Palestinian antisemitism: Skin deep, widespread and not well understood

This is generally how antisemitism manifests itself in Palestinian popular culture.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas's antisemitic speech from April 30, 2018. (Reuters)
In 2014, Palestinian professor Mohammed Dajani took a group of students to visit Auschwitz. It should have happened without notice. Instead the professor found himself in the middle of a controversy at Al-Quds University, where he was a central figure in its American Studies program. The atmosphere became so toxic, he left the university.
Speaking about the trip to see the sites of the Holocaust he told The Guardian that “I felt it was important for us Palestinians to learn about this event first because it is historically wrong to deny it and also because it is morally wrong to ignore it.” Yet other Palestinians saw visiting Auschwitz as somehow affirming the “Zionist” narrative and “collaborating” with Israel.
There is a Janus-face to how antisemitism manifests itself in Palestinian media and politics. It exists in the mainstream but on an individual level appears less common. When it does rise to the surface it results in comments like the ones Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas made. I know because I taught for years at a Palestinian university and never suffered antisemitism, yet I heard antisemitic tropes relatively often.
On Monday, Abbas told the Palestinian National Council that Jews’ “social role” had led to antisemitism in Europe. His words have now been condemned as vile and unacceptable throughout the West and in Israel. But it raises a larger question. Abbas’s comments didn’t appear suddenly. He wrote a 1982 doctoral thesis that attacked Zionism and accused it of collaboration with Nazism. Abbas also condemned the Holocaust as a “reflection of the concept of ethnic discrimination and racism, which the Palestinians strongly reject and act against,” in a 2014 statement.
When Abbas made his speech on Monday it didn’t cause much controversy within the audience and there is widespread denial that antisemitism is a problem within Palestinian society. For instance, a 2006 study on “Judeophobia in context: Antisemitism among Modern Palestinians” noted that “in their perception of the conflict [with Israel,] Palestinians at times clearly distinguish between Zionism (or Israel) and Jews, but there also were instances of non-distinction, which allowed for the spread of general enmity towards Jews.”
It’s important to see the larger context here. In a globalized world connected by the Internet, antisemitism is not confined to one society, such as among Palestinians, it is part of a much larger cultural milieu. Mahathir Mohamad, the former Malaysian prime minister gave an anti-Jewish speech in 2003 to the Organization of the Islamic Cooperation. “1.3 billion Muslims cannot be defeated by a few million Jews,” he said. “They have now gained control of the most powerful countries.”
No one in the audience protested. Yet Mohamad also later compared one of his rivals to “little Goebbels.” There is a mainstreaming of antisemitism in parts of the Islamic and Arab world through social media. But the mainstreaming has a bizarre side to it. It includes antisemitic tropes, Holocaust denial and accusations that Israel treats Palestinians like Nazis treated Jews. How the two go together, Holocaust denial and accusing Israel of being the Nazis, is contradictory.
Equally contradictory would seem to be the presence of swastika graffiti in Palestinian areas and Mein Kampf sometimes openly for sale on the streets of Ramallah. Yet any suggestion that this equals widespread anti-Jewish feeling is met with surprise.
A US State Department study in 2016 noted that “in the Gaza Strip and West Bank there were instances in which media outlets, particularly outlets controlled by Hamas, published and broadcast material that included antisemitic content, sometimes amount to incitement to violence.”
Hamas's antisemitism is integral to the founding documents of the organization. “The Jews, brothers of apes, assassins of the prophets.”
Hamas also accuses Zionism of being part of an international conspiracy that unites Freemasons and Rotary clubs and asserted that Jews were behind Communism and Nazism. Here, once again, Jews become not only the victims of Nazism, but also accused of being Nazis as well.
But how does this manifest itself in society? I taught for several years at a Palestinian university and never felt antisemitism.
However, that doesn’t mean that there are not anti-Jewish views. For instance, I was told Jews have massive influence in America, their population is huge or they control the country somehow. That is the “reason” the US supports Israel, some Palestinians believe.
The “Nakba” is always tied to the Holocaust as if there is some competition for suffering, or some kind of quid pro quo: “Israelis deny the Nakba, so we deny the Holocaust.” They say, only if the two sides somehow accept that the Shoah and the Nakba are the same then a discussion can be had.
In my experience, there was a tendency only in elite circles to distinguish between “Jews” and “Zionists” and “Israelis” as if the three are separate categories. And even in elite and intellectual circles, there was not much of an understanding of the difference. Jews are Zionists and Israeli. There are also generational differences.
For instance, one Palestinian I spoke to about this issue said globalized media, particularly Islamist media, had been responsible for spreading antisemitism among Palestinians. “You didn’t have that level of antisemitism prior to the Palestinian Authority forming in 1993 and it certainly went up with the proliferation of antisemitism in [media] places like Al Jazeera [Arabic].” It also became a problem in the diaspora, he said.
The Abbas comments are already being portrayed as yet another way that Israel has manipulated the West to condemn the Palestinian leader. There is very little acknowledgment either by the Palestinian public or other leaders that the obsession with “Jews” is part of an antisemitic pattern.
From the swastikas in Gaza to the swastikas in the West Bank, it is a problem. Abbas gave a similarly offensive speech in December claiming “it is mentioned in the holy Koran that they [the Jews] fabricate truth,” and the comment went unprotested and largely unnoticed.
This is generally how antisemitism manifests itself in Palestinian popular culture. A word here, a phrase there, a comment. But it’s not usually more than a veneer of disjointed and offensive comments. It’s not seen as deeply serious. It’s why I’ve seen graffiti in the West Bank where the swastika appears next to the Communist hammer and sickle. Didn’t you realize the two symbols are at war with each other? No.