Muslims and non-Muslims generally use the same tropes to express aversion to Jews. In both cases we find the classic conspiracy myths; the blood libel, which is rooted in Christian sources; Holocaust denial; and vilification of Israel. There is, however, one variant of antisemitism that is specific to Muslim communities and that plays an important role in shaping opinions in the Middle East: Islamic antisemitism.
This term is not meant as a general attack on Islam (whose holy texts include passages that cast Jews in a positive light), nor as a general accusation against Muslims, many of whom oppose antisemitism. Instead, it refers to a specific form of antisemitism that has distinct characteristics and consequences and therefore must be combated in a specific way—particularly within the Muslim world. In this article, I will first discuss the background and prominent features of Islamic antisemitism and what distinguishes it from other forms of antipathy to Jews. In the second half, I will focus on the role played by Nazi Germany in its development. I will conclude by addressing some current consequences of this phenomenon.
A New Expression of Jew-Hatred
Islamic antisemitism is a religiously motivated form of modern antisemitism and a specific expression of Jew-hatred that draws upon two very different sources: the Islamic anti-Judaism of the seventh and eighth centuries, and modern European antisemitism, which emerged in the nineteenth century.
The phantasm of a Jewish world conspiracy, which was central to European antisemitism, was a not a feature of the original image of the Jews in Islam. Only in the Christian tradition do Jews appear as a dark and potent force capable of killing even God’s only son. In that vein, Jews were accused of spreading plagues in the Middle Ages and of masterminding casino capitalism in modern times. Only on Christian soil could propaganda about “Jewish world domination,” as set forth in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, flourish. The Nazis believed this lie. According to their sick fantasies, only through the annihilation of the Jews could Germany and the world be redeemed.
This is not so in Islam. In Islamic teachings it was not the Jews who allegedly murdered the Prophet, but the Prophet who murdered Jews. From 623 to 627 CE, Mohammed had all the Jewish tribes of Medina enslaved, expelled, or killed. Therefore, some typical features of Christian antisemitism did not appear in the Muslim world: “There were no fears of Jewish conspiracy and domination, no charges of diabolic evil. Jews were not accused of poisoning wells or spreading the plague.” 1 Instead, Muslims treated the Jews with contempt or condescending toleration. The hatred of Jews fostered in the Qur’an and in the Sunnah [the body of Islamic customs and practices] served to keep them subservient as dhimmis [legally protected non-Muslims living in a Muslim state]. This hostility was accompanied by humiliation. In the context of this tradition, the Christian antisemitic idea that the Jews represent a permanent threat to the world seems absurd.
With the rise of Islamic antisemitism, this significant difference was blurred, thus fusing Islamic anti-Judaism with European antisemitism. A case in point is the 1988 Hamas Charter. In Article 7, the Charter cites a hadith [saying of the Prophet] in which Muhammad states that the Muslims will kill the Jews “when the Jew will hide behind stones and trees. The stones and trees will say: ‘O Muslim, O servant of God! There is a Jew behind me. Come and kill him.’” 2 This is a particularly cruel hadith, because it depicts the Jew not as a dangerous figure, but as someone who is frightened and trembling, trying to hide before being dragged out and slain. This image of the Jew—a cowering weakling—corresponds to the Islamic tradition. In contrast, in Article 22 of the same Charter, we read the following about the Jews:
With their money, they took control of the world media, news agencies, the press, publishing houses, broadcasting stations, and others. …They were behind the French Revolution, the Communist revolution and most of the revolutions we heard and hear about, here and there. …They were behind World War I … they were behind World War II… .It was they who instigated … the United Nations and the Security Council to enable them to rule the world through them. There is no war going on anywhere without having their finger in it. 3
Paradoxically, on the one hand, the Hamas Charter portrays the Jews as degraded, fleeing, and hiding, and on the other, as the secret, sinister rulers of the world. It combines the seventh century with the twentieth, and thus the worst of old Islamic and modern Christian images of the Jews. The two pictures are, of course, incompatible, and constitute an absurd and contradictory construction. Through this mixture, however, both components become radicalized: European antisemitism is revitalized by the religious and fanatical momentum of radical Islam, while the old anti-Judaism of the Qur’an—supplemented by conspiracy theories of world domination—receives a new and lethal quality.
