The oldest Macguffin of modern times: An Egyptian boy in Tahrir Square holds a defaced poster of outgoing President Hosni Mubarak
The United Nations General Assembly is not known its for displays of ludic wit, but one anecdote stands out as an exception to the dire earnestness of the chamber's proceedings. In 1961, Adlai Stevenson, then US ambassador to the UN, was forced to give a robotic and deeply uncomfortable comment on the recent Bay of Pigs invasion, which at the time included a denial that the Kennedy administration had had anything to do with it. Addressing the First Committee of the General Assembly, Stevenson lapsed into a rare malapropism tied to Communism's intolerance of religion: "Fidel Castro has..." he said, turning a page in his prepared statement, "circumcised the freedoms of the Catholics of Cuba." Gideon Rafael, the Israeli delegate who had spent the better part of this speech doodling in his notepad out of boredom, grew suddenly alive to the moment. Turning to his Irish counterpart, the great historian and statesman Conor Cruise O'Brien, Rafael announced: "I always knew that we should be blamed for this, sooner or later."
If ever there was a lesson to be learnt from the last three months of Arab and Persian revolts, it is that Zionism is perhaps not the most meddlesome ideology to interfere with Middle Eastern affairs. That it's been the most convenient scapegoat for why the region still seems a forbidding desert of dysfunction, the land of torture chambers, rigged elections and every shade of obscurantism, is more a matter of rhetorical convention than empirical reality.
For decades, the Palestinian national cause, just and necessary though it is, has been presented by a strange consortium of non-Palestinian dictators, left-wing intellectuals, right-wing policy analysts and any-wing newspaper correspondents as the key to all regional mythologies. Israel, according to this paradigm, was the great spoiler of "stability," and Palestine the great symbol for a century of collective Arab grievances. Emirs and foreign ministers, as shown by the recent WikiLeaks dump of State Department cables, reiterated this argument almost as a tic of diplomacy and even while emphasising the greater urgency of America's military confrontation of Iran's nuclear weapons program.
But now we've seen evidence that the overriding concerns of the jobless, imprisoned, censored, bullied and bloodied peoples of Egypt, Jordan, Yemen, Bahrain, Libya and Syria have not, in fact, been the real estate habits of ultra-nationalist Jews in the West Bank, much less the fractiousness of the Netanyahu cabinet or the sacredness of the Temple Mount. The momentum and direction of history was better guessed at by Facebook and Twitter than by the Guardian or the BBC. One might have imagined that Israel, if only temporarily, was about to be consigned to the periphery of the what-went-wrong debate.
Instead, the Zionists are everywhere and at it again, working their perfidious spells in the least discernible of ways. Last Thursday night, the BBC programme Newsnight featured an interview with Sami Khiyami, the Syrian ambassador to Britain. Khiyami writhed to account why his boss Bashar al-Assad was massacring Syrian protestors in the historically pro-Baathist town of Daraa. Their demand was an end to the 50-year-long "emergency law" that has allowed a dictatorship of a religious minority to rule over a religious majority (no accusations of "apartheid" here), but Khiyami was certain of the true origins of the disturbance: "Well, the Israelis could be behind it," he told a sceptical Jeremy Paxman, the Newsnight anchor. "They could be behind any bad thing in the world." (Important here is the fact that in January, Assad boasted that Syria would be immune to the civil unrest then engulfing Tunisia and Egypt because of Damascus's long-standing opposition to the Jewish state.) When asked by Paxman if Assad might some day stop torturing his own people, Khiyami evidently misheard him: "To Israel?" he replied with grammar as curious as his Freudian thought pattern, drawing Paxman's insistence that the topic at hand was still very much Syria.
Khiyami was only recycling a familiar theme. During the tumult in Tahrir Square, Egyptian state television — the same outlet that under Mubarak's reign exhibited a "documentary" based on The Protocols of the Elders of Zion — warned that the country was now infiltrated with Israeli spies posing as journalists. This was one reason, according to Lindsey Hilsum of the UK's Channel 4 News, that so many Western reporters covering the protests in Cairo and Alexandria were beaten up. James Hider of The Times of London, who was first detained by the Egyptian secret police and then assaulted by a mob while traveling with his journalist wife, reported how "both the Mubarak regime and the protesters are using Israel as a stick to beat the other," with the latter given to shout, "Ya Mubarak, leave, leave. Go and live in Tel Aviv." No more can have been expected of a society reared on decades of conspiracy theories that sought to explain away Egypt's economic and intellectual stagnation. According to a 2006 Pew Global Attitudes Project survey, anti-Jewish sentiment was at 97 per cent in Egypt, where a majority also disbelieved that Arabs had carried out the 9/11 terrorist attacks. That same year, in response to such frightening lassitude of national imagination, Egyptian columnist Hassan Hafez wrote a depressive essay in the opposition newspaper, Al-Wafd:
I wonder why we blame Israel for every fault in [Arab] society. This is the logic of the weak, who seek a peg on which to hang all their mistakes in order to evade a true confrontation with reality. An Egyptian plane crashed last November [and they say]: "This is an operation by the Israeli Mossad. [Muslims fight with Christian Copts] Al-Kushekh...and everyone blames the Israeli Mossad. Then, something even stranger happens: the price for a tank of gas rises up to 15 Egyptian pounds, and one newspaper claims that the reason for it is the export of gas to Israel! ... We blame Israel for failures in marketing or for the rise of prices. This is illogical and unacceptable... I wouldn't be surprised if they say that the Mossad is responsible for the social security problems in Egypt too.
Hafez had only to wait a while. But the widespread conspiracism to which he alluded helps explain the Israeli wariness of a post-Mubarak democracy where so far the ablest political movement is the Muslim Brotherhood.
In Yemen, the Arab intelligentsia, too, was asked to believe that a Jewish invisible hand was smacking the ancien régime. On March 1, Ali Abdullah Saleh, the dictator of that wobbly American ally nation, told a crowd of academics and students that "[t]he wave of political unrest sweeping across the Arab world is a conspiracy that serves Israel and the Zionists" and also that "the control centre for destabilising the Arab world is in Tel Aviv." Remarkably, credence was given to this assertion by none other than an associate editor of the Guardian. On March 3, Seumas Milne said of the accusation, "That is easily dismissed as a hallucinogenic fantasy now. It would seem less so if the US and Britain were arming the Libyan opposition. The Arab revolution will be made by Arabs, or it won't be a revolution at all." How imposing a no-fly-zone would make the Zionist plot to overthrow Gaddafi any less of a hallucinogenic fantasy, Milne didn't elaborate.
On February 18, Libyan Al-Jamahiriya TV broadcast a Friday sermon that laid the blame for the rebellion squarely at the tent of a non-Bedouin tribe: "[The rebels] were drawn by the deceiving media, and they took to the streets to sow corruption, thus assuming the character of the Jews, who spread corruption upon the land." How the Jews can have partnered with al-Qaeda, Gaddafi's other bugbear, went blissfully unexamined in the broadcast.
Consistency may not be Gaddafi's strong suit, but there's no harm in trying to pin his current misfortunes on the oldest MacGuffin of modern times. Norman Cohn, that great scholar of millenarian hysteria, once observed of anti-Semitism that it lived in "a subterranean world where pathological fantasies disguised as ideas are churned out by crooks and half-educated fanatics for the benefit of the ignorant and superstitious." Israel's endurance as a calm and secure democracy in a neighborhood of tottering Arab despotisms has only made the subterranean bubble right back up to the surface.
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