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.

Even the frequently reiterated Arab intention of dismantling the state of Israel and “liquidating the Zionist society” is not, in itself, necessarily an expression of anti-Semitism. In the view of most Arabs, the creation of the state of Israel was an act of injustice, and its continued existence a standing aggression. To those who hold this view, the correction of that injustice and the removal of that aggression may be legitimate political objectives.

The same cannot be said of the great and increasing body of Arab writing about Israel and the Jews. When Arab spokesmen, not content with denouncing the misdeeds of the Israelis, attribute these misdeeds to innate Jewish racial characteristics discernible throughout history; when, furthermore, they accuse the Jewish people as a whole of practicing such monstrous crimes as ritual murder and of seeking through secret conspiracies to attain world domination; when they document these accusations with the standard fabrications of European anti-Semitic literature; when, finally, they devote great efforts and resources to disseminating these same fabrications all over the world—then no doubt remains that those Arabs who write and distribute these fabrications are engaged in anti-Semitic activities, not different from those that disfigured the history of Christian Europe for many centuries. Given the scale on which all these activities are taking place, the question is no longer whether some Arab governments are pursuing anti-Semitic policies; the question is why were these policies adopted, how far have they gone, and how deep is their impact.


The Arabs are not the only group for whom opposition to Israel arises from a clash of interests. Arab hostility to Israel rests on a genuine grievance, a real conflict over mutually exclusive interests and claims. This conflict may be clouded by prejudice; it may be influenced in its expression by prejudice. It is not caused by prejudice. Much the same may be said—in varying degrees—of some other opponents of Israel. The Soviet Union, for example, has clear political reasons, both domestic and international, for its hostility toward Israel. Obviously, Soviet interests are not served by the presence in the Middle East of a powerful state that is not merely politically aligned with the United States, but is linked to the West by institutions and way of life. The Soviets know very well that strategic alliances are more effective and more secure when they are underpinned by real affinities, and not merely political choices of current leaders. It is for this reason that the Soviets are rarely content with political and strategic alliances, but rather seek to refashion societies and regimes, in the countries where they have sufficient influence, in their own image. Functioning Western-style democracies are more difficult to create, and in this respect America is at a disadvantage. They are also, however, more difficult to destroy, and their presence is a corresponding Soviet disadvantage. While the Soviets have often made some political gains by playing on Arab hostility to Israel, these have usually proved transitory.

But Soviet hostility to Israel and to Zionism may at times have other causes, unrelated to the struggle in the Middle East. Unlike the Nazis, the Russians are not committed, publicly and ideologically, to an anti-Jewish policy, and their official attitude to anti-Semitism is to denounce it. They could, if they wished, switch to support for Israel, and indeed, for a brief period in the late 1940s, they did so. Since then, however, the Soviet Union has turned the other way, and has, with its satellites and followers, pursued a policy of unrelenting hostility to both Israel and Zionism.

While this hostility can, in the Soviet context, be justified on political grounds, certain features are worth noting. One is the vituperative language used both in addressing Israel and in discussing Israel, in diplomatic and scholarly utterances as well as in overt propaganda. Even by the standards of communist political abuse, this language is remarkably strong. It has remained consistently strong over the years—far more so than the language employed against any of the other governments, regimes, movements, peoples, or ideologies that have at one time or another incurred Soviet displeasure.

Perhaps even more remarkable is the fact that the Soviet Union has on two different occasions broken off diplomatic relations with Israel, something that they made great efforts to avoid even with such enemies and rivals as Hitler and Mussolini, or Tito, or Mao. They broke off relations first in 1953, at the time of the so-called Doctors’ Plot in Moscow, and again in 1967, this time with the whole Soviet bloc except Romania.

Even the manner of breaking off diplomatic relations was distinctive. When countries break off diplomatic relations, their interests are normally entrusted to the care of another, friendly, country. At the present time, this usually means in practice that each country sends some of its own diplomats, who instead of functioning in their own name act as the interests section of the embassy of the protecting power. Thus, when a number of Arab states broke off diplomatic relations with the United States after the 1967 war, most of them still had diplomatic representatives in Washington, while Washington had representatives in their various capitals, on both sides under the aegis of the protecting powers.