Another key document of Islamic antisemitism is Sayyid Qutb’s pamphlet Our Struggle with the Jews, written in the early 1950s. That work links the seventh century—Muhammad’s sojourn in Medina—with the twentieth century, as if nothing had happened in the interim:
The Jews plotted against the Muslim Community from the first day it became a community.… This bitter war which the Jews launched against Islam … has not been extinguished, even for one moment, for close on fourteen centuries until this moment, its blaze raging in all corners of the world. 4
Merging his theory with European racism, Qutb describes the “evil” of the Jews as immutable and permanent, transcending time and circumstance. The conclusion of this racist condemnation is obvious: Since the Jews allegedly cannot change their behavior, there remains only one way to be rid of them—total expulsion or annihilation.Qutb’s text is characterized by another interesting feature. While in reality, the Jews of Medina had no chance against Muhammad, Qutb’s tract revises that history and presents the Muslims as the victims and the Jews as the aggressors against Islam: “The struggle between Islam and the Jews continues in force and will thus continue, because the Jews will be satisfied only with the destruction of this religion [Islam].” 5
This type of paranoid projection is well known from Nazi ideology. Those who want to kill the Jews justify their intention by invoking the idea that the Jews have launched a deadly war against them. Qutb merged the Nazis’ racism and paranoid delusions with the anti-Judaism of early Islam. In his work, the demonization of Israel was radicalized in Islamic terms and the territorial conflict was cast as a religious war in which Muslims represent the party of God and Jews represent Satan. A religious war entails emotion in place of reason, irreconcilability instead of pragmatism, and a battle to the death rather than compromise.
A variant of Qutb’s paranoid delusion is the “Al-Aqsa in danger!” campaign, which is still widespread today and no less virulent than when it began. Hajj Amin al-Husseini, the Mufti of Jerusalem from 1921–48, set it in motion almost 100 years ago by spreading the lie that the Jews were eager to demolish the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem—the third most important sanctuary in Islam. In the 1930s, he was already claiming that international Jewry sought to destroy the Muslim faith. Since then, this lie, which is central to Islamic antisemitism, has been constantly rehashed and propagated.
Mass mobilizations based on this libel took place as recently as July 2017, when Israel tried to upgrade the security equipment at the Temple Mount and again at the end of 2017, when President Donald Trump moved the embassy of the United States to Jerusalem. The Palestinian Authority condemned that decision as “aggression against Islam,” “aggression against the Qur’an,” “aggression against the Muslims,” “aggression against the Al-Aqsa mosque,” and “aggression against humanity.” 6 At the same time, Israel’s flag was burned in front of Berlin’s iconic Brandenburg Gate while the rage of young Muslims was expressed in slogans such as “Jerusalem belongs to all Muslims of the umma of the world. Nobody else!” 7 Islamic antisemitism thus represents a clear and present danger. How and when did this kind of hatred of Jews arise?
Beginnings of the Nazi Influence
European antisemitism was slow to gain a foothold in the Arab world. The metamorphosis of the Prophet’s Jewish adversaries from a minor nuisance to the incarnation of evil took time. Its pioneers during the nineteenth century were Christian minorities in the Ottoman Empire, especially European priests and diplomats. They dragged the “blood libel” of the Christian Middle Ages into the Middle East. In 1918, the first edition of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion appeared in Palestine. This form of antisemitism, however, could only reach a tiny minority of Muslims. In 1937, Nazi Germany began to incite Arabs against the Jews more systematically and on a much larger scale. The trigger was the Peel Commission’s first partition plan for Palestine, which envisaged the creation of a miniature Jewish sub-state.
