a huge room in the Egyptian Foreign Ministry, as sumptuously decorated as Dr Rantisi’s was bare, I inter viewed the tiny Usama al Baz. Al Baz was the chief advisor to Anwar Sadat and now to President Hosni Mubarak. Last autumn he wrote a series of articles condemning the anti-Semitic excesses of the Egyptian and Arab press. These scribblings were, he said, not only unworthy but they were also damaging both to Arab states and to the Palestinian cause. It was time to put a stop to them.