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Arab countries' attitudes towards Jews, Israel

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By: Noam Chomsky 

This was a reply to Alejandro during a forum of Z Magazine

July 2002

There surely is anti-Semitism in many circles in Egypt, sometimes rampant, and it's also true that "Arab leaders say one thing on a subject in English and then contradict that when speaking in Arabic," exactly as Jewish leaders and writers do. The counterpart in countries without "secret languages" is the striking difference often found between public pronouncements and internal documents. For example, in public the Israeli Labor government and Washington praised the Sept. 95 Oslo II agreements as a great step towards peace with noble sacrifices by Israel, but I don't recall reading in the English press that President Ezer Weizmann had exulted that "we screwed the Palestinians," or that Labor Foreign Minister (now party leader) Ehud Barak, when asked by the Hebrew press how they expected the Palestinians to accept this virtual surrender, answered simply: "We are the ones with the power." Similarly, one would be unlikely to read in the New York Times the advice to Israel by its Middle East correspondent Thomas Friedman on the occasion of his (second) Pulitzer prize: that Israel should treat the Palestinians in the manner of southern Lebanon (run by a terrorist client army under the direction of still more murderous Israeli forces, with ample torture, etc.), but that Israel should grant the Palestinians something, because "if you give Ahmed a seat in the bus he may lessen his demands"; try that with "Sambo" or "Yankel" instead of "Ahmed," and as advice to Syria instead of Israel. Would the author of such remarks immediately be promoted to chief diplomatic correspondent and hailed as a great figure? Friedman's statements were in the mainstream Hebrew press, and as far as I know, appeared here only in things I wrote at the time in Z, later in books. So, effectively secret, like the examples you refer to in the secret language of the Arab world (where, in fact, it's far more likely to be exposed in the West, for reasons of doctrinal warfare).

It should be added, however, that Western anti-Arab racism is so extreme that it often isn't even concealed, because it isn't noticed; it's like the air we breathe. For example, a western "secular hero" like Irving Howe is highly praised for urging that Israel send settlers to the "underpopulated Galilee" -- underpopulated because it has too many Arab citizens and too few Jews. That shows what a passionate advocate of a just peace he is. Again, try an experiment: suppose someone were to call for more settlement of white Christians in "underpopulated New York City," which has too many Jews and Blacks. And there are much more extreme cases; I've sampled some of them in "Necessary Illusions." None have any impact, because of the extreme racism of the intellectual culture, Arabs being probably the last "legitimate" targets.

Returning to Egypt, anti-Semitism is found all over, along with warm welcome for Jews. E.g., I'm regularly asked to write for "Al-Ahram" (the main newspaper, theoretically government but rather independent), and sometimes do (same in Israel, incidentally). And that's no exception. It certainly makes sense to inquire into Egyptian anti-Semitism, and other aspects of Egyptian culture, for example, the considerable contempt for Arabs (Egyptians commonly regard themselves as non-Arab, representatives of a higher and older civilization than the one introduced by desert warriors 1300 years ago); that shows up in many ways, right now. With regard to Egypt-Israel, the current attitudes no doubt draw in part from recent history, as Egptians perceive it. Something like this.

As the Middle East (Egypt included) struggled to free itself from debilitating and murderous Western control, a new Western enclave was established in its heart, the Levant, separating the North African from the West Asian Arab-speaking areas. This was achieved by virtue of the intervention of the Western imperial powers from whom the people of the region were seeking to free themselves. In the course of the conquest by European settlers, the indigenous population was displaced and marginalized. The fact that the European settlers had suffered horrendous brutality in Europe was invoked to demand that Palestinians compensate by giving up their land to them; there was no proposal for a Jewish state in Bavaria or New York (where there was a considerable Jewish population, even a majority in parts): it was Palestinians who were to pay for the crimes of the Europeans against Jews, an arrangement which seemed less than just to many people in the region. The new Jewish state reduced its own Arab citizens to second-rate status, with severe discriminatory laws and practices that would be considered an utter outrage in any Western democracy; imagine the reaction here if 92% of the land in the US were effectively under the control of an organization dedicated to work for the benefit of people of "white Christian race, religion, or origin," hence excluding Jews, Blacks, etc., from the land. The newly-established state was also violent and aggressive beyond its borders. It immediately expanded illegally into the demilitarized zones, forcefully expelling thousands of Bedouins, and carried out murderous terrorist attacks against villages implicated in no anti-Israel actions. It proceeded to invade Egypt in collusion with the traditional imperial masters (England, France), doing so again with US support a decade later. It refused Egypt's offers for a full peace settlement in 1971, agreeing in part only after the 1973 war deflated its triumphalism. But that later (Camp David) agreement, brokered by the US, was designed to remove Egypt from the conflict, leaving Israel free to integrate the occupied territories and attack Lebanon, as it proceeded at once to do with huge US aid. It invaded Lebanon again shortly after, killing 20,000 people while devastating large parts of the country. Etc., etc., on to the present. That's only a small sample of course, and it leaves out more complex interactions along the way: I'm outlining the basis for perceptions, not writing a history.

