Over the past week, Israel has been criticized for being insufficiently supportive of democratic change in Egypt. While Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has been careful to praise the cause of democracy while warning against the dangers of an Islamic takeover of the most populous Arab state, many Israelis have not been so diplomatic.
To understand why, it is necessary to take a little tour of the Arab world.
In the midst of Tunisia’s revolution last month, the Jewish Agency mobilized to evacuate any members of the country’s Jewish community who wished to leave. Until the end of French colonial rule in 1956, Tunisia’s Jewish community numbered 100,000 members. But like for all Jewish communities in the Arab world, the advent of Arab nationalism in the mid-20th century forced the overwhelming majority of Tunisia’s Jews to leave the country. Today, with between 1,500 and 3,000 members, Tunisia’s tiny Jewish community is among the largest in the Arab world.
So far, six families have left for Israel. Many more may follow. Two weeks ago, Daniel Cohen from Tunis’s Jewish community told Haaretz, “If the situation continues as it is now, we will definitely have to leave or immigrate to Israel.”
Since then, Rached Ghannouchi, the leader of Tunisia’s Islamist party Ennahda, has returned to Tunisia after 22 years living in exile in London. He was sentenced to life in prison in absentia on terrorism charges by the regime of ousted president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
Then on Monday night, unidentified assailants set fire to a synagogue in the town of Ghabes and burned the Torah scrolls. In an interview with AFP, Trabelsi Perez, president of the Ghriba synagogue, said the crime was made all the more shocking by the fact that it occurred as police were stationed close by.
The day after the attack, Roger Bismuth, president of Tunisia’s Jewish community, disputed the view that the scorching of Torah scrolls had anything to do with anti-Semitism. The man responsible for representing Tunisia’s Jewish community before the evolving new regime told The Jerusalem Post that the attack was the fault of the Jews themselves, “because they left [the synagogue] open... This is not an attack on the Jewish community.”
The fear now gripping the Jews of Tunisia is not surprising. The same fear gripped the much smaller Iraqi Jewish community after the US and Britain toppled Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003. The Iraqi community was the oldest, and arguably the most successful, Jewish community in the Arab world until World War II. Its 150,000 members were leading businessmen and civil servants during the period of British rule.
Following the establishment of Israel, the Iraqi government revoked the citizenship of the country’s Jews, forced them to flee and stole their property down to their wedding rings. The expropriated property of Iraqi Jewry is valued today at more than $4 billion.
Only 7,000 Jews remained in Iraq after the mass aliya of 1951. By the time Saddam was toppled in 2003, only 32 Jews remained. They were mainly elderly, and impoverished. And owing to al-Qaida threats and government harassment, they were all forced to flee.
Shortly after they overthrew Saddam, US forces found the archives of the Jewish community submerged in a flooded basement of a secret police building in Baghdad. The archive was dried and frozen and sent to the US for preservation. Last year, despite the fact that Saddam’s secret police only had the archive because they stole it from the Jews, the Iraqi government demanded its return as a national treasure.
As embattled Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak began his counteroffensive against the anti-regime protesters, his mouthpieces began alleging that the protesters were incited by the Mossad.
For their part, the anti-regime protesters claim that Mubarak is an Israeli puppet. The protesters brandish placards with Mubarak’s image plastered with Stars of David. A photo of an effigy of newly appointed vice president, and intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman burned in Tahrir Square showed him portrayed as a Jew.
On Wednesday night, Channel 10’s Arab affairs commentator Zvi Yehezkeli ran a depressing report on the status of the graves of Jewish sages buried in the Muslim world. The report chronicled the travels of Rabbi Yisrael Gabbai, an ultra-Orthodox rabbi who has taken upon himself to travel to save these important shrines. As Yehezkeli reported, last week Gabbai traveled to Iran and visited the graves of Purim heroes Queen Esther and Mordechai the Jew, and the prophets Daniel and Habbakuk.
He was moved to travel to Iran after Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad ordered Esther and Mordechai’s tomb destroyed. The Iranian media followed up Ahmadinejad’s edict with a campaign claiming that Esther and Mordechai were responsible for the murder of 170,000 Iranians.
Gabbai’s travels have brought him to Iran, Gaza, Yemen, Syria, Lebanon and beyond. And throughout the Arab and Muslim world, like the dwindling Jewish communities, Jewish cemeteries are targets for anti-Semitic attacks. “We’re talking about thousands of cemeteries throughout the Arab world. It’s the same problem everywhere,” he said.
Israelis have been overwhelmingly outspoken in our criticism of Western support for the antiregime forces in Egypt due to our deep-seated concern that the current regime will be replaced by one dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood. Representing a minimum of 30 percent of Egyptians, the Muslim Brotherhood is the only well organized political force in the country outside the regime.
