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Anti-Semitism in the Arab World

Anti-Semitism in the Arab World

Manifestations of anti-Semitism erupted in the Arab world during the late twentieth century. However, discrimination against Jews has relegated them to second-class status under Arab hegemony (“dhimmitude”) since the successful uniting of the tribes in the Arabian peninsula by Muhammad (570–632) in the sixth century. Jews were initially supportive of Muhammad’s agenda, for he labeled both Jews and Christians as the “peoples of the Book.” However, some Jewish tribes in the region fought against him and his army, while others refused to embrace his Qur’anic revelations, surrender their Judaism, and accept Islam (the new religious interpretation of the Divine-human encounter, which Muhammad defined as total submission to the “will of Allah”). At this point, animus against the Jews set in. This animus continues in the early twenty-first century throughout the Middle East, and even in those Middle Eastern countries where a small and vulnerable Jewish population remains (e.g., Syria, Iraq, Iran). The vast majority of Jews fled from these nations during the twentieth century, especially after the re-creation of the Third Jewish Commonwealth (in the form of the State of Israel) on May 14, 1948. However, to label these earlier various forms of discrimination against Jews in Arab lands as anti-Semitic would be to elevate them to a status not commensurate with historical realities.

As is the case with both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, the Qur’an contains passages that alienate “the Other” (in this case the Jews) as “unbelievers” and “infidels,” and that address the responsibilities of Muslims to pursue unto death these “enemies of God.” For example, the following statement occurs in Sura 4:155, “Then because of their breaking of their covenant, and their disbelieving in the revelations of Allah, and their slaying of the prophets wrongfully, and their saying: Our hearts are hardened—Nay, but Allah set a seal upon them for their disbelief, so that they believe not save a few.” Sections 155 through 161 paint a further portrait of the Jews as engaged in wrongdoing, practicing usury, speaking against Mary, and slaying the Messiah (the Christ). Sura 82 posits “the Jews and the polytheists” as the groups most fundamentally against Muslims, while Sura 120 says that both Jews and Christians will “never be pleased with Muslims.” Far worse is Sura 5:64, which says, “Among them (the Jews) Allah has placed enmity and hatred till the Day of Judgment,” though this is rivaled somewhat, perhaps, by Sura 7:166, which says, “When in their insolence they transgressed prohibitions, we said to them: ‘Be you apes, despised and rejected.’”

Whereas such passages are counterbalanced somewhat by positive assessments of Jews in the Qur’an (e.g., 2:47, 2:122, 5:20, 44:32), they do enable those who, like their European Christian counterparts, continue to draw upon a scriptural-textual tradition of sacred words to evoke a religious, or theological, form of anti-Semitism. In the early years of the new millennium, such Qur’anic passages continue to be a mainstay of radical fundamentalist Muslims in their hatred of Israel and Israelis.

According to Meir Litvak of the Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University, “In 1894, before the creation of the Zionist movement, a book entitled The Talmud Jew by the German anti-Semite Eugen Duhring [1833–1921], was translated into Arabic. The publication of this book—which popularized the concept of the ‘Jewish threat’—can be considered the beginning of modern Arab anti-Semitism” (Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs 2003). World War II and the Nazi collaborationist efforts of the virulently anti-Zionist Mufti of Jerusalem, Mohammed Amin alHusayni (1895–1974), brought about a further deterioration of relations with Jews, not only in pre-state Palestine but throughout the Arab world. In addition to continuing and strengthening discriminatory practices against Jews, violent clashes would become the norm in Palestine. Throughout the war period, al-Husayni worked in Germany as an Arab propagandist for the Nazi cause, all the while urging Hitler and the Nazis to implement their annihilatory policies against the Jews in the Middle East. One such example is a comment he made on Berlin radio on March 1, 1944: “Arabs, rise as one man and fight for your sacred rights. Kill the Jews wherever you find them. This pleases God, history and religion. This saves your honor. God is with you” (Pearlman 1947, p. 51).

Since the founding of the State of Israel in 1948, it has fought wars against its neighbors in 1948, 1956, 1967, 1973, 1981, and 2006. It has thus remained a source of bitterness and frustration throughout the Arab world, a situation exacerbated by the ongoing political crises occasioned by the plight of the Palestinian refugees, whose own leadership, primarily Yasser Arafat (1929–2004), has refused to still the violent attacks against Jews in Israel and enter into a realizable peace. His successor as president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas (also known as Abu Mazen) is the author of The Other Side: The Secret Relationship between Nazism and theZionist Movement, in which he claims that German-Jewish Zionists colluded with the Nazis in the deaths of European Jews to further their own aims. With the exception of Egypt under Anwar al-Sadat (1918–1981), whose historic 1977 visit to Israel marked a true turning point in Egyptian-Israeli relations, and King Hussein of Jordan (1935–1999), whose own peaceful relations with Israel were continually marred by the presence of large numbers of refugee Palestinians in Jordan, the Arab nations continue to view Israel as a blight or cancer within Dar al-Islam (the world of Islam) that needs to be excised.