The Soviets allowed no Israeli diplomats on Soviet soil, and to achieve this end they were willing to pay the price of having none of their own people overtly present in Israel, and no formal line of communication to the Israeli government. This disparity is very striking, and leaves one wondering what peculiar characteristic of Israel, lacking in other countries, has twice required a total rupture of diplomatic relations, and the many inconveniences, practical and of late also political, that this caused to the Soviets. The vocabulary and iconography of Soviet anti-Zionism, with their covert and sometimes overt appeals to old-fashioned racial and even religious prejudice, may indicate an answer.

Besides the Arab and Soviet blocs, there are other governments that have decided, on the basis of a calculation of advantage, to support the Arabs and oppose Israel, for good practical reasons. The Soviet Union possesses immense power, and has shown willingness to use it. Some of the Arab states dispose of immense wealth, and have shown increasing skill in deploying it. Both groups own large and reliable blocs of votes, and have been able to attain a measure of control over the forums of the United Nations and its various agencies. These assets have been used at various times to persuade governments of countries with no strong interests or commitments of their own in the area to adopt anti-Israeli and at times even anti-Jewish positions.

The adversary is no longer defined principally as Israel. Increasingly it is defined as Zionism. As well as adverse interests, adverse ideologies may be involved, and may inspire a principled opposition to the Zionist movement and the Zionist state, without necessarily raising the question of anti-Semitism. For the communist, it is natural and indeed inevitable to oppose Zionism, since there is a fundamental ideological incompatibility between the two. Moscow has its own special reasons, of domestic and imperial policy, to oppose any movement that could affect significant numbers of Soviet citizens and that has its main focus beyond the Soviet frontiers. The Soviets have denounced, condemned, and repressed pan-Islamism, pan-Turkism, and pan-Iranism, because the Muslim, Turkish-speaking, and Iranian-speaking peoples of the Soviet Union could be affected by these movements and have their loyalties turned away from Moscow toward centers in Turkey, Iran, or the Islamic world. Zionism is, so to speak, a form of pan-Judaism, and for that reason alone would be condemned. But again, in dealing with internal opposition movements as in dealing with foreign states, there are significant differences in the degree of hostility and the manner in which it is expressed.

Communism is not the only creed that is ideologically opposed to Zionism. There are some religious believers—Christian and even Jewish as well as Muslim—who oppose Zionism on religious grounds, seeing the establishment of a Jewish state by human agency as something contrary to God’s will. This is not at the present time a majority view among either Christians or Jews, but it commands significant support.


The most vocal ideological opposition to Zionism at the present time, however, is concerned not with what Zionism believes and declares itself to be, but rather with what it is accused by others of being. This began with accusations made by propagandists for reasons of expediency, but rapidly acquired a wider significance. The Arab opponents of Zionism and of Israel have usually tried to win support in the Western world by identifying Zionism with the fashionable enemy, at one time defined as bolshevism or communism. The rise of Soviet power in the Middle East required the abandonment of this line of argument in all but a few Arab countries. When—with growing American influence in the world—the racist became the fashionable enemy, Zionism was reclassified as racist, and a resolution at the United Nations adopted to that effect.2 The resolution, which was voted on November 10, 1975, was carried by seventy-two in favor, thirty-five against, and thirty-two abstentions. An ideological analysis of the votes for and against the abstentions gives interesting results. As one might expect, all the Communist and Islamic states voted in favor of the resolution. Almost all the surviving liberal democracies in the world voted against the resolution. The countries of the third world were scattered through all three categories.

In the Soviet bloc, no political opinions may be publicly expressed other than those permitted by the authorities. In a few Arab countries, some public debate is possible, but on the question of Israel, even of Jews, it is subject to severe constraints, and it is therefore difficult to judge real attitudes. In the Western world, however, and in some third-world countries, individuals and groups are free to adopt, promote, and argue their different points of view on this as on most other matters. In most Western countries the affairs of Israel and her neighbors receive enormous—indeed, by any reasonable measure, disproportionate—attention. The very magnitude of the debate, as well as the terms in which it is conducted, have led some observers, not all of them Jewish, to suspect that this preoccupation with Israel and Zionism has unwholesome origins, and that criticism may be an expression of hidden anti-Semitism. Clearly, there are many for whom such accusations are false and unjust. There are others for whom the Arab cause is a stick with which to beat the Jews.

There are various reasons, both intellectual and practical, by which the adoption of an anti-Israeli position may be explained, without any imputation of prejudice. An obvious example is the honest conviction that the Arabs are right and the Israelis wrong, whether in any particular situation or in the problem as a whole. One may agree or disagree with those who hold this conviction; one cannot simply dismiss their views as prejudiced. One may equally not dismiss the possibility that the formation and expression of such a conviction may be affected by considerations other than the merits of the case.

