It seems that where ever you look in the Arab world you see a revolution these days. The Middle East is changing in front of our eyes. History is in the making. Often in times of change antisemitism raises its ugly head. Where is this going who’ll be the new leaders of the Arab world and what will this mean to Israel? While we can’t answer these questions we wanted to take a closer look at antisemitism in the Arab world. Meet Dr. Esther Webman, an award winning scholar and co-author (with her colleague Prof. Meir Litvak) of “From Empathy to Denial: Arab Responses to the Holocaust”, researching Arab response to the Holocaust over 60 years since WWII and antisemitism in Arab countries.
Giyus.org: When does antisemitism begins to appear in the Arab world?
Dr. Webman: I believe modern antisemitism began to appear in the Arab world as other western ideas began to infiltrate into the region of the Middle East. In the 19th century the Ottoman Empire was dealing with winds of change. The concepts of equality and freedom were just emerging. Granting rights to minorities created tensions between the local population and the minority groups. The idea of nationality was evolving and raising questions as to the role of religion and its part in defining one’s nationality. Simultaneously, in Palestine, the land of Israel, Jews were starting to settle down and claim their historic right to the land, defining in essence a national Jewish identity. On the background of these changes antisemitism began to appear.
Giyus.org: What’s the difference between antisemitism as seen in Europe and in the Arab world in the 19th century?
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Dr. Webman: As opposed to Europe where Jews were a unique minority, the population in the Arab world was much more diverse. Christians, Armenians, Jews were just a few of the minority groups which the Islamic rule was required to protect. Of course they were not equal in the eyes of the law to Muslims but since there were many minority groups, Jews were not singled out specifically. Until the 19th century the Jews lived in relative peace with their Muslim neighbors. Towards the end of the 19th century as the Zionist movement grows more Jews come to live in Israel and claim the land. This connection puts the Jews in a different context. Suddenly this is no longer just my neighbor that happens to be Jewish. Suddenly this neighbor of mine has political ambitions to take land away from the Arab UMMA (community). This awakens resistance and antagonist feelings that are based on stereotypical beliefs which were hidden for many centuries.
Giyus.org: What’s the image of the Jews in Islamic religious traditions? How are the Jews described in the Qur’an?
Dr. Webman: That’s a tricky question as there are many references to the Jews in the Koran. Some are good and some are bad in terms of how the Jewish people are described. In different phases in history the Jews were treated differently by the Muslim population based on what was emphasized at that time.
But overall, the Jews are considered the number 1 enemy of Islam. In the early days of Islam, many elements in the Islamic religion have been influenced by the Jewish religion. Muhammad, the Prophet of Islam, hoped he could convince the Jews to convert to Islam as well. But the Jews rejected his message and didn’t accept him and the new Islam. This rejection was then turned against the Jews which were slaughtered and driven away from Arabia by Muhammad and his supporters when Islam grew stronger.
While this historic story was in the Qur’an the whole time, over the years Muslims and Jews lived in peace together. However, with the eruption of the Arab-Israeli conflict suddenly this story reappears and gains ground describing the Jews as deceptive and hostile to Islam and becoming part of an antisemitic discourse.
Giyus.org: If we jump back to World War II, what was the reaction of the Arab World to the Nazis?
Dr. Webman: There were many groups in Egypt, Palestine and Syria which held secret talks with Nazi Germany at the time of World War II. We know that the Muslim Brotherhood and the Mufti in Jerusalem were clearly supportive of the Nazi agenda and their treatment of the Jews. An Egyptian historian uncovered King Farouk held secret talks with the Nazis as well. These talks were held from a pragmatic point of view to align Egypt with the winning side, there was no connection to the Jews.
However, this does not represent the whole spectrum. I researched the period of 1945-1947 in Egypt, comparing the reaction to the Nazi regime with the reaction to the Holocaust. I’ve learned that the image of Nazi Germany was not so positive. In Egypt you see a dominant group of intellectuals which are clearly anti Nazi from the ideology perspective.
Those that referred to what the Nazis are doing to the Jews often made the connection between the Jews and the Muslims. The claim was that in the eyes of the Nazis, the Muslims are not much better than the Jews.
But anti Semitic materials from the west did penetrate the Arab world and were used by radical elements to spread hate against Jews. The Nazis caricatures were adopted by those Arabs that opposed the Zionist movement as weapons in the fight against the Zionists and the Jews in general.
Giyus.org: How much was known in the Arab during the years of World War II about what is happening to the Jews in Nazi controlled Europe?
Dr. Webman: In the last year of the war, as allied forces were advancing towards Germany, word about the fate of the Jews was getting out. The information reached the Arab world and the first reaction was empathy to the Jewish people and their suffering.
Giyus.org: What was the initial response in the Arab world to the horrors of the Holocaust?
Dr. Webman: There was a conflict between the feeling that the Holocaust is not relevant to them and the understanding that they must deal with the issue and its implications. When the state of Israel was announced in 1948, the Holocaust was seen as an enabler, or so to speak, to the manifestation of the political goals of the Zionists. This pushed the Arab world to react differently to the Holocaust. It branded the Holocaust as a “political” event allowing the Zionists to fulfill their political ambitions and create the Jewish state of Israel.
Giyus.org: How did the creation of Israel impacted antisemitism in the Arab World?
