Qaddafi the Jew, BHL as persona non grata, and the logic of antisemitism
The French celebrity philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy was banned from joining the former President Nicolas Sarkozy’s visit to Libya this week because he is Jewish.=> It's also not surprising that foreigners visiting post-Qaddafi Libya often hear from Libyans that Qaddafi—a ruler whose policies and propaganda were, of course, rabidly anti-Zionist and anti-semitic—was Jewish himself. (Like most other Arab countries, Libya once had a Jewish community whose roots went back to antiquity, but within a few decades after 1948 Libya was 100% ethnically cleansed of Jews. However, world history has repeatedly made it clear that anti-semitism doesn't require the presence of actual Jews.) As one of those visitors, Andrew Engel, wrote in November 2011:
Mr Lévy was a vocal advocate of the French and British-led military intervention which helped to topple the Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. He is credited with helping to persuade Mr Sarkozy to send French warplanes to protect rebels from Gaddafi’s forces.
According to the French news website Rue89, Mr Lévy was banned from Mr Sarkozy’s visit to Libya earlier this week because the municipal authorities in Tripoli feared his Jewish background would make him a target for attacks by Islamist militia. Mr Sarkozy threatened to cancel the visit but Mr Lévy urged him to support “friends in Libya” who are “in a delicate situation because they need to watch out for the Islamists”.
Then, there was the Libyan guard booth at the crossing.Similarly, I recall being assured back in the 1980s by an exile from then-Soviet Ukraine that while he himself had nothing against Jews, it was understandable that Ukrainians disliked Jews, since Stalin was Jewish. (In real life, Stalin was unequivocally non-Jewish and notoriously anti-semitic.) And this person, by the way, was someone who knew I was Jewish and was trying to be friendly.
Among the first visuals to greet visitors, it was prominently graffitied with a large caricature of the ousted dictator Moammar Qaddafi, his wild hair sticking out from under a baseball cap. Emblazoned on the cap where a Yankees logo should have been was a large Star of David.
Later, after traversing the country as a freelance journalist, I would see this introduction to Libya as a supreme irony. Qaddafi, I came to understand, had spent decades conditioning his populace to hate Jews in a bid to build popular support for himself, as so many Arab dictators have done. And in the end, when his tyranny and misrule ultimately undid him, it was the hatred of Jews that he so successfully inculcated which was turned against him.
“Did you know that Qaddafi was a Jew?” the Libyan driver we hired to take us to Tripoli from Tunis smugly asked me somewhere on the road close to the Tunisian Island of Djerba, which still has a small Jewish population. “No,” I responded, though I had heard this claim before. “Yes, his mother was a Jew, and on his father’s side he was Italian,” the driver said matter-of-factly.
During the course of my six days hopscotching over the 1,000-mile-wide country, I had the opportunity to listen to scores of Libyans express themselves freely for the first time in 42 years, whether in person or through other media, such as music and graffiti. What I found, unfortunately, along with freedom of expression, was a virulent and ubiquitous anti-Semitism that looks likely to outlast the ruler who promoted it [JW: but certainly didn't create it]. [....]
=> That sort of thing is part of the typical logic of anti-semitic thinking in societies where anti-semitic world-views are a pervasive, deep-seated, routine, and taken-for-granted element of everyday culture, ideology, and social and political discourse. Although some people would prefer to believe otherwise, most contemporary Middle Eastern societies fall into that category.
Of course, that's true with different degrees of intensity both within and between different countries, with considerable variations in detail, and with modulations and exceptions in some places. (Even in countries like Egypt, there are some people who not only avoid anti-semitism but publicly criticize and oppose it.) But fundamentally it needs to be recognized as an unpleasant fact of life, and a background factor that permeates and influences social and political developments throughout the region. It's better to face up to that honestly, and try to understand it and deal with its implications, rather than pretending otherwise or trying to ignore, evade, obscure, whitewash, or excuse it.
Yours for reality-based discourse,
P.S. The Middle East is a complicated place—and different people draw its borders differently, too. To avoid possible misunderstandings or distractions, it might be worth emphasizing some ways in which Iran, ironically enough, offers some partial exceptions to the patterns just outlined. All available evidence suggests that among most sectors of the Iranian population, both anti-semitism and hysterical anti-Zionism are a lot less intense and hegemonic than in any Arab country (of course, we're speaking in relative terms here). On the other hand, among the ruling elite and many of its strongest supporters, matters are very different. Even apologists for the Iranian regime have trouble ignoring or whitewashing its noisy and institutionalized anti-semitism. So it's not entirely surprising that the great bulk of Iran's Jewish community, which numbered over 100,000 a half-century ago, has left the country. But it's also probably telling that there are still over 10,000 Jews living in Iran—far more than in any Arab country.