Anti-Semitic TV miniseries have become a cottage industry in the Muslim world. The latest, the Egyptian programKhaybar, takes its name from a battle in 629 CE battle when followers of Muhammad defeated a Jewish tribe, slaughtered the men and sold the women and children into slavery. It will be broadcast during the holy month of Ramadan when many families are home to break their fast and gather around the TV together. Ramadan, which falls in July this year, is "prime time."
Something deeper than the Israel-Palestinian territorial dispute is driving this disturbing phenomenon, and the problem is getting worse. Decades of frustration and distrust on both sides of the Arab-Israel conflict exacerbates this incitement, but it alone can't explain it. The "prime time" virulence is only one part of a xenophobia which also fuels anti-western sentiment and persecution of indigenous Christians. Animus against Jews might be mitigated by territorial compromise, but its roots predate the occupation and even Israel's creation. Egyptian popular author and preacher Muhammad Hussein Ya'qub said as much in a televised sermon in 2009: "They aren't our enemies because they occupy Palestine: they would be our enemies even if they had not occupied anything."
Extreme anti-Semitism has become pervasive in the popular culture. Jews-as-villains themes are found on the local equivalents of Dallas, Hardball, and The 700 Club. They even appear on the equivalent of Sesame Street: wicked Zionists killed off a Mickey Mouse look-alike star on a Gaza children's program. Talk shows are saturated with anti-Semitic rants and conspiracy theories. Holocaust denial is the norm, but Friday sermons calling for the slaughter of all Jews everywhere are not uncommon. The depiction of evil, blood thirsty Jews plotting to control the world -- extremist stuff that exists only in disreputable margins of society in the West -- is shown to hundreds of millions of people. Yusri Al-Jindy, the writer of Khaybar, minces no words about the program's anti-Semitic intent. "The goal of the series is to expose the naked truth about the Jews and stress that they cannot be trusted," he said an in interview with the daily Al-Youm. "The charge of anti-Semitism is an outdated trend and, in fact, is a lie that the Jews use against anyone who tries to expose their naked truth and conspiracies."
Khaybar is only the latest manifestation. The 2004 Ramadan Iranian television Zahra's Blue Eyes depicted an alleged conspiracy of Zionists to steal the eyes of Palestinian children for transplant -- a new twist on the centuries-old blood libel, which alleges that Jews use the blood of non-Jewish children for ritual purposes. A 2009 Turkish series, Farewell, shows Israeli soldiers at a West Bank checkpoint machine-gunning a new born Palestinian at point blank. A popular 2001 Egyptian Ramadan series, based on the anti-Semitic forgeryProtocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, was re-broadcast this year.
Major human rights organizations all but ignore this incitement. Although Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch issued a joint statement in 2003 condemning anti-Semitism and Human Rights Watch has condemned anti-Semitism in the West, both groups are silent about widespread and poisonous anti-Jewish animus that is now commonplace in Muslim countries. But ethno-religious incitement has already cost the lives of thousands. And it undermines peace prospects. It is hardly "confidence building" when Israelis see these hateful programs on their own living rooms broadcast from Jordan, Egypt and Gaza. They remember the "Khaybar" missiles Hezbollah fired at Israeli cities in 2005. They have heard the chant at rallies in Ramallah and Europe: "Khaybar, Khaybar ya Yahud, jaysh-i Muhammad sawf-a ya'ud!-Khaybar, Khaybar, O Jews, the army of Muhammad will return."
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights defines ethno-religious baiting as a crime against humanity: "advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence" (article 20). Human rights groups need to speak out. This is not trivial TV entertainment. It amounts to nothing short of the psychological preparation for a potential genocide. It must be recognized and addressed.
This crude and offensive incitement defies journalistic and media standards observed elsewhere. It harms Jews, but also it undermines the standing of Muslims and the image of Islam.
In a meeting I had last month with the Secretary General of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation Professor Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu and OIC's ambassador to the UN, Ukuk Gokcen, both men acknowledged incitement is a significant problem. Professor Ihsanoglu has spoken against anti-Semitism during his tenure. We look to the OIC and others within the Muslim world to take steps to help curtail this disturbing trend. To date major human rights organizations are all but silent.