Berlin, however, discovered that the idea of racial antisemitism did not find fertile ground in Muslim communities. “The level of education of the broad masses is not advanced enough for the understanding of the race theory,” wrote a leading Nazi in Egypt. 8 The instructor for propaganda at the German embassy in Tehran came to the same conclusion: “The broad masses lack a feeling for the race idea,” he explained in a letter to his superiors at the Foreign Ministry. He therefore recommended placing “all the emphasis on the religious motif in our propaganda in the Islamic world. This is the only way to win over the Orientals.” 9
Consequently, Nazi Germany started to use Islam as the key to spreading its message among the Muslim masses. “Berlin made explicit use of religious rhetoric, terminology, and imagery and sought to engage with and reinterpret religious doctrine and concepts,” writes David Motadel in his seminal 2014 work, Islam and Nazi Germany’s War. “Sacred texts such as the Qur’an … were politicized to incite religious violence against alleged common enemies.” 10
“Islam and Jewry”
A thirty-one-page booklet in Arabic entitled Islam and Jewry, published in Cairo on August 18, 1937, served as an effective propaganda tool. 11 As far as we know, this publication is the first written evidence of Islamic antisemitism. In 1938, the Berlin-based publishing house Junker und Dünnhaupt released it under the title Islam–Judaism: Call of the Grand Mufti to the Islamic World in 1937, explicitly attributing that screed to al-Husseini for the first time. 12 In subsequent editions released by the Nazis during World War II, the Mufti continued to be named as the author. Whether al-Husseini was in fact the sole initiator and author of this pamphlet remains an open question. One thing is certain, however; it was an innovation in several ways and was a precursor to many of the thoughts later expressed by Qutb.
While classical Islamic literature treats Muhammad’s struggle with the Jews as a minor episode in the life of the Prophet, now “Muhammad’s conflict with the Jews [was being] portrayed as a central theme in his career and their enmity to him given a cosmic significance.” 13 The anti-Jewish verses of the Qur’an were generalized and considered valid for the twentieth century. Finally, for the first time, religious tropes were combined with elements of conspiracy theory. Since Muhammad’s days, according to Islam and Jewry, the Jews have constantly been trying to “destroy Muslims.” The brochure concludes:
[T]he verses from the Qur’an and hadith prove to you that the Jews have been the bitterest enemies of Islam and continue to try to destroy it. Do not believe them, they only know hypocrisy and cunning. Hold together, fight for the Islamic thought, fight for your religion and your existence! Do not rest until your land is free of the Jews. 14
Here, the Muslims are presented as eternal victims in order to legitimize new forms of aggression more reminiscent of the policies of the Nazis than the attitudes of the Prophet. In September 1937, days after its publication, the booklet reached a wide audience through its distribution at the National Arab Congress in Bludan, a health resort in Syria, fifty kilometers northwest of Damascus.
The Spread of Islamic Antisemitism
This first pan-Arab congress, held from September 8–10, 1937, was organized by al-Husseini. He also “provided the funds to rent the two largest hotels in Damascus and Bludan and grant a large number of penniless participants rooms without charge.” 15 No wonder, then, that the congress attracted 411 attendees, although only 250 were allowed into the hall of the Grand Hotel of Bludan, where the congress took place. The Mufti could not attend because he was in hiding in Jerusalem after a failed July 1937 attempt by the British authorities in Palestine to arrest him. 16 In October 1937, he fled to French-controlled Beirut. Nevertheless, the delegates named him honorary president of the assembly.
The congress was not a public event; even newspaper reporters were not allowed inside. However, Colonel Gilbert MacKereth, the British consul in Damascus at the time, arranged for a person in his confidence to attend. Based on the reports of the spy, MacKereth described the event as “a manifestation of Judeophobia.” He referred to “a startlingly inflammatory pamphlet entitled ‘The Jews and Islam,’ which was handed to each member of the congress on his arrival. It had been printed in Egypt.” Annex V of MacKereth’s memorandum, written by his confidante, bears the title “Description of a violently anti-Jewish Pamphlet printed in Cairo for the Palestine Defense Committee there, which was given to each of the persons attending the Bludan congress.” The summary of the pamphlet’s contents presented in an annex to the report leaves us with no doubt that he was referring to the Cairo publication of August 1937. 17
The Nazis viewed Islam and Jewry as an especially valuable tool. During the war, Berlin printed and disseminated this text nearly unchanged in several languages and editions. For example, there is proof that in 1942, the Spanish authorities confiscated some 1,500 copies of “a German propaganda pamphlet in the Arabic language called ‘Islam and the Jews’” that had been sent to the German consulate in Tangiers. According to the German Foreign Ministry, these brochures were to have been distributed “unobtrusively” in Spanish Morocco. “Unobtrusive” is the key word here. The Muslims would have laughed at an SS officer openly distributing an Arabic text pretending to speak in the name of Islam. But this was indeed what was happening. The Nazis disguised themselves as Muslims and falsified Islamic scripture so as to lend credibility to their murderous hatred of Jews.
