The PLO between Anti- Zionism and Antisemitism, Background and Recent Developments / Prof.B.Rubin

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The PLO between Anti-Zionism and Antisemitism, Background and Recent Developments
Part One
(The research was published in 1993, but many of its parts are as actual as if they were written today)


The question of the attitude towards Jews and antisemitism by the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) is extremely controversial. A useful examination of the issue is not to find the PLO "guilty" or "innocent" of antisemitism but to explore how the group's attitude toward such matters has affected its strategy, ideology, and behavior.

The conflict between the PLO and the Jewish state forced the PLO to systematically examine such issues as: the purpose of Israel's existence, why Jews support Israel, the nature of Jewish identity, and the Holocaust. Its attitude toward Jews and Israel came from a variety of sources: Islamic doctrine, historic Arab-Jewish relations, imported European antisemitism, Marxism, and direct contacts with Israelis.

The PLO's problem was to find ways to delegitimize Israel while not being discredited in the West as antisemitic. In general, the PLO "solved" this problem by calling Zionism a distortion of Judaism, which was defined only as a religion. Israel was portrayed as a creation of Western imperialism, rather than a nationalist expression of the Jews. The PLO used these arguments - along with negative stereotypes of Jews from Arab and Islamic history - to insist that Israel was doomed to collapse. In the past such ideas have encouraged a terrorist strategy and a refusal to negotiate with Israel. While there have been notable changes in PLO ideology over the past few years, significant misconceptions remain. The PLO's interpretations on the Jewish question as discussed in this paper make it far harder for that organization to negotiate a compromise peace with Israel and for Israel to accept the PLO as a negotiating partner.

I. Antisemitism or Anti-Zionism
The categories used to define antisemitism in Europe are often inadequate to describe Middle Eastern attitudes or anti-Jewish sentiment in an era after the Nazis' defeat and Israel's creation. In Europe, Jews were negatively seen as powerful, while in the Middle East they were historically perceived as weak. The empowerment of the Jews after 1948 may have inclined Arab views closer to the traditional European stereotype.

There is also the problem of distinguishing between antisemitism, a hatred of Jews and a desire to do them harm, and anti-Zionism, opposition to Israel's existence and a desire to hurt or destroy it. The PLO is obviously anti-Zionist. Since the vast majority of Jews support Israel's existence and security, this objectively puts it into opposition to the wishes of the overwhelming majority of Jews around the world. By fighting Israel, it strikes directly at one-third of all Jews and, indirectly, at the other two-thirds related to that country by sentiment or family ties. Thus, there is a real overlap between the two categories.

At the same time, though, these two spheres can also be separated. Judaism and the Jews existed for 1900 years without Israel. A number of Jews have - for political, personal, philosophical, and even theological reasons - been anti-Zionist. Reform Jewish and ultra-Orthodox interpretations of Judaism, for example, have seen Israel as un-necessary or even positively detrimental, though both have steadily moved toward acceptance. Marxist and assimilationist Jews have taken similar positions, albeit from a standpoint of leaving Jewish ranks. Thus, while antisemitism and anti-Zionism overlap, they do not coincide.

On a practical level, the PLO leadership had an interest in playing down - at least on an official level - its objective conflict with large elements of Jewish interests. As a public relations matter with the West, the PLO was aware of the danger of being identified as antisemitic as such a philosophy would stigmatize its effort to win international support.

As they became more politically sophisticated, PLO leaders actively tried to prove that they were not antisemitic. Official documents and doctrine were carefully structured to defend against such accusations. Anti-Zionist beliefs were rationalized as being in the Jews' interests, freeing them from oppression, reviving the true meaning of Judaism, etc.

The polemics dominating debate on this issue - conducted with an eye on implications for the belligerents' relative merits and the conflict's outcome - do more to obscure than to elucidate it. Israeli conservatives and foreign supporters want to show the PLO as profoundly antisemitic to discredit and disqualify it from ever being a diplomatic participant. To ignore the PLO's distortions of Jewish doctrine, they charge, endangers Israel's survival. They may seek to prove the PLO equates Judaism with Zionism and Jews with Israelis. Certain Palestinian acts and statements can be cited in this regard, from Palestinian leader Amin al-Husseini's alliance with Germany in World War Two, to a PLO organ's denial that the Holocaust occurred or PLO cooperation with neo-Nazi antisemitic groups.

Apologists for the PLO or Israeli and sympathetic doves, eager for a diplomatic solution, sometimes feel a stake in trying to exculpate the PLO. The former want to prove the PLO is correct and to whitewash its extremist side; the latter try to show it is a reliable interlocutor which can be trusted to be moderate in governing a Palestinian state. They claim that highlighting anti-Jewish aspects of PLO thinking is both inaccurate and damages the chance for peace. Earlier statements, they suggest, do not reflect the PLO's current positions. While it is true that the PLO has moderated its stands, however, there has been surprisingly little change in basic tenets.

By defining the issue as to whether or not the PLO sees all Jews as enemies, however, all these approaches missed the point. The conventional debate has been about whether to find the PLO guilty or innocent of antisemitism. The real issue is to clarify the PLO's attitude toward the Zionism/Judaism, Israeli/Jewish dichotomies. The useful, relevant question is how the PLO sees Israel in terms of its comprehension of Jews.

The historic dispute has been over how the PLO's attitude toward Jews should affect Israelis or the West while, in fact, the PLO and Palestinians have been the main victims of the PLO's mistaken ideas. In fact, PLO attitudes have paralyzed or excluded that organization from reaching a diplomatic settlement. The dispute has been whether studying the PLO's alleged prejudice should affect others' stands on the peace process, the point should be to first discover the truth about PLO thinking.

