MONTREAL — Antisemitism is widespread and worsening in Arab nations, and is as commonplace among intellectuals as the masses, Israeli academic Esther Webman says.
Webman, who heads the Zeev Vered Desk for Tolerance and Intolerance at Tel Aviv University’s Dayan Centre for Middle Eastern and African Studies, was in Canada recently to speak at an academic conference and meet with the Canadian Friends of Tel Aviv University.
The Vered Desk was established in 2009 by Ottawa philanthropist Sara Vered in memory of her husband.
“Arab societies are not progressing, they are regressing,” Webman said, adding that Jews and Judaism are being depicted there in ways reminiscent of the worst of European antisemitism.
Webman said she had high expectations after the peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, as well as the Oslo accords, that the Arab people would see Jews in a better light.
The reverse has happened, in her estimation, because the political leaders did not “educate the people to change their thinking.”
Few Egyptians or Jordanians travel to Israel, she pointed out, while Israeli tourists flood its neighbours.
The Egyptian-born Webman said she is saddened, more than frightened, by the way things have turned out, explaining that she remembers a time when Muslims, Christians and Jews lived in harmony in Egypt, from which her family left for Israel in 1954.
“Personally, I am discouraged and pessimistic… I had believed, perhaps naively, that if we make the effort, our peoples would get closer.”
While it is true that prejudice against Arabs and Muslims exists in her country, Webman said, “the important difference is that Israeli society is not monolithic,” while on the Arab side, anti-Jewish bigotry is close to unanimous.
Webman is co-author of the 2009 book From Empathy to Denial: Arab Responses to the Holocaust. She delivered a paper on the Arab world’s reaction to the trial of Nazi henchman Adolf Eichmann at a conference at the University of Toronto on the 50th anniversary of the trial.
While Webman is a historian, she keeps a worried eye on contemporary events in the Arab states. The mainstream media, even prime-time television, are replete with negative stereotyping of Jews, she said.
It’s not unusual for newspaper writers to refer to The Protocols of the Elders of Zion to make their arguments, she added.
The language and imagery go beyond heated polemics or the resentment ordinary people may feel in a conflict situation, she said. Webman characterizes it as blatant racism, a term she said she uses cautiously.
For example, she hesitated to describe school textbooks as antisemitic if maps do not show the State of Israel.
She noted that a 2011 survey conducted by the U.S.-based Pew Research Center in Arab and Muslim countries found that only one to four per cent of respondents had a favourable opinion of Jews.
The Arab Spring has not brought moderation in this regard, as far as Webman has been able to discern. In Syria, both the rebels and the Assad regime have resorted to using Israel and Jews as rhetorical “metaphors,” she said. President Bashar Assad has dismissed the rebels as “tools of Mossad,” while the other side has decried “the spilling of blood for the Passover matzot.”
However, with the exception of Iran, Webman said antisemitism is not being officially inculcated by governments, as it was, say, in Nasser’s Egypt of the 1950s and ’60s. On the other hand, Arab regimes are doing nothing to suppress it, she said, viewing its expression as a means of “blowing off steam” that might otherwise be directed at them.