The Roots of Anti-Semitism
Whenever I hear someone lecturing about the “root causes” of terrorism in the Middle East, I know I am probably about to be told that Israelis are themselves to blame for being murdered by terrorists. Israel’s critics also engage in a second, more subtle form of blaming the victim: when compelled to acknowledge the vicious anti-Jewish bigotry that pervades the Arab world, they argue that, of course, such bigotry is unacceptable, but that it is really just an effect of Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians.
This argument suffers from an elementary flaw. It is a matter of basic logic that cause must chronologically precede effect: that which occurs today cannot have been caused by an event that will not occur until tomorrow. Arab anti-Jewish bigotry cannot have been caused by Israeli policies, or even by Zionism more generally, for the simple reason that Arab anti-Jewish bigotry long predates the development of political Zionism.
One of the incidents inspired by this bigotry was the massacre of the Jewish community in Basra in 1776, in what is now southern Iraq. In 1785, Ali Burza Pasha led a pogrom against the Jewish community in what is now Libya, killing hundreds. In the city of Algiers in 1805, several hundred Jews were murdered during what was termed the “Black Sabbath” massacre. Algiers was the site of major anti-Jewish pogroms again in 1815 and 1830. One of the most historically important instances of anti-Jewish violence of the nineteenth century occurred in Damascus, now the capital of Syria, in 1840.
It was the Damascus blood libel in which the Jewish community was falsely accused of ritual murder; several members of the community were arrested and tortured for confessions, during which one of the torture victims died. Subsequently, 60 Jewish children were seized and purposefully starved so as to extract confessions from their parents. This incident was so important because it inspired Moses Hess to write The Revival of Israel: Rome and Jerusalem, which first argued for a restoration of Jewish national self-determination; even more than Theodor Herzl’s book The Jewish State, Rome and Jerusalem marked the beginning of modern political Zionism.
It should also be noted that the bloody anti-Jewish pogroms that occurred in the Arab world during this period of time took place against a backdrop of daily, institutionalized oppression. In nineteenth century Europe, Jews were finally being released from the ghettos in which they had been forced to live since the Middle Ages. In Arabic-speaking North Africa, Jews were being herded into ghettos, called mellahin, which were first instituted in Morocco in 1808 before being copied by the other countries.
Of course, anti-Jewish bigotry did not decrease with the advent of the Zionist movement, although it reached a level of truly genocidal viciousness long before the state of Israel was declared in 1948. Anti-semitism thus existed long before there was a refugee problem, and certainly long before the occupation of the territories following the 1967 war. As early as 1921, Hajj Amin al-Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, the first leader of the Palestinian national movement (and, incidentally, Yasser Arafat’s uncle), incited a pogrom in Jaffa in which 43 Jews were murdered. In 1929, there were further Arab pogroms against the Jewish communities in Jerusalem, Safed, and Hebron in which 133 were killed and 399 were wounded; the survivors of the community in Hebron were forced to flee.
Al-Husseini also helped incite the series of pogroms which lasted from 1936 to 1939, in which hundreds more Jews were killed. Once the Second World War began, al-Husseini, seeing Nazi Germany as a natural ally, traveled to Berlin to meet with Hitler and plan for the extension of the Final Solution to the Jewish community in the mandate. According to the German minutes of the meeting, al-Husseini thanked Hitler “for the sympathy which he had always shown for the Arab and especially Palestinian cause, and to which he had given clear expression in his public speeches. The Arabs were Germany’s natural friends because they had the same enemies as had Germany, namely ... the Jews.”
In the end, of course, the Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps was defeated by the British at Alamein, and the Holocaust thus did not reach the mandate. The Mufti spent the remainder of the war contributing to Nazi atrocities by recruiting for the SS amongst the Muslim population of the Balkans.
Given the long history of anti-Jewish hatred among Arabs, and anti-Jewish violence by certain Arab segments, it is not surprising that the Arab world reacted violently to the idea of Jewish self-determination. Nor is it all that strange that Azzam Pasha, a secretary of the Arab League, responded to a last-ditch peace effort by the Jewish Agency in 1947 by saying, “The Arab world is not in a compromising mood. It’s likely, Mr. Horowitz [one of the Jewish Agency representatives], that your plan is rational and logical, but the fate of nations is not decided by rational logic.” Nor is it surprising that, at the beginning of the 1948 war, the same Azzam Pasha declared that “this will be a war of extermination and a momentous massacre which will be spoken of like the Mongolian massacres and the Crusades.”
Arab violence against Jews has been going on long before there was an occupation, long before there was a refugee problem -- indeed, long before there was a political Zionist movement. That does not mean it has to go on forever. No one is born a bigot. Indeed, all the Arab dictatorships spend a tremendous amount of effort on propaganda intended to foster and maintain anti-Jewish bigotry. For example, one Palestinian Authority ninth-grade textbook contains the passage, “treachery and disloyalty are character traits of the Jews and therefore one should beware of them.” If the Arab governments were to halt this stream of anti-Jewish propaganda, the Arab-Israeli war would end. If Arab society were to undertake a serious moral reckoning with its history, there would be real and enduring peace. As long, however, as the world keeps blaming the victims, this war will not end.
Richard Kraus is a graduate student in the Department of Political Science.