For some, ideology may influence or even determine the choice of sides. For some, the decisive factor is the type of regime. Israel within its 1949 borders is a liberal democracy, with an open press and parliament, a responsible government and opposition, and contested elections. Even in the occupied territories, where these freedoms are somewhat curtailed and sometimes suspended, they remain substantial by regional standards. Most of the Arab states are authoritarian, with a state-controlled press, no legal opposition, and an official program of radical nationalism and revolutionary socialism, blended in varying proportions. Both kinds of regime command automatic ideological support.


Others make their choice between the Arabs and Israel for professional or commercial reasons—a calculation of career needs by individuals in business, in the universities, in the press and television, and in politics. Many, for good professional, commercial, or political reasons, decide to support one side or the other, according to circumstances. One may perhaps question the good faith of those who make their choice in this way, but prejudice, though of course always a possibility, is not a necessary component of their attitude. A public-relations consultant improving his client’s image and knocking the competition is not primarily moved by prejudice; he is motivated by the desire to get on in his business and to make money. Mutatis mutandis, the same may be said of the corporation executive safeguarding the interests of his stockholders, the politician responding to the wishes of his electors or contributors, the newspaperman obeying the directives of his editor or of his hosts, and the Middle East specialist in the university keenly aware of who controls access and who disposes of funds.

University departments and programs of Middle Eastern studies may be affected in more than one way. Jews, for sentimental or religious reasons, because of a knowledge of Hebrew or a concern for Israel, are often attracted to these studies. They are not the only ones, and they have long since lost their earlier dominance to others. In the days when Mao and Maoism reigned supreme in China, Maoist-minded students were sometimes drawn to Chinese studies, and some university departments of Chinese or Far Eastern languages acquired a strong and often intolerant Maoist character. In the same way, during the vogue of the PLO as the heroes of the radical left, many students and eventually young teachers of Middle Eastern studies came to their subject with a strong prior commitment to the Arab cause and against Israel and Zionism.3 This is not in itself anti-Semitic, but there were some also with avowed or unavowed anti-Jewish feelings who for that reason gravitated toward departments of Arabic studies, in which they hoped to find like-minded company and a congenial atmosphere. They are not always disappointed. Examples of this have been quoted both by Jews and by Arabs, the former often with alarm, the latter sometimes with distaste.

For all these groups, an anti-Israel or anti-Zionist position can be explained without reference to anti-Semitism. But the possibility is of course always there, and even if prejudice does not determine the nature of their opinions, it may well affect the manner in which they express them. Particularly at a time and place where anti-Semitism is considered beyond the pale of decent society, the Palestine problem may provide expression for sentiments that the holders would otherwise feel obliged to conceal.

Some are fairly obvious. With a few exceptions who hate Arabs and Jews evenhandedly, the avowedly fascist groups still active are pro-Arab, as both their literature and their activities make clear. Such are the surviving neofascist and neo-Nazi groups in Europe, and their imitators in North and South America. Some Arabs have rejected the help of such allies; others, including both rulers and revolutionaries, have made use of it; others again have done both at the same time.

Apart from avowed anti-Semites, it is often hard to distinguish between those who are pro-Arab and those who are primarily anti-Jewish. There are, however, some symptoms that may sometimes give an indication. One of the characteristics of the anti-Semitic pro-Arab is that he has no interest in the Arabs or sympathy for them, apart from their conflict with Israel. He is unmoved by wrongs suffered by the Arabs, even Palestinians, under any but Jewish auspices. For him, the hundreds killed at Sabra and Shatila are of far greater concern than the thousands of Arabs slaughtered in Amman, at Tell Za’atir, in Hama, and, in the many wars, in Yemen, Lebanon, the Gulf, and elsewhere, that have tormented the long-suffering Arab people.

Often he shows no knowledge of the history or culture of the Arabs, no respect for their achievements, no concern for their needs. Indeed, he tends to speak of them in a way which is deeply disparaging. The common attempt to explain away Arab statements and actions by saying, in effect, that the Arabs are not serious, not adult, not responsible, can hardly be taken as an expression of respect or esteem.