Dr. Webman: The creation of Israel is a climax of a process in which antisemitism became central in the Arab World discourse. In the years after the war, when there was intensive action on behalf of the Zionist movement towards a formal declaration of a Jewish state, there was simply disbelief in the Arab World. A dominant Egyptian reporter described his visit to Jerusalem in 1946 saying he didn’t believe there would be such a dramatic change just 2 years later. The writing was on the wall – it was clear that the Jews wanted a state and they managed to put their act together and achieve that. This achievement highlighted the Palestinians failure to obtain a state and created much of the hostility towards Israel at the time.
Giyus.org: How was the Jewish population in the Arab world affected by the creation of Israel?
Dr. Webman: Just a few years after 1948 almost all Jewish population in the Arab world disappears. This process was so short because the Zionist movement had operated in the Arab world long before Israel was established as a state. So the facilities were in place to help the Jews relocate to Israel as hostility towards them grew.
Giyus.org: So if there are almost no Jews in the Arab world today – how is antisemitism being expressed?
Dr. Webman: This is one of the characteristics of Arab antisemitism today – it’s an abstract form of antisemitism. It’s antisemitism without local Jewish population. In the absence of local Jewish communities, antisemitic feelings are aimed at 2 main enemies – the concrete Zionists in Israel and the abstract image of the international Jew – both are displayed as the cause for all the problems of the world. This is where the anti Semitic tale of the Protocols of Elders of Zion comes into play. In a way, the fact that the Jews left Arab states made it easier to hate them.
From a personal perspective, I was born in Egypt and arrived in Israel when I was 7 years old. I lived with my family in a mixed building, meaning both Jewish and Muslim families lived there. In May 1948, violence erupted with the declaration of the state of Israel. Our neighbor, which was Muslim, came up to our apartment with his weapon to protect our family. We were close neighbors and that was not an abstract.
Giyus.org: We all know there are no real warm feelings towards the Palestinians and the Arab world hasn’t exactly embraced the Palestinians in its midst – so why do Syria or Egypt care so much about what’s going on in Israel?
Dr. Webman: It’s not so much about the Palestinians, but rather it’s an issue of religion and nationality. When the Ottoman Empire fell apart, 3 major Arab nationalities were developed, Egyptian, Turkish, and Arab that included people from the area of Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Syria. On top of those Arab nationalities there is the religious layer of Islam. So in essence, Israel both disturbs the Arab territorial sequence and controls sacred places to Islam. It’s like a bone in the throat of the Arab world and it’s why it’s so hard for them to accept it. The involvement of the Arab world in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict comes from that point – they are protecting their religious places and their land.
Giyus.org: Holocaust denial is quite common in Iran – while Iran is not part of the Arab world, do you see Holocaust denial coming from other countries in the region?
Dr. Webman: Holocaust denial started immediately after the war in 1945. When it was clear that the Holocaust pushed the Zionist agenda forward and legitimized the Jewish call for a state of their own, the Arab world reacted in denial. By denying the Holocaust and minimizing the Jewish role as the major victims, they hoped to decrease the likelihood of the creation of Israel. As the time passes, any Western literature that doubts the Holocaust is adopted in the Arab world and in Iran. This denial becomes common in the Arab world. If you talk to people in the Arab street they’ll probably tell you the Holocaust is exaggerated, that it wasn’t as bad as the Jewish people tell.
The Holocaust was so terrible, so hard to grasp, that people immediately look for reasons – the Jewish people must have done something wrong to deserve such fate, it could be so bad. These are common reactions.
In the western world those that deny the Holocaust are radical elements, not mainstream. In the Arab world you see Holocaust denial becoming part of the lexicon of the Radical Islamic groups. These groups are anti Semitic by definition so denying the Holocaust serve their purpose.
Giyus.org: Finally, we want to talk about the Muslim Brotherhood. In light of the events in Egypt and the role the Muslim Brotherhood played – how much are they driven by antisemitism and hate towards Israel and the Jews?
Dr. Webman: The Muslim Brotherhood was founded in Egypt and calls for Islamic supremacy in the Arab world. Imposing Islamic law and creating an Islamic state is their main agenda and for that matter Islam comes before the state and Egyptian nationality. In their view, the Islamic world and the Arab world are in regression and need to catch center stage once again. They want to take technology advancements from the West and apply them to a world governed by Islamic rules. The fact that Israel exists where it does goes against Islamic rules so they cannot accept Israel existence as Jewish state. Once you are against Israel and the Jews you have to justify that negative emotion. This is where antisemitism comes into play and western elements are adopted and intertwined with Islamic claims to “explain” why the Jews are that bad to Islam and Muslims.
In light of the events in Egypt recently it’s important to understand that the Muslim Brotherhood is not homogeneous movement. There are radical elements and more moderate ones within the movement. There are differences in their pragmatism and how much they are willing to accept Western influence.
Even if the Muslim Brotherhood will be the controlling party of Egypt’s government their pragmatism might dictate a different approach than what appears in their charter. They might call off the peace treaty with Israel but I don’t think they will start a war with Israel tomorrow morning.
Part of the hate towards Mubarak was on the grounds of his support of the peace agreement in Israel. The Muslim Brotherhood anticipated that Mubarak will support Hamas in operation “Cast Lead” instead he closed the border with Gaza and worked with Israel.
While antisemitism played a part in the revolution against Mubarak, Egypt is not like Iran. The main difference is that there is no one as charismatic as the Iranian leader Khomeini within the Muslim Brotherhood. They are quite organized but looking at the events that ousted Mubarak, there is no great leader that can swap the Egyptian people off their feet.
There is no doubt that the Muslim Brotherhoods are no friend of Israel but you can’t tell how they’ll act once in control.