Skip to content
Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

The Development of Arab Anti-Semitism

Filed under: Anti-Semitism, The Middle East
Publication: Post-Holocaust and Anti-Semitism

No. 5

Dr. Meir Litvak of the Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University specializes in the study of Arab anti-Semitism. He is currently also researching Arab perceptions of the Holocaust.

Litvak points out that because of the violent conflict between Mohammed and the Jews in the seventh century, extreme anti-Jewish motifs were already found in the Koran and within the Hadit tradition. Even though expressions in the Koran refer to Jews as ‘pigs, monkeys, servants of the devil and liars,’ he emphasizes that one should not draw hasty conclusions.1 For long periods the Jews fared better in the Islamic world than in Christian countries. There were ups and downs he notes, yet never in the Middle Ages did the Jews under Islamic rule suffer as they did in Christian Europe.

To present an ongoing, nearly 1,500-year old conflict between Islam and Judaism would distort the truth, Litvak asserts. However he stresses that “neither should one exaggerate, by accepting the romantic 19th century view of the Jews’ golden age under Islam, a myth developed as an accusation against Christian Europe. Jews, however, were never treated equally under Moslem rule.”


More Integrated than Eastern European Jews

“One can analyze this also from another perspective. Eastern European Jews lived as a distinct minority separate from the majority. For the most part, they spoke Yiddish rather than Polish, Russian or other local languages. Their clothing was different, as was their culture, even if there was some cross-fertilization with the non-Jewish environment. The Jews of the Orient were much more incorporated into Islamic society insofar as language, dress and food were concerned. Their popular culture also was influenced and to a considerable extent integrated with Islamic culture.

“Such a situation could never have occurred had relations between Islam and Judaism been hostile. However, important tensions did emerge in the modern period. In the second half of the 19th century Moslems began to feel the force of the Western colonial threat. In the 1860 massacre in Damascus, Moslems slaughtered more than 10,000 Christians. In Aleppo, Christians were butchered as well.

“Had there been a deep-seated hatred of the Jews at that time, they also would have been murdered. However the Moslems did not consider their presence disturbing, and so did not harm them. Under the accelerated European penetration of the Moslem world, many Jews were protected by the Europeans and thrived economically. The Algerian Jews became French citizens and many Jewish traders in Baghdad were under the protection of the British Consulate. In Palestine, Jews frequently were citizens of European countries. The same was true in the prospering Jewish trading communities of Beirut and Damascus.”


Developing Hatred of the Jews

“Feeling increasingly humiliated by the West, Moslems were perplexed by this situation and hatred began to develop against the Jews who had benefited more from the Western penetration. Moslems now identified Jews, together with Christians, as part of the European threat. An Arab proverb states that ‘all infidels are from the same community.’ This could be interpreted to mean that ‘the West threatens us; the Christians and Jews represent the West, and they are all the same.’

“In 1894, before the creation of the Zionist movement, a book entitled The Talmud Jew by the German anti-Semite Eugen Duhring, 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.

“European anti-Semitism was brought to the Middle East by Christian intellectuals who taught in Church and European schools. Christians initiated the 1840 blood libel in Damascus by accusing Jews of murdering a Capucine monk and using his blood for ritual purposes. The local government under Mohammed Ali — Egypt’s ruler on behalf of the Turks — arrested several Jewish community leaders. When they were tortured, two of them confessed to a crime they had not committed. However, they were freed under pressure from the European powers.”


From Myth to “Historical Truth”

“This blood libel motif is now accepted in the Arab collective memory as historical truth. The Syrian Defense Minister Mustafa Tlass published a best-seller, The Matzah of Zion, in which he relates as fact that the Jews use blood for ritual purposes.2

“Arab anti-Semitism grew under the two-pronged influence of European ideas and Moslems’ feelings of being ever more threatened by the Jews. Zionism was perceived as the spearhead of Western imperialism seeking to gain a foothold in the Middle East in order to dominate it. To challenge Zionism, Arabs used anti-Semitic literature to ‘elucidate’ the imaginary ‘conspiracy’ of the Jews and their disproportionate power. This literature ‘clarified’ how the Zionists managed to obtain the support of influential figures. Believing these legends made it easier for Moslems to explain the Jews’ diplomatic successes including the Balfour declaration.

