Will Egypt Be Too Busy to Hate?

It is naive to think that Egyptians - or, as polls indicate, the Arab world writ large - will ever accept the presence of a Jewish state in their midst.

James Kirchick
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James Kirchick

CAIRO - "Give us weapons and we'll kill all the Jews."

So chanted several hundred people outside the Israeli Embassy in Cairo last Friday. The proximate cause of the protest was the conflagration in Sinai, following the terror raid near Eilat. But no specific incident is ever needed to stir the Egyptian masses to express hatred for their Jewish neighbors. The intense and academic debate in the West about where legitimate criticism of Israel ends and anti-Semitism begins doesn't resonate in Egypt, or anywhere in the Arab world. A poll conducted last year by the Brookings Institution, for instance, found that just 3 percent of Arabs feel empathy for Jewish victims of the Holocaust. Though various Egyptians I interviewed at last week's protest fitfully tried to distinguish between "Jews" and "Zionists" in their denunciations of Israeli perfidy, their subtlety got lost amid the Hamas T-shirts and open calls for genocide.

Anti-Israeli protesters in front of the Israeli embassy in Cairo this week.Credit: Reuters

Egyptians had their choice of whom to shake their fist at last Friday. In addition to the scene of the mob chanting "All the Israeli blood isn't worth the boot of one Egyptian soldier," another demonstration coalesced outside the U.S. Embassy, calling for the release of Omar Abdel Rahman, the "blind sheikh" sitting in a federal prison for his role in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Consisting of bearded men and niqab-clad women, these protesters were noticeably more peaceful, in both their composure and their demands ("He's just a blind man," a 31-year-old member of al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya, a once-banned Islamist organization, pleaded with me ), than the group outside the Israeli Embassy, which featured fashionably dressed youth and, of course, the odd Westerner (no anti-Israel protest in the Arab world is complete without the requisite French, Italian or Swede in a kaffiyeh ). Americans concerned about their country's low popularity on the proverbial "Arab street" can rest assured that it continues to hate Israel far, far more.

It would be a mistake to think that the views expressed at last week's protest are separate from the Egyptian mainstream. Anti-Semitism is the common political language in Egypt. It is the one thing on which all the major political factions can agree - from secular "liberals" to Islamists. While they'll say the most awful things about each other behind closed doors, the one group these two will happily slander in public are Jews or Israelis. For instance, two months ago, at a conference in Budapest sponsored by the Tom Lantos Institute and the Center for Democratic Transition, the vice chairman of Egypt's legendary (and ostensibly "liberal" ) Wafd party declared that "the Holocaust is a lie" and that Anne Frank's diary is a forgery. "Gas chambers and skinning them alive and all this?" he asked rhetorically. "Fanciful stories."

A remark like this in a Western democracy would result in the end of one's political career, if not a jail sentence. But "anti-Semitism remains the glue holding Egypt's disparate political forces together," according to the young Egyptian writers Amr Bargisi and Samuel Tadros, whose prescient article two years ago, "Why are Egypt's 'Liberals' Anti-Semitic?," caused a stir back home. In his new book, "The Wave: Man, God, and the Ballot Box in the Middle East," Reuel Marc Gerecht observes that "Dinner parties with the conspiracy-afflicted Egyptian, Saudi and Jordanian secularized elites, for example, can make Noam Chomsky look nice, introspective and analytically even-handed." Last week, after I stepped out of the office of a prominent liberal political figure, he asked my translator if I was a Jew.

"All the candidates are trying to outdo each other in anti-Israel rhetoric," a 23-year-old Egyptian Christian, who is extremely worried about the future of his country, told me.

Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a former member of the Muslim Brotherhood now running for president, called upon Egypt's military government to expel the Israeli ambassador last Friday, when Israel mistakenly killed five Egyptian soldiers after last week's firefight. "Gone forever are the days when Israel will kill our children while we do not respond," former Arab League head Amr Moussa, another presidential contender, declared on Twitter.