To be deeply concerned about the fate of the Arab refugees from Palestine is a natural and humane response. If it is accompanied by total indifference to other refugees in Europe, Asia, Africa, and elsewhere, of whom there are countless millions, most of them far worse situated than the Palestinians, this may raise reasonable doubts. In the same way, to support the political cause of the Palestinian Arabs is a legitimate and justifiable political choice. But if it is accompanied by a lack of interest in other causes in the region and elsewhere, questions may arise. The world is full of causes that attract foreign well-wishers and supporters, and many factors may determine an outsider’s choice. One of them may be a shared hatred of the adversary.


This raises the general issue of the double standard that, Israelis claim, is applied in judging the actions and more particularly the misdeeds of Israel and of its Arab foes. In part this arises from circumstances unrelated to prejudice or even to taking sides. Israel is an open society, and by the very logic of its own institutions is compelled to allow to reporters and therefore to critics a degree of freedom without parallel anywhere else in the region. This inevitably means that the media have greater detail about Israeli misdeeds and greater opportunity to explore, discuss, and criticize them. Sometimes indeed the disparity in treatment may arise from positive rather than negative feelings—from philo-Semitic rather than anti-Semitic sentiments, and a higher level of expectation of Israeli behavior. Israelis sometimes complain of being held to an impossibly high standard of virtue. Such complaints may be unreasonable. Israel regards itself and is regarded by most Westerners as a liberal democracy. Israeli behavior is therefore judged by the same rigorous standards that, say, Americans, Britons, and Frenchmen apply in judging their own and each other’s actions.

But even allowing for this, there are times when the disparity in treatment and inequality in judgment raise questions of good faith. The most obvious example is the affair at Sabra and Shatila. The performance of the Israeli authorities at Sabra and Shatila, though they did not themselves commit a massacre, could be a source only of shame and not of pride to democratic people. That worse things happen elsewhere is no answer, and it is demeaning for Israelis or their supporters to invite such comparisons. But if comparison is a poor defense, it is surely a moral and intellectual obligation of judgment—more specifically, of those whose professional duty it is to report, to interpret, and to judge. The universal execration of Israeli behavior at Sabra and Shatila may represent the high moral principles of the outside world and the high standards of behavior expected from the Israelis. But a comparison between this execration and the almost total indifference toward other massacres, including more recent ones carried out by the Shi’ites in the same camps at Sabra and Shatila, raises disquieting questions concerning the sentiments and motives of the judges.

Another characteristic of the anti-Semitic pro-Arab is his obsession with Jewish power and influence and his charges of Jewish double loyalty. This accusation takes different forms. In democratic countries like the United States, Jewish double loyalty is in the main a problem only for Jews and anti-Jews, and not for the great mass of the population who are neither the one nor the other. It may be significant that while the charge of dual loyalty is sometimes brought against the Jews, it is rarely if ever leveled against other American ethnic or religious minorities, though many of these are actively engaged in political lobbying. Greek, Armenian, Irish, and of late also Arab American groups, for example, advocate policies and sometimes even support violent action against governments that are linked by military alliances with the United States. As free citizens they all have the same right to be pro-Israel, pro-Arab, pro-Greek, or pro whatever else they please. A selective restriction of this right, affecting Jews but not others, on support for Israel but not for other foreign causes, would put Jews, in effect, in a separate and inferior category of citizenship. This line of thought has won little support in the democracies, though it has made some headway elsewhere.

In authoritarian countries like Russia the position is different, and opposition by a group of nationals—Jews or others—to a government’s foreign policy is tantamount to treason. Jews in the Soviet-bloc countries must not merely refrain from supporting Israel; they must actively oppose it. The point was well made—in private—by a distinguished Polish Jewish writer during the 1967 war. “I agree,” he said, “that a man can have only one country to which he owes allegiance—but why does mine have to be the United Arab Republic?”


In recent years, the rapid development of anti-Zionism has given it a range and relevance often unrelated to the Middle East and its problems. For the nineteenth-century modernists and secularists, religiously expressed anti-Judaism seemed reactionary and outmoded; some of them found a substitute in racially expressed anti-Semitism, then regarded as up-to-date and scientific. In our time, racism—especially in the Western world where it is now associated with hostility to blacks rather than to Jews—has also been discredited, and racial anti-Semitism has, for some, in turn been succeeded by an anti-Zionism in which ideology meets the need previously met first by religion and then by race. The change is one of expression and emphasis more than of substance.