“Within this framework of hatred, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion was first translated into Arabic in 1920. In 1925 it appeared in Arabic translation in Palestine, and in 1927 the book was released in Egypt.3 This falsified text purported to explain Zionism’s scientific and historical background. It fulfilled the need of bewildered Arabs confronted with a modern world in which they were unable to compete. In a state of confusion, conspiracy theories are accepted easily, also outside the Middle East.”


Religious Elements in the Conflict

“Already in the 1920s religious elements had been brought into the conflict. Haj Amin Al-Husayni, Mufti of Jerusalem, used powerful Islamic symbols and motifs to mobilize the Arab masses for the national struggle against Zionism. He spoke frequently of the Jewish danger to Jerusalem. Husayni also asserted that the Jews wanted to usurp the Cave of Machpela, which they could enter only as far as its first seven steps. He used Jewish requests and demands in 1927 to be allowed to pray inside to launch a campaign against the alleged Jewish plan to take it over.

“In 1929 Arab riots broke out, triggered by the shofar being blown at the Western wall. This had been forbidden under Moslem rule. The rioters accused the Jews of wanting to destroy the Al-Aksa mosque to build their Temple in its place. This Arab nationalistic instrumentalization of Islam reappeared often thereafter.

“In an effort to mobilize wider support for the Palestinian struggle, Husayni organized an international Islamic congress in Jerusalem in 1931. For Moslems from India or other countries, the confrontation was not with the Jewish people, but rather with the Zionist immigration, which was perceived as a threat to the Islamic people.

“The Moslem Brotherhood, founded by Hasan Al Bana, which emerged around the 1930s, also adopted anti-Semitic motifs such as the idea that Jews are always dangerous traitors. Several anti-Jewish themes from the beginning of Islam were revived as well. Al Bana mobilized support for the Palestinians in Egypt using the terminology ‘to defend our Moslem brothers,’ i.e., to protect an Islamic land from an alien Zionist invasion.”


Anti-Semitism’s 1948 Peak

“The anti-Semitic attacks got stronger in the 1940s. Israel’s War of Independence in 1948 brought these to a peak. In that year rioters, considering all heretics identical, attacked Cairo’s Christians. The same happened in Damascus.

“In 1941 during a nationalist anti-British and pro-German coup d’?tat that installed Rashid Ali as prime minister, there had already been a ‘Farhud’ (a pogrom) in Baghdad in which approximately 120 Jews were killed. The riots started when the British approached the city to suppress the uprising. Their army waited three days. This purposeful hiatus allowed the local population to brutalize the Jews without interference.”

“Iraqi nationalism has always been xenophobic and has suppressed minorities such as the Kurds and the Assyrian Christians. In 1933 between 600 and 700 of the latter were slaughtered. This violently intolerant Iraqi nationalism later also turned against the Jews. The Palestine conflict already in the 1930s had become an internal political issue. Iraqi nationalists increasingly identified local Jews as Zionists, even though until the 1940s the overwhelming majority were not so at all. The 1941 pogrom turned them into Zionists.”

Litvak observes that in recent times Saddam Hussein’s massive slaughter of Shi’ites provides a further example of brutal Iraqi nationalism.


The Shoah

He adds: “In various Arab circles in the 1930s, sympathy for Germany developed. In Egypt this was relatively minor while in Palestine, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq it became more prominent. The Germans were the enemies of the British and the French and thus many Arabs considered ‘the enemy of my enemy’ as their friends. Secondly, there was admiration for Hitler, the strong leader, who had pulled his country from the depths to turn it into a great power. Esteem for Hitler was particularly strong among the young and the educated. Arab lack of sympathy for the Jews was a marginal factor in this process. With the exception of the pogrom in Baghdad there were no riots against the Jews in the Arab world during the Second World War.

