Safwat al-Sharif, the Minister of Culture in Egypt, insists that a television serial that depends on the Protocols of the Elders of Zion for plot elements will be shown during the fasting month of Ramadan despite Israeli protests. The “Protocols” are a forgery cooked up by the tsarist police in the early 20th century and depict Jews as engaged in a powerful conspiracy to control the world. The television serial applies this scenario to the Middle East.
Al-Sharif says the serial is not anti-semitic, but what he appears to mean to say is that it is not anti-Judaic. That is, it casts no slurs on the Jewish religion. Blasphemy against any of the “heavenly” religions is forbidden in Egypt. From all accounts the serial is in fact antisemitic, and there is a danger of it spreading European-style hatred of Jews to the Arab masses.
Muslim culture did not have the same sort of racially based antisemitism as arose in Europe. Indeed, on the whole and by and large Muslims treated Jews much better than Europeans did in the medieval period (there were unfortunate lapses of course, but Islam recognized Judaism as a legitimate religion in a way that Christendom did not). Before the 19th century the blood libel was unknown in the Middle East, and even then it mainly was introduced among Middle Eastern Christians and on a small scale.
To any extent that contemporary Muslims have a problem with Jews, it is largely driven by what they see as injustices done by Zionists to the Palestinians. Most Muslims when pressed would insist that there is a difference between criticizing Zionism and criticizing Jews per se.
But this television serial, in ascribing unsavory conspiracies aimed a regional domination to the Jewish people partakes of a new sort of antisemitism in the Arab world, which self-consciously draws on the European traditions.
Egypt is better than this, and it is a sad thing to see the government license the fostering of hatred toward a people on whom the Koran bestows much praise, whose religion is recognized in Islam as “heavenly.” The demonization of any people is always wrong. Beyond the ethics of it, the Middle East is such a powder keg that it is just plain dangerous to give a mass audience the idea that Jews want to take over their governments and rule them. Someday some terrorist is going to do something truly horrible out of such motivations, and Safwat al-Sharif will bear part of the blame.
On the other hand, the increasing respectability within Israel of talking about the “transfer” (i.e. ethnic cleansing) of the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza is an even more alarming development on the other side. There can be no “voluntary” Palestinian exodus, only one attended with great bloodshed and violence. Israelis who contemplate such a thing, and Ariel Sharon may be among them, appear not to realize that such an action would throw the Middle East into turmoil and endanger Israeli security. Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel, and the fairly good relations with Jordan, are not written in stone. Arabs are already angry about the lack of progress toward a Palestinian state. Ethnic cleansing would produce massive protests and change the face of the region permanently, and not in a way that would enhance Israeli security in the long run.