What the Murder of Iraqi Jews in 1941 Tells us About the Middle East Today

Many real and potential collaborators were spread throughout Arab countries. Most ominously, the Nazi Einsatzgruppe that would have followed Rommel into Egypt in 1942 planned to have local Arabs do most of the dirty work. Local collaborators in Europe had demonstrated an enthusiasm for slaughtering Jews that sometimes even shocked the Nazis, and there is every reason to think that this would have been the case in the Middle East. Indeed, the sheer bestiality of the Farhud (like the Hebron massacre of 1929), replete with senseless mutilation, shows that deep-seated hatreds were being played out, not simply to kill but to degrade Jews in the act of killing and in death itself. This can only be attributed to religion.

Numerous Nazis found shelter in the Middle East, especially Egypt and Syria, after the war, as well as employment in their security services and propaganda ministries. Some even converted to Islam, finding in it the fullest expression of their fascism. In this sense Nazism played a direct role in shaping the modern Middle East.

Three elements drew Arab and Muslim leaders to the Nazis. First was Muslim theological antisemitism, which meshed well with Nazi racist antisemitism. Muslims needed no lessons regarding Jew hatred. The Koran and other Islamic sources are filled with verses reviling Jews as filthy schemers and betrayers of the prophet and calling for their mistreatment and murder. The lengthy history of pogroms against Jews in the Arab and Muslim worlds shows these theological exhortations were taken seriously. New, however, was the language of Jews as vermin and the fantasy of a single global Jewish conspiracy. Treatment of Jews in Germany also emboldened Muslim anti-Semites who were encouraged to prepare their own attacks.

In the second place was local hatred of British and French imperialism, which for most Muslims had theological dimensions, since it entailed being ruled by infidels. Finally, there were local concepts of nationalism, which outside of Egypt were still mostly held by ambitious intellectuals, civic notables, and military officers. The ultimate prize of self-determination was power over others. All three elements remain in play today, sometimes masquerading as one another.

The Farhud shows that, despite Western desires, in the Middle East religion and politics have always inextricably linked. As the veneer of a secular, democratic "Arab Spring" peels it is revealing widespread support for theocracy in both Egypt and Tunisia. With elections in the fall, the Muslim Brotherhood will likely have a parliamentary majority and the opportunity to implement its project of Islamifying Egypt and repudiating the treaty with Israel. Theological antisemitism, fundamental and undisguised in the Muslim Brotherhood and its offshoot Hamas, as well as in Iran and its offshoot Hezbollah, will become a basic part of the Egyptian political program. The events of the Farhud show that antisemitism must be taken seriously. Rising persecution of Christians from Egypt to Pakistan shows that no one is immune to theological hatred.

But another veneer is peeling, that of the nation-state itself. The American encounter with Iraq precipitated internecine warfare that showed how ethnic and religious ties are far stronger than loyalties to invented nation-states. Berbers and others are in rebellion against Gaddafi’s "Libya," while Sunnis, Kurds, and others battle the minority Alawite Assad regime in Syria. Saudi forces occupy Bahrain to suppress the Iranian backed Shiite uprising. Bedouin tribes in Jordan rail against the Hashemite king over the issue of the Palestinians. Many Middle Eastern states survive today only because the spoils reaped by minorities controlling the whole is greater than that of the parts. Ideologies of hatred and conspiracy are key tools of control. This is not nationalism but another form of warfare.

Finally, there is the matter of "Islamo-fascism." There are indisputable points of contact between Islam and Nazism, but whether or not these constituted a discernable synthesis, perhaps in the person of the mufti, is a question for historians. But dismissing such observations as "Islamophobic" is both an act of historical denial and a way to label critics of modern Islamist movements as haters. This defers a true reckoning, especially in the Middle East itself. The act of remembering demands better.