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Time to end anti-Semitism

Published by The New York Sun on 2005-03-14

The expected withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon, the incipient democratization of that sliver of a Mediterranean country, and the growing hope of the Bush Administration that the Middle East's mostly young population -- 75% of some 350 million people -- could wrest greater social and political freedoms from reigning despots and theocrats, are elements to be welcomed.

But these potential developments mustn't be allowed to cloak a perennial problem in the Islamic world, especially in the Middle East. Anti-Semitism is deep-rooted, it is growing, and democratic prospects notwithstanding, a hatred of Israel continues to poison the political climate. Unfortunately, Western -- and American leaders -- caught in the slipstream of delight over the possibility of widening freedom in the Middle East, have failed to adequately address the question of anti-Semitism. In fact, they haven't raised the question at all.

Many of us who've covered the Middle East -- which technically stretches from Morocco in the west to Iran in the east -- for the last several decades have been intrigued by constant and often parallel references in Islamic countries to a three-letter word, a four-letter word and a five-letter word. The words are "Jew"; "free"; and "Israel."

In Arab societies long dominated by tyrants, and characterized by corruption and nepotism, "free" hasn't simply meant political freedom; it's meant freedom from domestic oppression implemented by powerful secret services deployed by sheikhs and mullahs. So when young Lebanese course the boulevards of Beirut chanting anti-Syrian slogans, the subtext is that their society of 4 million Sunnis, Shias, Druze and Maronite Christians would do well to be released from monitoring by Russian-trained Syrian intelligence personnel, the mukhabarat (the Arabic word for secret operatives).

Mukhabarat personnel are often caricatures out of the movies: they almost always wear shiny leather jackets, sport villainous mustaches, and their expressions are fierce. They are easily spotted at public places; ubiquitous SUVs with darkened windows idle nearby. I have seen Lebanese -- Christians and Muslims alike -- spirited away by the mukhabarat, sometimes forcibly.

But if utter dislike of Syrian heavy-handedness is a common thread in Lebanese society, so is despising of Israel. I have witnessed on several occasions Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, the 44-year-old leader of the terrorist Hezbollah, boasting about how his guerrillas were the only Arabs who ever "defeated" Israel when it retreated from southern Lebanon in 2000. On several occasions, I saw him say the word "Yehudi" -- Arabic for "Jews" and then spit on the ground. Is this the man America now wants to do business with?

It's not just Sheikh Nasrallah and his Hezbollah that hate Jews; the sheikh has even called for the destruction of Israel, echoing a formal tenet of Yasser Arafat discredited Palestine Liberation Organization in the 1970s. Even among supposedly sophisticated Maronite Christians, one detects a continuing anti-Semitic sentiment. President Emile Lahoud of Lebanon, whose every decision is taken only after he's consulted with his political landlord, President Bashar Al-Assad of Syria, has frequently highlighted the fact that Lebanon remains technically in a state of war with Israel.

Lebanese publications are forbidden from carrying Israel datelines, unless the stories are about Israel's alleged "racism" against Palestinians. The Daily Star, an English-language daily in Beirut that is published in cooperation with the New York Times-owned International Herald Tribune, refuses to print pages of the IHT that carry ads from American Jews; the IHT's publisher -- and New York Times Company vice chairman -- Michael Golden declines to comment about this. (Disclosure: I served as the business editor of the Star in 2003, and resigned over the issue of suspect management practices, questionable finances, and discernible anti-Semitism on the part of Star executives such as publisher Jamil Mroue, a Shia, and associate publisher Hanna Anbar, a Palestinian Christian.)

It isn't enough for the Lebanese -- and other Arabs -- to pledge allegiance to the concept of democracy. They need to be held to the universal standards of tolerance. Why is the New York Times supporting a newspaper in Beirut that's flagrantly anti-Semitic? Why isn't the Bush Administration raising the question of anti-Semitism with leaders of the Arab countries it cites as open to democratic ideals -- states such as Jordan where associates of King Abdullah are often less than complimentary of the history and heritage of the Jewish State with whom Jordan now has diplomatic ties?

Why does the World Bank tolerate unapologetically anti-Semitic practices in economies it praises such as Dubai, whose crown prince and de facto ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, refused to be in the same room as the Israeli delegation when Dubai hosted the Bank's annual meeting in 2003?

There's even a joke in Dubai that it doesn't rain in this territory of the seven-member United Arab Emirates because the Jews "suck in rain clouds like they suck in everyone else's money."

Jokes like these usually indicate a society's sensibility. Now that President Bush has appointed his trusted adviser Karen Hughes to spearhead the State Department's public diplomacy -- a job in which she's supposed to particularly focus on Islamic countries and make them more friendly to America -- there's an opportunity to widen Washington's exhortation about freedom.

Genuine freedom, Mr. Bush and Ms. Hughes need to say to Arab societies, doesn't mean only adult franchise and a multiparty political system. It doesn't mean just a market economy either. Tolerance of all religions and of neighbors is a prerequisite of such freedom. Blood libel of the Jews, continuing canards about Israel's allegedly racist intentions against Palestinians, and outright hostility toward the very existence of the Jewish State, simply are not on.

But this needs to be said in no uncertain terms, and in very blunt language. It needs to be said now, as the prospects of political freedoms brighten in the Middle East.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist


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