“After the war’s end the Jewish issue became much more visible when the question arose of the Shoah survivors’ fate. The Arab world strongly opposed their absorption into Palestine. Some Arab circles, e.g., the leading Egyptian newspaper al-Ahram,4 admitted that there had been a Holocaust, but claimed that the surviving Jews should be transferred to the United States or Great Britain. Others, like the Jaffa newspaper Filastin, argued that the Jews had not suffered extraordinarily and should stop complaining.”5


The War of Independence

“The Arabs’ ultimate trauma came with their defeat in Israel’s 1948 War of Independence, which turned half of the Arab population living in Palestine into refugees. They named this ‘the Naqba,’ similar to the Holocaust. In their view the United Nations’ partition decision of November 1947 lacked moral validity as they believed it did not have the authority to give away Arab land. The Arabs claimed they were not the aggressors, but that they were defending their land against a Zionist invasion. Their view differs considerably from the way a historian would analyze the facts.

“The Arabs indeed suffered a tragedy, for which they bore a substantial responsibility. Historians consider it normal that national movements must pay a price for their mistakes. For example, Germans living in Kaliningrad, formerly Konigsberg, did not all participate in Hitler’s crimes. As Germans, however, they share in the historic responsibility for their country’s actions. Many nations have paid for their deeds and no national movement can shirk responsibility for these. Had the Palestinians adopted a different policy since the 1920s, their fate today would have been much better.”


Western Condescendence

“Those Westerners who absolve the Palestinians from the historical responsibility for their destiny express both condescendence and racism. They see the Arabs as small children, and if these break glasses, they cannot be held accountable for their actions. Many defenders of the Arabs arrogantly consider that Palestinians lack the maturity to pay the price for their deeds.

“From the Arab perspective, the defeat by Israel was the peak of a process of 150-200 years of humiliation at the hands of the West. In this historic event all of their failures came together. How could it be that 600,000 Jews had conquered an Islamic land, had driven out many of its inhabitants and had been victorious against the armies of seven Arab states? That was unthinkable, as well as clearly going against all laws of history and nature. The more so, as according to Islamic tradition, the Jews had been condemned to humiliation and subordination.

“The Arabs then set about wiping away the terrible defeat. This greatly increased their enmity toward Israelis and Jews. A small example: from 1945-1948 the Egyptian press and intellectuals accepted the Holocaust as a historic event, and occasionally one even finds expressions of empathy. But history changed in 1948 as Egyptian hatred of the Zionists developed into denial of the Holocaust. For them it was unthinkable that three years earlier the Jews who had been almost completely exterminated in Europe, had gone on to defeat the Arabs.

“The Arabs now further developed anti-Semitic myths. One of these was that the Jews are an incredible power and their worldwide conspiracy rules most nations and is the force behind the United States and Russia. It was easy for the Arabs to accept these anti-Semitic theses, as they accounted for the complex problematic reality of their cultural failure. This absolved the Arab world from painful introspection into its weaknesses.6

“This attitude explains the easy absorption of anti-Semitic ideas from the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and other European anti-Semitic literature. Themes such as the Jews lending with usury, destroying societies and using blood for ritual purposes started to appear frequently in the Arab world.”7


The Ideologization of the Conflict

“Yehoshafat Harkabi was the pioneering Israeli scholar who investigated the ideological depths of the Israeli-Arab confrontation. In Arab Attitudes to Israel — his doctoral thesis — he illustrated its ideologization.8 It was no longer a military conflict, but had become a profound national and cultural one. Harkabi demonstrated that Arab hatred toward Israel had developed already in the 1950s and 1960s and that anti-Semitic Western motifs permeated the Arab political and intellectual discourse. For many years his was a lone voice which was not taken seriously.

“Harkabi was aware that his conclusion that the conflict had no long-term solution could lead to despair. Because the public at large deals with depressing situations only through denial and suppression, they were inclined to think that things were not as bad as they seemed, preferring instead to believe that the Arab attitudes were those of marginal non-representative currents.

