Last August, when Imam Mahdi al Jumeili of the small Hudheifa Mosque in Baghdad's Shurti neighborhood met three American officers to resolve a dispute over soldiers entering the grounds of his mosque, his first question was: "Are any of you Jews?"
When he was satisfied that none were, he allowed the meeting to proceed. Prior to the Americans' arrival, he had voiced his views about them.
"We are sure they came here to steal the country and protect Israel," he said, adding that "Judaism and Masonism are at war with Islam."
Such views are common in Iraq, where al Yahud (the Jews) are everywhere. Purportedly serious works about the Jewish threat, including Arabic editions of the notorious czarist forgery, "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion," are available in every book market.
The widespread acceptance of outlandish fantasies about Jewish infiltration and manipulation demonstrates the degree to which Iraqis, whose views were shaped by years of authoritarian control, misunderstand and fear the outside world. The anti-Semitic paranoia is one measure of how difficult the transition to liberal democracy will be.
For a journalist, not a day goes by without mention of Jews and Israel. "We are Muslims!" a taxi driver declared proudly during an evening ride to a hotel. "And Jews come to our land?"
When asked to whom he was referring, he said: "They are all Jews. The Americans are all Jews and mercenaries. We know their religion."
Another taxi driver explained that "America and the Jews are one. We know this from their interests, their relationships and America's defense of the Jews.... America and Jews are the same because they have the same goals and the same faith."
An angry man in the market of Abu Ghraib, a town west of Baghdad, explained that "the Americans are Jews. Their work is Jewish. Nobody accepts them."
Last summer and fall, signs on the walls of the Abu Hanifa mosque warned Iraqis that Jews had come to the Ekal Hotel and planned to purchase land, just as they did in Palestine, to drive Iraqis out of their country. "Do not stab your fellow Iraqis in the heart" by selling land to the Jews, the signs exhorted. A visit to the Ekal Hotel proved that it was closed for renovations and had no guests.
In November, at the Rahman Mosque in Baghdad's Mansour district, faithful Shiites heard Sheikh Ali al Ibrahimi condemn a decision by the Iraqi Governing Council to let certain non-Iraqis obtain Iraqi citizenship. Ibrahimi warned that "if Jews reside in Iraq, then they will become Iraqi citizens, and they will own Iraq, and we will be their guests."
The widespread Iraqi hostility toward Jews stands in contrast to a more ambivalent Muslim tradition. Although the Quran frequently condemns Jews, it mandates a modus vivendi with them, relegating them to an inferior but protected status.
Historically, the Muslim attitude toward Jews lacked the racial element of European anti-Semitism, holding that if a Jew converted, he was to be treated like any other Muslim. But the conflict over Palestine, the creation of Israel and its defeat of Arabs and occupation of their land, intensified anti-Jewish feeling. Arab and Muslim authors began to adopt European racist and anti-Semitic theories about Jewish conspiracies to explain Israel's existence, strength and American support.
Those seeking to give these theories religious legitimacy have little trouble finding support in the Quran, a sprawling work with many passages that are open to interpretation. "Strongest among men in enmity to the believers wilt thou find the Jews and pagans," instructs Verse 5:85, implying that Jews and pagans are of equal stature as enemies of Muslims and God.
The Quran describes Jews as disobedient and treacherous unbelievers, rejecting God and His messengers. The Jewish worship of the golden calf after God made a covenant with them (2:92-3) and their recurring violations of pacts made with the Prophet Mohammed (8:56-8) show they are not to be trusted.
According to the "cow" chapter (2:88), "God's curse is on them for their blasphemy. Little is it they believe." Other verses imply that Jews "shall be the companions of hell fire" (4:86), describe them as bragging about killing Jesus (4:157) and call their deeds "evil" (4:79-80). Thus the basis exists, for those who choose to use it, to promote the hostility and palpable fear of Jews that confront journalists in Iraq on a daily basis.
Iraqi newspapers have helped spread the panic about a Jewish invasion. Last summer, the independent Sunni Al-Saah warned Iraqis to check Chinese-made appliances for concealed Stars of David, because the Israelis would be surreptitiously selling their products in Iraq. The independent Iraqi daily, Al-Yawm Al-Aakher, reported that "the frantic campaign to resettle the Jews [in Iraq] has aroused the annoyance of Iraqis, particularly the clerics."
On July 10, Al-Adala, a newspaper published by the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution, warned that "a number of Jews are attempting to purchase factories in Baghdad." Dar Al-Salam, a newspaper owned by the Iraqi Islamic Party, reported on the same day that Mosul's association of clerics issued an edict prohibiting the sale of land to non-Iraqis, lest it end up in the hands of Jews.
Such accounts are taken quite seriously. It seems nearly everyone in Baghdad has a friend or relative who has seen Jews buying land.
A version of this article originally appeared in Reason magainze.