Thursday, September 15, 2011

"Sorry ... we thought you were a Jew."

This report from Cairo is another dog-bites-man story–that is, the central point is precisely that what this BBC reporter, Thomas Dinham, describes here is so routine and unsurprising.
A group of old men slurping tea mixed with incredible quantities of sugar was studying me.

Eventually one of the men struck up a conversation, revolving primarily around what exactly I was doing in Egypt at a time when most foreigners had left.

My answers met with furrowed brows and clearly dissatisfied shakes of the head, when suddenly, raising his hand in front of his mouth in a conspiratorial gesture one man shot, "I bet he's from Israel" into the ear of his friend so quickly as to be barely discernable.

I was shocked. In nearly six months of living in Syria, where orchestrated hysteria about Israel is integral to the very identity of the state, I had never heard the accusation surreptitiously levelled against me.

Neither am I from Israel, nor am I Jewish, but as someone of unmistakably European appearance, I have found myself constantly associated with Israel in Egyptian eyes. [....]

I would hazard a guess that Israel struggles to make it into the top-five political issues discussed in Egypt. [....] Nevertheless, a strong and sometimes violent dislike of Israel is a fact of Egyptian life, something I was unfortunate enough to discover after a cross-border raid by Israel killed several Egyptian security personnel.

The Israelis had been chasing a group of gunmen who had attacked an Israeli bus close to the border between the two countries.

While walking in the street 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.

Relieved that a seemingly random assault was over, 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."

Shaking his head in disbelief on hearing the news, an Egyptian friend sympathised: "That's stupid, you are obviously not a Jew."

The chilling implication I was left with was that, had I been Jewish, the assault would have apparently been justified.
The rest of this piece deals with the pervasive "fondness for conspiracy theories" in Egyptian culture, of which hostile paranoia about Jews and Israel is only one aspect. Again, this account is not surprising for anyone who has been reading anything about Egypt over he past decades, but it's illuminating nevertheless. You can read it here.

Dinham is not Jewish, so the fact that he thinks anti-semitism is actually a problem (and not merely an "understandable" or even justified response to Zionism, imperialism, or whatever) does him credit.

–Jeff Weintraub