Linda Grant on the return of the not-so-repressed (Guardian)
Tuesday, December 18, 2001
The hate that will not die
Millions believe 4,000 Jews stayed away from the World Trade Centre on September 11. Harmless conspiracy theory? Or sign of a virulent new anti-semitism? Linda Grant on how the Arab world is exporting an old hatred to the west
On September 18, Al-Manar television based in Beirut broadcast a news item that subsequently appeared on its English-language website: "With the announcement of the attacks at the World Trade Centre in New York, the international media, particularly the Israeli one, hurried to take advantage of the tragedy and started mourning 4,000 Israelis who work at the two towers. Then suddenly, no one ever mentioned anything about those Israelis and later it became clear that they remarkably did not show up for their jobs the day the incident took place ... Arab diplomatic sources revealed to the Jordanian al-Watan newspaper that those Israelis remained absent that day based on hints from the Israeli general security apparatus, the Shabak, the fact which evoked unannounced suspicions on American officials who wanted to know how the Israeli government learned about the incident before it occurred."
This is the first recorded account of an urban legend that has swept the Arab world. Not a single fact in it has ever been substantiated. It appears to be based on concern expressed by the Israeli government for the fate of 4,000 Israelis resident in New York, a small number of whom worked at the World Trade Centre. Within a matter of days it was no longer 4,000 Israelis who were supposed not to have turned up to work, but 4,000 Jews; then reports appeared that "not a single Jew" died on September 11. The story dug itself into the official version of events, appearing in the mainstream Arab press as well as on neo-Nazi and white supremacist websites based in America. An opinion poll conducted on October 1 by Paknews.com, a sophisticated English-language online news site, asked how readers regarded the story of the 4,000 Jews not reporting to work. Fully 71 % thought that it was a "possible fact".
Possible fact soon became established fact among government ministers in the Arab world. According to a report in the Jerusalem Post on October 19, "At a meeting in Damascus last week with a delegation from the British Royal College of Defence Studies, [Syrian Defence Minister Mustafa Tlass] said the Mossad planned the ramming of two hijacked airliners into the WTC's towers as part of a Jewish conspiracy. He also told the British visitors that the Mossad had given thousands of Jewish employees of the WTC advance warning not to go to work that day." Yosri Fouda, deputy executive director of the London bureau of the television station Al-Jazeera, dismisses these conspiracy theories as the work of "half-educated people". Al Manar, the source of the story, according to its website is "the first Arab establishment to stage an effective psychological warfare against the Zionist enemy." Fouda describes it as "Hezbollah TV". "There are hundreds of conspiracy theories in the absence of compelling evidence," he says. "These ideas hit a nerve with those who don't enjoy very basic human rights and liberties."
Does it matter to the west that absurd conspiracy theories like this one have taken hold, not just in the Middle East but throughout the Arab and Muslim world? Aren't they just the posturing of the powerless? Perhaps, but three months after September 11, some of its complex causes are starting to be revealed. As we dig deeper we find that one root of the assault lay in the emergence of the doctrine of Islamism, a fusion of a narrow, intolerant fundamentalist reading of the Koran with a political movement opposed to all western social, economic and cultural influence. One of its central beliefs is in the enduring evil of Judaism and the Jews, irrespective of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and transcending borders or national disputes. Why Jews? Because if America has been branded the enemy, the Great Satan, and Jews are widely believed to "control" America, in the gruesome logic that follows, it becomes "obvious" that Jews have a "secret plan" to destroy Islam and the Arab world.
These ideas are neither of recent origin, nor confined to the Middle East. In 1983, in his Pakistan-set novel Shame, Salman Rushdie wrote of anti-semitism among those who had never met a Jew. More worryingly, alliances are being made between Muslims who buy into such theories, and the American neo-Nazi and white supremacist parties that have found in them a gullible new audience to advance theories discredited in the west for more than 50 years.
In the week before September 11 there were already disturbing signs that anti-semitism was reaching a new pitch. The attack on New York took place three days after the chaotic close of the Durban Anti-Racism Conference in which delegates from Arab governments and NGOs sought unsuccessfully to have Israel designated as a racist apartheid state, and called for the establishment of a UN committee to prosecute Israeli war crimes and to isolate totally the country. The NGO resolution was not backed by major human rights groups such as Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch. The European Roma Rights Centre issued its own statement, written by Dimitrina Petrova, its executive director: "The aggressive exclusion of Jewish participants and the accompanying, blatantly intolerant anti-semitic spirit plaguing the entire process, prompted us firmly to distance ourselves from this forum's unfortunate outcome."