A specific set of views and attitudes are identified as antisemitism. One can hate some Jews - Israelis and even their foreign Jewish supporters - without having to oppose Judaism or Jews as such. Moreover, the PLO had its own social and ideological background and own unique problem, different from those of Christians in the Middle Ages or extreme German nationalists in the 1930s.

Antisemitism had always been used to attack Jews in a situation where they were not engaging in any conflict. Jews never sought to undermine the Catholic church or battle the "Aryan race." In the Arab-Israeli conflict, however, Jews did act as a people and were involved in a real battle. The Canaanites, Philistines, Babylonians, Assyrians, Greeks, and Romans all fought the ancient Jews and no doubt hated them. But this did not make "antisemitism" a meaningful issue in those ancient days.

II. The Tailoring of a Conception

The PLO needed a systematic anti-Zionist ideology to combat its Jewish rivals just as Christianity, Marxism, and Nazi fascism did in their own very distinctive ways. This interpretation of history and politics had to demolish Israel's claim to be a nation and have a right to the land. In addition, the PLO had to present this system in a manner able to win over Palestinians, Arabs and non-Arabs to support it.

Whereas Palestinians and other Arabs - as well as Soviet and Third World audiences might not mind the expression of anti-Jewish sentiments, such attitudes would be costly among Western, Jewish, and Israeli listeners. Thus, while anti-Jewish arguments were discouraged especially in public and in English, they were less disadvantageous - and could even be useful - in Arabic and in private discussions of sentiment.

The PLO also had the option of setting a policy which might win support from a significant number of Jews and Israelis. Abu Iyad claimed in 1969, "If we can by our behavior reach the heart of [the Israeli] to convince him that in reality we are not, as the Zionists would have him believe, barbarians who want to kill him and throw his women and children into the sea, then it would be possible" to turn him against Zionism. Yet the PLO never tried hard to gain such allies. Abu Iyad himself suggested the solution was to persuade Arab states to take back their Jews who had emigrated to Israel, and PLO actions seemed to show precisely that murder and expulsion were its goals.1

In this context of publicly avoiding classical antisemitism, the PLO went to a seemingly opposite set of beliefs. An antisemitic interpretation would argue that Israel was a logical outcome of an evil race and religion, part of a Jewish design for world domination. The PLO, however, usually insisted that Israel had nothing to do with the Jewish situation, religion, or history. "The search of Arab authors, in the first place," writes M.Y.S. Haddad, a Jordanian scholar, is for arguments to refute the idea that there are religious and historical links between world Jewry and Palestine as claimed in the Zionist ideology."2

If Jews are a people, if Israel was promised them by God (or is, at least, the center of their faith), if Jerusalem is their main city, this all is a justification of Zionism. So Arabs have to find an alternative reading on the Jewish question. Christians can say that Jews have lost their chosen status or betrayed their religion, with Christianity inheriting the mantle. Arab nationalism must go further, editing out large parts of Judaism and its history. At worst, Judaism is evil. At best, it is purely a religious doctrine, little related to the land of Palestine.

A typical formulation from the 1989 Political Program of Fifth al-Fatah Congress states, "Palestine is part of the Arab homeland....The Palestinian people have been living in their homeland, Palestine, from time immemorial," protecting Muslim and Christian religious sites - a claim difficult to reconcile with the PLO boast of its ancestors having defeated the Crusaders. The Zionist entity is merely an imperialist scheme; Jerusalem does not have a Jewish religious significance.3

In attempting to explain Israel's existence, otherwise incomprehensible to Arabs, Zionism itself is portrayed as an oppressor of the Jews, acting to their disadvantage. "The Israeli military clique is moving against the course of history," explained the PLO's leader Yasir Arafat in 1989. "The Israelis lived in Jewish ghettos in Europe. Who would believe that they are now building new [ghettos] in Israel?"4

The bizarre way the Jewish question was turned around is illustrated in a 1988 statement by Abu Ali Mustafa, deputy general secretary of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) - the second-largest PLO group - and its representative on the PLO Executive Committee. Denouncing a dovish article circulated at the 1988 Arab summit - as a trial balloon for the PLO's turn a few months later - he claimed to take a more "pro-Jewish" line to explain why the Palestinians should never recognize Israel.

The PLO, he wrote, had always made a distinction "between Judaism and Jews on the one hand, and Zionism and `Israel' on the other (In fact, only 20% of the Jews in the world live in `Israel'.)...Yet with its ramblings about `the Jewish people,' this document returns the discourse to the Middle Ages, before the separation of religion and statehood, which is now standard in democratic societies all over the world. This is a major concession to Zionism which has worked to equate Judaism with nationality, in the interests of its colonial project." In effect, Mustafa argued that accepting Jews as a nation is an antisemitic position.5

A December 1991 article in the official PLO theoretical journal suggests that Zionism was the main cause of antisemitism. Jews were never persecuted because of their religion, according to this rambling, undocumented study, but due to their behavior or myths which grew out of it. For example, the unpopularity of Jews as money-lenders led to the blood libel, Similarly, the author suggests, Zionism led to international resistance resulting in the persecution of the Jews.6 Of course, aside from suggesting that Jews were responsible for their persecution, this approach indicates that Zionism is objectively anti-Jewish, that the world has no guilt to purge by supporting Israel, and that Israel is no solution to the Jewish question.

