April 6, 2000
Living in Denial
Arab Anti-Semitism Batters Peace Process
When Egyptian Foreign Minister Amr Moussa met with Jewish leaders in Washington recently, the topic was supposed to be the Mideast peace process. But the Egyptian official was pummeled on a different subject: the anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial that continue to flow from the government-controlled media in his country.
Moussa blandly promised the problem will be resolved when Israel and the Palestinians reach a final accord.
But his Jewish interrogators -- and a growing number of Israelis -- aren't so sure. Across the political spectrum, Jewish leaders say the anti-Semitic surge casts doubt on the motives of Israel's negotiating partners and on the underlying cultures that will ultimately determine whether peace treaties are worth the paper they're written on.
Syria responded to new rounds of talks in January with a barrage of Holocaust denial, undermining support for the peace process in Israel, where voters must approve any deal giving Syria the Golan Heights.
Recently, a delegation of Americans for Peace Now leaders raised the issue of anti-Semitism in textbooks with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat; his response was "deeply disappointing," said APN political director Mark Rosenblum.
"It's an ongoing, serious problem," said Rosenblum. "Anyone who minimizes the degree of anti-Jewish and anti-Israel sentiment is sticking his head in the sand."
Arab anti-Semitism, he said, "marginalizes those in Israel who are fighting for peace."
Even in countries that have made peace with Israel -- Egypt and Jordan -- anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial are on the rise.
And the rising chorus of anti-Semitism is undercutting support in Congress for a strong U.S. role in the peace process.
"It must be condemned," said Henry Siegman, director of the Mideast program of the Council on Foreign Relations and a strong peace process supporter. "I recently wrote this in the Arabic press; the leaders of these countries have to have their feet held to the fire. I pointed out in the article that not a single political leader or clergyman in the Arab world has said a word condemning it."
But the anger generated by the venomous rhetoric, he said, "should not be allowed to take the peace process hostage.
The motives behind the recent rise in Arab anti-Semitism are hard to sort out; what's painfully evident are the consequences.
Daniel Pipes, a Mideast scholar who was one of the first to write about anti-Semitism in the Arab world, said Jew-hatred came late to Islam.
"The anti-Semitism found in the Christian world historically was not seen in Islam," he said. "Jews and Judaism were an affront to the very truth of Christianity; that was not true of Islam."
But with the birth of modern Israel, suddenly "Jews became a challenge," he said.
Arab leaders found the language of Christian anti-Semitism useful for distracting populations from their economic woes and their failure to deliver on promises to wipe out the upstart Jewish state. By the late 1950s, European-style anti-Semitism had taken root in Arab countries -- everything from the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, still a perennial bestseller in Arabic, to the twisted theories of Holocaust denial.
Anti-Jewish animus, sown by governments to serve political purposes, played into the powerful feeling of victimization in the Arab world; traditional views of Jewish world domination provided convenient explanations for Arabic weakness in the face of an Israel that was seen as almost demonically strong.
Since the start of the Madrid peace process in 1991, bitter anti-Semitism has served another function: helping Arab governments defuse popular resentment about their decision to negotiate agreements with Israel.
Today's rising anti-Semitism may reassure the Arab public that peace treaties don't necessarily mean friendship with Israel.
Pipes pointed to Jordan, where the leadership has crafted a relatively warm peace -- but where fierce anti-Semitism among the people is pulling it in the opposite direction.
"Jordan has a wonderful agreement with Israel -- but civil society said 'no' with one voice. For the current king, it's simply too painful to fight it," Pipes said.
Other analysts say the expressions of anti-Semitism in Jordan are more a vestige of decades of education and political hostility to Israel.
"It will change -- but it will take several generations," said the CFR's Henry Siegman.
Still, the impact is strong in Israel, whose citizens crave genuine change in Arab attitudes, not just paper treaties.
Just as troubling is the breadth of resurgent Arab anti-Semitism.
"In most places, support for progress, peace and reconciliation comes from the intelligentsia -- writers, lawyers, doctors, judges," said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. "In the Arab world, it's the opposite; the kind of anti-Semitic expressions we see today come most powerfully from these groups."
It won't change, he said, "until there is a real leadership effort to educate people, to counter this kind of expression in the media. So far, they've done nothing. In Egypt, we've had 22 years of peace, but Egypt is still the worst. Every editorial cartoon has Jews with hooked noses -- grotesque caricatures. And nothing is being done to counter it."
Other Jewish leaders say the Clinton administration has not done enough to persuade Arab leaders to speak out -- although officials here say the issue has been raised countless times in the past year.
Recent anti-Semitic outbursts have disappointed and angered Israelis.
"The kind of anti-Semitism we've seen lately has a direct impact on the ability of the Israeli leadership to take risks for peace," Foxman said. "Israelis ask -- legitimately -- how can you trust them if they do nothing to change the environment? It's a hard question to answer."
But that erosion of trust may be exactly the point, according to other analysts; the recent rise of anti-Semitism may be intended to derail the peace process and leave Israel holding the bag for the wreck.
"Maybe these countries really don't want real peace but also don't want to be seen as the culprits," said an official with a right-of-center Jewish group. "Maybe the intention here is to use deeply offensive rhetoric to turn the Israeli people against peacemaking, so Israel will be the one blamed for ruining the peace process."
Still, the growing clamor of Arab anti-Semitism shouldn't turn Israel away from the current peace process, Foxman said.
"I tend to agree with Prime Minister Barak -- that you have to recognize it as a problem and try to deal with it, but if you make changes in attitude a precondition of peace, you'll never get peace. Still, it's a troubling development."