The prime minister of Malaysia, Mahathir Mohamad, informed the world this month, among other things, that "Jews rule this world by proxy. They get others to fight and die for them." Condoleezza Rice, the U.S. national security adviser, described Mahathir's comments as "hateful, they are outrageous."
But she then added, "I don't think they are emblematic of the Muslim world." If only she were right about that.
In fact, Mahathir's views are precisely emblematic of current Muslim discourse about Jews - symbolized by the standing ovation his speech received from an all-Muslim audience of leaders representing 57 states. Then, a Saudi newspaper reports, when Western leaders criticized Mahathir, "Muslim leaders closed ranks" around him with words of praise ("very correct," "a very, very wise assessment").
Although anti-Jewish sentiments among Muslims go back centuries, today's hostility results from two main developments: Jewish success in modern times and the establishment of Israel. Until about 1970, however, Muslim resentment remained relatively quiet.
But in the 1970s, political radicalization combined with an oil boom gave states like Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Libya the will and the means to sponsor anti-Jewish ideas worldwide. With barely a Muslim voice to counter ever-more-outlandish theories, these multiplied and deepened. For the first time, the Muslim world became the main locus of anti-Jewish theories.
By now, notes Morton Klein of the Zionist Organization of America, "Hatred of Jews is widespread throughout the Muslim world. It is taught in the schools and preached in the mosques. Cartoons in Muslim newspapers routinely portray Jews in blatantly anti-Semitic terms."
Indeed, Mahathir is hardly the only Muslim ruler to make anti-Jewish statements. President Bashar al-Assad of Syria said in 2001 that Israelis try "to kill the principles of all religions with the same mentality in which they betrayed Jesus Christ." The Iranian ayatollahs and Saudi princes have a rich history of anti-Jewish venom, as of course do Egyptian television and Palestinian textbooks.
Of the myriad examples, one stands out for me: a June 2002 interview on Saudi TV with a 3-year-old girl named Basmallah, made available by the Middle East Media and Research Institute:
Anchor: Basmallah, are you familiar with the Jews?
Anchor: Do you like them?
Anchor: Why don't you like them?
Basmallah: Because . . .
Anchor: Because they are what?
Basmallah: They're apes and pigs.
Anchor: Because they are apes and pigs. Who said they are so?
Basmallah: Our God.
Anchor: Where did he say this?
Basmallah: In the Koran.
The little girl is wrong about the Koran, but her words show that, contrary to Rice's analysis, Muslim anti-Semitism extends even to the youngest children. That Mahathir himself is no Islamist but (in the words of New York Times columnist Paul Krugman) "about as forward-looking a Muslim leader as we're likely to find" also points to the pervasiveness of anti-Jewish bias.
In its attitudes toward Jews, the Muslim world today resembles Germany of the 1930s - a time when state-sponsored insults, caricatures, conspiracy theories and sporadic violence prepared Germans for the mass murder that followed.
The same might be happening today. Wild accusatory comments like Mahathir's have become banal. Against Israelis, violence has already reached a rate approaching one death per day over the past three years. Outside Israel, violence against Jews is also persistent: a Jewish building blown up in Argentina, Daniel Pearl's murder in Pakistan, stabbings in France, the Brooklyn Bridge and LAX killings in the United States.
These episodes, plus calling Jews "apes and pigs," could serve as the psychological preparation that one day leads to assaulting Israel with weapons of mass destruction. Armaments chemical, biological and nuclear would be the successors of Auschwitz, Buchenwald and Dachau. Millions of Jews would perish in another Holocaust.
As in the 1930s, the world at large - including the U.S. government - again seems not to note the deadliness of processes now underway. Anti-Jewish rhetoric and violence are decried, to be sure, but with little sense of urgency and even less of their cumulative impact.
Condoleezza Rice and other top-ranking officials need to recognize the power and reach of the anti-Jewish ideology inculcated among Muslims, then develop active ways to fight it. This evil has already taken innocent lives; unless combated it could take many more.