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Trivializing Mahathir’s Antisemitic Message

At a time when even such publications as The New York Times and Financial Times clearly understand the significance of what took place in Kuala Lumpur, it is astonishing that the Forward chooses to trivialize it and to some extent rationalize what happened (“Mahathir’s Message,” October 24).

Even many leaders who have failed to see that the one-sided criticism of Israel is often antisemitic, or at least creates an environment in which antisemitism flourishes, recognized that Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s speech and the reaction to it were different. And yet the Forward opts to minimize the significance of these events by referring to the political dispute between Israel and the Palestinians.

It may well be that the surge in antisemitism in the Islamic world began with a focus on Israel. But it has gone way beyond that, even when Israel is referenced, as Mahathir did in his address. It has taken on a life of its own with dangerous potential that should not be diverted by the very real and serious questions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Muslims around the world today are not merely hearing about the terrible Zionists. They are hearing and believing in huge numbers that Jews control the world in so many ways. That is why Mahathir knew that he was walking into an open door by saying before the leaders of 56 Islamic nations that the “Jews rule the world by proxy.”

When tens of millions of Muslims believe the conspiracy theory that Jews, not Osama bin Laden, were behind the terrorism of September 11, they are saying in effect that Jews rule the world. After all, how could Jews pull it off in such a way that the whole world believes it was done by bin Laden if the Jews did not control, at the very least, the international media and the American government?

When leading Muslim newspapers and intellectuals claim that the Holocaust never really happened or was greatly exaggerated, they are saying in effect that Jews rule the world. How could governments, scholars, religious leaders, intellectuals and vast numbers of people believe such a falsehood as the murder of 6 million Jews, if not for the fact that mysteriously, as in the “Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion,” Jews are able to manipulate and control the thinking of everyone to satisfy their lust for power?

All this is not theoretical. The messages that came out of Kuala Lumpur about Jews are easily set in motion with violence around the world against Jews and Jewish institutions. Let’s remember that the essence of the Nazi message to the German people was not merely that Germans should dislike Jews, but that Germans were the victims of the powerful Jew and must act to protect themselves. Muslims around the world are similarly being fed a regular diet of classic big lies about Jewish power. Once again masses of people are being made to feel that they are the innocent victims of the overwhelmingly and mysteriously all-powerful Jew.

How we deal with this challenge is a profound question that requires serious attention. Clearly the problem of extremism and antisemitism in the Islamic world is complex. Approaches to resolve it must be direct — confronting antisemitism head on — and indirect — finding ways to bring reform to these societies so that the urge to scapegoat Jews for all their problems will be reduced. Clearly, how to bring reform is a difficult challenge that has not yet found an answer.

While answers are not easy to find, they must begin with a willingness to acknowledge and not explain away the problem. When Arab and Islamic leaders refuse to admit that there was anything wrong with Mahathir’s comments, there’s a problem. When some in Europe, led by France, placed obstacles in the way of a quick and forceful denunciation of Mahathir’s antisemitism, there’s a problem. And when Mahathir, given time to think about the implications of his statement, reacts by saying that the criticism he has received is an indicator that in fact Jews do control the world, there’s a problem.

The dangers world Jewry face are the greatest since the 1930s and 1940s. But there is a hopeful note. Today, unlike then, we are not helpless and alone. We must make sure that all good people know what the problem is and act before it is too late.

Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, is the author of “Never Again? The Threat of The New Anti-Semitism” (HarperSanFrancisco).

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