Jewcentricity Watch
The Sources of Egyptian Anti-Semitism

From liberals to Islamists, one of the only ideas that binds Egyptians is anti-Semitism. Where did it come from? Why is Egyptian culture so drenched in this toxic ideology? And what does it mean for the world and for Egypt’s future?

Published on: April 21, 2014
Samuel Tadros is a research fellow at the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom. He is the author of Motherland Lost: The Egyptian and Coptic Quest for Modernity. This is an English version of an essay originally written in Arabic and sponsored by the Simon Wiesenthal Center.
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  • wigwag

    Samuel Tadros, I don’t know whether you’ve read David Nirenberg’s magnificent and erudite book, “Antii-Judaism: The Western Tradition;” if you haven’t, you should.

    Nirenberg takes issue with your suggestion that Egyptian anti-Semitism is a relatively recent phenomenon, not of ancient vintage. In fact, Nirenberg devotes the first chapter of his book to the animosity that Egyptians had to Jews many centuries before the birth of the Prophet.

    Nirenberg points out how the great ancient historian, Flavius Josephus, wrote his book “Against Apion” specifically to refute “malicious calumnies” directed against Jews by the Egyptians. The sources of this animosity were many. Jews and Egyptians developed a contentious relationship over their joint ownership of the island of Elephantine. Persian kings who conquered the Egyptians may have favored the Jews because of a sense of monotheistic solidarity (Persian Kings of the era were Zoroastrian monotheists). As early as 410 BCE, the Egyptians hated the Jews for their alliance with the Persians. Nirenberg describes this as “only the first instance of a pattern we see often repeated, in which Jews are attacked because they are perceived as agents of a hated imperial power.”

    Nirenberg also proposes another reason for hatred of the Jews by ancient Egyptians. He explains that “the Egyptians were offended…by the very nature of the Passover festival as a reenactment of the Exodus from Egypt. What was for the Jews a commemoration of liberation and the victory of monotheism over idolatry, was for the Egyptians an offensive celebration of the destruction of Egypt and the defeat of its gods.

    There’s more, and if you’re inclined you can read it for yourself.

    Despite Nirenberg’s disagreement with you on this one small point; the overall theme of his book and the theme of your essay have a lot in common. Nirenberg’s point is that throughout history, what he calls “anti-Judaism” has very little to do with real Jews; in fact, many if not most of the most ardent anti-Semites have never met an actual Jew in the flesh. This was true for the English audiences who laughed hysterically at Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice” and enjoyed with smug satisfaction Marlowe’s “Jew of Malta” and it is true of contemporary Egyptians most of whom have no personal acquaintance with Jews; after all, there are hardly any left in Egypt.

    For your readers who would like to read a first hand account of the experience of Egyptian Jews during the Nasser period, I highly recommend Lucette Lagnado’s “The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit.” It’s the compelling story of her father; a boulevardier who considered himself an “Arab Jew” and his heart breaking fall from a position of wealth and prominence in the aftermath of Nasser’s rise to power.

    • Curious Mayhem

      Nirenberg’s book is very interesting, but it’s hard to see how relevant it is to Egyptian society today. Egypt was the bulls-eye of Nazi propaganda in the Middle East, and Sadat admits as much in his memoirs. The “free Egyptian officers” who overthrew the last king were heavily influenced by German and (to a lesser extent) Italian fascism. When you add to that the effect of decades of Soviet propaganda, with its own antisemitic tropes (starting in the mid-1960s, after the fall of Khrushchev and sharply higher repression of Soviet Jews), it’s not hard to understand what’s happening at all.

      The critical thing to understand is the unifying effect that antisemitism has on an otherwise disintegrating polity. Late czarist Russia was very similar. Appealing to the ancient origins of pre-Christian antisemitism in Romanized Egypt (which I’m not denying — it’s an historical fact) seems like clutching at straws to me.

      • Beatrix17

        Russia voted for Israel at the UN and expected this new left wing country to be pro-Russian. They were furious that Israel’s loyalty was with America. Russia was America’s
        competitor in the Mideast after WW2, and their anti-Israeli propaganda played a big part in Mideastern hatred of the Jews. Putin uses whatever propaganda serves his needs.

        • Curious Mayhem

          That’s correct, although Stalin’s motives were strongly influenced by the notion that he should do anything to knock down British imperialism. Supporting Israel was a good move in that respect. But his policy later became subordinated to internal Russian antisemitism and Stalin’s own paranoia.

