The Palestinian Distraction

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

I wasn’t alone, but the mea culpa is all mine. Like many, I thought dawn was finally breaking over the Arab world when those nice, middle-class crowds thronged Cairo’s Tahrir Square chanting “freedom” and “democracy” without burning American and Israeli flags. What a miracle, I mused: the dogs of hate are not barking. And what a wondrous moment of transcendence! Free the people, and they will free themselves from the obsession of anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism their overlords had implanted to distract them from misery and oppression.

It was a false dawn. The signs were there even before the sacking of the Israeli embassy in Cairo in September. On my desk sits a Reuters photo dated May 13; the caption reads: “People burn an Israeli flag during a demonstration on Tahrir Square.” There were no such symbols of “Arab rage” when the protests erupted in late January.

The demons of yore are back, and presumably they never left. The demonstration that led to the embassy invasion was at first standard fare—yet another protest against the military regime. But at the end, several thousand people armed with Palestinian flags, crowbars, and hammers marched off to the Israeli embassy for a bit of deconstructionist work.

There was more. For six hours, desperate Israeli leaders tried to contact the junta; its leader, Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, refused to speak with either the Israeli prime minister or his defense minister. It took seven more hours before Egyptian security forces rescued the last Israeli—and perhaps only because Washington had interceded in the meantime.

The story line was simple, and familiar. The revolution isn’t going anywhere, and life is as miserable as always. So how about a little pogrom? It wasn’t the junta that invented this stratagem, but our erstwhile good friend Hosni Mubarak, the toppled autocrat who ended the summer in a Cairo courtroom, fighting for his life.

At first, the Arab revolutions unfolded without the usual anti-American and anti-Israeli screaming. This was not to last.

How do despots stay in power amid poverty, hopelessness, and repression? By feeding the people the heady brew of hatred against the “other.” But why Israel, a neighbor officially recognized by Cairo and granted thirty years of peace? An iron law of Arab politics cracks the paradox: the better the state-to-state relations, the worse the anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism within.

Jew hatred? Isn’t it just righteous anti-Israelism fed by the plight of the Palestinians? Go to a bookstore in Cairo, Amman, or Riyadh—all quasi-allies of Israel—and you will find piles of anti-Semitic tracts. They are in Arabic, but they are a 100 percent import from yesterday’s Europe—blood libel, world conquest, and all. Ditto the TV fare and newspaper cartoons, which depict the Jew as bloodsuckers or cannibals.

Mubarak and his ilk had struck a devil’s bargain with their peoples: I’ll treat with the infidels, and you gorge yourselves on the fantasies that keep you in line. The mistake of Arab spring optimists like me was to ignore the stubborn reality behind the well-worn tactic. We should have asked: why would the despots call on those particular demons? Because they are an integral part of Arab political culture, hence so easy to rouse. The import of European anti-Semitism began in the 1930s, long before Israel’s birth, let alone its conquest of the West Bank.

To serve as target and unifier has been the fate of Jews in Europe, and it remains their fate in Arabia.

To invoke “essentialism”—deep and enduring traits—when looking at a culture is a tricky thing. Cultures do change, even profoundly—look at Germany’s breathtaking leap from Nazism into liberal democracy. But the sad trajectory of the Egyptian revolution, going toxic after only a few weeks, confirms the depth of the loathing. Acceptance of the “other” who is a Jew (or even a Copt) is not a pillar of Islamic culture. But the opposite—abhorrence—is such superb cement for societies rent by myriad conflicts: between sects, classes, tribes, and nationalities, between modernity and tradition, city and country, devout and secular. To serve as target and unifier has been the fate of Jews in Europe, and it remains their fate in Arabia.

Happy societies don’t need to clamor about barbarians at the gate. But Arab society is not happy, which is why the clash within drives the conflict without, spilling over into Europe and, on 9/11, into the United States.

Nor does it help to apologize, as the hapless Netanyahu government demonstrated when it tried to soothe tempers after five Egyptian soldiers were inadvertently killed last summer when Israeli troops were pursuing militants along the Sinai border. The message of the mob in Cairo was: the embassy must go, the peace must go, Israel must go.

Is there no way out? Sure there is. Happy societies don’t need the barbarians at the gate. But Arab society is not happy, which is why the clash within drives the conflict without, spilling over into Europe and, on 9/11, into the United States.

When will it ever end? Not soon. Take Sweden, a nice Protestant place. In the seventeenth century it was the scourge of Europe, conquering about half of the Holy Roman Empire’s states. It stopped fighting in 1814, taking the slow road to development and democracy instead. Only in the mid-twentieth century did it become such an admirable model of tranquillity. Would that history moved a bit faster in this century.