The language was so intemperate that Mary Robinson, the UN human rights commissioner, refused to present it to the governmental conference. The atmosphere at the conference has been described as saturated with anti-semitism. In the exhibition area, a book of cartoons reminiscent of the Nazi era, depicting Jews with talons for hands and clutching blood-soaked money, was distributed by the Arab Lawyers Union. One of the union's leaflets, in which the Star of David (a religious symbol of Judaism, as well as an emblem of the Israeli flag) was superimposed on the Nazi swastika, so shocked Robinson that she declared at an official dinner: "When I see something like this, I am a Jew." A session on anti- semitism at the conference was broken up by protestors. There was opposition to having anti-semitism designated a hate crime and Robinson was booed when she referred to the holocaust against the Jews. Karen Pollock, director of the Holocaust Education Trust, which provides schools in Britain with resource materials and teacher training, represented the Board of Deputies of British Jews at the conference. In a briefing to the board on her return, she reported on the NGO forum: "Session after session seemed to provide platforms for extreme anti-Jewish propaganda. A session on hate crime not only had a speaker whose thesis was that Israel's existence was a 'hate crime', but when one person asked a question, he was heckled with shouts of, 'Jew! Jew! Jew!'."
That the campaigners on behalf of Palestinian rights were surprised at the negative reaction to the blatantly anti-semitic material they brought with them, indicates how commonplace such hate speech has become in the Arab world, the extent to which it now forms a normal part of political discourse. I asked Rina Attar Goren, European director of the Middle East Media and Research Institute (an independent organisation that monitors and translates the Middle East press) if she could provide any recent examples of anti-semitic, as opposed to anti-Zionist, material from the Arab and Palestinian media. "How many do you need?" she asked me. "Five, 10, 100?" A few hours later she emailed me 20 articles, dating from February 2000 to this month, revealing an anti-semitic propaganda campaign that went far beyond the limits of the Palestinian cause. Several were from the state-sponsored Egyptian press. They included a number of pieces on Holocaust denial (claiming that the Nazi genocide against the Jews was a lie made up by Jews to wring money out of western governments, and to justify taking over Arab lands) and repeated reiterations of the "Protocols of the Elders of Zion", an anti-semitic forgery originating in 19th-century tsarist Russia that invented a secret cabal of Jews plotting to take over the world.
The "Protocols" are enshrined in the Charter of the Palestinian organisation Hamas: "After Palestine, the Zionists aspire to expand from the Nile to the Euphrates," it says. "When they will have digested the region they overtook, they will aspire to further expansion, and so on. Their plan is embodied in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and their present conduct is the best proof of what we are saying." An Arabic translation of Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf is being distributed by Al-Shurouq, a Ramallah-based book distributor, to East Jerusalem and territories controlled by the Palestinian Authority. According to an Agence France Presse report on September 8, the book, previously banned by Israel, had been allowed by the PA and was sixth on the Palestinian bestseller list.
The PA, with EU funding, has been updating schoolbooks that had not been replaced since the time of Jordanian rule. Most of the anti-semitic stereotyping and incitement against Israel has gone, but last yearIsrael and the PA met in Cyprus to discuss how the Holocaust against the Jews should be represented. Dr Musa Al-Zu'but, chairman of the Palestinian Legislative Council education committee, writing in the PA newspaper Al-Risala on April 13, 2000, said: "There will be no such attempt to include the history of the Holocaust in the Palestinian curriculum ... The Holocaust has been exaggerated in order to present the Jews as victims of a great crime, to justify [the claim] that Palestine is necessary as a homeland for them, and to give them the right to demand compensation."
The most extreme example I received was written by Dr Ali Aqleh Ursan, chairman of the Arab Writers Association, in the Syrian publication Al-Usbu' Al-Adabi on February 5 2000: "The covetous, racist, and hated Jew Shylock, who cut the [pound of] flesh from Antonio's chest with the knife of hatred, invades you with his money, his modern airplanes, his missiles, and his nuclear bombs. You must face a hard question: Do you, Christians and Muslims, wish to live, survive and fulfill your convictions? Or are you Abraham's bleating lambs on the threshold of the Jewish altar, who are led to be sent to the Hereafter?"
Much of this is no more than empty rhetoric; the only weapon of those who are helpless, dispossessed and preyed on by corrupt, undemocratic governments. It stems in part from rage at poverty and the lack of human rights (and for the Palestinians, experience of the humiliation and brutality of occupation), and partly from religious fundamentalism, which in all faiths tends to produce violent extremism, Judaism being no exception. Last week, two members of the Jewish Defence League, a far-right racist organisation banned in Israel, were arrested by the FBI on charges of plotting to bomb the King Fahd mosque in Culver City, California, as well as the offices of Darrell Issa, an Arab-American congressman from southern California. The JDL was founded by the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, a racist demagogue whose follower Baruch Goldstein murdered 29 Palestinians in Hebron in 1994. Nor are secular movements immune. "Death to the Arabs" is a familiar cry on the Israeli football terraces among supporters of the Betar teams, which originated in right-wing Zionist youth movements.