Another inverted PLO theory was to brand Israel not as a means for Jewish world domination - as antisemites insisted - but as tool, rather than the master, of Western imperialism. Instead of lumping all Jews together with Israel, the PLO wanted to divide them from Israel. Rather than identify with the Nazis, as did its precursor the Mufti in World War Two, the PLO portrayed the Palestinian Arabs as victims like the European Jews, equating Israel with the Nazis.7

As early as 1968, Arafat called Zionism "an embodiment of neo-Nazism...intellectual terrorism and racial exploitation" from which the PLO would liberate the Jews. As Haddad sums up Arab thinking, "The State of Israel treats non-Jews in Israel in the same way Jews were treated in the Christian societies of Europe." This analysis, it should be stressed, was originally applied to Arab citizens of Israel, not to Palestinians in the occupied territories.8

This approach, a staple of PLO statements and propaganda down to the present, gained a degree of global acceptance, first through Soviet bloc propaganda and later in the PLO-backed UN resolution equating Zionism with racism and the reactions to Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon.9 The PLO opposed the resolution's repeal in 1991 and thanked those who voted against it.10

A 1989 intifada statement claimed that the Zionist authorities, "Try to repeat the Nazi and fascist practices by attempting to impose the racist badge to distinguish our workers from the Zionists at the work sites" and force them "to obtain a special identity card" to work in Israel.11 About the same time, Arafat equated "the Israeli concentration camps" and "the notorious Auschwitz death camp."

With the Israelis cast as the new Nazis, the Palestinians could claim to be the new Jews, a highly educated, oppressed diaspora (though the PLO almost never mentioned the discrimination practiced by Arab states). The PLO could appropriate Jewish identity, with Arafat calling "those who now carry sacred stones [i.e., intifada stone-throwers] in our country like David - David now is the Palestinian David."12

The PLO went so far as to argue that antisemitism itself was a historically insignificant factor. In the words of Nabil Amr, PLO representative in Moscow, it was in fact "a Zionist invention designed to justify Israeli policies and blackmail the societies where there are Jewish minorities." Talking about antisemitism was a Zionist excuse to avoid Jewish assimilation. "I see no antisemitism in the Soviet Union," Amr insisted, "but I see Zionist incitement urging Jews to emigrate on the grounds that this country is not our homeland."13

Since the PLO could permit no Jewish rationale for Zionism - as a fulfillment of Jewish history, nationalism, or response to oppression - it perceived and portrayed the movement as a form of racism and imperialism. By divorcing Israel from any Jewish historical, national or philosophical context, the PLO finds the country's existence becomes impossible to understand and its survival impossible to accept.14

The argument that Israel was racist rested on the assertion that Jews could have no legitimate nationalism. Therefore, the distinction between Israeli and Arab was parallel to that between, say, black and white in South Africa rather than the differentiation between Arab and Englishman.15

Thus, antisemitism was turned on its head: Christianity had persecuted Jews as an evil religion; "scientific" antisemitism, culminating with Nazi Germany saw them as an evil race. But, though some Islamic contentions closer to a traditional European antisemitism crept in, the PLO's main argument could not be against Jews as a religion since its nationalist approach dissociated faith from statehood.

Equally, it could not claim that Jews were a race since Arabs often asserted, as part of their argument to reject a Jewish claim to Israel, that modern Jews were not a continuous line but a conglomeration of descendants of converts from many different nations. So the template which the PLO and Arab radicals applied was not to Jews, as antisemitism, but to Israel, as anti-Zionism. Antagonism to Israel had not become antisemitism. Instead, antisemitic stereotypes were fed into the analysis of Israel.

There was, then, a good deal of truth - though it was also disingenuous - in Arafat's 1992 assertion, "I have never made the mistake of attacking the Jews [verbally]. As far as we are concerned, the Jews are our cousins. The Koran says: `Of the people of Moses there is a section who guide and do justice in the light of truth." "In the Palestinian movement," he asserted, "we have Jewish strugglers of whom we are proud. We have friendly forces in Israel, such as the Peace Now Movement." "We were the first movement in the Arab world to call for a democratic state in which Jews, Muslims, and Christians could coexist."16

This does not mean that anti-Jewish stereotypes or propaganda were altogether absent in Arab - or PLO - circles, even at the highest levels. Such views especially arose from interpretations of Islamic doctrine, opportunistic efforts to appeal to audiences expected to share antisemitic views, and through the personal views of PLO cadre.

Indeed, Arafat's denial, cited above, that he had not attacked the Jews was a prevarication meant to cover-up of one such incident. When the French government expelled PFLP leader George Habash who had come there for medical treatment in February 1992, Arafat proclaimed in a phone conversation with the PLO's representative in Paris, "The Jews at work. Damn their fathers. The dogs. Filth and dirt....I took care of and treated their ill and sick. But trash is always trash."17

In this view, the Jews are ungrateful for the Arabs and PLO's paternalistic care. Arafat's outburst was an example of a darker side of the traditional Arab attitude toward dependent Jewish communities. Since the PLO claimed that Zionism was in contradiction to the Jewish religion and Jewish history, not a fulfillment of it, attributing Israel's "sins" to all Jews, then, was not in the PLO's interest.

The traditionalist/fundamentalist view was closer to what is generally meant by antisemitism. Official PLO ideology avoided this outcome by largely removing Jews and Judaism from the picture altogether. It made far more sense on both pragmatic political and psychological grounds to label the evil party as Israel falsely claiming to be the Jewish state and engaging in the kind of nefarious activities which classical antisemites had identified with Jews. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion were transformed into what can be called "The Protocols of the Elders of Zionism."18

There was no one consistent line in the PLO about Jews but rather a set of often contradictory views. Those in PLO headquarters, the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, and other Arab states all had different interests and somewhat different perspectives. Nor has there ever been - despite its importance for the organization - anything approaching a serious study of Judaism or Zionism. In part, this is because these issues pose irreconcilable problems for the PLO's doctrine and goals.


