Middle East Quarterly
Writing about what he calls "Muslim Anti-Semitism" [MEQ, June 1998], Professor Bernard Lewis engages, as too often, in selective scholarship. He approaches his subject in a total vacuum. Sporadic phenomena of so-called Arab or Muslim anti-Semitism is not related to any wrongdoing by Israel or its supporters, or to the universally acknowledged fact of Palestinian victimization by an ethnic and a religious group that has suffered greatly at the hands of Hitler and other European anti-Semites.
Professor Lewis's sweep of accusations is really too wide, perhaps on purpose in order to obfuscate. No one could deny the existence, though very limited, of verbal manifestation of anti-Semitism in the Muslim world. Such manifestations, however, should be unequivocally condemned. But how much of this is really anti-Semitism in the well-established sense of the word, and how much of it is an expansion of indignation and frustrations against an Israeli policy of occupation, ethnic cleansing (1948 and 1967), settlers' behavior, etc.? The list is really very long.
Professor Lewis could have asked himself if Palestinian, Arab, and Muslim reaction would have been different if the occupier was Great Britain, Russia, or America. The professor of Islamic studies has never told us how Jewish extremists in Israel or in the United States perceive the Palestinians, the Arabs, and Muslims. The favorite slogans of these extremists, as is well known are: "Death to the Arabs" and "The only good Arab is a dead Arab."
Allow me, Professor, to ask how you would describe the Jewish advocates of "transfer," which is a euphemism for ethnic cleansing. And Professor, which is really more nefarious: crude verbal expression of bias toward the enemy, or a consistent policy of annexations and total violation of human rights in the occupied territories?
I don't think there is enough space to respond to every piece of disinformation in Professor Lewis's piece. But I will refer to two examples he has given because they reflect on the cast of his scholarship. Professor Lewis is very proud of the fact that after the massacre of Shatilla and Sabra in Lebanon, there was an inquiry in Israel to determine Mr. Ariel Sharon's responsibility, something the professor is telling us, could not happen in any Arab country.
As we recall, the massacre -- it is true -- was carried out with extreme brutality by Lebanese Phalangists who were trained and reviewed by then general Sharon's troops before they were set loose to do their mayhem. Incidentally, Professor, in this unprovoked invasion of Lebanon, 20,000 hapless Lebanese and Palestinians were murdered by Israel.
Another example touted by Professor Lewis is the banning of Schindler's List in many Arab countries. Personally, I'm against the banning. But the banning of this film could also be viewed against the very effective censorship exercised by Jewish activists of any film or television documentary sympathetic to the plight of Palestinians. In the 1960s and 1970s, when I used to live in New York City, all Soviet-bloc artistic shows, including classical operas, were banned from the city. The Soviets were perceived as pro-Arab. Cultural boycott remains a constant feature among Jewish activists to this day. We have a saying in Arabic which roughly translated means: "If you have no sense of shame, then every thing is possible."
The Egypt you have vilified in this article is the same Egypt that had provided a sanctuary to Sephardic Jews escaping the Inquisition and Jewish settlers in Palestine sharing German and Turkish persecution during 1914, World War I, etc. The Egyptian-Jewish community was part of the socio-economic elite, well-respected and highly trusted until Zionists started to foment disloyalty to Egypt among its members. The rest is well known.
Finally, Islam need not be apologetic about how it has treated its Jews. I thought you knew.
Press and Information Bureau
Embassy of the Arab Republic of Egypt, Washington
Bernard Lewis replies:
Mr. El-Abyad's reply to my discussion of the new anti-Semitic campaign in some Muslim countries makes essentially three points: (1) It didn't happen; (2) it was justified; (3) the Jews themselves are as bad or worse.
Mr. El-Abyad concedes the existence of manifestations of anti-Semitism in the Muslim world, but dismisses them as "very limited" and "verbal." My article drew on an extensive range of newspapers and magazines in several countries, and relied exclusively, not on verbal, but on written and printed sources, none of which he has questioned.
Mr. El-Abyad complains that I did not discuss the various Israeli policies and actions which provoked Arab hostility. Indeed I did not discuss them, for precisely the same reason that I did not discuss the innumerable Arabic books, articles, and other statements condemning these policies and actions. Israel is a state, Zionism an ideology, and it is perfectly legitimate to criticize the actions of the one and the doctrines of the other, without incurring any charge of prejudice or bigotry. My article is not concerned with such criticisms, but with something else -- the appearance of racist anti-Semitism of the European type, attacking not just Israel and Zionism, but Jews in general, and using anti-Semitic themes such as Holocaust denial, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and the plot to rule the world, and the innate, genetic, and eternal evil of the Jews. If Mr. El-Abyad really believes in the carcinogenic cucumbers, the fake Holocaust, the genuine Protocols and the rest, then his attempt to justify the anti-Semitic campaign that I described becomes, if not acceptable, then at least intelligible. If he does not, it is neither.
Mr. El-Abyad invites comparison with other occupations and conflicts. There have indeed been many, in Eastern Europe, in South Asia, in Africa, resulting in massacre and displacement on a vastly greater scale than in the Middle East. None of them, as far as I am aware, has produced this kind of vicious racist campaign.
Mr. El-Abyad's third argument, that the Jews are as bad or worse, relies on undocumented statements attributed to unnamed "extremists." There are certainly Jews in both Israel and the U.S. who harbor and give vent to such racist prejudices. But to compare the slogans of an extremist fringe with a campaign in which mainstream editors, authors, officials and academic and religious dignitaries participate is, surely, somewhat misleading. The same may be said of Mr. El-Abyad's comparison of boycotts by one or another private group with the formal banning of a film by governments.
Mr. El-Abyad must surely be aware that there is now, in Israel, a school of writers, known as the "new historians," who have made a great effort to present, to Israelis, the Palestinian point of view of the events of 1948-1949 and later. An episode in a nationally-produced television series, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the State of Israel, did the same. These are criticized by many, in Israel and elsewhere, as excessively sympathetic to the Palestinian point of view -- but they are published and broadcast. One of the sadder aspects of this whole problem is that so far one has looked in vain for any objective -- let alone sympathetic -- presentation in Arabic of a Jewish point of view on any of these matters. As the case of Schindler's List demonstrates, even compassion for Jews is banned.
In concluding my article I quoted some new voices from the Arab side, pleading for mutual tolerance and understanding. I can only regret that Mr. EL-Abyad did not choose to add his voice to theirs.
It would be pointless to discuss a number of other basically irrelevant matters that Mr. El-Abyad raises, such as the movements of refugees into -- and one might add out of -- Egypt, the treatment of dhimmis, etc. I would however like to correct two errors of fact. According to Mr. El-Abyad, I was "very proud" of the Israeli inquiry into Sabra and Shatila, and I claimed that this "could not happen in any Arab country." I said nothing of the kind, merely that "no such inquiry was held in any Arab country" -- by no means the same thing. I was of course referring specifically to the two Arab countries immediately affected, Syria and Lebanon. I found, and still find it remarkable that neither of them held any public inquiry into a matter of such direct concern to them. And there is nothing in this wretched affair to cause pride to me or indeed to anyone else.
The other inaccuracy which I would like to correct is minor and personal. I am not and have never been a "Professor of Islamic Studies," nor would I regard the use of such a title by a non-Muslim as appropriate.
Mr. El-Abyad is, of course, entitled to his opinion of my scholarship, as I am entitled to my opinion of his diplomacy, but no useful purpose would be served by our exchanging views in this context. I should, however, like to thank him for the courtesy and moderation of his language, compared with most of the texts which I studied for my article.
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