What importance must we assign, in the Arab-Israeli struggle, to anti-Semitism—more specifically, to the profound and special hatred of Jews that goes beyond normal political conflict, beyond even the normal hostilities and prejudices that arise between different peoples, and attributes to them a quality of cosmic and diabolic evil?
More specifically, how far and in what ways does anti-Semitism affect the policies, tactics, and discourse of participants in the conflict, as well as of outsiders? The discussion of this question is independent of the rights and wrongs of the Arab-Israeli conflict, or the merits and demerits of the various cases and claims that are put forward.
Two persistent myths may be set aside immediately. Among Arabs and their supporters, it is sometimes said that Arabs cannot be anti-Semites since they themselves are Semites. This statement is meaningless. anti-Semitism has never been concerned with anyone but Jews, and there is in any case no such thing as a Semite. Like the Aryan, he is a myth, and part of the same mythology.
Among Israelis and pro-Israelis there is another common myth which equates enmity to Israel or to Zionism with anti-Semitism and depicts Arafat as a new and unsuccessful Hitler and the PLO as the present-day equivalent of the Nazi SS. This is a false equation. The Arab-Israeli conflict is, in its origins and its essence, a political one—a clash between peoples and states over real issues, not a matter of prejudice and persecution.
But while the Arab-Israeli conflict is in many ways an example of normal conflict, it has certain unique abnormalities which arise from the continued refusal of all but one of the Arab states to recognize Israel or to meet face to face in negotiation with its official representatives. This refusal is still maintained after nearly forty years of Israeli existence, and after a succession of Arab political and military defeats. Lebanon, which negotiated and signed a direct agreement with Israel in 1984, was compelled to abandon it, and the Lebanese government was not permitted to enter into political contact with Israel even to arrange the orderly liberation of its own territory. Egypt, which unlike Lebanon possessed sufficient strength to take an independent line and enter into such a relationship with Israel, was execrated by almost all the Arab states; most of them broke off diplomatic relations with Cairo and for a while placed Egypt in almost the same kind of isolation as Israel herself. Perhaps most striking is the symbolic, one might almost say the magical, destruction which is constantly repeated and reenacted at the United Nations and its various agencies—a kind of prefigurement of what the Arab states hope ultimately to inflict on Israel.
Even the bitterest of conflicts—between France and Germany over Alsace and Lorraine, between Greece and Turkey over Cyprus and the Aegean, India and Pakistan, or Iraq and Iran—have never involved total nonrecognition of one side by the other, the total refusal of dialogue, the declared intention not merely to defeat but utterly to destroy the adversary state and wipe it off the map. And even though statesmen in some Arab countries now, in private or abroad, speak of coexistence and peace with Israel, few, outside Egypt, have yet been willing to do so in public and at home, and in terms that go beyond the customary careful ambiguities.
In what then does this uniqueness lie—this special sense of outrage which after almost forty years is still unappeased? Some see its cause in the displacement of the Palestinians from their homes to the neighboring Arab countries, where great numbers of them still live in refugee camps. Whatever the causes—whether they were expelled by the Israelis, urged to go by their own leaders, or simply fled in panic as the war exploded around their homes—there can be no doubt about the immensity of the human tragedy that befell them, and about the suffering that they have endured from then till now.
But the intractability of the Palestinian refugee problem is a consequence, not a cause, of the political problem. That the problem was not solved, like others elsewhere in our brutal century, by a combination of resettlement and some repatriation, was owing to an act of will on the part of the Palestinian leadership and of the Arab states. It was indeed a considerable feat to have preserved the refugee camps and their unhappy inhabitants for so long, and prevented their absorption into the expanding economies of the oil-rich Arab states, at a time when these were attracting and employing millions of guest workers from Egypt and Yemen, from Africa, from India and Pakistan and Sri Lanka, and even from as far away as Korea and the Philippines.
Does the special sense of outrage then derive—as many have argued—from the fact that the state of Israel was created by intruders who came from across the sea and imposed themselves on a country where they had not previously lived, displacing many of the inhabitants and reducing the remainder to the status of a conquered people? Certainly such events give rise to deep feelings of anger. This perception of the Israelis as outsiders remains even though Israeli Jews who originated in neighboring Arab and other Muslim countries are by now a majority. But even these events are very far from unique, and virtually all the sovereign states in the Western Hemisphere, as well as quite a number elsewhere, were created in this way.
For Muslims, in particular, the loss of old Muslim land to non-Muslim invaders is a heavy blow, causing anguish and outrage. But this too is not unprecedented, and has indeed happened many times before. From the loss of Portugal and Spain, at the end of the Middle Ages, to the abandonment of province after province and Muslim community after Muslim community in southeastern Europe during the long drawn-out retreat of the Ottoman Empire, Muslims have lost many countries to Christendom. Old Muslim lands on the northern and eastern shores of the Black Sea, around the Caspian, and in central Asia were added to the Russian Empire. They remain part of the Soviet Union and their fate is decided in Moscow. More recently, the invasion and occupation of the sovereign Muslim state of Afghanistan, and its incorporation in the Soviet imperial system, with the exile of millions of its people, has passed with remarkably little protest or concern by Muslim governments or Muslim peoples.