Several, diverse belief systems contributed to the PLO's conception of Jews, Israel, and Zionism. Ideas do not remain discreet, they swirl together like dyes in water. Although the exact mix of factors varied over time and among groups and individuals, the constituent elements themselves are consistent:

1. The Koran and Islamic doctrine

There is more than one possible Islamic view of the Jews, but PLO nationalists and Palestinian Islamic fundamentalists focus on the more negative ones. As Haddad summarizes contemporary Arab writing, the Koran is said to view the Jews as "a group of invaders who, contrary to the account in the Torah, had no original contact with the area," who never formed a majority of Palestine or "had a continuously stable and peaceful life in the land of Canaan."19

The Koran deemed the Jews to be distorters of God's message and treacherous in refusing to accept Islam.The prophet Muhammad killed or expelled all the Jews in Arabia.* Like Christians, then, Muslims named themselves as successors to Jews who had falsified their holy books and failed to fulfill God's will.

These traditional anti-Jewish notions, mined particularly by the fundamentalists, are part of most Palestinians' common culture and are easily called upon to explain Israel and the Jews. For example, a PLO organ wrote in 1969, "The War of Liberation being fought by our people today against oppressive Zionism" is a continuation of the fight under Muhammad which would also purify Palestine, "defiled by aggressors, oppressive and mean Jews."20

During Muhammad's time, notes Haddad, "The general Arab view is that the hostilities were always started by Jews....The term `Jews' in the Koran is usually pejorative and refers to the evil doings of these people." More positive attention is given to the Jews of Biblical times - referred to by the word "Israelite."** Among the Koran's negative remarks are accusations that Jews worship money, are arrogant, murdered prophets sent by God, are ungrateful, and are punished by God for spreading evil in the world. "Unfortunately," concludes Haddad, this image is not opposed by any positive image in the Islamic scripture."21

In studying Judaism, Arab scholars argue that the Torah used by Jews today is not the original one but a document rewritten to serve their self-interest. For example, "The Israelites equipped the deity with their own morals and disposition...fond of war, attack, revenge, and destruction." God was said to have an "exaggerated love for His Chosen People" and hate others. The Talmud was held to be antagonistic to other peoples, portraying Jews as superior and permitting them to steal from non-Jews.22

Similar images are used by PLO leaders. In November 1989, Abu Iyad, the PLO's second most powerful leader, said, "It is incontrovertible fact that Palestine is Arab-Islamic and that the Jews are the scum of humanity that gathered from the four corners of the earth and conquered our land, encouraged by the powers. Will the Jews keep a promise? Treachery flows in their blood, as the Koran testifies. The Jews are the same as they have always been."23 About the same time, Abu Iyad also wrote a moderate article in the U.S. magazine Foreign Policy. It is impossible to say with certainty how much of the contradiction is due to the opportunistic desire to appeal to different audiences and how much to the contradictory ideas held by such individuals.

Islamic imagery is strong among rank-and-file Palestinians, even those far from fundamentalism. The rise of anti-PLO Islamic movements made reviving such talk a way for the nationalists to compete. Thus, in answering Hamas (Muslim Brotherhood), a 1992 al-Fatah leaflet insists the mainstream group, "realizes it is negotiating with Jews, and knows the Jews to be what they are: `Descendants of monkeys and pigs.'...Al-Fatah will continue to carry a gun in one hand and an olive branch in the other until Allah has had his say on the matter."24

2. The Dhimmi system

Arab historical practice, however, often diverged from this system of ideas, for Islam also provided a system for co-existing with a somewhat respected Jewish minority. The Jews were designated as "people of the book" who would be granted a large degree of religious, economic, and individual freedom if they accepted Islamic rule along with some real and symbolic disabilities. At times, Jews reached high positions in certain Islamic states, but there were also periods of persecution which affected far more people and occasional forced conversion.

The Jews only became a problem, Arab writers said, when the Zionists encouraged or forced them to go to Israel. But if the Jews were so well treated in Arab countries it is hard to explain why they chose to emigrate. The Arab Jews, according to Arab writers, could only have been tricked or forced into leaving home by Zionists and Western governments. Pogroms and other mistreatment are not mentioned at all in Arab historiography or, if ever referred to, are attributed to Zionist provocation.25

The key question, however, is not whether to emphasize the positive or negative aspects of Jewish life in Islamic polities, but to note that it was a situation of total dependency. For the PLO, it was easy to reconcile the Koran's concept of the Jews with historic practice: the Jews were evil if they resisted and insisted on having their own state in the midst of the Arab world. If they unconditionally threw themselves on the PLO's mercy as dhimmis, they were promised fair treatment.

3. Pre-1948 Palestinian Arab contact with Jews.

PLO leaders are also very much affected by real or imagined personal experiences in which they see Jews in paternalistic terms. "I was brought up by Jews," emphasized Khalid al-Hasan, and he claims to understand them.26 In the PLO's view, since Jews were so well treated in the Arab world, their only incentive to oppose the imposition of a Palestinian Arab regime over Israel was that evil Zionists had distorted this history. Like Southern whites faced by blacks making demands, they are baffled by the transformation of a formerly docile people.

This perplexity assumed tremendous importance in the PLO's attempts to understand Israel, especially in the early years of struggle. For this history made it consider the Jews as cowardly, while the Arabs believed themselves to embody the martial virtues. Thus, the Jews should quickly crumble under a conventional military or terrorist onslaught. If Israel was such an artificial mixture of people who have only religion in common, then it is built on the most shallow foundation. If the Jews have no discernable motive or ability to form their own state, then it should not have much staying power.

