‘Ignorance’ feeds anti-Semitism in the Arab world

How to deal with the problem was the challenge posed at a conference in Jerusalem.

A cartoon depicting the German entry into Nabeul, Tunisia, in 1942. Image by Rafael Ozen via Yad Ben-Zvi Institute

JERUSALEM (RNS) — Experts on world anti-Semitism have long known that Arabic-language media outlets and social media are full of anti-Semitic cartoons, articles and opinion columns that portray Jews and Israelis as evil monsters.

But knowing about the problem isn’t the same as addressing it.

How to deal with the problem was the challenge posed to panelists at the sixth Global Forum for Combating Antisemitism, in a session titled “Antisemitism in Arabic-Language Mass Media: New Strategies for the Advancement of Inter-Semitic Understanding.” The conference, organized by the Israeli government, was held in Jerusalem last week.

According to a 2017 report from the Anti-Defamation League, President Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital exacerbated the anti-Semitism that has existed in many Arab countries for decades.

In some instances, cartoons used “dehumanizing animal imagery, for example presenting Israel as a dog or a worm devouring the Dome of the Rock,” the report says. Another cartoon, in the Qatari press, presented Israel as a blue octopus, with a hooked nose, yarmulke and pointed teeth, wrapping its arms around the Al-Aqsa Mosque.

Ari Bell, Middle Eastern affairs analyst for the Anti-Defamation League, said that although the Quran contains some anti-Semitic references, it is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that is fueling most of the anti-Semitism in today’s Middle East.

“Arabs view everything through that prism. Once they gain a greater understanding of what anti-Semitism is, it will be easier to converse” about it, Bell said.

Haim Saadoun, director of the Center for Information, Documentation and Research on North-African Jewry during WWII at the Yad Ben-Zvi Institute, noted that younger Arabs “have no idea the Holocaust also occurred in Muslim countries in North Africa.”

The center’s Arabic-language website seeks to educate Arabs and others about the Jewish communities in Algeria, Morocco, Libya and Tunisia. The vast majority of Jews in Arab countries fled government-backed persecution in the 1940s-1960s.

“There are hundreds of web pages of Holocaust denial” in the Arab world “but almost nothing in Arabic that combats this denial,” Saadoun said. “We’re teaching Arabs about their own history.”

Arabic speakers from dozens of countries are logging on to the website.

When the administrators asked readers whether they could help identify the details of a photo showing a Jewish man wearing a yellow star, it received hundreds of photos of the location in Tunisia as it appears today.

“We also received a film from a young man in Sfax (Tunisia) showing many Jews going out into the streets when the city was liberated by Allied soldiers on April 10, 1943. For the Muslim viewer, it shows the common fate of Jews and Muslims in Muslim countries,” said Tamar Fuks, Saadoun’s colleague at the center.

Fuks said that for many Arabs, the Holocaust “is subordinated to the Israeli-Palestinian dynamic. They believe that if they learn about the Holocaust they are somehow supporting Israel.”

Abdullah Swalha, director of the Center for Israel Studies in Amman, Jordan, said he never learned about the Holocaust as a student.

“We have to bring this discussion out into the open. We need to know the difference between anti-Semitism and criticizing Israel’s government.”

Swalha said foreign governments that support Arab nongovernmental organizations, including the United States, should make funding conditional on a pledge to steer clear of anti-Semitic statements and publications.

He emphasized that “some people are just ignorant, and that is why education is so important.”

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