Why then this special anger in the Muslim response to the end of Palestine and the birth of Israel? Part of this is certainly due to its position, in the very center of the Arab core of the Islamic world, and to its inclusion of the city of Jerusalem, which—after long and sometimes bitter disputes—was finally recognized as the third Holy City of Islam after Mecca and Medina. But most of all, the sense of outrage, as is clearly shown in countless speeches and writings, was aroused by the identity of those who inflicted these dramatic defeats on Muslim Arab armies and imposed their rule on Muslim Arab populations. The victors were not the followers of a world religion or the armies of a mighty imperial power, by which one could be conquered without undue shame—not the Catholic kings of Spain, not the far-flung British Empire, not the immense and ruthless might of Russia—but the Jews, few, scattered, and powerless, whose previous humility made their triumphs especially humiliating.1
This perception is still not in itself anti-Semitic. It does not deny that Jews have a place in the scheme of things; it insists rather that their place is a modest one, as a tolerated subject minority, and that by appearing as conquerors and rulers the Jews have subverted God’s order for the universe. The same sense of outrage colored the contemporary Turkish response to the Greek landings in western Anatolia in 1919. The Turks were able to ease their rage by defeating the Greek invaders and hurling them back to Greece. The Arabs have not been able to defeat the Israelis, most of whom, in any case, have no other place to which to return.
There were occasional unsuccessful attempts at dialogue after the first Arab-Israeli war, but they ceased after the wars of 1956 and 1967. The Israeli victories in 1948 and 1949 had been comparatively small, and had been won after hard fighting and heavy losses. They had left a relatively small and silent Arab population as citizens of Israel. Even these events had left a sense of shock. The swift, vast, and apparently effortless victories of the despised “Zionist gangs” over several Arab armies added an unendurable feeling of humiliation, compounded by the continuing affront of Israeli military rule—now reinforced by settlements—over a sizable and vocal Arab population. It was difficult enough for Arabs to recognize Jewish sovereignty. It was much harder to live under or even at the side of Jewish domination. It was in the wake of these defeats, and because of the need to explain them, that Nazi-type anti-Semitism came to dominate Arab discussions of Zionism and Judaism as well as of the state of Israel.
There is another dimension to the question, little if at all related to the politics of the Middle East. Since Israel happens to be a Jewish state inhabited largely by Jews, and since there are people who hate Jews independently of the Palestine conflict, anti-Semitism may sometimes be a factor in determining attitudes, on occasion even in determining policy and action. While anti-Zionism or anti-Israelism is not necessarily inspired by anti-Semitism, the possibility cannot be excluded that in some cases it may indeed be so.
The distinction is often difficult to discern. The sometimes rather savage oratory and journalism of a society accustomed to violent invective and involved in a long and bitter war may easily be taken—not necessarily correctly—as an expression of anti-Semitism. In contrast, the carefully modulated reproof of a more sophisticated culture may also lead those who do not know the coded language to accept it, with an equal possibility of error, as the expression of an honest conviction. In the Arab world, where tempers run high and language is strong, fair comment may sometimes look like bigotry. In the West, where restraint is prized and different social norms prevail, the opposite can happen.
The distinction is easier to recognize in the Arab world than in the West, since the Arabs after all are directly involved, with vital interests at stake. When the Arabs accuse the Israelis, their leaders, and their supporters of all kinds of fiendish misdeeds, they may be doing no more than engaging in normal wartime propaganda against the enemy. The content and language of this propaganda may seem intemperate, especially when contrasted with the tone of all but a few Israeli politicians, scholars, and journalists in discussing the Arabs, but ample parallels can be found for it in the conduct of both sides during the two world wars. When Arab spokesmen liken Begin to Adolf Hitler and Genghis Khan, these accusations may shock the West and infuriate the Jews; but we may better evaluate their impact within the Arab circle if we recall that Adolf Hitler was until not so long ago a much admired hero, and that the secretary general of the Arab League, announcing the Arab invasion of Mandatory Palestine in 1948, stated—mistakenly as it turned out—that the destruction which the Arab armies would bring to Israel would rank with the deeds of the Mongol invaders, i.e., the followers of Genghis Khan.
Copyright © 1986 by Bernard Lewis
The point is vividly made in an article by Sabri Abu'l-Majd in al-Musawwar, annual special issue, December 1972: "The proud Arab spirit could endure the Ottoman, or British, or French occupation, because Turkey or Britain or France are states, each with its history and its forces; but the Arab spirit cannot endure occupation by gangs and cliques who came from various parts of the world and know no law but that of the jungle."↩
The point is vividly made in an article by Sabri Abu’l-Majd in al-Musawwar, annual special issue, December 1972: “The proud Arab spirit could endure the Ottoman, or British, or French occupation, because Turkey or Britain or France are states, each with its history and its forces; but the Arab spirit cannot endure occupation by gangs and cliques who came from various parts of the world and know no law but that of the jungle.”↩