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Last week, Israeli media reported that an Egyptian court had banned an annual Jewish festival in honor of Rabbi Yaakov Abuhatzeirah, a kabbalist who lived in the 19th century and who died in 1879 in Egypt on his way from Morocco to Jerusalem.
Each year, a ceremony is held at his tomb in the village of Damanhour, which has always been attended by hundreds of Jewish pilgrims. The annual pilgrimage came to a halt in 2012 after Islamists of Gamal Heshmat – a Muslim Brotherhood offshoot – threatened to kill Jewish pilgrims.
The ceremony was previously banned by Egyptian courts in 2001 and 2004 after opponents filed legal challenges. The reason behind the complaints has always been the same: Jews would consume alcohol, and the sexes would intermingle at the site. This is a very popular stereotype of Jews in Egypt, which led to the cancellation of High Holiday services at the last remaining synagogue of Alexandria in 2012. Another charge is that the Jews will use these ceremonies as a foothold to retake Egypt.
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Both charges are based on anti-Semitic (conspiracy) theories that are rampant in Egypt.
Anti-Semitism is a huge problem in Egypt. Journalist Michael Totten, who visited Egypt frequently, called it the most anti-Semitic country in the world.
Samuel Tadros, an Egyptian research fellow at the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom who did extensive research on the topic, concluded that one of the rare ideas that bind Egyptians is anti-Semitism.
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Anti-Semitic conspiracy theories do the rounds in both liberal and Islamist segments of Egyptian society. Some of them are totally illogical; and very often, these theories contradict other conspiracy theories about Jews.
Here are a few examples:
On September 21, 2013, the Muslim Brotherhood news outlet Rassd published an article under the headline “Sisi is Jewish and Egypt is now under Zionist occupation.”
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The article claimed that Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who is Egypt’s current president, is Jewish by nationality as his mother was a Moroccan Jew by the name of Malika Titani. The author claimed that Sisi’s uncle was a member of the Zionist Hagana defense organization. The article was based on the U.S.-based anti-Semitic site Veterans Today.
The same claim was repeated on Al Jazeera News in an interview with former Brotherhood official Gamal Nassar. Nassar claimed to know that the real reason behind Sisi’s coup was the implementation of a Zionist plan to divide Egypt.
Another theory had it that the Brotherhood was tainted by a secret allegiance with the Jews and the state of Israel–and that Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan el-Banna is a Jew, his parents were Moroccan Jews, and he was implanted by Zionists in Egypt in order to form the Muslim Brotherhood.
The paper al-Ahram ran a similar story in which a former army general explained that Banna was indeed Jewish, and that the establishment of the Brotherhood was part of a Jewish conspiracy to create disorder among Muslims.
The starting point of Egypt’s anti-Semitic worldview is the evil nature of the Jews. This is based on tales of the conflict between Mohammad and the Jewish tribes–and on classic European anti-Semitic themes and writings.
Hitler’s Mein Kampf is a bestseller in Egypt, and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion is also widely available. The latter’s authenticity is unquestioned; and more importantly, it is widely believed, even by Egyptian government officials.
Al-Sisi, for example, attended an hour-long lecture that was based on the themes of the Protocols in April 2013. In June 2013, the Egyptian cabinet, led by Mohammad Mursi, was seen live on television discussing a conspiracy theory over the crisis with Ethiopia about a plan to build a dam that would divert water of the Nile to Ethiopia.
During the discussion, cabinet member Sheikh Hassan Al-Shafe’i said that the Nile could not flow to Israel–but that the river might get some “subterranean wings.” He then suggested that Ethiopia might use the water of the Nile by selling it to Israel, and that a pipe line would be built in the Red Sea to deliver the water.
The Egyptian media often publish fantastic stories that blame the Jews for every misfortune that befalls Egypt. Very often, these stories resemble classic anti-Semitic blood libels.
One of these stories claimed that Israel was exporting carcinogenic pesticides to kill Egypt’s population.
After a shark killed a German tourist in Sharm el-Sheikh, a seaside resort in the Sinai desert, the regional governor claimed that it was possible that the Mossad had placed the shark in the sea to damage Egypt’s tourism industry.
The level of Jew hatred in Egypt also became apparent during the so-called Arab spring. In 2011, CBS reporter Lara Logan was gang-raped on Tahrir square in Cairo by Muslim men. She was stripped, punched, and slapped by the crowd, which called her a spy, chanting “Israeli” and “Jew” as they beat her.
Protesters in the Arab Spring often carried posters that depicted President Mubarak as a Jew or showed his image accompanied by the star of David.
Observers often think that anti-Semitism in Egypt started with the founding of the State of Israel and is fueled by the Arab-Israeli conflict. While anti-Semitism in Egypt (and in the Arab world) no doubt has increased as a result of this conflict, it is not the source of it.
In his 1950 essay “Our struggle with the Jews,” Muslim Brotherhood ideologue Sayyid Qutb delivered evidence that anti-Semitism in Egypt and the Arab world has its roots in Islam.
He wrote that the “Muslim community in Egypt continues to suffer from the same Jewish machinations and double-dealing which discomfited the Early Muslims.”
In his essay, Qutb vilified the Jews in line with what the Quran says. He also used Nazi language to describe the Jews:
“The Jews free the sensual desires from their restraints and they destroy the moral foundation on which the pure Creed rests, in order that the Creed should fall into the filth which they spread so widely on the earth. They mutilate the whole of history and falsify it. . . . From such creatures who kill, massacre and defame prophets one can only expect the spilling of human blood and dirty means which would further their machinations and evil.”
Another source that provides evidence to the fact that anti-Semitism in Egypt dates back at least to the early days of Islam is Iggeret Teiman, an epistle written by the Jewish sage Maimonides who lived in Egypt in the 12th century. The epistle was meant to comfort the Jews in Yemen and Egypt who suffered greatly from persecution by the Muslims.
Maimonides (Rambam) wrote that the nation of Ishmael (Muslims) injures and harms the Jews greatly. He claimed that there has never been a nation opposing Israel and degrading, scorning, and hating the Jews as they do.
So it is fair to say that anti-Semitism in Egypt dates back at least to the introduction of Islam.
Modern anti-Semitism in Egypt is clearly an ideology and not just a form of bigotry. It has caused the demise of the large Jewish community in the country, and it continues to prevent real peace with Israel.
The Camp David peace accord from 1979 is therefore nothing more than a treaty that put a (temporary?) end to the state of war that had existed between Egypt and Israel since 1948.
Photo credit: Ted Eytan (Flickr)