In this context, a PLO official in 1970 said the Jews could not bear to live forever under so much tension and threat. "Zionist efforts to transform them into a homogeneous, cohesive nation have failed," and so they would want to leave. "Any objective study of the enemy will reveal that his potential for endurance, except where a brief engagement is concerned, is limited," the 1968 meeting of the Palestine National Council (PNC), the PLO's parliament, concluded. Wearing down Israel "will inevitably provide the opportunity for a decisive confrontation in which the entire Arab nation can take part and emerge victorious."27

While one might expect that later experience discredited these ideas, they still reappear as underlying beliefs among Palestinians and PLO officials. That Israel survived, won wars, and grew more powerful was a mystery which traditional Arab expectations about Jews could not explain. But this merely meant that new answers had to be developed to explain the gap between theory and reality.

Failing to comprehend that the Zionists had won their state by organizing, mobilizing, and slowly building institutions - and failing to reexamine its own assumptions - the PLO attributed the enemy's success to a Western conspiracy. Other factors - imported types of antisemitism and neo-Marxist anti-imperialism - are mustered as supplements to this traditional framework for explaining the Jews and their acts:

4. Imported Antisemitism

Christian, fascist, and even traditional Russian (ironically, through the Communist USSR) antisemitism were added to the traditional mix of concepts. In the 1930s, the Palestinian national movement allied with Nazi Germany and its leaders spent the war years in Berlin. Hitler's Mein Kampf was widely translated into Arabic.

More than 25 activists from PLO groups, including the three largest - al-Fatah, PFLP, and Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP) - chose a nom de guerre such as Hitler or Abu Hitler. Most important of them was Fawzi Salim Ali Mahdi, a senior activist in Force-17 (a security/terrorist group under Arafat's direct command) who took the name Abu Hitler. One Force-17 member in Lebanon - and reportedly a bodyguard of Arafat - was Ian Michael Davison, a British neo-Nazi who participated in a 1985 Force-17 attack on a yacht in Cyprus in which three Israelis were murdered. German neo-Nazi groups, most importantly that of Karl-Heinz Hoffman, were trained by al-Fatah in Lebanon. A senior official of the Palestine National Front, a PLO member group, was arrested in Paris in 1985 along with neo-Nazi terrorists who had carried out a number of anti-Israel terrorist acts in Europe.28 What is especially significant here is that PLO leaders made no attempt to stop or criticize such behavior even within units directly under Arafat's personal control, meaning they were indifferent to its implications.

Christian antisemitic influences surfaced in surprising places, even among Muslims and leftist secularists. Syria's Foreign Minister Farouq Sharaa told a Western group in January 1992, that Israel had "brainwashed" U.S. public opinion into forgetting the Jewish conspiracy to kill Jesus.29 Syrian Defense Minister Mustafa Tlas wrote a book claiming that Jews murdered children to obtain blood for Passover matzo, using as evidence an 1840s' "blood libel" case in Damascus fomented by Christians there. Saudi Arabia distributed copies of the Czarist forgery, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.30

Nor are even the worst anti-Jewish statements restricted to the PLO's distant past. In 1990, a member of the PLO Executive Committee - and not an illiterate gunman but Jamal al-Surani, the organization's expert on negotiations - said, "Israel was built on a Torah Talmud racist foundation."31

5. International Conspiracy Theories

The Islamic/antisemitic streams lead most directly to portraying Israel as author or participant in an international conspiracy for world conquest but this idea also overlaps with the Marxist/anti-imperialist stream.*** The fact that both the defense and foreign ministers of Syria openly pronounce "traditional" kinds of anti-Jewish statements is astonishing in light of Syria's posturing as the most "leftist," "progressive," and "socialist" of Arab regimes. The Marxist/anti-imperialist influence simply cloaks its own conspiracy theories with more sophisticated-sounding "modern" and "scientific" language.

Even in Egypt, at peace with Israel, semi-official publications write of Israel fomenting conspiracies similar to Medieval antisemitic accusations in Europe. The respected Al-Ahram accused Israel of selling Egypt radiation-contaminated food; a leftist opposition paper claimed it dispatched mice to damage crops, and a rightist one said it sent foot-and-mouth disease.32

There is, however, an interesting distinction: the traditional approach says the Jews or Israel are dominant; the neo-Marxist line portrays Israel as a tool of U.S. or Western imperialism. The former vision is stronger among Palestinian Islamic fundamentalists, the latter view is stronger in the PLO's nationalist setting but both aspects are present.33

A key aspect of the conspiracy theory approach is the idea that Jews and Israel dominate the world's money, the media, and even Western governments. In contrast to the nationalists, the fundamentalists did accept a Jewish-Israel connection but transformed this into a plot seeking world conquest. Some of them saw this as a centuries'-long plot involving Freemasons and Jewish responsibility for the French and Russian revolutions.34 This sounds like the language of European antisemitism and it is heard from a wide variety of Arab sources. For example, in the mid-1970s, the PLO's U.S. representative Hasan Rahman told an audience at the Methodist Church's center in New York that American Christians should support the Palestinians since both their countries had been taken over by the Jews. Kuwait's UN ambassador, a Palestinian, spoke in 1980 of a "cabal which controls and manipulates and exploits the rest of humanity by controlling the money and wealth of the world....It is a well-known fact that the Zionists are the richest people in the world and control much of its destiny."35

