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Last Updated: Sunday, 10 August, 2003, 00:24 GMT 01:24 UK
Interpreting Egypt's anti-semitic cartoons
By Kate Clark
BBC correspondent in Cairo

"About the Holocaust, this big figure they mention, nine million, six million, it's not true," says Mohammed, the correspondent of an international news agency in Cairo.

"In reality it was only half a million Jews killed - no more."

The reason why the figure is important, he says, is that the Israeli Government "uses the Holocaust to put pressure on the European governments to neglect Palestine, to try to kill the dream of a Palestinian state".

Mohammed also believes the Israeli secret service, Mossad, were responsible for the 11 September attacks.

An Egyptian student holds up a placard saying No to Israel
Anti-Israel sentiment waxes and wanes
His views appear to be quite typical among journalists in Egypt and American and Israeli groups monitoring anti-Semitism in the Egyptian media are livid.

One such group is the US-based Anti-Defamation League which has also been complaining about a recent set of cartoons in the Egyptian daily, al-Wafd, calling them "viciously anti-Semitic".

The cartoons depict the Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, as a Satanic figure, with horns and a tail and a swastika neck-tie.

"Quickly, go and build 10 more settlements," he says to a group of hook-nosed, religious Jews, "so we can remove them in front of the cameras."

Mohammed Khalil, who teaches Mass Communications at Cairo University, says depicting Israelis as Nazis is legitimate political commentary.

"The cartoonist wants to show just how unjust the Israelis are. He wants to say these people who suffered so much are now doing the same."

Changing allegiances

Most of the anti-Semitic imagery in the Egyptian media originally came from Europe: there is no indigenous tradition of anti-Jewish racism in the Muslim world.

Child inmates liberated by Soviet troops from Auschwitz

Indeed in past centuries, Jews being persecuted in Europe often fled to Muslim countries.

Mohammed Salmawy, who edits the state-owned newspaper, Al-Ahram Hebdo, defends the use of old European myths like the blood libel - the accusation that Jews use the blood of Christians when making the matzo bread for Passover.

He says journalists are merely digging around - using the equivalent of Greek myths or fairy stories - to convey their horror at the Israeli occupation.

"The real question is why the actions of some people bring to mind these myths: Sharon's policy is bloody and discriminating and anti-Semitic - and remember, the Palestinians are also Semites."

Abdullah Schleifer, director of Television Studies at the American University of Cairo - and former NBC bureau chief - is utterly dismissive of media anti-Semitism.

"It's just a stupid knee-jerk reaction to the Arab-Israeli conflict," he says, by a media which goes quiet about Israel when official relations are good.

Sharon's policy is bloody and discriminating and anti-Semitic - and remember, the Palestinians are also Semites
Mohammed Salmawy
Al-Ahram Hebdo

"During the period of the Oslo accords, there were terrible things happening on the West Bank - the number of illegal settlements doubled, Palestinian water rights were trampled - but I learned more from Ha'eretz - the Israeli newspaper - than I anything I could read in the Egyptian press, not a single correspondent went to the West Bank during that time."

However when the second uprising started, he says, and official relations became difficult, the media felt it had to be anti-Israel.

"But they know nothing, they don't understand Israel or the Jews because they don't read or study, so you get all this ludicrous stuff."

"Thank god, it's not real racial anti-Semitism," says Mr Schleifer who converted to Islam in the 1960s, but was born a Jew in New York.

Personal animosity towards Jews, even Israeli tourists, is rare in Egypt, he says.

Jews, not Israelis

Mr Schleifer's views seem to be borne out when I ask young Egyptians who have only known peace with Israel what they think about Israelis and Jews.

"In Egypt, we say what's in the heart, stays in the heart: Egyptians hate Israelis," says one man, sitting with his girlfriend in one of Cairo's many coffee shops.

But, he said, they don't hate Jews.

"For us, as Muslims, we regard the Jews as our cousins," he says.

During the period of the Oslo accords, there were terrible things happening on the West Bank... but I learned more from Ha'aretz - the Israeli newspaper - than I anything I could read in the Egyptian press
Abdullah Schleifer
American University, Cairo
A young woman insists it was only the creation of Israel which made other Egyptians wonder about the loyalty of their Jewish neighbours.

"Before that, Christians, Jews and Muslims lived peacefully in Egypt," she said, going on to complain about anti-Muslim and anti-Arab imagery in the American press.

Fading away

The use of anti-Semitic imagery in the Egyptian media may seem bizarre, racist and anachronistic to outsiders.

But it is not based on any historical hatred of Jews as a race.

It has more to do with the need to be seen supporting the Palestinians, even if only in a purely symbolic way.

That means that if and when real peace comes, the Egyptian media are likely to quickly forget their anti-Semitic line.

Israeli fence divides Mid-East press
05 Aug 03  |  Middle East
Egypt: Bridging the Mid-East gap
16 Jun 03  |  Middle East
The birth of Israel
17 Nov 02  |  Middle East
Egypt airs 'anti-Semitic' series
07 Nov 02  |  Middle East

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