Anti-Semitism and other forms of racism are always to be exposed and deplored. And understood.

As for your questions, it's impossible to assign a "measure" to the degree to which "anti-semitism in the Arab world [is] a function of Israel's policies," just as it's impossible to assign a measure to the various sources of the rampant anti-Arab racism here and in Israel. We can discuss the factors and seek ways to alleviate them.

Does the support of the leading Arab countries for a peaceful settlement (not for 2 decades, but since 1971) cloak "nefarious intentions like the far-right opines i.e. eventual destruction of Israel?" The question is not really answerable in that form. I don't doubt that many Mexicans hope for the eventual destruction of the US -- which, after all, sits on more than 1/3 of Mexico, which it stole by violence. Same with France and Germany. One would be hard put to find an area of the world where there is no irredentism or jingoist demands and hostilities. Some kind of international order has slowly been constructed by efforts to accommodate these, eliminating the worst festering sores. The US/Israel (near unilateral) rejection of diplomatic settlement since 1971, and their program for establishing a Bantustan-style settlement in Israel-Palestine since Madrid/Oslo, is guaranteed to keep these sores festering, or worse. Recall that, contrary to current self-serving propaganda, these programs are not due to the bad Netanyahu: they are programs of the US and the Labor/Meretz coalition, now being implemented and in some ways extended by Netanyahu/Likud.

"Even if the Arab leaders did genuinely support peace, doesn't the popular anti-semitism and growing fundamentalism undermine the ability of the Arab leaders who want peace?"

I don't think that's the way to pose the question, any more than it would be proper to ask whether the extreme anti-Arab racism in Israel and the growing fundamentalism there "undermines the ability of Jewish leaders who want peace" (if one can find any, where "peace" means something other than a Bantustan-style peace). The way these questions are posed mistakes the dynamics. Moves towards genuine peace would undercut -- to some unknown degree -- the pressures that lead to anti-Semitism and anti-Arab racism, and the growing fundamentalism that is (on the Arab side) in large part a reaction to the complete failure of secular movements to achieve anything, failures for which we bear considerable responsibility.

How can I "blame Israelis for not wanting to perhaps lower their guard (i.e. stabilize or lessen military expenditures, enter into economic and technological relations that could help Arab countries)"? I don't quite understand the question. Israeli leaders are eager to enter into economic and technological relations that could (incidentally) help Arab countries. That's Peres's "New Middle East," the point of the Qatar summit last December, etc. True, Israel doesn't care that much about them, because they are mostly poor and underdeveloped; it's eyes are on trade and interactions with the richer East Asia area. And Israel thinks nothing of providing sensitive military technology to China (over the vociferous objections of the US) which is very likely being used for Iranian missile development. But if you mean that one can understand why Israelis should be concerned about their security, you're pushing an open door. I've been arguing for many years that their policies have been greatly increasing their security risks, and may well lead to their ultimate destruction. To take one simple illustration, not long after Israel rejected Egypt's offer for a full peace treaty in 1971, the first Katyusha rockets began to land, a fact noted in the (Hebrew) documentary literature. Or to take an earlier case, Israel's terror attacks in Gaza in 1955, designed to kill Egyptian authorities who were seeking to cut back Fedayin attacks, surely increased the likelihood of such attacks (again, documented in the Hebrew archival literature). That goes on right to the present, with regard to Palestinians and Lebanese.

On internal Arab government documents, no one is privy to them; these are basically totalitarian countries that do not release documents. As for the Arab languages and cultures (the plural is necessary), one can learn about them the way one could learn about others. The Hebrew government documents, Hebrew press, etc., are available in principle, but they are scarcely used, just as US records are scarcely used, because they tell an ideologically inappropriate story. Simply ask yourself how often (and where) you have seen an account of the extreme US/Israeli rejectionism that barred any diplomatic settlement of the Arab-Israel conflict from 1971 (I've personally been writing about this for over 20 years, but it has yet to reach any source that could be read), or of the quite explicit Bantustan-style character of the Oslo project, or of the most important record of internal Israeli government deliberations in the crucial 1967-77 period (Yossi Beilin's Hebrew dissertation/book, which again, I've written about since it appeared), etc. Or comparable information about the US.

The point is that official censorship, while intolerable, is often not needed to accomplish similar effects; a well-designed doctrinal system and an obedient intellectual class can often suffice, as we should know well enough.

Noam Chomsky