Anti-Semitic semantics

This year in Washington, it's the Egyptian press' turn to be singled out

Issandr Elamrani

The ADL ad as it appeared in US papers

Ever since the American press and administration started resenting the lack of pressure put on Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat by Mubarak at Camp David last summer, the Egyptian-American special relationship has been on a downhill slope. This has become evident not only in the kind of coverage that Egypt is getting in the US–where an exasperation with Egypt has become the norm since Thomas Friedman’s infamous "Dear Hosni" pastiche in the New York Times–but also in the meeting President George W. Bush had with his Egyptian ally.

Whereas in past years, the issue of treatment of Egypt’s Copts has been the backdrop of President Mubarak’s yearly US visit, this year he is coming under fire from pro-Zionist US organizations for his allegedly permissive stance towards anti-Semitism in the Egyptian press. In a report issued on 29 March, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), an organization that describes itself as "fighting anti-Semitism and bigotry in the US and abroad," outlines anti-Semitism in the Egyptian press. On 2 April, the ADL bought full-page ads in two of America’s most prominent dailies, the New York Times and the Washington Post, demanding that Mubarak put an end to anti-Semitic sentiment in the Egyptian press. The banner of the ad issues an ultimatum. "You have the power, President Mubarak, to stop the anti-Semitic hate in Egypt," it reads. "Use it."

The report illustrates its allegations of anti-Semitism with cartoons from Al Ahali, Al Wafd, Al Gomhouriya and other major Egyptian newspapers and magazines, both opposition and government-owned. The vast majority of the cartoons, however, are those of Mohammad Hakim, published in Al Ahali, a publication that belongs to the left-wing Tagammu party.

ADL president Abraham Foxman, in an interview with the Cairo Times, explained that the move came out of frustration with President Mubarak’s lack of a stance against anti-Semitism. Although the ADL has been reporting on anti-Semitism in Egypt for over five years, and Foxman has personally raised the issue four times with Mubarak, this is the first time it is given such a high profile.

"I think we should treat Egypt like we treat any democratic nation, and not to make excuses and say, well, after all, it’s Egypt," Foxman said. "I respect President Mubarak. He has said to me that he is against anti-Semitism. Well that’s not enough. It’s time for him to say so publicly."

Others see a more political reason behind the timing for the ADL’s campaign. James Zogby, head of the Washington-based Arab-American Institute, thinks it has more to do with Israel getting more right-wing.

"The approach that’s been taken by the Anti-Defamation League and its cohorts, such as the Zionist Organization of America, is disgraceful," he said. "This is a difficult time in the peace process, and a shifting situation in the US. There is a hard-line, anti-peace government and they are taking cues from that. You also have a violent situation in the West Bank, Gaza and Israel that has created some consternation so they’re reacting to that. And one of the ways to react is to circle the wagon–they’re circling the wagon and striking out at the strongest and most important Arab country that can challenge Israel’s hegemony here in Washington. And that’s Egypt." Zogby sees a link between an increasingly extremist Israeli government under Ariel Sharon and the toughening of American pro-Zionist organizations.

Another Arab-American activist, Ali Abunimah, who monitors the American and international press for anti-Arab bias, argues that the ADL report is part of consistent effort to give Arabs and Arab governments a negative image in the American media. "The first thing we have to do is to put this report in its context," he argues "The purpose of the report is to provide evidence to support a thesis that is being consistently pushed by Zionist organizations such as the ADL and by the government of Israel. That is, that the reason that there is no peace between Arabs and Israelis is not because of anything that Israel is doing; it’s not because of Israel’s settlements or abuses of human rights or its occupation. It’s none of that, It’s because of the Arab media preaching hatred towards Israel."

Foxman, however, denied that the ADL’s report was motivated by recent political events, insisting that his organization has always been concerned with the issue of anti-Semitism in Egypt. "The reason we did it while [Mubarak] is here, is to get his attention," he concluded.

Get Mubarak’s attention they will, and not only through negative publicity during his visit. Edward Walker, US Assistant Secretary of State, responding to the ADL’s report, said that he "agreed 100 percent about the cartoon. It is atrocious, it is vicious, it is unacceptable, it is designed to incite people to violence, and is clearly contradictory to the spirit of peace that we want to encourage in the area." Walker also told a House of Representatives subcommittee that he would recommend that President Bush raise the issue in his meeting with President Mubarak.

Foxman also separately raised the issue in front of the same subcommittee, urging Congress to take action against Egypt for Mubarak not condemning anti-Semitism in the press. "I’ve pressured Congress–well, I didn’t pressure Congress, Congress is angry to begin with–I made a recommendation in Washington last week," he said. "I don’t want to punish Egypt, but there has to be consequences." Foxman has suggested that US$100 million allocated as US aid to Egypt this year be put it into an escrow account until a responsible authority in Egypt begins to speak against anti-Semitism in the Egyptian press. "I will be the first one to support a release [of the funds] and to applaud this action," said Foxman, if such an event did occur.

Abunimah said that the move is symptomatic of an increasingly common means to pressure recipients of US aid. "What many supporters of Israel think is, look, we pay you two billion dollars a year, you should shut up and do what we want," he said. "Many people in the US believe that if the US gives economic and military aid to a country, it has bought that country. We saw this last week, when the US strongly criticized Columbia for daring to vote against Israel in the Security Council."

While many articles and cartoons in the press can clearly be labeled as anti-Semitic, ADL’s definition of the term in its report includes, in addition to classical portrayals of Jews as hook-nosed misers, those that portray Israelis as Nazis or warmongers, an image that many defend as legitimate political criticism.

"Some of the cartoons were offensive in the sense that they portrayed Jews in a very stereotypical way, but I think that a lot of them were not particularly offensive," said Abunimah. "I think most of them fell within the bounds of editorial comment–most of them did not talk about Jews, they talked about Israel. What the ADL is trying to do is equate all criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism."

The issue has already been felt in Egypt itself. US Ambassador to Egypt, Daniel Kurtzer–who came under an anti-Semitic himself when he became the first Jewish American to hold that post–told journalists gathered at the American Chamber of Commerce on 13 March that he wanted to address the issue of anti-Semitism. "I want to raise a point that is very sensitive, because I think that among friends we can talk about this honestly and openly. Some of the media commentary in both government and opposition press during this crisis and the previous ones has begun to cross two lines: instead of legitimate criticism of the US policy, anti-Americanism has begun to emerge. And, instead of legitimate criticism of Israeli policy, there has been anti-Semitism, in other words, hostility to Jews and to Judaism. I do not believe these views reflect the views of the majority of Egyptians or of the Egyptian government. It is imperative though that the press and media avoid language and stereotypes that breed intolerance and hatred."

The ambassador came under fire from the press for his remarks, which were deemed to be a form of interference in the Egyptian press. A spokesmen for the American embassy defended Kurtzer to the Cairo Times, saying that he had been misinterpreted. "The ambassador was, of course, not saying that criticism of Israel or Israeli policy is not legitimate," he said. "He was speaking exclusively of criticism based on religion."

Whether the US debate will have further reverbations on the Egyptian scene remains to be seen, but it is likely that in the current context, the Egyptian press will take it as another example of US bias against Egypt.

Farida Naqash, an editor at Al Ahali, the newspaper most singled out by the ADL, said that "everytime President Mubarak goes to the US, they [Zionist organizations] have these things ready. I think they are biased," she added, although she declined to comment further because she had not read the report.

Volume 5, Issue 5
5 - 11 APRIL 2001


© Cairo Times