But the prevalence and intensity of anti-semitism in the Arab world make it an altogether more chilling phenomenon. Hasem Saghiyeh, a columnist on Al Hayat, a London based pan-Arab newspaper who has written on and studied anti-semitism in the Arab and Muslim world, describes it as dangerous and increasing at an unprecedented speed. "There are no historic roots for anti-semitism in Islam," he says. "It's a new-born phenomenon that began with contact between Arabs and European Christians in the late 19th century. It really emerges this century not out of myths about Jews, as it did in Europe, but in a real and concrete fight for land. The process of translating books like the Protocols of the Elders of Zion on a popular scale started in Egypt in Nasser's time [the 50s and 60s], but only the fundamentalist movement incorporated them into its literature. Arab and Muslim anti-semitism is rooted in a certain uneasiness with modernity because deep down it is seen in connection with colonialism, and [to the fundamentalists] Jews are associated with both communism and capitalism."
On September 11 many Americans discovered to their amazement that large parts of the world hated their country. During the week in Durban, many Jews discovered that the old hostility against them had not died or been driven to the extreme, unrepentant margins. The question they began to ask was whether there was a serious chance of history repeating itself. Addressing a conference early in November, Dr Jonathan Sacks, the chief rabbi of Britain, warned that Islamic extremists were in danger of reawakening the same anti-Jewish hatred that had led to the Holocaust: "The same demonisation, the same evil fantasies ... as if humanity had learned nothing from the past." But a major difference between the 30s and today is that there can be no mass genocide against the Jewish populations of the countries that produce the most virulent anti-semitism, because those countries have few or no Jewish citizens. Between 1948 and 1956, half a million left, fled or were expelled from the Arab world in the aftermath of the creation of Israel, quarter of a million from Morocco alone. The export of these ideas is the danger, when they enter the mainstream of British, European and American Muslim communities through newspapers, websites and sermons in mosques.
White supremacist hate-groups, such as America's neo-Nazi National Alliance, have seen in the anti-semitism of the Arab and Muslim world an opportunity to make strategic alliances under the pretence of support for Palestinian rights. According to the Anti-Defamation League, the US organisation that campaigns against anti-semitism, Muslims, a weekly English-language newspaper based in New York, reprinted on October 5 an article by William Pierce (leader of the alliance), under the headline: "Israel Wants America to Send Ground Troops, Whip Muslim Armies, Take Over their Countries and Install Puppet Governments That Will Follow the Jews' Orders." In November, the alliance organised a march on an Illinois mosque with the purpose of attacking Muslims. At the march hundreds of members of an organisation called the World Church of the Creator handed out recruitment leaflets quoting Bin Laden's call for a war on Jews and demanding an end to American support for Israel. But the same organisation has another leaflet showing a picture of the WTC attack, asking: "Are you prepared to fight the Arab holy war on American soil? End Muslim immigration now!"
The anti-semitic canards and forgeries originate in Christian Europe, (some centuries old, such as the Norwich blood libel that accused Jews of the ritual killing of Christian children for the Passover seder) and were exported from the west to the Muslim world. Long ago discredited here, those myths and conspiracy theories are being sent back again, where they are used as a propaganda tool by a hard core of racists.
The perception here in the UK that British Jews - affluent, influential, successful - have little now to fear from serious racist attack is not mirrored inside the Jewish community. Mike Whine, director of defence for the board of deputies, says: "Generally, Jews are more settled and more economically comfortable than ever before in history, but there is an acute growing sense of being under threat and that this is changing its form. More copies of the Protocols are being sold in Malaysia and Pakistan than among the far right in Germany. The level of physical attacks against us has increased substantially and this is a marked international trend. In France and the US, synagogues now have to be protected by the police and the army." On December 2, the largest neo-Nazi march since the end of the second world war took place in Berlin. The Bulawayo Chronicle, which supports the government of Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe, recently published a 3,000-word article alleging Jewish responsibility for the ongoing economic problems facing the country.
The Jewish community in Britain has referred to the police 13 cases of written incitement to murder Jews. A leaflet distributed in October last year in Stamford Hill, north London included a quote from a commentary on the Koran that states: "The hour [ie the Messianic age] will not come until the Muslims kill the Jews." So far there seems to be no political will to prosecute. Meanwhile, on the advice of the police acting on operational intelligence, the community is on maximum security. In the US, 73% of all reported hate crimes on the basis of religion in 2000 were against Jews, according to official FBI figures, though this may reflect a greater confidence in reporting them than among other groups of more recent immigrants. Attacks on mosques since September 11 will undoubtedly transform those figures dramatically.