The hatred that the vast majority of Egyptians feel toward Israel aside, it is highly unlikely that the "new" Egypt will renounce the 1979 Camp David peace treaty or fundamentally alter its relationship toward Israel. This might seem paradoxical, given that the Egyptian people, who have been excluded from the country's political life and whose loathing for Israel was therefore never allowed to manifest itself in Egyptian foreign policy, are slowly taking the helm of government. But the institutional architecture that exists around the preservation of the Camp David treaty - $2 billion a year to the Egyptian military, stability in the Sinai and the Suez Canal, tourism - precludes any dramatic change in Egyptian-Israeli relations, at least for the foreseeable future.

"Cancel for what? Are we ready to go to war with Israel? The answer definitely is no," a prominent Egyptian political analyst told me last week in Cairo (of course, I could not introduce myself to any Egyptian as a contributor to an Israeli newspaper - even Haaretz - and thus, cannot quote any Egyptian in this article by name ).

Egyptian national security, this analyst says, is also adversely affected by the smuggling of weapons and militants out of Gaza, and by emboldened Islamist elements in the Sinai Peninsula. "We can differ from [Hosni] Mubarak concerning some stories like the gas agreement, relations with Saudi Arabia, and corruption in the previous regime," he told me. "But national security? We cannot differ from Mubarak."

Hatred of Israel, he notes, is predicated partly upon "the story of occupation, the story of aggression," but was also encouraged by the Mubarak-era state media and educational institutions. "If you are an Egyptian and read the textbooks under Mubarak's regime, you must hate Israel," he says, adding that a democratic Egypt - one in which secular elements win more influence than Islamist ones - may become less antagonistic to Israel, as they will be able to change the "many, many false stories in our history textbooks."

This was an admirable acknowledgment, all too rare, of one of the most serious problems to bedevil Arab society. But confronting it is a tall order, particularly in a country where people widely believe that they defeated Israel in the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

After talking to a cross section of people in Egypt, I have come to the conclusion that it is naive to think that Egyptians or, as polls indicate, the Arab world writ large will ever accept the presence of a Jewish state in their midst. Gestures like the much-heralded Arab Peace Initiative are offered by unelected dictatorships; in no way do they express the actual will of the people. It's unclear if even the majority of Palestinians support a two-state solution, despite the official negotiating position of the corrupt and sclerotic Palestinian Authority. Most of those Arabs who say they support a two-state solution do so only because that is the stance of the PA; were the Palestinians to one day renounce their recognition of Israel (a recognition that does not extend to the state's Jewish identity ), then those Arabs who follow the lead of the Palestinian leadership would respond in kind. Arabs are willing to tolerate Israel, but my fear is that's the most that can ever be expected. It is with this reality in mind that Benjamin Netanyahu has been so insistent on Palestinians recognizing not only Israel's right to exist, but its right to exist as a Jewish state.

All this means that attempts by American administrations and leftist Israelis to alter Arab attitudes by hastily arranging a two-state solution, thereby falling into the trap of "linking" the Palestinian issue to a variety of regional and global problems, are a waste of time. To be sure, the Palestinians deserve justice and a state for their own sake, but the impulse to do right by them should not be animated by a desire to achieve the chimera of Arab approval. Attempts to please the "Arab street" - which will work itself into a froth of rage over Israelis mistakenly killing five Egyptian soldiers, but seems complacent at Bashar Assad killing thousands of his own people - are as fruitless as they are dangerous.

Egypt has massive domestic problems on its hands, and one would think that a wrecked economy, rising Islamism, and increasing lawlessness as the result of a gutted police force would convince most Egyptians to turn inward rather than rattle for confrontation with the Zionist entity. But massive social and political dysfunctions are nothing new in the Arab world. Indeed, they are endemic. And far from convincing elites of the need to focus on self-improvement, the backwardness of Arab societies has made the appeal of anti-Americanism and anti-Zionism - blame-shifting in general - all the more appealing. The hope for Egypt, however, and what may make this moment an exception in its own history and in that of the Arab region as a whole, is that its newfound open political culture will make room for responsible voices to combat the cancer of anti-Semitism. In the 1960s, the municipality of Atlanta, Georgia, proclaimed that it was "the city too busy to hate." The most that Israelis can probably hope for is that the same will be true of Egypt.

James Kirchick is writer at large with .Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and- a contributing editor of The New Republic.