Anti-Semitism in the new Egypt: even the president refuses to say the word 'Israel'

He just can't bring himself to say it

News that Mohammed Morsi, Egypt’s Islamist president, has promised to uphold his country’s long-standing peace treaty with Israel has been widely welcomed. Revealingly, however, Mr Morsi refused to refer to the Jewish state by name, sticking instead to a generalised statement that his government was “in full respect of international peace treaties”.

Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s foreign minister, responded by urging Morsi to put his money where his mouth is. “We hope to see President Morsi receiving official Israeli representatives,” he said. “We want to see him giving interviews to Israeli media and we want to see him in Jerusalem.”

From the Egyptian perspective, Lieberman's invitation will be perceived as a provocation. Morsi’s reluctance to say the word "Israel" points to a deeply ingrained anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli sentiment that is widespread in Egyptian society; were he to appear to have a reasonable stance towards the Jewish state, his popularity at home would have plummeted. This is the case throughout much of the Muslim world. In this context, Lieberman’s apparent olive branch will be seen as nothing short of inflammatory.

Last month, Shimon Peres, Israel’s president, received a letter, in English, signed by President Morsi, stating that he was “looking forward to exerting our best efforts to get the Middle East Peace Process back to its right track in order to achieve security and stability for all peoples of the region, including Israeli people.” This was a response to a letter sent by Peres conveying Israel’s best wishes for the month of Ramadan.

However, when reports of Morsi’s conciliatory letter emerged, the Egyptian president's office felt compelled to deny its authenticity. “This is totally untrue,” said Yasser Ali, a spokesman, adding that the letter was a “fabrication” by two Israeli newspapers. Which was odd, considering that it had been released by the president’s Jerusalem office as an official communiqué from the Egyptian ambassador, sent by registered post and backed up by fax.

That a letter such as this – which was not even instigating goodwill but echoing it – should provoke such vehement denials from Mohammed Morsi underscores the strength of anti-Israeli prejudice in Egypt.

Television can provide a useful window into Egypt's cultural sensibilities. Last month, a popular Egyptian practical joke programme, Alhojm Baad Al Mozwawla (Judgment After A Prank), staged an elaborate hoax. The producers invited the Egyptian actor, Ayman Kandeel, to be interviewed, and then, mid-conversation, told him that he was appearing on an Israeli television network. An actor posing as an Israeli producer said to Kandeel "I am trying to be peaceful. I am not provoking you." Revealingly, Kandeel responded: "The peace was decided on by governments. We as people have different criteria." He then flew into a rage, demolishing the set, punching the female presenter, and drawing his gun. It took some minutes to calm him down and explain that it was all a “joke”. The episode – which can be watched here – ended with Kandeel apologising to the cowering presenter.

This was not an isolated incident. The show, which aired daily on primetime during the month of Ramadan, rehashed the same trick several times with different celebrity victims, invariably provoking a shockingly hostile response. Mahmoud Abdelghafar, for instance, another actor pranked by the show, grabbed the "producer" by the hair and shouted “I suspected you were a Jew.”

By contrast, on the other side of the border, the popular Israeli version of Britain's Got Talent, Eyal Golan Is Calling You – which is hosted by one of Israel's top stars – was recently won by a young Arab woman, Nissren Kader. The final was the second most watched show on Israeli television that evening, and Kader's audiences sang along and clapped to songs in both Hebrew and Arabic. Upon winning first place, Kader said, "I am so proud: I'm the first Arab to win a Hebrew singing programme." Although there were dissenting voices amongst the audience, a spirit of liberal common sense easily prevailed. Eliyahu Haviv, a 70-year-old Israeli, summed it up best: "I say yes, there are Arab terrorists, but this is something else. We need to be as one heart."

Similarly, last April an Israeli Candid Camera style TV show, What Would You Do?, staged a prank whereby a female Arab actor was refused service by an Israeli shopkeeper – also an actor – who openly said that he "does not serve Arabs". The idea was to test the response of unsuspecting members of the Israeli public. Almost all of the customers who were captured on hidden camera confronted the "shopkeeper" and admonished him for his racist attitudes; several made purchases on the Arab woman's behalf and gave it to her outside the shop. One young Israeli woman was so distressed by the "abuse" that she was left in tears, saying "it was so cruel." Extracts from the show can be viewed here and here.

It must be acknowledged, of course, that these isolated examples do not represent the views of entire populations. Israel has a fair share of extremists, and there can be no denying that a degree of friction surrounds the Arab minority there. In Egypt, high-profile friends of the Jewish state do exist, such as the blogger Maikel Nabil Sanad (who was arrested and tortured for his views). Nevertheless, television – the content of which is, after all, driven by popular demand – is a good litmus test of the dominant sentiments of a country. One cannot imagine programmes like those aired in Israel appearing on Egyptian television, and vice versa.

Anti-Israel hatred in Egypt can be so intense that on occasion it escalates into the realms of paranoia. Bizarrely, in December 2010, after a spate of shark attacks in Egyptian waters left one swimmer dead and four others injured, the regional governor Mohamed Abdel Fadil Shousha blamed it on Israel, stating that “the Mossad throwing the deadly shark in the sea to hit tourism in Egypt is not out of the question.” (The Israeli foreign ministry brushed the accusations off, saying that "the man must have seen Jaws one time too many.")

It is self-evident that there can never be a good reason for racism. Nevertheless, there are those who may attempt to argue that this widespread, rabid hatred of Jews is justified by Israel's continued presence on the West Bank, its accompanying military apparatus and everything that brings. But Israelis have just as many grievances as Muslims. Whereas Palestinians may point to checkpoints, deprivation, targeted killings and the dispossession of land, Israelis can point to at least three unprovoked, genocidal wars, indiscriminate and sustained rocket attacks, kidnappings and suicide bombs. And whereas Israel has a powerful army and almost certainly an arsenal of nuclear weapons, it is of a similar geographical size to Wales; by plane, it can be crossed in just 3.5 minutes. The combined territory of Arab lands, the majority of which united to attack Israel in the early defining wars, is around 650 times greater in size.

Virulent anti-Semitism is a force to be reckoned with in contemporary Egyptian culture, as well as throughout much of the Muslim world, where such views have become a mainstream fact of life (in central Damascus, a Star of David is permanently installed on the pavement so that people can stamp on it as they walk by; in Saudi Arabia, school textbooks include Nazi-style cartoons of ugly, conniving Jews and urge children to take up the cause of jihad). Avigdor Lieberman was right to poke the hornet’s nest. Unless the impossible is achieved and these entrenched views are reversed, the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt will always have the potential to be undermined, and cordial relations between Israel and her neighbours will remain elusive. As the hapless – and bigoted – Ayman Kandeel aptly pointed out on primetime Egyptian TV, true peace can only be made between peoples, not governments.

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