The Muslim Brothers’ organizational prowess and willingness to use violence to achieve their aims was likely demonstrated within hours of the start of the unrest. Shortly after the demonstrations began, operatives from the Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood branch in Gaza – that is Hamas – knew to cross the border into Sinai. And last Thursday, a police station in Suez was attacked with rocket-propelled grenades and firebombs.
Hamas has a long history of operations in Sinai.
It also has close ties with Beduin gangs in the area that were reportedly involved in attacking another police station in northern Sinai.
Western – and particularly American – willingness to pretend that the Muslim Brotherhood is anything other than a totalitarian movement has been greeted by disbelief and astonishment by Israelis from across the political spectrum.
It is the likelihood that the Muslim Brotherhood will rise to power, not an aversion to Arab democracy, that has caused Israel to fear the popular revolt against Mubarak’s regime. If the Muslim Brotherhood were not a factor in Egypt, then Israel would probably have simply been indifferent to events there, as it has been to the development of democracy in Iraq and to the popular revolt in Tunisia.
Israel's indifference to democratization of the Arab world has been a cause of consternation for some of its traditional supporters in conservative circles in the US and Europe. Israelis are accused of provincialism. As citizens of the only democracy in the Middle East, we are admonished for not supporting democracy among our neighbors.
The fact is that Israeli indifference to democratic currents in Arab societies is not due to provincialism.
Israelis are indifferent because we realize that whether under authoritarian rule or democracy, anti-Semitism is the unifying sentiment of the Arab world. Fractured along socioeconomic, tribal, religious, political, ethnic and other lines, the glue that binds Arab societies is hatred of Jews.
A Pew Research Center opinion survey of Arab attitudes towards Jews from June 2009 makes this clear. Ninety-five percent of Egyptians, 97% of Jordanians and Palestinians and 98% of Lebanese expressed unfavorable opinions of Jews. Threequarters of Turks, Pakistanis and Indonesians also expressed hostile views of Jews.
Throughout the Arab and Muslim world, genocidal anti-Semitic propaganda is all-pervasive. And as Prof. Robert Wistrich has written, “The ubiquity of the hate and prejudice exemplified by this hard-core anti-Semitism undoubtedly exceeds the demonization of earlier historical periods – whether the Christian Middle Ages, the Spanish Inquisition, the Dreyfus Affair in France, or the Judeophobia of Tsarist Russia. The only comparable example would be that of Nazi Germany in which we can also speak of an ‘eliminationist anti- Semitism’ of genocidal dimensions, which ultimately culminated in the Holocaust.”
That is why for most Israelis, the issue of how Arabs are governed is as irrelevant as the results of the 1852 US presidential elections were for American blacks. Since both parties excluded them, they were indifferent to who was in power.
What these numbers, and the anti-Semitic behavior of Arabs, show Israelis is that it makes no difference which regime rules where. As long as the Arab peoples hate Jews, there will be no peace between their countries and Israel. No one will be better for Israel than Mubarak. They can only be the same or worse.
This is why no one expected for the democratically elected Iraqi government to sign a peace treaty with Israel or even end Iraq’s official state of war with the Jewish state. Indeed, Iraq remains in an official state of war with Israel. And after independent lawmaker Mithal al-Alusi visited Israel in 2008, two of his sons were murdered. Alusi’s life remains under constant threat.
One of the more troubling aspects of the Western media coverage of the tumult in Egypt over the past two weeks has been the media’s move to airbrush out all evidence of the protesters’ anti- Semitism.
As John Rosenthal pointed out this week at The Weekly Standard, Germany’s Die Welt ran a frontpage photo that featured a poster of Mubarak with a Star of David across his forehead in the background. The photo caption made no mention of the anti-Semitic image. And its online edition did not run the picture.
And as author Bruce Bawer noted at the Pajamas Media website, Jeanne Moos of CNN scanned the protesters’ signs, noting how authentic and heartwarming their misspelled English messages were, yet failed to mention that one of the signs she showed portrayed Mubarak as a Jew.
Given the Western media’s obsessive coverage of the Arab-Israel conflict, at first blush it seems odd that they would ignore the prevalence of anti-Semitism among the presumably prodemocracy protesters. But on second thought, it isn’t that surprising.
If the media reported on the overwhelming Jew hatred in the Arab world generally and in Egypt specifically, it would ruin the narrative of the Arab conflict with Israel. That narrative explains the roots of the conflict as frustrated Arab-Palestinian nationalism. It steadfastly denies any more deeply seated antipathy of Jews that is projected onto the Jewish state. The fact that the one Jewish state stands alone against 23 Arab states and 57 Muslim states whose populations are united in their hatred of Jews necessarily requires a revision of the narrative. And so their hatred is ignored.
But Israelis don’t need CNN to tell us how our neighbors feel about us. We know already. And because we know, while we wish them the best of luck with their democracy movements, and would welcome the advent of a tolerant society in Egypt, we recognize that that tolerance will end when it comes to the Jews. And so whether they are democrats or autocrats, we fully expect they will continue to hate us.