Anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism: an absurd amalgam in the Arab world

In the Middle East, Zionism, and more broadly Israeli politics, has aided the rise of anti-Semitism.

An ultraorthodox Jew in Jerusalem, with the al-Aqsa Mosque in the background. Reuters

The debate raging in France is being closely watched on the other side of the Mediterranean. French President Emmanuel Macron announced last Wednesday that he wishes to integrate anti-Zionism - in the sense of denying Israel's right to exist - into the legal definition of anti-Semitism. Macron considers that "anti-Zionism is one of the modern forms of anti-Semitism", and anti-Semitic acts increased by 74% in France in 2018, compared to the previous year.

Several critical voices have pointed out that this measure could lead to inconsistencies - the most absurd being to consider some anti-Zionist Jews as anti-Semites - and to create confusion between a political ideology and a religious identity. It would also play into the hands of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, for whom the two terms are inseparable, giving the impression that criticizing Israeli policy is not allowed in France , even if this is not, at all, the purpose of the iniative.

From an Arab point of view, amalgamating these two terms appears to be quite inappropriate. If anti-Zionism can sometimes, as in Europe, have anti-Semitic undertones, Zionism appears as the main cause of the rise of anti-Semitism in the Arab world, and not the other way around. The term “anti-Semitism” was coined in the nineteenth century to describe discrimination against Jewish populations in European societies. In addition to the somewhat simplistic argument that Arabs are themselves a Semitic people, the notion does not really make sense in the Arab context. Despite special status laws preventing them, like Christians, from accessing high ranking political and administrative positions under the Ottomans, Jews were well integrated in Arab societies and did not suffer persecution comparable to the pogroms of Europe.

"The Jewish community knew a moment of glory and power in the Ottoman era, especially when Jews expelled from Spain arrived massively”, notes Henry Laurens, professor and Chair in Contemporary History of the Arab World at the Collège de France, interviewed by L'Orient-Le Jour (OLJ). "Before the Balfour Declaration and all its consequences, Jews were a community among others in the Arab world, which, since the Ottoman era in particular, was organized on a sectarian basis”, Gilbert Achcar, professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS, University of London), and author of “Arabs and the Shoah: The Arab-Israeli War of Narratives” (2013).

Gradual deterioration

The propagation of Zionist theses developed by the Austrian thinker Theodor Herzl gradually changed the situation until the creation of Israel in 1948, a turning point and a real shock for the Arab populations. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the local population did not really distinguish between Jews and Zionists, not being fully familiar with the latter term at the time. "The inhabitants of historic Palestine used to refer to Jews as Jews. Some were Zionists, but many were not. They were mostly religious Jews and a-Zionists or anti-Zionists”, Tarek Mitri, former minister and Director of the Issam Farès Institute of Political Studies (AUB), told OLJ.

"The Arabs first learned about Zionism indirectly, by reading the European press. In Palestine, the first reactions were not necessarily negative, but things changed after the Balfour Declaration. From then on, Zionism began to be perceived as a danger for the Palestinians on the one hand, and for Arabs in the Middle East on the other. This led to a gradual deterioration of the situation for Jewish communities in the Middle East, starting in the 1930s”, said Laurens.

Relationships became more complicated as Jewish immigration accelerated due to repression in Europe.

"Whenever those notions came up, there was a clear distinction between Jews and Zionist movements. What Arabs worried most about, concretely, was seeing a community gaining a territory, and becoming a nation”, Laurens notes. In the 1930s and 1940s, European history collided with Near East history, even more brutally so after the Holocaust and in the lead up to the creation of the Hebrew state. During this period, the great Mufti of Jerusalem Hajj Amine al-Husseini – whose views were, however, not representative of the Palestinians - collaborated with Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany, initially to thwart British plans of establishing a Jewish home, but even going as far as approving Hitler’s genocidal policy against the Jews, according to some historians. This episode was largely exploited by Israeli propaganda to demonstrate a so-called Arab anti-Semitism, to the point that Benjamin Netanyahu even went so far as to present the Mufti as the instigator of the Final Solution.

