ABC Radio National

Thursday 27 November 2003  


Robert Fisk on anti Semitism and his belief in gas chambers, six million exterminated!


Summary: A return to the topic of anti-Semitism and the question, 'when does legitimate criticism of Israel turn into anti-Semitism, and is the accusation of anti-Semitism being used to deflect legitimate criticism’?. In this program Phillip Adams speaks with the long serving Middle East correspondent for The Independent, Robert Fisk, who is both an outspoken critic of Israel and of anti-Semitism, about the prevalence of anti-Semitism and expressions of hatred towards Jews and Israel within the Islamic world. 

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  Peter Wakefield Sault's telling comment on Robert Fisk



Transcript of broadcast


Phillip Adams: "... first tonight, we're returning to the topic of antisemitism as promised a couple of weeks ago after my conversation with Rachel Cohn and Ephraim Nemnik. Now in that discussion, having copped a bit of flack myself, I posed the question, 'When does legitimate criticism of Israel turn into antisemitism, and is the accusation of antisemitism being used to deflect legitimate criticism?


Well, tonight I'm going to ask someone who is both an outspoken critic of Israel and of antisemitism, and I want to ask him to address some of the key criticisms of the coverage of Israel . I used a quote from Robert Fisk at the start of the last conversation which I'll now repeat. 


"The all-purpose slander of 'antisemitism' is now used with ever increasing promiscuity against anyone, people who condemn the wickedness of the Palestinian suicide bombings every bit as much as they do the cruelty of Israel 's repeated killing of children in an attempt to shut them up."


Then there is this from a recent Fisk column: "I was walking towards the Sedeth Street in Beirut this week when my beaver eyes surveyed the window of a book store. And there in the window, my heart sank was an all too familiar tale, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and yet again, the vile old antisemitic tract, the product of the Tsarist secret police , complete with child cannibalism, was back on the shelves, a whole row of it, in a bright-red cover."


Robert Fisk, as the Gladys well know is the Middle East correspondent for The Independent  newspaper in Britain , and welcome back Robert.


Robert Fisk: 'Thanks very much, Hi Phillip.


PA: Twenty years in Beirut , has the Protocols been around throughout that time or were you observing a recent revival?


RF: No, 27 years in Beirut actually, and I can remember in 1977 when I'd already been there a year  going into Ontimes bookshop in Hamra Street, a respectable bookshop which stocked , you know, French literature, American history, and so on, and finding a white-covered edition of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which is of course a Tsarist forgery of grotesque proportions, which talks of Jews trying to take over the world, of child cannibalism, and so on, a revolting text which is known throughout the world by every decent scholar to be a total forgery and antisemitic tract, and there it was published in Damascus, actually printed in Damascus, on sale in Beirut, and in fact published by a printing house which was then run by the still extant and present Minister of Defence in Syria, and this continued on sale for four or five years , and then it disappeared. Following that I noticed a new Arabic edition of Mein Kampf, Hitler's Mein Kampf, turned up in some bookstalls in Beirut published by a company called Beyson, which turned out to be run by actually a Christian Lebanese group not Muslim. There's no copies I've seen of Mein Kampf recently in the bookstalls, I did actually do a story, I went and hunted down the publishing company and the printers and asked why they were printing it. it turned out that way back in 1946 or 47 Mein Kampf  had been passed by the Lebanese censors, and of course the new edition of Mein Kampf had been put on sale on the basis that it was legally permissible. Then came this new edition of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which on examination appears to be photocopied reprint, at least a photographed reprint of an edition put out in Melbourne , Australia , your country in 1948.


PA: I've got to interrupt there  Robert, when I was in Moscow during Glasnost and Perestroika, when Gorbie was doing his humpty-dumpty impersonation on the walls of the Kremlin, it was all over the city, and it was an Australian edition.


RF: Again, yes. I don't know what was happening in Australia in 1948. You might like to find out and tell me, but obviously there was an antisemitic publishing  house operating in Melbourne at that time immediately after the second world war. Clearly, whatever happened to it, and I imagine it's long ago gone to dust, its works continue to have that cancerous effect. Certainly the editions coming up in English in Beirut now are copies of a Melbourne original edition, and after questioning the bookseller, twice in Sadat Street, he admitted that he was responsible for putting it there not, he said, for profit because people wanted to read it.  I said look, this is trash, this is a falsification, this is a forgery, this is a racist document. How do you know he said and so I went through all the academic reasons and the references to show that this was a forgery, and he simply smiled and wouldn't accept it. I moved some of the copies to an up-shelf at the back, I can't steal them or throw them away, and to my depressed state the next day I saw they'd gone back in the window again in the bookshop.