Throughout the Arab world, including Egypt and Jordan, copies of the notorious anti-Semitic conspiracy forgery The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion remain easily available in bookshops. This text was a product of the Russian secret Police, the Okrana, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, and it was long a favorite of the late King Faisal of Saudi Arabia (c. 1906–1975) It tells of a supposed secret meeting of rabbinic elders at which they planned to subjugate the world. Long-running television series based upon this text have been shown in both Egypt (“The Horseless Rider,” 2002) and Syria. In addition, anti-Semitic cartoons, many depicting Israelis in Nazi uniforms with bloodied and dead Arabs, appear regularly in newspapers throughout the Arab world. Books, pamphlets, and articles, including some by seemingly reputable scholars, depicting Jews, Judaism, Israel, and Israelis as the world’s quintessential evil continue to be published. For example, The Matzah of Zion by the former Syrian Defense Minister Mustafa Tlas, repeats the Western anti-Semitic canard that Jews require the blood of innocent children in the preparation of the unleavened bread used in the celebration of the Festival of Passover.

Even the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, was given an anti-Semitic spin when it was suggested that the events themselves were orchestrated by Israeli and American Zionists, and that Jewish individuals who worked in the World Trade Center were told not to show up to work that day (Gorowitz 2003). Thus, in the Arab world, no distinction appears to be drawn between anti-Semitism (hatred of the Jews and Judaism) and anti-Zionism (hatred of Israelis, the State of Israel, and those who support them).

As to solutions to the seemingly intractable problem of anti-Semitism in the Arab world, the first must be a resolution of the ongoing Palestinian-Israeli conflict. This would remove a long-standing source of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism among Arab and Islamic extremists and force those in the region to confront the possibility of peaceful, nonmilitary coexistence. Even if this resolution brought about only a “cold peace” of mutual toleration rather than a “warm peace” of mutual cooperation, a justification of Israel as an enemy would be weakened.

A second possible solution, with quite far-reaching implications, would be the more public exposure within the Arab world of a nonliteral and more metaphoric reading of the Qur’an by scholars. Such a midrashic reinterpretation of scriptural texts might potentially involve dialogues among both Jewish and Christian scriptural scholars, as has occurred among Jews and Christians in the aftermath of the Holocaust.

A vital part of any peace process would be a commitment within the Arab world, in the aftermath of an eventual peace between Israel and her neighbors, of new educational endeavors at all levels of education, including the universities and Islamic midrasas of higher learning, that would present Jews and Judaism in a positive light. This might include Jewish specialists of Judaic studies teaching about Jewish history (including the history of Israel itself), Jewish religious and philosophical thought, and Jewish holy day and life-cycle celebrations. This would be a sharp break from the situation that has existed for decades, in which many Arab and Muslim students are fed a steady diet of myths, negative characterizations, and false information about Jews, Judaism, Israel, and Zionism, which only continues to foster anti-Semitism.


Jacobs, Steven Leonard, and Mark Weitzman. 2003. Dismantling the Big Lie: The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Los Angeles: Simon Wiesenthal Center in association with KTAV Pub. House, Jersey City, NJ.

Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. 2003. “The Development of Arab Anti-Semitism: An Interview with Meir Litvak.” Post-Holocaust and Anti-Semitism 5. Available from

Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI). Available from

Nirenstein, Fiamma. 2005. Terror: The New Anti-Semitism and the War against the West. New York: Smith & Kraus.

Pearlman, Moshe. 1947. Mufti of Jerusalem: The Story of Haj Amin el Husseini. London: V. Gollancz.

Poliakov, Leon. 1961. From Mohammed to the Marranos (The History of Anti-Semitism). Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Tolchin, Martin, and Susan Tolchin. 2006. A World Ignited: How Apostles of Ethnic, Religious and Racial Hatred Torch the Globe. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield.

William and Naomi Gorowitz Institute on Terrorism and Extremism. 2003. Unraveling Anti-Semitic 9/11 Conspiracy Theories. New York: Anti-Defamation League.

Steven Leonard Jacobs

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