Similar sentiments came from Jordan's UN Ambassador Hussein Nuseibeh, scion of a leading Palestinian family, in those years: The world is divided "into an omnipotent race and subservient Gentiles born into this world to serve the aims of the `master race.'...Every day a Mr. Rothschild meets with a cabal in London, behind closed doors to decide on fixing the price of gold." The Arab world was "held in bondage and plundered" by the Jewish "cabal, which controls and manipulates and exploits the rest of humanity by controlling the money and wealth of the world."36

The PLO, however, almost always avoids such arguments, turning them on their head for its own advantage. For example, it praises the international media in 1988 for showing "the Zionist entity's fascist and Nazi practices." Thus "the Western press has ended the myth of Zionist control of the world's media."37 It tries to use the fundamentalists' claims against these rivals. When Hamas distributes publications proclaiming, "Oh Jews of Khaibar, Muhammad's army will return," the PLO claimed that Israel only "allowed" such extremism because the fundamentalists were acting as its agents.38

While eager to avoid the appearance of being antisemitic, PLO leaders often updated such historic prejudices by the simple expedient of substituting the word "Zionist" for "Jewish." The PLO Charter suggested that Zionism was an international conspiracy against the world's peace and welfare. Abu Iyad commented in 1969, "The Zionists have put into effect their racial colonial plan under the slogan that God's Chosen People must dominate the earth." A PLO official told a 1970 Christian meeting, "Talking of Zionist world domination, Gentlemen, we believe that Zionism has succeeded not only in infiltrating into all the institutions of society in the West, but also in penetrating the Christian Church and subjecting it, in many fields, to its wishes and whims."39

This religious card was played periodically in appropriate forums. PLO leaders routinely omit any Jewish historical link whatsoever with the holy land and to try to play to Christian prejudices. Thus, Arafat told a 1987 Islamic summit that the Zionists seek to demolish the al-Aqsa mosque. "An ugly fascist, Zionist, and racist process to Judaize our Muslim and Christian sanctities such as the virgin's crown, Dayr al-Sultan, the Holy Tomb and the al-Ibrahim Mosque."40 Arafat condemned Israel's government as consisting of "new Herods who kill innocent Palestinians."41

The Political Statement of the Fifth Fatah Congress in 1989 called Palestine, "the place and the land of Prophet Muhammad's midnight journey and Jesus Christ's cradle."42 Arafat wrote European leaders in 1991 of the conspiracy "aimed at the Judaization of the Islamic and Christian holy places" 43

More importantly, Arafat and the PLO had their own original conspiracy theories premised on the idea that Israel's hidden agenda was one of regional, if not global, conquest. In 1990, for example, Arafat began claiming that a shape on the 10-agorot Israeli coin was really a map proving that state planned to conquer most of the Arab world. That this assertion was not mere cynical propaganda was shown when Arafat made it a major part of his May 1990 speech to a UN meeting in Geneva, even though this wild claim was politically counterproductive with much of his audience.44

The same point can be made about the common Arab and Palestinian story that Israel wanted to rule from the Nile to the Euphrates rivers and that a map in the Knesset, Israel's parliament, proved it. This was no mere tale of the uneducated. In 1989, Khalid al-Hasan - a top Arafat aide, leading PLO theorist and Israel expert, member of al-Fatah's Central Committee, and relative moderate - told the story with great conviction. Arafat also repeatedly maintained that the two stripes on the Israeli flag represented the Nile and Euphrates.45

The power of the pro-Israel lobby in the United States, of course, is not a mere illusion. Yet in PLO parlance this institution may be built to mythical proportions. A PLO newspaper explains in 1991, "The Israeli lobby `terrified' all U.S. presidents of the past 40 years and became so strong that any state wanting to move closer to the White House and to enjoy its care and loans had to obtain Israeli approval first," passing through Israel or New York to get it. This "black spot" should be eliminated and it is not supported by most Americans.46

At one time or another, most PLO leaders have been so frustrated by a pro-Israel U.S. policy that they suggested, in Abu Iyad's words of 1989, "The United States does not distance itself from Israel and the Zionist lobby that to a large extent control the United States."47 Hani al-Hasan said in 1990, "It is regrettable that a superpower - and it is even the greatest one at present - is governed by the Zionist lobby," though he thought President Bush was trying to break free.48

General abd-al Razzaq al-Yahya, PLO Executive Committee member and representative in Jordan, called the U.S. position in 1990, "a satellite Zionist stance...shaped by a dependent Zionist group comprising members of the House and Senate, which has its ties with the U.S. Administration."49

Arafat developed a theory that the evil forces within the Bush Administration were the mostly Jewish disciples of former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. The concept was extended by Abu Iyad to explain Soviet permission for Jewish emigration as "a cover for the American pressure and Zionist lobby, which began to emerge inside the USSR with financial support from the Zionist lobby in the American arena."50

Yet while the PLO leaders did not want to admit that there were other reasons for U.S. support for Israel (or Soviet permission for Soviet Jews to emigrate), they did not take their own explanations too seriously. Even in the examples cited above, the speakers went on to advocate greater PLO efforts to win over Washington and to claim gains there as a result of the PLO's own strength and importance.

6. Marxism and anti-imperialism

As a product of the 1960s' worldwide upsurge in revolutionary movements, the PLO was most immediately influenced by a blend of Marxism in its Soviet and Third World varieties, leftist nationalism, and anti-imperialism. In this context, the PLO followed Soviet and Communist anti-Zionist thinking.

Thus, PLO doctrine tends to see Israel as a U.S. and Western puppet rather than the puppet-master of these forces. The PLO Charter defines Israel's existence as the result not of Jewish activity but of Western imperialism. It was inconceivable that the Jews, so long despised and quiescent in the Muslim world, could be the architects of this conquest. Thus, says the Charter, "The `Jewish State' was established in order to secure continued imperialist robbery and exploitation of our country."