The Spanish authorities responsible for Tangiers, however, frustrated this plan. They were of the opinion that “the distribution of such propaganda directed against the Jewish elements in Spanish Morocco could not be permitted” and had all copies confiscated and destroyed. 18 In 1943, another 10,000 copies of the same pamphlet were printed in Zagreb, capital of Germany’s Croatian satellite, this time in Serbo-Croatian (Islam I Zidovstvo), and distributed in Bosnia and Croatia. 19
Though the precise details of the pamphlet’s dissemination are unknown, Islam and Jewry might well be regarded as the forerunner to Sayyid Qutb’s notorious text Our Struggle with the Jews of the 1950s. David Motadel regards Islam and Jewry as “one of the most significant examples of this kind of religiously charged anti-Jewish propaganda dispersed among Muslims,” 20 while historian Jeffrey Herf deems it “one of the founding texts of the Islamist tradition, one that defined the religion of Islam as a source of hatred of the Jews.” 21
The timing of the publication of Islam and Jewry, in August 1937, is also revealing. It proves that Islamic antisemitism took hold when the flight and expulsion of the Palestinian Arabs (1948) and Israeli rule over Gaza and the West Bank (1967) were still in the distant future. This fact alone contradicts the widespread assumption that Islamic antisemitism developed as a response to alleged Israeli misdeeds. It was not the behavior of the Zionists that prompted the publication of this hostile text, but rather the fact that a first attempt had been made in the summer of 1937 to agree on a two-state plan. Islam and Jewry accordingly culminates in the following call: “Do not tolerate the Partition Plan, for Palestine has been an Arab country for centuries and shall remain Arabic forever.” This pamphlet was intended to theologize the territorial conflict between Jews and Arabs in order to destroy the first important attempt at a compromise—which had initially been met with a degree of approval from some moderate Arabs.
According to its report, the Peel Commission’s proposal for the division of Palestine “offers neither party everything that it demands; it offers, however, everyone what he most demands, namely freedom and security.” The Mufti and his backers wanted neither “freedom” for the Muslims nor “security” for the Jews. Instead, they fueled hatred of Jews in a novel way in order to subvert the seductive power of any kind of peaceful coexistence.
Two years later, a radio station based in Zeesen, a small town south of Berlin, became the most important instrument for the propagation of Islamic antisemitism. Every night for six years—from April 25, 1939, to April 26, 1945—that station broadcast hatred of Jews in Arabic across the Muslim world. Radio Zeesen did not address the audience as Arabs, but as Muslims. Jeffrey Herf, in his groundbreaking study Nazi Propaganda for the Arab World, highlights the centrality of Qur’anic teachings in Germany’s Arabic-language propaganda. The broadcaster hired first-class Arabic speakers, recited Qur’anic verses at the beginning of the programs, and seasoned them with carefully selected Arabic music.
Contemporary reports emphasize how popular this German propaganda station was. The Nazis built on the latent antipathy expressed in anti-Jewish Qur’anic verses and the dhimmi ideology, injecting an antisemitic dimension into the local conflict between the Zionist Movement and the Arabs in Palestine in order to prevent any solution based on compromise. Those years of unrelenting propaganda were instrumental in changing the image of “the Jew” in the Arab world. During that time, an exclusively anti-Jewish reading of the Qur’an was fostered, the European world-conspiracy myths were popularized, and genocidal rhetoric in relation to Zionism and Israel took shape. Gradually, Muslim Arabs began to adopt the Christian-European concept of Judaism as a “cosmic evil.”
While Radio Zeesen stopped broadcasting in April 1945, the echoes of its propaganda continued to reverberate. The view of the British Foreign Office, which in 1946 “spoke of Arab hatred of the Jews being greater than that of the Nazis,” may be exaggerated. 22 It is, however, obvious that wartime Nazi propaganda contributed to the increased anti-Jewish hostility after 1945 that led to the Arab war against Israel in 1948. 23
The Current Impact
The history of Islamic antisemitism reveals the audacity with which German Nazis exploited Islam for the fulfillment of their political interests by utilizing the Qur’an’s contradictory statements about Jews for antisemitic purposes.