Conspiracy theories and Holocaust denial

The creation of a Jewish state profoundly modified the relationship between Jews and other communities in the Arab world. If, for Zionists, the birth of a Jewish state was, before anything else, the result of a collective will that lasted several decades, Arabs saw it as an injustice linked to a genocide for which they were in no way responsible. Jews in the Arab world did not welcome the birth of Israel very warmly at first. "The Jewish communities in the Arab world, especially in Egypt and Iraq, were not really tempted at first by migration to Palestine. But two factors encouraged this movement. First, the Israeli policy that did everything to attract them, to the point that the Mossad organized attacks against synagogues to scare them. Second, a feeling of mistrust was born among Arabs, and the Jews could be perceived as a sort of 5th column”, according to Tarek Mitri.

After David Ben Gurion proclaimed Israel’s independence, anti-Zionism became prevalent in the Arab world. Zionism largely appeared as a colonial project endorsed by the Western powers to dispossess the Arabs of their lands. The distinction between Jews and Zionists became very clear in political speeches. "In their speeches, Nasser or Arafat did not confuse the two, it was quite the opposite. When he started to rise to power, Arafat's political project was to establish a secular and democratic debate in Palestine where Jews, Christians and Muslims would coexist”, Tarek Mitri explains.

The Arabs' double sense of injustice and humiliation regarding the Jewish state, however, was the driving force behind the anti-Semitism that spread among the Arab working classes - where the term “Jew” is still sometimes used as an insult - and was widely relayed by Islamist movements. This is especially visible through the propagation of two closely linked phenomena: conspiracy theory and Holocaust denial.

"The conspiracy theories that are present in Western anti-Semitism are popular in the Arab world, because it is in fact a region that has experienced real plots and schemes, starting with the famous Sykes-Picot agreement”, says Gilbert Achcar. The conspiracy theories within the fraudulent Protocols of the Elders of Zion, attributing plans of world domination to the Jews, are widely spread in the Arab world. "Among Islamists, there was a moment when they revived an old para-religious literature that ridicules and degrades Jews. They use from the sacred texts what is likely to arouse suspicion or even hatred towards Jews”, Tarek Mitri notes.

Denying that the Holocaust even occurred also appeals to some, although a minority. In an article published in 1998 in Le Monde Diplomatique, the eminent Palestinian-American scholar Edward Saïd resented the fact that "the theory that the Holocaust is only a fabrication of Zionists circulates here and there. Why do we expect the whole world to become aware of our sufferings as Arabs if we are not able to become aware of those of others, even if they are our oppressors?” "Most people who have a little culture know that the Holocaust is not an invention, but a certain negationism is popular among narrow-minded people, whether ultranationalists or fundamentalists”, says Gilbert Achcar.

Gilbert Achcar, however, insists that there is no anti-Semitism specific to the Arab world, but that the dissemination of anti-Semitic views in this region is not comparable to what is happening in the West. "The whole equation between the Western world and the Arab world is completely skewed by the fact that Jews were oppressed for centuries in Europe, while in the Arab world, this hatred towards Jews is mainly the product of a modern history marked by the presence of an oppressive State, which calls itself a Jewish State", summarized Gilbert Achcar. "There was a resolution of the UN General Assembly in 1975 that said that Zionism was a form of racism and discrimination. It was revoked in 1991, but it sparked great enthusiasm in the Arab world”, Tarek Mitri concludes, insisting on the need to distinguish between the two notions in the Arab world.

(This article was originally published in L'Orient-Le Jour on the 23rd of February)

The debate raging in France is being closely watched on the other side of the Mediterranean. French President Emmanuel Macron announced last Wednesday that he wishes to integrate anti-Zionism - in the sense of denying Israel's right to exist - into the legal definition of anti-Semitism. Macron considers that "anti-Zionism is one of the modern forms of anti-Semitism", and anti-Semitic acts...