Zionism, rather than being a Jewish nationalist movement, was described as imperialist, racist, fanatic, aggressive, expansionist, colonial, and fascist. Israel was not the realization of Jewish aspirations, but "a geographical base for world imperialism placed strategically in the midst of the Arab homeland to combat" Arab liberation, unity, and progress. It was part of the European colonialism then disappearing throughout Africa and Asia, and it would be eliminated, too.

The Charter is not outdated, however, in reflecting basic PLO principles. For example, the 1988 PNC resolution, considered the key document in the PLO's shift to a more conciliatory policy spoke of Israel in the following terms: "The occupation's crimes and its savage practices destroyed the Zionist claim that the Zionist entity was democratic. This lie misled world opinion for forty-eight years; Israel now appears in a true light: A fascist, racist, colonialist state based on the usurpation of the Palestinian land and on the annihilation of the Palestinian people. A state that threatens, launches attacks, and expands onto neighboring Arab lands." This characterization seemed designed to delegitimize Israel's right to exist. After all, if "the Zionist entity" was so evil, its survival was unjustifiable.51

The original Charter called on the nations of the world to make support for Zionism a crime, an ambition realized a decade later when the United Nations defined Zionism as a form of racism. Arafat's mind was filled with conspiracy theories about the "real" origin of Zionism. He was convinced that Israel was a U.S. or Western "military base," not a real country. It was, he said in 1968, created by a secret 1907 conference of Western leaders who decided to establish "a hostile, alien nation" to ensure the Middle East remained "disunited and backward."52

While other Arabs thought the United States is "essentially controlled by a small group of clever Jews," wrote PNC member Edward Said, the PLO had the opposite interpretation: Israel was a U.S. puppet, Arafat explained in 1988 that it "implements what America says....Peace is not in Israel's hand, but in the hand of the United States, because Israeli decision-making is in Washington and not in Tel Aviv....The so-called Zionist lobby has no influence on the U.S. policy."53

What factors might produce some more accurate understanding to counteract this powerful array of direct conflict, historical events, and appeal to popular prejudice? This is no easy task. In a movement so steeped in demagoguery and violence - whose rank and file's sufferings and political culture made them shout slogans like "Palestine is Our Country and the Jews are our Dogs!" and "Jews, Remember Khaibar!" (the Arabian town whose Jews Muhammad killed or enslaved), it was hard to develop ideas running counter to the dominant ones. But there were some such potential forces:

7. Contact with foreign Jews.

Meetings with non-Israeli Jews and with Jewish organizations could clarify the nature of Jews, Judaism, Zionism, and Israel for PLO leaders. It should be noted, however, that most such contacts were with marginal anti-Israel groups or those desiring to be mediators and thus hesitant to criticize PLO thinking. Thus, such interaction may do more to consolidate than to alter the PLO's existing views. For the Palestinian masses, who have no access to foreign Jews, "Israeli" tends to equal "Jew." In Arabic, the two phrases are used interchangeably. Despite talk to the contrary, the PLO never tried very hard to form alliances with anti-Israel or dovish Jews.54

At the same time, PLO member groups rarely targeted foreign Jews directly, in contrast with anti-PLO Palestinian terrorists like Abu Nidal. This is in large part because most PLO groups after the mid-1970s put a priority on attacking Israeli targets. Ironically, the PLO groups which spoke most about allying with Israeli or non-Israeli Jews on a class or ideological basis - the PFLP and DFLP - saw no contradiction in also being the groups implementing the most extreme terrorism and attacks on non-Israeli Jews. When, for example, the PFLP hijacked three airliners to Jordan in September 1970, the American Jews among the passengers were singled out as hostages and held longer.55

Beginning in the late 1980s, PLO leaders held more meetings with delegations from American Jewish and dovish groups, like that which urged Arafat to modify his policy in the 1988 Stockholm meeting.56 Reasons for doing so included an effort to avoid dealing with Israel directly or to undermine its support among Jews elsewhere. In such contacts, PLO leaders often expressed views far softer than those put forward in other statements and in PLO publications and meetings.

It is hard to assess whether these contacts have had any effect on PLO thinking. Most immediately, though, this kind of exchange made the PLO assert, as in the 1988 PNC political statement, "The world's Jewish communities can no longer defend Israel or remain silent about its crimes against the Palestinian people." So they demand Israeli withdrawal from the territories, and Palestinian self-determination.57 Similarly, Arafat repeatedly claimed, as he did in a 1989 speech to the intifada, that Israel was collapsing on every front, including "among the Jewish communities" in other countries.58

8. Post-1967 contact with Israelis

Israel's rule over the West Bank and Gaza Strip after the 1967 war put Palestinians there in contact with Israel as a state and society for the first time. The clearer identification of Israel as an existing state with a loyal population had diverse effects on those Palestinians. A higher estimate on the strength of Israel's state and society made Israel seen to be more than phantom state - American military base or Zionist devil - but a real place with actual people.

To some in the territories, especially - but not exclusively - fundamentalists, greater familiarity encouraged an identification of Jews with Israelis and thus a more traditional antisemitic approach. If Israel had a mass base of support, than those masses were irredeemably enemies.

Among the Palestinian middle class, however, this same experience encouraged greater moderation and a rethinking of Palestinian strategy toward the utility of diplomatic over terrorist methods. Seeking a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza came to seem more realistic than the possibility of conquering the whole land. Finding Israelis who supported self-determination of Palestinians in the territories posed a hope for compromise. Still, moderates were a minority of West Bank/Gaza Palestinians and did not run the PLO.59

The revisions of PLO policy after 1988 and the opening of direct Israel-Palestinian negotiations in October-November 1991, also increased - though limited - contacts between Israelis and Palestinians from outside the territories, both at the bargaining table and at conferences held in various countries. The effect of these contacts cannot yet be assessed but one might assume they could produce a more realistic assessment in the PLO.

