Do not blame Muslims for Anti-Semitism

In response to President Bush’s Global Anti-Semitism Review Act of October 16, 2004, the U.S. State Department released its "Report on Global anti-Semitism" early last month.

The report cites Muslims as one of the four main sources for "global anti-Semitism in recent years" and blames western European Muslims — especially those it calls "disadvantaged and disaffected Muslim youths."

But the report does a gross disservice to the truth, beginning with a prejudicial hate-inciting statement that declares, "This trend appears likely to persist as the number of Muslims in Europe continues to grow, while their level of education and economic prospects remain limited."

As I was growing up in Egypt during the 1950s, we loved to watch a TV comedy called “Hassan, Marcus and Cohen.” Previously, it had played for years in the theatre, delighting audiences with its humorous look at the daily lives of three Egyptian men, a Muslim, a Coptic Christian and a Jew.

Their families were all neighbours and the three men were good friends. When they got together, they would usually bitch about their wives, their kids and government policies. We liked the show because it celebrated everyday events with just the right mix of teenage problems, marriages, divorces, births and deaths. I believe that life itself is a comedy and it was reflected brilliantly in the relationships among these Egyptian men and their families.

At that time, Egypt had the largest number of Jews in the Muslim world. Most of our major department stores were owned by Jews, but Egyptians did not discriminate in their shopping habits based on store ownership. Nor did they discriminate in politics, for Jewish politicians became government ministers in Egypt before their counterparts in Western countries. In fact, during the 1930s and 1940s, prominent Egyptian labour and socialist political party leaders were Jewish.

And that shouldn’t be a surprise. After all, Moses was an Egyptian citizen, born and raised in Egypt, and educated at the best university of the ancient world, the Pharaoh’s palace. The Qur’an mentions Moses as a prophet and his story is told there several times.

According to Islamic Law, Egyptian Jews were given autonomy in the administration of their religiously based family and personal laws dealing with marriage, divorce, inheritance, child custody, etc.

Nothing like this Islamic form of advanced natural justice dealing with family law can be found today, even in liberal western democracies.

In fact Egyptian Jews never supported Zionism as a political ideology. Given their history in Egypt, there was no reason to, none whatsoever.

That’s because Egyptians practiced their pluralism on the ground, not as an abstract concept. Some of the oldest Synagogues in the world still stand in Cairo. And the tombs of Jewish mystics (like Abu Hasera) are still protected today by Egyptians and visited by Jews from all over the world, as well as several Muslims and Christian Copts.

Egyptians do not understand how to hate someone based on his or her religion, because they simply never practiced it. If you ask, they explain that it is politics, not religion, that causes conflict. And they are right.

If it were not for the creation of Israel, Egypt and the Muslim world would now claim the highest number of Jews outside the U.S.

In fact, the Israeli government tried using financial incentives to encourage Egyptian Jews to emigrate. And when this strategy failed, Israel launched a secret campaign of violence against Jewish business and blamed Egyptians for it.

I know one Egyptian Jew who resisted the pressure to move to Israel. She owns a successful bookstore and print shop in downtown Cairo, not far from the main Cairo Synagogue and is known to the locals as "al set al yahoodia," meaning simply "the Jewish lady." All her employees are Muslim.

When I drop into her bookstore during my frequent visits to my birth country, I always ask for a discount like any typical Egyptian. She smiles and says, “But you are a Canadian now, you are not entitled to a discount.” Then she gives me the discount anyway.

However, there has been a trend among Egyptians to use the Arabic word “yahood” i.e. Jews to refer to Israelis. This must change, and it is gradually changing, because Egyptians realize that language is very important. For example, it is also no longer acceptable to say in Arabic “the so-called Holocaust,” as if to imply there is doubt that this mass atrocity actually happened. This is another sign of positive change that shows there is no hatred against Jews in Egypt.

I have used Egypt as my example, because it is the Muslim country with the longest history of coexistence with the Jews living inside its borders. But I have also visited Morocco and Turkey, two other Muslim countries with significantly large Jewish populations. And like Egypt, hatred of Jews is simply not part of their culture.

The Holocaust — whose 60th anniversary once again gave the world pause to consider how humans could do such horrible things to one another — could never, ever happen in a Muslim country. Islam and the history of Muslims themselves both support this fact.

So please, do not blame Muslims for anti-Semitism.