Yet the brief encounter between Nazi ideology and the Arab world had consequences that continue to be felt in the Middle East. To this day, the anti-Jewish passages from the early writings of Islam are repeated incessantly; world affairs are explained using the Protocols of the Elders of Zion; and leading representatives of the Palestinian Authority regard any attempt to normalize relations with Israel as high treason. In 2014, 37 percent of Muslims in Asia agreed with antisemitic statements compared to 75 percent of Muslims in the Middle East and North Africa, according to a global survey conducted by the Anti-Defamation League.
More importantly, Islamic antisemitism today is a crucial component of the Islamists’ war against the modern world. It lies behind Tehran’s desire to destroy the “cancerous tumor” of Israel and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s threat that Israelis will not be able “to find a tree to hide behind,” a clear allusion to the hadith that demands the killing of Jews. It causes Mahmoud Abbas to deny any connection between Jerusalem and the Jews and transforms the political conflict between Israel and the Arabs into a religious struggle between good and evil.
Only recently have some Arab politicians and journalists begun to distance themselves from the anti-Jewish slogans that have dominated the Arab world for eighty years. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman has said that Israelis “have the right to live peacefully in their state.” 24 Arab commentators affirm that Islam is by no means an obstacle to normalizing relations with Jews. The newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat, which is aligned with the Saudi ruling family, reported—quite correctly—that the Mufti of Jerusalem, in his attempt to “combine the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Nazi ideology … damaged the [Palestinian] cause more than anyone else.” 25 The fact that even leading forces in Saudi Arabia—the cradle of Islam—are rethinking their relationship with Israel proves that it is not the Qur’an as such that hinders the normalization of relations between Arabs and Jews, but its antisemitic interpretation.
For conservative Muslim leaders today, Islamic antisemitism is the most important tool available with which to thwart the delicate attempts to normalize Arab relations with Israel. These leaders consider abolishing the dhimmi status of Jews a violation of divine law and rely on the Qur’an to stop the advance of modernity in Islamic societies. It is thus no coincidence that Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei uses Islam to torpedo Arab attempts at rapprochement with the Jewish State. “Those who normalize relations with Israel break with the Qur’an and the Islamic faith,” he warns. “The Qur’an says, ‘Be strict with the unbelievers.’ Some Muslims have forgotten this.” 26 As recently as February 2020, Sheikh Yousuf Makharzah in Jerusalem also said that “[e]nmity toward the Jews is an imperative religious duty and is one of the hallmarks of the believer.” 27 This demonstrates that interpretations of the Qur’an can have far-reaching implications on matters of war and peace. Once promoted by Nazi Germany, Islamic antisemitism continues to affect perception and policy in the Muslim world today.
This particular strain of Jew-hatred is an obstacle to the modernization of Islamic societies, endangers Jewish communities across the globe, and threatens the world with a war resulting from Iran’s commitment to the destruction of Israel. At the same time, the fact that Islamic antisemitism emerged a mere eighty years ago is grounds for hope that it can eventually be eradicated in the context of new debates within the Muslim world.
2 Hamas Covenant, August 18, 1988, https://avalon.law.yale.edu/20th_century/hamas.asp.
9 Politisches Archiv des Auswärtigen Amts (PAAA), R 60690, Hans Alexander Winkler, “Erfahrungen aus der deutschen Propagandaarbeit in Iran vom November 1939 bis September 1941,” January 10, 1942, pp. 2–3.
16 Matthias Küntzel, “Terror und Verrat. Wie der Mufti von Jerusalem seiner Verhaftung entging,” Mena-Watch, July 5, 2017, http://www.matthiaskuentzel.de/contents/terror-und-verrat.
23 Matthias Küntzel, “The Aftershock of the Nazi War Against the Jews 1947/48: Could this War against Israel Have Been Prevented?” Jewish Political Studies Review, XXVI:3,4 (2016), 38–53, http://www.matthiaskuentzel.de/contents/the-aftershock-of-the-nazi-war-against-the-jews-19471948.
25 “Saudi Writer: The Arab League Summits Are Completely Pointless: Palestinian Leaders—First and Foremost Jerusalem Mufti Al-Husseini and PLO Leader Arafat—Damaged the Palestinian Cause the Most,” MEMRI, Special Dispatch No. 7499, May 31, 2018.
27 “Jerusalem Friday Sermon by Sheikh Yousef Makharzah: It Is the Religious Obligation of Muslims to Bear Animosity against the Jews; Mahmoud Abbas Is Wrong to Say Otherwise,” MEMRI-TV, No. 7849, February 14, 2020.