“Harkabi’s book dealt exclusively with the period before the 1967 war. While the war made the enmity stronger, it did not create it, as all the basic elements of hatred already were present. The Arabs suffered another defeat. The Al-Aksa mosque was also conquered which further enhanced the conflict’s religious themes. The Six Day war also favored the reemergence of Arab nationalist movements. The war’s defeat of the radical Arab states represented a blow to their pan-Arab ideology and created an ideological vacuum, which the Islamic movements quickly filled by Islamizing the conflict and promoting anti-Semitism.”


Khomeini and Qutb

“In the 1970s the official or semi-official anti-Semitism in the Arab media and in government-sponsored publications no longer stood alone. Alongside, there appeared another stream of anti-Semitism — that of the Islamic movements. Classical Islamic motifs were now frequently mentioned, such as the Jews betraying Mohammed and describing the Jews as enemies of Islam since its beginning. These widely disseminated anti-Semitic elements from the Koran were mixed with European ones such as those from the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. This ‘authentic’ anti-Semitism emerged directly from the people with religious patronage, and not as a result of government manipulation. It used symbols and motifs well-known to the Arab masses.

“Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran, for instance, who had no direct relationship with Israel, used very strong anti-Semitic expressions. Islam wished to create a moral God-fearing person while the Western world — materialistic, atheistic, individualistic and hedonistic — is destroying moral people, he said. It represents the absolute antithesis of Islamic culture, and is its most dangerous ideological enemy. The Jews are considered to be an integral part of the Western culture. These ideas had been set forth already in the 1950s by Sayyid Qutb, one of the leading Islamic thinkers in Egypt who was executed by Nasser’s regime in 1966.

“Khomeini thought that the Jews prevented Islam from expanding worldwide. An entire literature developed within both Sunni and Shi’ite movements around themes such as the link between the Jews and the West, as well as Israel and Zionism as a Western bridgehead in the Middle East, sowing seeds for the cultural destruction of the Moslem world in order to subjugate it to Western culture. However, Khomeini, did not act against the Iranian Jews, as they accepted their minority status under a Moslem government.”


The Yom Kippur War

“The Yom Kippur War of 1973 gave additional energy to the Islamic movement. Yet 1979, when Islamic rule took over Iran, was a much more important milestone. In the 1970s in Egypt the Islamic movement had already become an important force which threatened Sadat. In 1982 in Syria the Moslems revolted in Hama. Hafez Al-Assad then slaughtered 10-20,000 of them. The exact number is not known.

“In 1984 Islamic Jihad was founded. Its leader Fathi Shikaki had studied in Egypt where he developed his ideas. He established the organization among the Palestinians living under Israeli rule on the West Bank, after which Israel expelled him to Lebanon. Islamic Jihad’s first violent action was in 1985, when its members threw grenades at Israeli soldiers participating in an inauguration ceremony at the Western Wall. The organization proclaimed that the mere existence of Israel is a source of ‘poison,’ which destroys the Arab world and doesn’t permit the Moslems to solve their problems. As long as Israel exists, they said, the Arab world can’t recover culturally and politically and confront Western challenges. They believe that Israel occupies the holy Islamic land from where the prophet Mohammed went to heaven.

“In 1988 Hamas was founded as another expression of the struggle against Zionism. Its founding charter contains strong anti-Semitic motifs including a quotation from the Koran9 as well as extreme derogatory remarks taken literally from the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The charter of Hamas says this is an authentic document reflecting the danger of the Jewish people.

“In Hamas’ literature, anti-Semitism became almost dominant. Earlier anti-Semitic motifs are developed time and again in their magazine Falastin al-Muslama. Almost every issue contains anti-Jewish articles using elements from the Islamic tradition. Judaism is presented as a religion based on lies, which from its origin called for aggression against others and their exploitation.”


