In the Middle East, antisemitism emanates from the corridors of power, walking hand in hand with corruption, political repression, torture, racism and other reprehensible features of authoritarian rule.
There was a pertinent observation offered up in an opinion piece published last week by the French magazine Marianne where Martine Gozlan wrote that “there are kindness weeks and human rights days, but right now, we are in the middle of the antisemitism month of Arab leaders.”
Gozlan was referring to two outbursts by Arab leaders at both ends of the Middle East: Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas, who declared during a speech in August that the Nazi Holocaust had been provoked by the Jews’ “social role;” and President Kais Saeid of Tunisia, who detected the hidden hand of international Zionism behind the floods that devastated neighboring Libya earlier this month.
We live, of course, during a time when the mild taboo upon antisemitism that prevailed after World War II has been shattered, leaving tech billionaires, rock musicians and minor parliamentarians on left and right to articulate and enable antisemitism of the most venomous sort, all too often using social media to do so. But that realization shouldn’t mask the distinctive origins and strategic purpose of the antisemitism in the Arab and wider Muslim worlds that was so neatly expressed by Abbas and Saied.
It’s important to remember the key difference, contextually, between Arab and Western antisemitism. In Western countries, as well as in Eastern Europe, Jews were a largely defenseless minority who were nonetheless assigned near mystic powers by an assortment of pogromists and ideologues.
In the Middle East, while the same myths about disproportionate Jewish power have won over the masses, the Jews whom they confronted — and still do — are not powerless. These Jews are, through the existence of the State of Israel, empowered and sovereign — not only in possession of an army (and navy and air force), but one that is supremely capable of punishing the enemy and winning the wars it fights.
The historic Arab failure to eliminate Israel from the map of nations is one key reason for the persistence of antisemitism in the rhetoric of some Arab leaders. In that regard, antisemitic ideology has played a useful dual role.
Firstly, it allows Arab leaders to distract their publics from real issues like employment, social welfare, environmental degradation and education by pointing to “the Jews” as the ultimate source of their complaints.
Secondly, the widespread acceptance of conspiracy theories over the extent of Jewish power enables Arab leaders to explain away, far more easily than is justified, their own failings.
There is another significant difference between antisemitism in the West and outside it that further explains the Abbas and Saeid outbursts.
In the West, much of the time, antisemitism is a feature of disgruntled social movements that go through troughs and peaks in terms of their popularity, but whose grasp on power is fleeting; rarely do they win a sustained engagement with genuine political power. But in the Middle East, antisemitism emanates from the corridors of power, walking hand in hand with corruption, political repression, torture, racism and other reprehensible features of authoritarian rule.
Indeed, Abbas’s response to the group of Palestinian intellectuals and influencers who publicly objected to his latest verbal assault on the Holocaust is a perfect example of this tendency.
No matter that this group forthrightly condemned Israeli “occupation” and “apartheid” in its statement, thereby repeating antisemitic tropes about Israel even as they condemned antisemitism. They had the temerity to confront Abbas, the Palestinian caudillo, over his crude, cringeworthy antisemitism, and were therefore worthy of denunciation as the “shame of the nation.”
Mark as well how Abbas’s antics perfectly fit the approach of Arab dictators towards the Jewish state; when you are unpopular and when your disapproval ratings are at an eye-watering 73 percent, as are his, point the finger at the real culprits.
Saeid, meanwhile, operates with a similar logic. A conservative legal scholar who came to power in 2019 and has stalled Tunisia’s hesitant progress towards democracy ever since, his remarks about the floods in Libya — the fruit of Storm “Daniel,” a Jewish name that was chosen, said Saeid, because “the Zionist movement has infiltrated our minds” — are the second occasion this year that he has expressed antisemitic sentiment.
On the first occasion, back in May, he told a meeting of Tunisia’s National Security Council that a deadly gun attack upon worshippers at a historic synagogue on the island of Djerba was not motivated by antisemitism. Mocking those “who talk about antisemitism when we are in the 21st century,” Saeid accused those who raised the issue of antisemitism of wanting “to sow division to benefit from this discourse.”
The following day, in defiance of the actual historical record, he doubled down by pointing to supposed Jewish ingratitude, insisting that the Jews of Tunisia who survived the 1942–43 Nazi occupation did so because of the goodwill of their neighbors and not because the Allied armies trounced the Germans in North Africa.
As well as being an antisemite, Saeid is also a racist who has whipped up feelings against black migrants from Sub-Saharan Africa. In a speech in February, he claimed that “hordes of irregular migrants” had come to Tunisia “with all the violence, crime and unacceptable practices that entails.” He argued that this was an “unnatural” situation, part of a criminal plan designed to “change the demographic make-up” and turn Tunisia into “just another African country that doesn’t belong to the Arab and Islamic nations anymore.”
Following this rant, angry mobs attacked African migrants in several cities, while the police detained up to 1,000, deporting many of them.
This Islamist and Arabist form of supremacism — with its disdain for Africa’s black majority population and its barely concealed loathing of Jews — is no less threatening than any other form of bigotry. As long as it is left unchecked and unchallenged, we can anticipate many more “Antisemitism Months” from Arab and Muslim national leaders.