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When Anti-Semitism Is Mainstream

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By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, June 16, 2009

To far more people than we would like to admit, the mystery of James W. von Brunn, the alleged shooter at the Holocaust Memorial Museum, is not that he held such weird and depraved views about Jews and the Holocaust, but that those views are considered weird and depraved. In vast parts of the Islamic world, too many people not only deny the Holocaust but embrace the thinking that made it possible.

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In his remarkable speech at Cairo University, President Obama only inferentially mentioned this aspect of what has become an ugly part of the Middle East: a tolerance for and advocacy of old-style anti-Semitism. There is, in fact, nothing that von Brunn professed that is not commonly heard or published in the Middle East. Do Jews control world finance, media, international organizations and the United States itself? Of course. Are they capable of the most foul deeds, including the infamous "blood libel," which means using the blood of non-Jewish children in the preparation of traditional foods? Again, of course.

This is troubling stuff. But one only has to read the reports of the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) to see that such views are often expressed and popularly held. Does that mean they are universally accepted? I doubt it. But they can be aired largely without fear of condemnation or, more to the point, of ridicule. It was only two years ago that I stood sipping a cup of coffee in Jordan and read a syndicated column in an English-language newspaper about how Jews were warned of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks -- and none of them died. Apparently, the newspaper felt this was a view worth publishing -- an insane lie if there ever was one.

We have almost 2,000 years of experience with anti-Semitism and know by now its immense power. It lays the groundwork for the horror that inevitably follows. Obama acknowledged the most famous of these when the next day he went from Cairo to the Nazi concentration camp at Buchenwald. It was a particularly appropriate stop, for Buchenwald is right down the road from Weimar, the city once renowned for its intellectual life (Goethe) and for the interwar republic to which it lent its name. The proximity of Buchenwald to Weimar tells you all you need to know about human nature.

But I would have preferred for the president to have gone to Kielce, the Polish city where 42 Jews were murdered after an allegation of a blood libel. This did not happen in the Middle Ages but in 1946 -- 14 months after Germany surrendered. The victims were all Holocaust survivors. They were brutally murdered not by stereotypical Nazis but by ordinary Poles. The Holocaust, with its "never again" vow, seems over -- a closed chapter. Kielce makes a different point. Anti-Semitism moves on.

That anti-Semitism is now a part of Middle Eastern culture. It has infiltrated textbooks; it is recited in mosques. It is aired on television -- for instance, the broadcast of a play produced at Gaza's Islamic University in which Jews were portrayed as drinking Muslim blood. "You must drink from the blood of Muslims," a father tells his son, according to a transcript provided by MEMRI. "Okay," the son says, "but just one cup, because I'm full."

Such views are routinely espoused by religious figures. MEMRI quotes an official of the Egyptian Ministry of Religious Endowment as saying that all Jews are descended from pigs and can therefore be slaughtered. This particular statement was rebutted by other religious officials -- such sentiments do not always go unchallenged -- but it remains remarkable and scary that they are aired in the first place.

Obama was right to demand that Israel cease expanding or thickening its West Bank settlements. He is right, too, in acknowledging Palestinian aspirations and the wound that was opened in the Arab world by the creation of Israel -- the nakba, or catastrophe. But the toleration of the vilest kind of anti-Semitism is not a precondition for peace, only a warning to Israelis that the past can be prologue. If Arab leaders do not attempt to rebut and eliminate the hatred of Jews that is poisoning their societies, they will find that the peace that most of them undoubtedly want will not be possible.

James W. von Brunn was quickly segregated from the American mainstream and designated the crackpot he is. In the Middle East, though, he would be no such thing -- not some sort of reptilian vestige of the past but an ordinary man and therefore an extraordinary threat to the future.

cohenr@washpost.com


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