Los Angeles Times, Aug. 31, 2002
By MICHAEL SLACKMAN
CAIRO — A think tank affiliated with the Arab League, the 22-nation group that seeks to forge a unified voice among its members, ended a two-day conference on “Semitism” this week at which participants labeled Jews “enemies of all nations,” challenged the Jewish claim to Israel and cast doubt on the U.S. account of who was responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks.
The Arab League, an important regional player that this year promoted a pan-Arab initiative for peace that held out the promise of normal relations with Israel, said it did not directly organize the event. However, it participated with an official representative, whose speech focused on the idea that Arabs cannot be anti-Semitic because they are Semites.
Jewish groups in the United States condemned the league’s participation, saying it amounted to “a stamp of approval.”
“Do such gatherings in any way further the cause of peace and tolerance?” wrote Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles in a letter to league Secretary-General Amr Moussa. “Or are they merely another ominous marker on the slippery slope of hate, confrontation and war?”
The Zayed Center for Coordination and Follow-Up in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, said in a statement on its Web site that it organized the conference “under the umbrella of the Arab League” specifically to “expose the fallacious claims and concocted legends of the Zionists and to counter their nefarious propaganda against Arabs and Muslims after Sept. 11.”
In his opening remarks at the conference, the center’s executive director, Mohammed Khalifa Murar, said in part: “Jews claim to be God’s most preferred people, but the truth is they are the enemies of all nations. Most philosophers … consider Jews as cheaters whose greed knows no bounds. Today, after having controlled the print and electronic media, they distort facts to suit their objectives.”
He also said Jews “hide” elements of their history that prove they are not Semites and therefore “have nothing to do with Semitism or Palestine.”
His comments were reported on the group’s Web site, www.zccf.org.ae (http://www.zccf.org.ae), and in two English-language newspapers in the Emirates.
Such harsh sentiments are certainly not new in a region where Jews and Muslims have clashed since the earliest days of Islam about 1,400 years ago, when Jewish communities on the Arabian Peninsula rejected the prophet Muhammad’s message. But this week’s meeting seems to represent lost ground in Arab-Jewish relations. While such extreme comments have been discouraged, at least officially, by moderate Arab leaders, they have increasingly become part of acceptable everyday discourse, a reality underscored by the Arab League’s participation in the conference this week.
Moderate Arab leaders had warned for months that the raging conflict between Palestinians and Israelis threatened to undermine whatever advances have been made since Israel was founded in 1948, which for many meant a reluctant acceptance that the Jewish state is here to stay.
Now the Zayed Center, a respected regional forum, is not only promoting revisionist historical ideas aimed at redefining Jewish identity but has dropped the distinction between Jews and Zionists. That qualification had been relied on by many intellectuals and leaders in the Arab world to distinguish between being anti-Semitic and anti-Israel.
“I think this is an unfortunate development,” said Sharif Musa, head of the Middle East studies department at American University in Cairo, regarding the regional rise in anti-Jewish feelings. “But it is just like in the U.S., where there are a few Muslim terrorists but there is a campaign against Islam itself among Christian fundamentalists who now think Islam is a religion of violence. It is pretty bad everywhere. We live in a poisonous atmosphere, here and there.”
The Arab League declined several requests to comment. A spokesman acknowledged that the Zayed Center is affiliated with the league but said he could not comment until receiving a report on the event.
The Zayed Center refused to comment on the telephone and did not respond to a written request for comment sent via fax.
The conference evoked a heated response from Jewish groups in the United States.
“What you are seeing and witnessing is the extension of the big lie, denying Jewish history, denying the Holocaust,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, referring in part to publications by the Zayed Center that dispute historical accounts of Nazi atrocities.
“It is part of a major effort to de-legitimize Israel and the Jewish people,” Foxman said. “If you undermine and remove the Jewish history, then this is all a myth and the poor Arabs are victimized by a fantasy.”
The Arab League’s participation added “a level of legitimacy to this garbage that wasn’t there before,” he said.
The deep hostility and anger at Israel and Jews springs from an environment roiled by two years of bloodletting between Israelis and Palestinians, by talk of a U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and by regional domestic concerns such as high unemployment. It grows also from frustration at the perceived impotence of Arab leaders to deal with the regional concerns.
The Arab League’s representative at the meeting, Ahmad Saleem Jarad, head of Israeli affairs for the group, made comments that seemed to endorse Murar’s view.
“If the phrase ‘anti-Semitism’ is taken literally, it means hostility toward Semites or members of the Semitic race whose majority is comprised of Arabs,” he was quoted as saying in the English-language Gulf News. “Only a few Jews can genuinely claim to be Semites.”
According to its Web site, the Zayed Center was created “in cognizance of the principles and objectives of the League of Arab States … which would endeavor to highlight the concept of Arab solidarity in the political, economic, cultural, social and inter-Arab relations,” among other goals.
One of the center’s most recent studies, published last month, is titled “Role of the Jews in Distorting the Arab Image in Western Culture.”
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