  • Curious Mayhem

    An exellent article.

    I wish I didn’t have to say this, but anti-semitism is a mental disorder. It becomes rampant in various societies when those societies reach a dead-end, an interminable crisis. It happened in Russia in late czarist times, in the German-speaking and other parts of Europe after World War One, and now in the Arab-Muslim world. All factions passionately and violently disagree with one another. But there’s one thing they can all agree on ….

    • Breif2

      Say all you want about Putin (and I’ve said most of it myself), I give him credit for apparently being uninfected by anti-Semitism.

      • Curious Mayhem

        It doesn’t seem to be an issue with Putin. And he deals with Israel as just another player in the Middle East, albeit one allied with the US. There are antisemitic tropes in certain Russian propaganda outlets (like RT), but they’re the new-fangled political antisemitism of conspiracy theories and new world orders. It’s similar to the antisemitism of the post-modern left. (And the post-modern left IS antisemitic — don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.)

        • B-Sabre

          I noticed that at Occupy Wall Street, the word “banker” was almost always preceeded by the word “Jewish”. It could have been a drinking game.

          • Curious Mayhem

            Didn’t notice this, but my direct exposure to Occupy Wall Street was (thankfully) very limited.

    • free_agent

      You write, “anti-semitism is a mental disorder”.

      In a sense, you’re surely right, as most anti-Judaism is expressed in circumstances where Jews aren’t getting in the way of the majority group at all. But it’s just an extreme form of the natural ethnic discrimination of humans, and “when the pie shrinks, the table manners disappear”. Other minority groups, especially merchant minorities that have considerable wealth but no political power are targeted in much the same way. E.g., the “overseas Chinese” in south-east Asia have been targeted at various times in various countries. What’s really remarkable about modern life is that we’ve managed to turn the historically ubiquitous abuse of “others” into a mental disorder, in that normal people consider it abnormal.

      • Curious Mayhem

        Hostility to Jews in traditional cultures certainly has something in common with discrimination against the overseas Chinese or other relatively more successful groups, like the Ibo of Nigeria (the Biafra case). However, that doesn’t get close to the theological aspects, the need for scapegoats, and mistaken but strongly held beliefs about secret cabals out to get people.

        • I think the Chinese persecution in Indonesia and the Ibo situation (read about the success of Ibo Nigerians in the US ) in Nigeria are both examples of envy escalating to violence.

          • Curious Mayhem

            But the case of anti-semitism, in central and eastern Europe, has a major component of just that: envy escalating to violence.

  • diderot à la campagne

    The beginning with the Sisi stuff was truly hilarious actually, I had lot of fun. about the depth of stupidity among some fanatics over there. Then slowly instead of an cogent analysis, it turns into an overtense hateful anti-arab discourse, too exaggerated, lacking nuances, which is also hilarious, well the interest was gone.

  • ShadrachSmith

    The Sources of Egyptian Anti-Semitism are all Islamist, they are the ones who want to kill the Jews. Other sources don’t matter a hill of beans if you remove the current Islamophiles and their policies.

  • Dan_Simon

    It’s tempting to try to identify a single “root cause” for mass pathological phenomena such as Egyptian anti-Semitism, but it’s almost always a mistake. Absurd beliefs rarely take hold of large populations for a single reason–rather, they gain a critical mass of adherents precisely because they have multiple “root cause” attractions that reinforce each other. European hostility to Israel, for instance, isn’t simply a product of anti-Semitism, or anti-Americanism, or pro-Arab/pro-Islamic or anti-colonialist/third-wordlist sentiment, or hostility to religion, or inverted Holocaust guilt–rather, it’s so widespread precisely because it can draw on all of these sources of support. Likewise, the wild anti-Semitic conspiracy theories that grip Egypt are unlikely to be traceable back to a single root cause such as Islamic/Koranic anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism, residual Nazi/Fascist sympathies, hostility to the West or national shame leading to scapegoat-seeking. More likely they are fed by *all* of these sentiments operating in parallel, bringing together disparate Egyptians in a set of beliefs that they can share and take comfort in together.

  • free_agent

    You write, “one of the only ideas”.

    Aaaargh! It’s “one of the few ideas”.

  • herbcaen

    Great article
    Modern S Afrikkka is a close second in anti-Semitism. A confluence of black anti-Semitism plus Afrikkkaners that benefited from apartheid have come together using anti-Semitism as a unifying force

  • free_agent

    And yet the reports I’ve seen are that the actual peace between Egypt and Israel is functioning quite smoothly.

