An Israeli Encounter With anti-Semitism in the Muslim World

In discussing Israel, most of the Muslims I spoke with referred to the conflict with the Palestinians or to conspiracy theories, the most common of which was the link between Israel and Islamic State.

Activists shout slogans against Israel while burning a makeshift Israeli flag in protest against a possible visit by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Egypt, in front of the Syndicate of Journalists in Cairo, Egypt May 26, 2016.
Amr Abdallah Dalsh / Reuters

“Israel created ISIS,” says an Iraqi citizen named Assad. “ISIS is not connected to Islam and not to Iraqi culture either. It is clear that it is a foreign invention, and the fact is that most of their soldiers are foreigners. So it must be a creation of foreign bodies with interests in Iraq, for example oil. Israel is one of these. Why? Because they want chaos in the Middle East, which will divert the attention of Arab countries in order for them to stop aiding the Palestinians,” says Assad, a pseudonym.

Assad is a member of the middle class in Baghdad. He is from an educated family and does not belong to any extremist organization.

He does not know that the woman tourist sitting in front of him is Israeli. That’s also true for the other conversations I held with a wide range of people in Muslim countries, most of whom did not know of my Israeli background. They included an assortment of educated people, human rights activists, passersby and generous hosts. Some endangered their own lives to host an “American tourist” in a hostile region.

“In general, the Jews are the enemies of the Iraqis since Nebuchadnezzar banished them to [Iraq]. Because of him, they want revenge against us. So what if it happened 2,000 years ago, you think it matters to them? No people forget their enemies, even after 2,000 years. In the Bible it is written that Iraq belongs to them to the Euphrates and Tigris, so they want to reach there; and ISIS helps them to do so. It’s a fact that ISIS invaded every area except Israel. True, they are a small country, but don’t take them lightly. They are rich and strong and have influence all over the world,” he says.

In discussing Israel, most of the Muslims I spoke with referred to the conflict with the Palestinians or to conspiracy theories, the most common of which was the link between Israel and Islamic State.

The source of this specific conspiracy theory is in the Iranian media, and it has become widely accepted in many countries, especially Muslim ones. Occasionally, someone will also mention the Jewish aspect: “They say the Pashtuns [an ethnic group in Afghanistan and Pakistan] are Jews,” said an Afghan businessman. “And this is not just a theory, there is proof. They have a long nose, and they hoard gold under their beds. Who else does these things?”

When Assad is asked about his attitude towards Israelis as individuals, he says: “I’m sure there are a lot of good Jews, but as a people, they always were the enemies of the Arab world.”

What kind of distinction is made between a people and the individuals who comprise it?

The Anti-Defamation League addressed this question in a poll it conducted in 2014. The survey examined opinions about Jews in 101 countries. In Iraq, 59 percent of those surveyed agreed that Jews are like other people, but the rest of the respondents did not agree or were unsure. Over 80 percent of the Iraqis who were asked: “People hate Jews because of the way Jews behave,” agreed with the statement, and Egyptians showed similar numbers.

“Most Egyptians, including myself, make the distinction between the government and its citizens,” said Nimer (a pseudonym). Nimer studied Hebrew, has read a large number of history and political science books by Arab and Israeli authors, follows the Arab and Israeli media, and has participated in i forums dealing with Israel. When he heard about the Israeli backpacker who landed in Cairo, he jumped at the opportunity to meet in a local cafe. He wanted to hear as much as possible about Israel and Israelis, and agreed to explain how he views Egyptian attitudes towards them.

“Once the relations between Muslims and Jews in Egypt were good. The deterioration began from the establishment of the state [of Israel],” says Nimer. “Think about it, a foreign people come to one of the holy centers of Islam, and take it over. In addition, there is the balance of power between Israel and its neighbors. Their peace agreements with Egypt are unfair to the Egyptians. For example, they limit the amount of military forces that Egypt can bring into the Sinai. All this arouses negative opinions and antagonism, and in other people’s eyes it projects on Israelis as individuals and creates an aggressive and bad image for them. After all, Israel claims it is a democratic country, so the citizens are partners, to an extent, in the government oppression of the Palestinians.”

Nimer wanted to visit Israel to see with his own eyes whether it is like the accounts he has read. He was accepted to a European program that included a visit to Israel, but turned it down. “I wouldn’t have received the visa because I’m a young Muslim, apparently a potential terrorist in the eyes of Israel,” he says. “And in addition, if I visit Israel, I will be marked and monitored all my life by the authorities in Egypt.”

What about other countries, farther away, which have never had real friction with Israel and whose citizens have never met an Israeli? In 1967, Mauritania declared war against Israel, along with all other Arab countries, and did not end this state of war until 1999. The average Israeli had no idea why he was at war with Mauritania. But after Operation Cast Lead in Gaza at the end of 2008 the Mauritanians gave the staff at the Israeli embassy 48 hours to leave.

Many other nations refuse to allow entry to Israelis. One is Pakistan, whose passports have an explicit statement they are not valid for travel to Israel. During Operation Cast Lead, 50,000 people signed a petition in Afghanistan calling on the country to go to war against Israel. No Afghan force ever appeared on the Gaza shore, it seems because there are more than enough problems back at home with, for example, the Taliban.

“I thought there were enough problems in Afghanistan,” I tell Raza (a pseudonym). “So why are you bothered by Israelis? They are so far away.”

“It’s like how the American Jews care about Israel,” he answers. “Even though Israel is far away from them.”

This article is about “Anti-Semitism,” which in its simple meaning is the hatred of Jews. It is a concept that has its own problems, especially when it involves Arab or Muslim anti-Semitism. Some will say it is used to prevent legitimate criticism against Israeli policies by labeling the critics as anti-Semitic. Others say the distinction between anti-Semitism and racism, from which all people suffer, is a condescending distinction, which hints that the hatred of Jews is special, or more serious, than other hatreds. In the end, there are those who talk about an exaggeration in the estimates of the scope of anti-Semitism, a paranoia, or a tendency to seek out anti-Semitism.

It’s hard to know when to admit to being Israeli and when to conceal it. There is a story about Israeli visiting Morocco, who tells a stall owner that he is from Sweden. The stall owner nods, and smiles. He has seen a lot of Swedes and a lot of Israelis, and he knows who is standing in front of him. The lie seems ridiculous to him, but a guest is a guest and must be treated politely, so he lets the “Swede” continue with the show.

It is hard to say where the truth lies and what is the price for exposing it. Sometimes the fear of “what will happen” is stronger than anything else. I keep quiet and nod when an Afghan passerby says: “The Jews are everywhere, and in all sorts of colors. You could be with a Jew in front of you and not know it.”