Racist feelings can work either way and may promote non-Jewish good will as well as hostility to Israel. One group, somewhat like the Jew-hating Arabophiles, are those who like Israel because they loathe Arabs. Such motives were at one time important in France, where the struggle in Algeria led to a quasi alliance with Israel against the common Arab enemy, and where the final French defeat left a bitterness for which the Israeli victories provided some solace. This feeling has long since faded away. More recently, in the United States, the oil crisis, followed by events in Iran, Lebanon, and elsewhere, has caused a surge of anti-Islamic and anti-Arab feeling, which sometimes finds expression in the presentation and interpretation of the news, and in the use of hostile stereotypes of Arabs in commentaries, cartoons, anecdotes, films, etc. This at times reaches a level of nastiness which, while still permitted when discussing Arabs, is no longer acceptable when dealing with Jews. There is no Holocaust to inhibit the expression of anti-Arab prejudice; there is no anti-Zionism to provide for its sublimation. In general, however, this is a minor phenomenon, and in the English-speaking countries anti-Arab feeling has not usually been a factor.

European and American attitudes to the dispute are indeed greatly complicated by the fact that one party consists of Jews and the other of Arabs. Both people arouse powerful and irrational responses. This can be felt in the obsessiveness, in the note of emotion, even of passion, that affects the public discussion of the problem—a passion and vehemence that have few if any parallels in dealing with other disputes between foreign nations.

But the most important response to anti-Semitism, far more important than those of the Soviets, the West, or the Jews themselves, is that of the Arabs, whose vast output of anti-Semitic literature raises serious issues, not least concerning the present condition of Arab society.

In the Arab world, as in the West, certain questions arise from an examination of all this anti-Semitic literature. Who reads this stuff, how important is it, what effect does it have? In the Western world, one can answer these questions with reasonable assurance. Since 1945, and in many regions for long before that, explicit anti-Semitic literature was published and read only within the lunatic fringes of society, and its influence has in recent times been minimal. This can no longer be said of the Arab world. The volume of anti-Semitic books and articles published, the size and number of editions and impressions, the eminence and authority of those who write, publish, and sponsor them, their place in school and college curricula, their role in the mass media, would all seem to suggest that classical anti-Semitism is an essential part of Arab intellectual life at the present time—almost as much as it was in Nazi Germany, and considerably more than in late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century France, where the clamor of the anti-Dreyfusards was answered by at least equally powerful voices in defense of reason and tolerance.

There are such voices in the Arab world, too, but there is not a single Arab country at the present time that enjoys a genuinely free press, and these voices have great difficulty in making themselves heard. Even Arab intellectuals in the countries of the democratic West seem to accept the same constraints. To condemn anti-Semitism, it is necessary to show that it is harmful to the Arab cause—hence the strange theory, popular in some circles, that anti-Semitism and Zionism are the same thing. By the same reasoning, one might argue that apartheid is a form of African nationalism.

Any opposition to anti-Semitism in the Arab world, even if it is or presents itself as tactical, marks a welcome change from the previously almost unanimous chorus of hate. The enthusiasm with which the first peace moves were received in Egypt, and the warm and friendly welcome given to the first Israelis who went to Cairo, illustrated a genuine desire for peace and good relations, which even affected a limited number of intellectuals. In the years that followed the treaty, the initial euphoria diminished, but did not entirely disappear. The long and often acrimonious negotiations, the failure to make any progress on the Palestinian issue, the settlements on the West Bank, the lack of normalization, the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, all imposed severe strains on the new and fragile relationship between Israel and the first Arab state to sign a peace treaty or even enter into open negotiations. But despite these difficulties, the Egyptians kept the relationship with Israel alive, albeit at a much reduced level, and permitted the establishment of an Israeli academic center in Cairo. There are even some Egyptian writers who find it possible to discuss Israel in print—if not with sympathy, at least without violent abuse. These are small signs, so far limited to Egypt, and there are even fewer or none in other Arab countries.


Nevertheless, significant changes have taken place. Not all Arab countries broke off diplomatic relations with Egypt after the signing of the peace with Israel, and one that did so, Jordan, has since resumed them. In some countries, Arab politicians and newspapermen now speak of Israel and Israelis, instead of the “so-called state” and “Zionist gangs” of earlier usage. Some—in suitable contexts—even use the previously taboo word peace. Further progress will obviously depend very much on the initiation and the success or failure of peace negotiations. At least these developments leave some glimmer of hope that the anti-Semitic poisoning of Arab thought may not yet be irreversible in this generation.