Yet even here the results may be far less salient than might be expected. For example, a Kuwaiti newspaper organized a panel discussion in April 1987 to discuss the PLO attitude toward Jews and Israelis. The consensus was to support contacts only with "anti-Zionist" forces, primarily the predominantly Arab-backed Israel Communist party.60

Abu Iyad gave an interesting analysis of Palestinian attitudes. In the early stages of the struggle, they felt "hostility toward everything Jewish, be it Zionist or non-Zionist." Because Jews acted in such a "barbaric" manner, it was "difficult for us to differentiate between the Jews and Zionism, or between the Jew and the Israeli." He claims that the adoption of the secular democratic state idea meant a change, "We are not against Jews but we oppose Zionism." Yet even he suggested that alliances would be limited to Jews who accepted PLO rule.61

The other PLO leaders in the symposium took a similar stand. The relatively moderate Muhammad Milhim seemed to equate the "forces for democracy and peace" in Israel with the Communists, said that reasonable groups would never come to power in Israel, and thus dealing with Israelis was just a form of political struggle. Naif Hawatmeh, head of the DFLP and George Habash, leader of the PFLP - the two largest PLO groups next to al-Fatah - spoke in the same tone: hostility to Zionism and support for Arab rule over Israel was the criterion for cooperation. Israel is incapable of change, in Habash's words, "Either there is a Zionist Israel or no Israel at all." Meeting with even dovish Zionists, "created additional confusion among the Palestinians." How can the PLO criticize Egypt or Jordan for normalizing relations with Israel, he asks, if it maintains such contacts itself. The PLO's relative moderate Khalid al-Hasan commented, "History has never witnessed a conflict in which the adversary would not attempt to penetrate his enemy's arena."62

This standpoint seemed to remain the PLO's position, even after 1988. At times, PLO leaders made a distinction between the evil, Nazi government and the good "Jewish democratic forces." "Those who want peace in Israel are of sound mind," said Abu Iyad, and those who do not want peace are sick." But all Israeli politicians were put in the latter category.63 Arafat in 1990 once cited polls as showing the majority of Israelis wanted "peace and reconciliation."64 One intifada communique greeted "progressive and democratic forces and the Jewish peace forces which support our people's national rights." One 1989 leaflet tried to appeal to Israeli soldiers.65

Yet PLO officials in the intifada leadership, if not the West Bank/Gaza middle class notables, continued to refuse see as allies anyone outside the non-Zionist (and overwhelmingly Arab) Israeli Communists.66 The radical PFLP was even more outspoken. Habash called the Jewish democratic forces "insignificant" and said the PLO should only work with those who "fight Zionism".67 PFLP leader Abd al-Rahim Mulawwih added, "We do not think the forces that espouse the Zionist ideology fully or partially...are democratic forces."68 In short, there was no serious differentiation among Israeli Jews, except for a tiny anti-Zionist minority who would remain marginal.

Even when trying to appear sympathetic to Jews, Arafat manages to make a faux pas. "The arrogant forces in Israel," he commented in 1988, "have cast aside everyone who is concerned about the Jewish people....the enlightened and mature views advanced by [World Jewish Congress leader] Nahum Goldman, [French Prime Minister Pierre] Mendes-France, [Austrian Prime Minister Bruno Kreisky], and [dovish Israeli Professor Yehoshafat] Harkabi, all of whom have called for peace." How could this arrogance be stopped? "With another Masada," Arafat replied, referring to the place where Jews committed mass suicide to avoid being captured and massacred by the Romans. "We are going with the course of history, and they are going against it."69

In practice and under pressure, the PLO had to accept a delegation of West Bank/Gaza Palestinians negotiating with Israel after 1991. A strategy of seeking a two-state resolution was followed on a practical level while, on an ideological level, the idea of a state of the Jews was still out of bounds.

9. PLO "experts"

The PLO had a number of its own "experts" on Israel and the Jewish question who reinforced its misconceptions on these issues. The two most important politically were Khalid al-Hasan and Mahmud Abbas (Abu Mazin). Al-Hasan bases himself largely on his pre-1948 experiences with Jews. Abu Mazin, one of al-Fatah's members on the PLO Executive Committee, holds a doctorate from a Soviet university for a dissertation showing that Zionism is a form of racism. He played a major role in the 1970s' PLO campaign urging Israeli Oriental Jews to return to Arab states.

A different case is that of Sabri Jiryis, now director of the PLO Research Center, who grew up as an Israeli Arab and graduated from university there before emigrating to join the PLO. While writing from a PLO perspective very critical of Israel, Jiryis was the first PLO figure to propose a compromise peace. His political analysis was obviously influenced by his greater understanding of Israel, Jewish history, and Judaism.70 In general, though, the mythical approach toward Jews and Israel was prevalent among PLO intellectuals writing on the subject.

10. The pressure of reality

Perhaps the greatest influence of all was experiencing a quarter-century of war, politics, failure, and occupation. Opportunism pressed the PLO toward moderation and rejection of anti-Jewish rhetoric (in dealing with Western governments and media) and toward maintaining its historic positions (for Palestinian and Arab audiences). The lack of success in attaining victory promoted some reconsideration, though less than an outside observer might expect. Those redefining the Palestinians' complaint - from the fact of Israel's existence to that of its occupation - also somewhat shifted their paradigm.

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