Anti-Semitism’s Integration in the Arab Cultural Discourse

“Western research on the Middle East tends to suppress or diminish the significance of Arab anti-Semitism, presenting it as a marginal phenomenon. Bernard Lewis was one of the few scholars of the Moslem world who dealt with this challenge in his book Semites and anti-Semites.10 This led to major criticism from the academic establishment in the United States despite the book’s resonance in American non-academic circles.

“Harkabi thought that Arab anti-Semitism was the result of the Palestinian conflict and that if a political solution for it could be found Arab anti-Semitism would weaken. Perhaps that was true 30 years ago. Today anti-Semitism has become an integral part of the intellectual and cultural discourse of the Arab world. Much of Arab society believes it and it is much harder to uproot than was the case 30 or 40 years ago.

“The Western public which reads articles with strong anti-Israel bias in the press can also peruse texts showing the Jews and Zionism in a positive light. This is not the case in the Arab world. What is presented about Israel and the Jews is totally biased and easy to digest. Why would they have any doubts when they are not exposed to anything else in the Arab media.”


Egyptian Intellectuals: Peace means Arab Failure

“Even for Egyptian intellectuals today, many years after the Peace Treaty, Israel’s existence represents an admission of the defeat of the Arab national vision. It is a confession that Egypt has failed to realize its historical destiny and greatness. For Arab regimes it is convenient to let the anti-Semitic propaganda flourish in order to divert the attention of Arab public opinion away from their own failures. A rulers’ covenant of convenience exists with the intellectuals who can vent all their frustration on the status of the Arabs against the Jews and Israel. That is much more agreeable to the Arab governments than focusing on the economic, cultural and social failure of the Arab world.

“Arafat hoped that public pressure would drive Arab leaders to interfere, maybe even by military means and force Israel to accept the Palestinian demands. He also wanted to create a situation where the foreign powers would interfere, but failed. Arab leaders, most notably Mubarak of Egypt, refused to go to war, but the Palestinians succeeded in enhancing the general Arab hatred against Israel. Whether they planned that in advance, I do not know.

Litvak concludes: “Israelis are the main victims of Arab anti-Semitism, which represents also a catastrophe for the Arabs. The Russian writer Andrei Siniavsky once said that ‘anti-Semitism is a disaster for the Jews, but it is the sickness of the Russians and their disaster as well.’ It prevented the Russians from confronting their own historical reality. Similarly, anti-Semitism absolves the Arab people from dealing with their own major failures. They are thus likely to remain in their pitiable situation.”

Interviewed by Manfred Gerstenfeld

*     *     *


1. Qur’an, Surat al-Ma’id (The Table).
2. “Al-Hayat Highlights Large Popularity of Syrian Defense Minister’s Blood Libel Book at Syrian International Book Fair,”, Special Dispatch Series, No. 432, 22 October 2002.
3. Y. Harkabi, Arab Attitudes to Israel (Jerusalem: Keter Publishing House, 1972), bibliographic appendix.
4. Al-Ahram, 24, 27 June, 19 September 1945.
5. 23 May 1945.
6. Harkabi’s book provides numerous examples of this tendency.
7. Bernard Lewis, Semites and Anti-Semites: An Inquiry into Conflict and Prejudice (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1986), pp. 210ff.
8. Y. Harkabi, op. cit.
9. Qura’n Surat al-Ma’ida, passages 59-61.
10. Bernard Lewis, op. cit.

*     *     *

Dr. Meir Litvak was born in 1958 in Jerusalem. He received his doctorate from Harvard University in 1991. He is a senior researcher at the Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University and a senior lecturer in its Middle Eastern Studies Department. He has published Shi’i Scholars of Nineteenth Century Iraq: The ‘Ulama’ of Najaf and Karbala’ (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), and edited Islam and Democracy in the Arab World ( Tel Aviv: Ha-Kibutz ha-Meuchad, 1997) [Hebrew].

This interview, by Manfred Gerstenfeld, is based on Dr. Litvak’s lecture delivered at the JCPA’s second Herbert Berman Memorial Symposium, “New and Recurring Trends in Contemporary Anti-Semitism,” November, 2002.