Whine argues that anti-semitic attacks have not gone away, they are merely held in check by ferocious security arrangements that create an image of a defensive, paranoid, suspicious religion. Rabbi Tony Bayfield, chief executive of the Reform Movement of British Jews, says: "The Sternberg centre where I work is supposed to be a major face of the Jewish community to the outside world, and I don't like having high gates and security cameras. What kind of message does it send out? But every synagogue has to be guarded for Sabbath service, and there is no question that the police think it's necessary."
Until now, when Jews looked for support at a time of rising anti-semitism, their natural allies were the anti-racist left. But because anti-semitism is now inextricably linked with the situation in Israel and Palestine, and because of the resurgence of the Zionism is Racism argument, which rejects a two-state solution, some critics of Israel no longer seem willing to make a distinction between those Jews who support and those Jews who oppose the Israeli occupation. Any support of Israel's right to exist as a sovereign state under any conditions at all is branded as Zionism, and hence collusion in racism and apartheid. In October, the poet Tom Paulin wrote to the Guardian to demand that if it employs journalists who hold such views, they should declare their "Zionist credentials". Beyond the left there is a widespread belief in Britain, reinforced by news reporting and comment pieces, that the attack on September 11 would never have happened if it had not been for Israeli brutality in Gaza and the West Bank. Others go further and argue that the existence of Israel and its support by the US is a threat to world peace. Many Jews now feel that they are being made the scapegoats for a complex phenomenon combining globalisation, the rise of fundamentalism, oil interests, anti-Americanism and Middle East politics - that if the third world war begins it will, as usual, be blamed on "the Jews".
The anti-semitism unleashed in the past three months poses complex questions for Jews, Muslims and those who campaign against injustices suffered by others. It will be interesting to see, in time to come, how well any of us does in addressing them. As a British Jew I can offer some ways in which some of us can begin to construct a defence against ant-semitism. It would involve the left realigning itself: ceasing the demonisation of the Jewish majority who defend Israel's existence; making alliances with Jews, such as those who support Peace Now and Gush Shalom, which are actively seeking an end to the horrific violence of the past year, one which would provide a just solution to the long agony of the Palestinians. Both the left and British Muslims would have to begin to recognise the massive rise of anti-semitism in the Arab and Muslim world for what it is: anti-semitism rather than any cogent analysis of the problems of the Middle East. It would involve British Muslims announcing in their press, their mosques and their community centres that Muslims are being manipulated into believing myths, urban legends and racist slanders peddled by those with no interest in tolerance, human rights or justice; that Islamophobia and anti-semitism fall under the same heading - racist scapegoating. In fact, hearteningly this process is already beginning to occur. Writing in this week's edition of the Egyptian newspaper Al Haram, the columnist Hani Shukrallah discusses the imminent televisation throughout the Arab world of a new dramatisation of the Protocols. How, he asks, can the Arab world preserve its civilisation "by reproducing one of the ugliest products of the west's?"
British Jews have long been embroiled in an argument among themselves that mirrors the fierce debates inside Israel. It seems axiomatic to some of us who have maintained our faith with the peace activists of Gush Shalom and Peace Now that if justice were to be delivered to the Palestinians in the form of a state based on UN Resolution 242, and solutions found to the problems of the division of Jerusalem and the status of the refugees, most of the Arab anti-semitism would wither away. Not all Jews, particularly on the right, are convinced that a two-state solution will fully satisfy the Palestinian demand for the return of their homeland, particularly when the maps in the new textbooks in Palestinian schools explicitly refer to the whole of Israel as Palestinian territory. After the recent bloodbath perpetrated by Hamas, who have the most virulent anti-semitism enshrined in their charter, the tendency is for the slogans of peaceniks to turn to ashes in the mouth. Instead we think of the assault by the Holocaust deniers of the Arab and Palestinian world on our right to remember the dead of Shoah, and if we wish to speak now, it is to say, defiantly: "Am Yisroel Chai" - the children of Israel live.
But these are not the only Hebrew words that are important to us. My own belief - which deepens with each incursion by the Israeli army into Palestinian territory - is that we can survive without the settlements and the policies of Ariel Sharon, whose endgame is to foment civil war among the Palestinians as an excuse to re-occupy and turn Gaza and the West Bank into Lebanon. We cannot survive without what animates our culture: Jewish morality. Not without "Tzedek" (justice) or "Rachmanut" (compassion.) We cannot survive if we forget that they apply not only to ourselves but to others. To all of us - Jews, Muslims, activists on behalf of Palestinian rights - Primo Levi's urgent message still applies: "Shutting his mouth, his eyes and his ears, he built for himself the illusion of not knowing, hence not being an accomplice to the things taking place in front of his very door."