  • James_IIa

    Something strange happens in this essay when you explore “the crisis of modernity”. It seems as though you are saying that the Muslims recognized their cultural inferiority to Europe and therefore became anti-Semitic. Now, while the Jews played an important role in European history they were not the dominant factor. In fact, to take an example, the Jews and the Moors were expelled from Spain at roughly the same time. It is hard to see why the Muslims would preferentially adopt resentment of the Jews rather than of the Christians.

  • smgilb

    Nice article but I don’t buy it. The author let’s Islam slide off the hook when in fact, the Islamic creed has a long history of espisodes giving rise to pogroms and brutalization of Jews for no other reason than their Jewish faith. Sample Andrew Bostom’s comprehensive book entitled “The Legacy of Islamic Anti-Semitism” or consider the single example of Maimonides Letter to the Jews of Yemen (approx 1135) when the Yemenite Jews were subject to unprovoked violence and repression in the name of Islam, prior to any exposure to the West (still relatively backwards at this time, etc).
    Now, given the Arab mind’s proclivity for rumor, fantasy, and outright fabrication, one must give serious consideration to the very real possibility that Mohammed himself was a Jew who created Islam as part of a conspiracy to perpetuate the brutish, backwards Arab culture in order to prevent their advancement and ensure that they languish in darkness while the rest of the world, not just Jews, but Westerners, Asians, and practically everyone else left the Arabs and their co-religionists in the dust. Given the holes that Prof. Tadros cities in his various musings, this is clearly the only logical conclusion that one can reach.

    • I am convinced that Islam is a Jewish heresy. Nothing else explains the emotional antipathy toward Jews.

      • Curious Mayhem

        Narcissism of small differences? 🙂

        Historically, the main target in the Islamic world was Christians, but that was because they were larger in number and had armed states on the edge of the Islamic world.

  • M H K

    It is important to notice , in Muslim ME nations , the roots of antisemitism was and is weaker than Europe. But a very strong anti-Israel feeling could be observed , every where . The bloody and barbaric history of occupying Palestine and forcing its inhabitants to leave the mother land and gathering European Jews from Poland , Russia .. to replace them , had a deep impact on people of region. The harsh Israeli policy and its hunger for new lands concreted this bad feeling in mind of people.

    • Tom

      Let’s back up a little. Palestine was basically a desert for centuries. Every travelogue from before 1900 that mentions the area talks about how desolate it was.
      Then the Jews from Europe start to show up. They make the desert bloom. Fast forward to 1948. Most of the Palestinians who left the area left because they were told to by the Arab governments who agreed to destroy the state of Israel in the cradle. They failed.
      The Palestinians have not been taken in by the Arab governments, like the Jewish refugees who were forced to leave from North Africa. If the Israelis truly hungered for land, there would be no West Bank or Gaza Strip–they would have shoved those refugees into Jordan and Egypt, respectively.
      They’ve been jerks more than once, and been unduly harsh. But let’s blame them for what they haven’t done.

    • Curious Mayhem

      I won’t add much to Tom’s comment, except to say that this is absurd. I’ve been around the ME, and the propaganda is both anti-Jewish and anti-Israel — the two are difficult to impossible to distinguish in practice, however much we split hairs here.

      Palestinian Arabs were NOT forced to leave to “make room” for European Jews. Both groups lived in pre-state Palestine, albeit under Turkish then British rule, with rising tensions. The Arab refugees from the wars of 1948 and 1967 were just that — refugees from wars, wars started by Arab countries bent on destroying the Jews of Palestine.

      Add to that the fact that the Jews of Arab countries faced increasingly harsh discriminatory measures and fled to Israel, although Zionism was largely a movement of Jews from eastern Europe. That’s half the current Jewish population of Israel.

      Please, put away the BS.

  • Pingback: “This is the Question that Preoccupies the Egyptian People: Was Al-Sisi’s Mother Jewish” | IndepthAfrica()

  • Do you ever write about Jewish anti-Arabism, anti-Russianism, anti-Persianism, anti-Christianism, etc?

    Jews have their hatreds and hostilities too.

    Or do you think Jews are so perfect that they love everyone?

    If Jews are thus superior, then you guys must be racial supremacist in favor of Jews.

  • I have a friend, an Egyptian anesthesiologist who is a Coptic Christian, who surprised me with his anti-Semitism. There is no rational explanation.

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