A Point of View: Egypt's blind spot for anti-Semitism

Posted: 12/11/2009 9:41:00 PM
Author: Abraham Foxman
Source: This article was posted in the Jerusalem Post on Dec. 10, 2009.

A Point of View: Egypt's blind spot for anti-Semitism

Much has been made of the significance of President Obama's choice of Cairo as the location for his first major address to the people of the Muslim world. There, in June of this year, the recently elected leader of the United States took his message of rapprochement, openness and acceptance with the Muslim world to the traditional seat of Arab culture and an important ally of the United States in promoting peace and stability in the region.

In the months and years ahead, Egypt undoubtedly will continue to play an important leadership role as a key US ally in working to counter the forces of terrorism and bring together the Israelis and the Palestinians to work on issues of security and peace.

But at this most crucial point in relations between the US, Israel and the Arab world, obstacles to true peace and rapprochement remain. And one of the major stumbling blocks for Egypt is the blatant anti-Semitism that pervades many sectors of its society - from the news media to popular and academic books, to publications and recordings of religious sermons - and the government's unwillingness to do anything to confront it.

Articles and caricatures in the Egyptian media routinely feature anti-Semitic depictions of Jews as stooped, hook-nosed, money-hungry and conspiratorial. Israeli leaders are depicted as Nazis. Articles deny or diminish the Holocaust. Anti-Israel and anti-Jewish conspiracy theories frequently surface, with references to the infamous anti-Semitic forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, as do modern incarnations of the medieval blood-libel. (One Egyptian newspaper reported in May 2007 that Israel was polluting Palestinian drinking water with "microbes, dirt and atomic garbage.")

These expressions of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic sentiments do not occur in a vacuum. They have led to government policies that sanction real-world discrimination against Jews. One only need look to the Egyptian government's recent attempt to exclude Israeli doctors and activists from an international conference on breast cancer, or the anti-Semitic diatribe unleashed by Egypt's Culture Minister after losing his bid to become the next head of UNESCO. These official policies, in turn, contribute to the barriers that block true normalized relations between Israeli and Egypt despite 30 years of official peace.

Many times over the years we have raised concerns with President Hosni Mubarak about the unacceptable demonizing of Jews in the media and society. He and other government representatives have typically responded with excuses and justifications. They have repeatedly shown a disturbing unwillingness to even acknowledge the extent of the problem.

Like the United States, they insist, Egypt has a free press and the media of their country has a right to print whatever they choose. Other times, Egypt's leaders have absurdly responded by pointing to what they call "anti-Arabism" in Israeli newspapers.

But these arguments fall flat. First, because the anti-Semitism that flows from Egyptian media is so vicious and pervasive as to belie such facile comparisons. And second, because there are no prominent voices in Egyptian government or society willing to speak out against anti-Semitism (while there are laws on the books against other forms of blasphemy, such as insulting Islam).

Over the last two years, the anti-Jewish incitement has continued apace and even intensified, with some cartoons suggesting that Israel was committing a "Holocaust" in Gaza, complete with swastika and Hitler imagery appearing in mainstream newspapers.

In democratic societies with a vibrant free press, the mainstream news media does not filter anti-Semitism like a sieve, as it does in Egypt. That is because there are consequences in Western societies for bigotry and prejudice. Manifestations of anti-Semitism are unacceptable in those societies precisely because government officials and ordinary people are willing to stand up and to say, "No."

Moreover, the respected Egyptian newspapers Al-Ahram and Al-Goumhuriyya - serial offenders when it comes to printing outrageous anti-Semitic editorial cartoons - are government backed and controlled. One would think that if Egypt's leaders were to take a public stand against anti-Jewish incitement, that the editors of these and other mainstream publications would listen and take heed.

Egypt, of course, is not the only Arab country where anti-Semitism is found in the press and official or quasi-governmental organs. In Jordan, Morocco, the Gulf States, Syria, Lebanon, Iran and Iraq, there are abundant examples of vitriolic anti-Semitic imagery and literature.

However, as the Arab world's political and cultural arbiter, Egypt's anti-Semitic propaganda is more disturbing and dangerous - all the more so because Egypt led the Arab world in reconciling with Israel.

As such, Egypt was expected that it would lead its population and the rest of the Arab world toward changing public attitudes toward Israel. Indeed, this expectation is built into the 1979 Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty, which calls upon the parties to "abstain from hostile propaganda."

Moreover, as the intellectual hub of the Arab world, Egypt exports newspapers, magazines and books throughout the Middle East. The concepts and images portrayed within these publications have a powerful influence in shaping popular opinion throughout the region.

The result of these unrelenting attacks is that an entire generation has come of age since the 1979 peace treaty being exposed to the same negative presentation of Jews and Israelis as its parents' generation. Jews portrayed as demons and murderers are people to be feared and avoided, and certainly not to be allowed to enter into normal discourse and relations.

These anti-Semitic stereotypes have constituted a major setback to the normalization of ties with Israel and send the wrong message to the rest of the Arab world.