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Jewish Journal

The Arab Anti-Semitism Surge

by James D. Besser

March 21, 2002 | 7:00 pm

A member of an Arab nonprofit protests about the Israeli occupation of Palestine at the opening ceremony of the World Conference Against Racism in Durban.

A member of an Arab nonprofit protests about the Israeli occupation of Palestine at the opening ceremony of the World Conference Against Racism in Durban.

In the hierarchy of concerns of American Jews, anti-Semitism usually trumps every other issue, even concern about Israel.

That fact poses a big problem for those Jewish leaders here who hope -- as do a majority of Israel's citizens -- that even in the midst of the current carnage, a way can be found to revive political negotiations with the Palestinians.

However, among rank-and-file American Jews, faith in such negotiations will be harder to come by as Arab leaders tolerate and even encourage hatred right out of the annals of Nazi Germany and as their open anti-Semitism gains traction in Europe and other parts of the world.

American Jews have ever-changing opinions on peace in the Middle East, and even on the archvillain Yasser Arafat. Today, after 18 months of bloody Palestinian violence, his standing is lower than ever, but that could ease somewhat -- as it did in 1993 -- if the Palestinian leader takes bold steps to revive a peace process he shattered.

Much harder to change will be the reaction to an anti-Semitic groundswell that began even before the collapse of the Oslo peace process.

Anti-Semitism has always been a popular tool in the rhetorical arsenal of Israel's foes, but in the past few years, it has become far more venomous, more widespread and more official.

Arab and Muslim anti-Semitism is no longer an undercurrent. It seems to be a core value, promoted by both government bodies, intellectual elites and an increasingly radical Islamic clergy.

Recently, there was yet another particularly graphic example. A professor, writing in Al-Riyadh, "documented" how Jews must use the blood of Muslim and Christian youngsters for Purim pastries.

In the United States, we have no lack of bigoted conspiracy theorists, but it is inconceivable that their effluvia would appear in any mainstream publication. Al-Riyadh is more than just "mainstream" in Saudi Arabia. It is a government-controlled newspaper in a land where freedom of the press is unknown.

This is the stuff ordinary Saudis read in the morning as they sip their breakfast coffee. It comes with the imprimatur of their government, not the taint of some fringe group.

Saudi Arabia is not an aberration. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, confronted recently by Jewish leaders about the rabid anti-Semitism in Egyptian newspapers, whined that he had no control over what his government-appointed editors allow in the government-controlled media.

His interlocutors were not impressed. Mubarak does not permit a peep of criticism of his authoritarian regime, but he says he is powerless to stop Nazi-like anti-Semitism. The fact that anti-Semitism seems to be intended as device to divert attention from the Egyptian government's own corruption and repression does not excuse it.

The story is the same in the Palestinian areas and Syria. Holocaust denial and blood libels are all the rage. The "Protocols of the Elders of Zion" is a regional best seller.

More troubling still is the fact that this anti-Semitic revival has gained at least the tacit acceptance of countries that should know better.

At last summer's misnamed U.N. Conference on Racism in South Africa, pro-Palestinian forces distributed rabidly anti-Semitic material, and there was hardly a murmur of protest from European nations.

Not surprisingly, this trend is starting to have an impact on American Jews.

Once, Jews here were hopeful that Arafat could ultimately fulfill the promises he made at Oslo and that even nations such as Syria could come to terms with the Jewish state.

Sure, Arabs hated Israel, but it was seen as political and economic. The working assumption was that once political arrangements were made and the economic condition of the Arab world began to improve, the hatred would subside and ultimately there would be a real peace, not just a cold cease-fire.

But how do you make peace with governments and cultures that have revived old blood libels? How do you maintain faith in treaties already signed, when even countries that have supposedly come to terms with Israel -- Egypt being the obvious example -- increasingly regurgitate the ideology that gave rise to the Holocaust?

American Jews may find this a bigger obstacle to support for new peace efforts than their cousins in Israel. Israelis, whose lives have been dramatically altered by the renewed violence, may eventually be more willing to overlook the spreading stain of anti-Semitism if they see even a chance of changing an everyday reality that now includes bombings, shootings and the epidemic of despair.

American Jews, more sensitive to expressions of anti-Semitism, may have a harder time getting past the fact that even "moderate" Arab states are sounding increasingly like Der Sturmer -- a tip-off, Jewish leaders here believe, that it will take more than signatures on treaties to change Israel's status as a Mideast pariah.

Despite the claims of right-wing Jewish groups, Jews here will continue to support the idea of an active, land-for-peace negotiating process -- if suitable partners can be found. But the dark cloud of Arab anti-Semitism will make that support much more cautious and skeptical.

Jewish leaders have to find the correct balance between working to ensure that U.S. officials make ending the incitement a central goal in their Mideast intervention, and continuing to support peace efforts that a majority of Israelis still, after all the violence, believe are in their nation's best interests.

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