Another factor, which may yet prove more important, is the absence among even anti-Semitic Muslims—with some exceptions—of the kind of deep, intimate hatred characteristic of the classic anti-Semite in Central and Eastern Europe and sometimes elsewhere. Time and time again, European and American Jews traveling in Arab countries have observed that, despite the torrent of broadcast and published anti-Semitism, the only face-to-face experience of anti-Semitic hostility that they suffered during their travels was from compatriots, many of whom feel free, in what they imagine to be the more congenial atmosphere of the Arab world, to make anti-Semitic remarks that they would not make at home. In the same way, Israelis traveling in the West often find it easier to establish a rapport with Arabs than with Arabophiles.

While the public denunciation of anti-Semitism in the Arab lands is virtually unknown, the expression of such prejudice in personal relations is still rare. This may be due to a certain ingrained courtesy in the Arab cultural tradition, which stops even anti-Semites from making anti-Semitic remarks in the presence of Jews. But it must also owe something to the absence of that kind of visceral, personal hostility that marks the European anti-Semite, and that, even in those only mildly affected, can cause an almost physical discomfort in personal encounters with Jews.

Arabs do not seem to be subject to such discomforts. In the Arab lands anti-Semitism is still largely political and ideological, intellectual and literary. One is constantly surprised to find how the authors of even some of the most violent and Nazi-like anti-Jewish tracts are willing and able to have normal, sometimes friendly relations with Jews or even with Israelis when no one is there to watch and report them.

An incident that occurred in Cairo very shortly after the signing of the peace treaty is instructive in this respect. Two Israeli scholars took the newly opened road to Cairo, anxious to meet some of the literary, academic, and political personalities whose work they had for so long studied from afar. Among other places they called at the editorial office of a violently anti-Israeli, anti-Zionist, even anti-Semitic journal, and asked to see the editor. That gentleman, learning who they were and whence they came, explained that he could not possibly receive them: “We are against you, we are against Israel, we are against Zionism, we are against the peace, and I cannot possibly receive you in my office.” However, the editor said, handing them a piece of paper, “If you would like to come and see me in my home after five o’clock, I would be glad to talk to you then and exchange opinions. This is my address.”

All unknowingly, the Muslim editor was proposing the exact opposite of the classical American situation known at one time as “the five o’clock shadow”—when the Jew could be received like anyone else in the office, during business hours, but was barred from the social life of the home and the club, the evening and the weekend. In the Western world, that five o’clock shadow is fading, though it has by no means disappeared and could conceivably return. In the world of Islam, it could still go either way.

Which way it goes will in large measure be determined by the further course of the Arab-Israeli conflict. For Christian anti-Semites, the Palestinian problem is a pretext and an outlet for their hatred; for Muslim anti-Semites, it is the cause. Perhaps, if that cause is removed or significantly diminished, the hostility too may wane—not disappear, but at least return to the previous level of prejudice. This was not good, but was compatible with human relations and even with a beginning of political dialogue. At this time there are some signs that the anti-Semitic virus that has plagued Christianity almost since the beginning may at last be in process of cure; by a sad paradox, the same profound religious hatred has now attacked the hitherto resistant body of Islam. It may be that the moment of choice has gone, and that the virus has already entered the bloodstream of Islam, to poison it for generations to come as Christendom was poisoned for generations past. If so, not only Arab but also Jewish hopes will be lost in the miasma of bigotry. The open democracy that is the pride of Israel will be polluted by sectarian and ethnic discrimination and repression, while the free institutions that are the best hope of the Arabs will be forgotten, as the Middle East sinks under the rule of the cynics and fanatics who flourish in the soil of hatred.

But it is more likely that this has not yet happened. Certainly it is easy to identify individual Arab rulers or writers whose hatred of the Jews is as deep and as consuming as that of any classical European or American anti-Semite. But for most, it still seems true that despite its vehemence and its ubiquity, Arab, or Muslim, anti-Semitism is still something that comes from above, from the leadership, rather than from below, from the society—a political and polemical weapon, to be discarded if and when it is no longer required. If mainstream Arab leaders can bring themselves to follow the example of Sadat and enter into a dialogue with Israel, and if the Israelis can find the strength and courage to respond appropriately, then it is possible that the anti-Semitic campaign will fade away, and be confined, as in the modern West, to fringe groups and fringe regimes. If there is no solution or alleviation, and the conflict drags on, then there is no escaping from an unending downward spiral of mutual hate that will embitter the lives of Arabs and Jews alike. An awesome choice now confronts Israelis, Arabs, indeed all of us.

Copyright © 1986 by Bernard Lewis

This Issue

April 10, 1986