Neil Kressel, an expert in religious extremism and the rise of terrorism and genocide, says he never expected to write a book on virulent anti-Semitism in the Muslim world.
Growing up in West Orange and attending Congregation Beth El in South Orange (he believes his was among the first b’nei mitzva ceremonies presided over there by Rabbi emeritus Jehiel Orenstein), he was not among those who heard breaking glass or the crunch of jackboots behind every swastika scrawled on a wall.
“My focus has been on understanding the mindset of people who participate in mass atrocities. I’ve written chapters on Nazism but I always viewed anti-Semitism as historical, not contemporary,” said the Wayne resident, a professor of social psychology at William Paterson University. “If you had asked me in 1980 if the Holocaust was important, I would have said yes. But if you asked me if I thought there were good prospects of a virulent anti-Semitic movement rising anywhere in the world [today], I would have said no.”
And yet his new book, The Sons of Pigs and Apes: Muslim Antisemitism and the Conspiracy of Silence (Potomac Books), is all about the threat of rising anti-Semitism in the Muslim world and his analysis of why the rest of the world is turning a blind eye.
In his book, he lays out the evidence of the ways in which Jew-hatred (he avoids the term anti-Semitism, calling the 19th-century coinage a mischaracterization of the phenomenon) has become commonplace in the Muslim world. He notes that the 19th-century anti-Semitic forgery, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion is commonly accepted as truth in many Muslim countries, and that prominent Muslim leaders, including those widely considered moderates, often discuss their hatred of Jews matter-of-factly, or regularly refer to the ways in which Jews control the world.
He shows the ways in which Muslim leaders are complicit in propagating old stereotypes. “People who express an alternate point of view run into a problem in the Muslim world,” said Kressel, who holds a PhD in social psychology from Harvard University.
Kressel also points out stunning levels of hatred among the general population in many of those countries. According to one of the few studies available — a 2005 survey by the Pew Global Attitudes Project — 99 percent of Jordanians, and similar numbers of Lebanese have a very unfavorable view of Jews, compared to 77 percent in the United States who have a favorable view of Jews.
The title of the book comes from a common epithet for Jews in Muslim countries, derived from a traditional story about Jews who sinned against God and were turned into pigs and apes. Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi is heard using the term in a 2010 video translated this month.
Kressel acknowledges that these attitudes haven’t led to mass murder, but points with concern to those who have been targeted because of their Jewish identities, including slain Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, the Jewish victims of the 2009 attacks in Mumbai, and last March’s deadly shootings of a rabbi and three schoolchildren in Toulouse.
“The mentality behind each of these is genocidal,” said Kressel. “What keeps the body count low is the axis of the American army, the Israeli army, and the fact that people who hold these views do not have the power to implement them. In Iran right now, the mentality of virulent anti-Semitism will soon be wedded with nuclear weapons.
“The consequences of that nobody knows.”
Most of the book analyzes why there is not more analysis of the phenomenon.
“When I started to look at the question of anti-Semitism in the Muslim world, I found there were close to zero studies. And texts dealing with racism and prejudice did not mention this at all,” he said. “The obvious question is why there is so little that has been done on this topic.”
Although the book’s subtitle is “Muslim Antisemitism and the Conspiracy of Silence,” Kressel acknowledged that he does not believe there is an organized plot to suppress discussion of the issue.
What he is saying is that “there is an extreme reluctance to focus on the problem of Muslim anti-Semitism.” The possible reasons he gives for this reluctance range from a general desire not to say anything bad about another religion for fear of being called a bigot, to a perception that such anti-Semitism is merely spillover from the Arab-Israeli conflict, to fears by those on the Left that to condemn Muslim attitudes is to risk being labeled a right-winger.
Kressel said he hopes the book will start an “open and honest debate about why there is so much anti-Semitism and what to do about it.” He added, “I’d like to see the anti-racist and human rights communities engaged in it. Right now, it’s only the Right and strongly pro-Israel organizations interested, but I think all Americans should be interested.”