Study of the `deeply poisonous rancor that is anti-Semitism'

Semites and Anti-Semites: An Inquiry into Conflict and Prejudice, by Bernard Lewis. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Co. 283 pp. $18.95 ``At this time,'' writes Bernard Lewis, ``there are some signs that the anti-Semitic virus that has plagued Christianity almost since the beginning may at last be in process of cure; by a sad paradox, the same profound religious hatred has now attacked the hitherto resistant body of Islam.'' Lewis, who is Cleveland E. Dodge Professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University and a member of the Institute for Advanced Study, has devoted most of his professional life to studying and writing about the Arab and Islamic worlds.

In ``Semites and Anti-Semites,'' he turns his considerable learning and his keen powers of analysis on a subject whose tangled roots go back for centuries, but whose ramifications are as urgent and alarming as today's headlines.

Lewis is careful to distinguish between the normal hostilities engendered by the Arab-Israeli conflicts in the Middle East and the far more deeply poisonous rancor that is anti-Semitism. It would be comforting to report that his investigations have uncovered a vast gulf between the relatively new anti-Semitism in the Muslim world and that strain of European anti-Semitism that began with early Christianity, intensified with the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition, took a quantum leap with the czarist forgery of the infamous ``Protocols of the Elders of Zion'' and the still more horrifying pogroms, and culminated in Hitler's unprecedented ``final solution.'' But a reading of recent Arab and Muslim literature -- from tracts to newspapers to journals to school textbooks -- indicates a distressing resemblance between the new Muslim anti-Semitism and the worst kind of European-Christian anti-Semitism. Indeed, Lewis's research shows that much of the new anti-Semitism of the Muslim world is actually based upon translations of the same fraudulent tracts first circulated by 19th-century European anti-Semites, and more recently, by fascist fringe groups in Europe and America.

As Lewis makes clear in a sequence of chapters defining ``Semites,'' ``Jews,'' and ``Anti-Semites,'' the term ``anti-Semitism'' is a misnomer, for it has always referred to prejudice against Jews and not to prejudice against Arabs, which, he finds, has never existed on the same scale. Thus, as we read in his chapter on ``The Nazis and the Palestine Question,'' while Hitler had denigrated the Arabs as an ``inferior'' race, he was prepared to deal with them in order to wage his war against the Jews.

Prior to the 19th century, Lewis tells us, when Europe began to dominate the Middle East, the situation of Jews in Muslim lands was ``never as bad as in Christendom at its worst, nor ever as good as in Christendom at its best.'' Despite -- or perhaps because of -- similarities between Jewish and Muslim religious practices, the Muslims were extremely uninterested in the Jews, but more or less prepared to tolerate them as a minor sect. Lewis speculates that the new-found sense of Arab outrage against the Jews -- an anger very different from the hostility normally found between rival nations -- may be traced to the fact that Muslim Arab armies were being defeated, not by mighty empires, but by those same Jews ``whose previous humility made their triumphs especially humiliating.''

Whatever the cause, the results are appalling. Examining contemporary Arabic sources, Lewis finds a growing tendency to ascribe all evil, not merely to Israelis or ``Zionists,'' but to all Jews without discrimination: `` ` . . . we are face to face with the Jewish problem, not just the Zionist problem,' '' claims one writer in 1982, who goes on to commend Hitler for having tried `` `to exterminate every Jew.' '' Even distinguished Arabs who have taken a more moderate stance have been silenced, attacked, accused of ``Zionism.'' And there is a further paradox: Alarmed that Jewish sufferings may have aroused sympathy for Zionism, the same extremists who congratulate Hitler on killing millions of Jews are also inclined to deny that the ``Holocaust'' took place.

Yet Lewis finds some reasons for hope that Muslim anti-Semitism is a passing passion, fueled by Middle East tensions, and susceptible to change. Anwar Sadat, who courageously pursued the path toward peace, was once an admirer of Hitler. There is evidence that Muslim anti-Semitism is not as visceral as the old European brand. Western Jews traveling in Arab lands, Lewis reports, have found that, ``despite the torrent of broadcast and published anti-Semitism, the only face-to-face . . . hostility . . . was from compatriots'' who felt free to express their anti-Semitism and antifeminism in what they imagined to be ``the more congenial atmosphere of the Arab world.'' Israelis, too, have often found it ``easier to establish a rapport with Arabs than with Arabophiles.''

Lewis even provides some guidelines for distinguishing between those whose sympathy for Arabs is genuine and those who are not so much ``pro-Arab'' as ``anti-Jew,'' using the Middle East as a mere pretext.

A model of clarity and concision, this thoughtful and profoundly disturbing book illuminates almost every conceivable aspect of a complex, multifaceted, and protean subject.

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