PA: Now, I don't want to dwell on this noxious document. It is on sale in ultra-right bookshops and websites in this country. There are still antisemitic organisations, quite a few, quite a few in our country, but I am interested to know the extent to which its popularity on the Arab streets  is symptomatic of a bigger problem of a widespread willingness to accept such a, a view of the Jew.


RF: Well, I think first of all you've got to, I'm not putting this toward as a defence of Arabs but as an explanation of their, their views. They have seen an overwhelming bias in the media and press in the west towards Israel and against Arabs, not entirely without the Arabs fault by the way, but the've seen this and they have tried to understand why this should be, why the Arabs are always demeaned, why the Israelis are always held up as the good guys in the Middle East story. They have seen themselves in cartoons in America , particularly by the cartoonist Leurie, for example, cartoons in the American press portrayed as hook-nosed venal child-molesting robed Arabs. I've got lots of examples right here in front of me, pictures of this kind.  which is of course very much how the Nazis portrayed the Jews of the 1930s after the take- after Hitler came to power in 1933 in Germany, and therefore there is also a habit which has grown up of saying , of using the phrase 'Jews' and transpose for the Israelis, in other words they'll say the Jewish air force is coming back, the Jews bombed the refuge camp. It's not meant in the immediate sense of saying  Jews as a race of people, it's just a way of identifying the Israelis because originally, of course,  they would have said in Palestine there were Arabs and Jews, there weren't Israelis officially until 1948.  But this has coalesced with a view which oddly enough comes from Christian Arabs as much or perhaps more so than Muslim Arabs which suggests that the Jews as a race are their enemy, which of course is wrong in every sense, morally, politically, socially, culturally, in every other way.  I Have endlessly tried to explain to people who're very well educated in Lebanon, that this   speech like that is, is an immoral thing, and what they have to understand is that there are many, many Jewish communities throughout the world including some in your country, certainly in the United States, who bravely stand up for justice in the Middle East and take an awful lot of flack and criticism from Israel's friends for trying to tell the truth., that the moment they start to make a whole race of people responsible for something which a particular prime minister in a particular country does, they are themselves becoming racists. And sometimes I get away with this argument and manage to make it, and they agree, but very often I see they don't agree. They might nod their heads but I can't get it across. You do find quite specific cases of anti-Jewish sentiments among very respectable educated Arabs. I'll give you one example. I went to a dinner party in Beirut some years ago and there was a very educated doctor, very kind man, actually he treated me in the past, and his wife and some of their friends, and I took to the dinner a friend of mine who was Jewish, though they didn't know that, I don't introduce people by their religion, I introduce them by their names, and we sat at the dinner and to my absolute horror towards the end of the dinner, we were talking about the second world war and the effects of it on the Middle East and the first world war in which my father, who was much older than my mother, fought, and the doctor said, 


"Well if you ask me, Hitler didn't finish the job",


 and my mouth dropped open and I said,


 "What did you say? Did you realize how evil that is? How can you say such a thing? Do you know what happened?"


"Well", he said, "do you know it was six million Jews?"


I said, "Yes it was, because I have been to Auschwitz , I've been to Treblinka." I told him, I said, "Look, I've been to ash pits in, in behind Auschwitz , at Birkenau. It is all true!"


And he listened to me and he clearly was unhappy, and I said it is simply evil, wrong, immoral to say that, it is a total denial of the truth of history,  and it is a total denial of yourself as a human being, you're a bloody doctor, I said . But there it was and I'd have to say in fairness or in balance rather than fairness that I've heard some pretty terrible things said about the Arabs by Israelis.


PA: Well you do in fact quote some extraordinary examples in one of your recent columns of the more venomous expressions of hatred in the Israeli press. However, look I had Tarik Ali on a little while ago and he's having an experience which I guess you have too, where young Muslims come up to him, wanting him to confirm the conspiracy theory that Israel was behind the September 11?


RF: Well, I don't have them ask me to confirm it. I have them telling me don't I realize it's true, and of course the same, there's a familiar lie which we're all familiar with now which has been widely published that Jewish Americans who're working, or Israeli citizens who were working in the World Trade Centre were told not to go to work that day. I should add that in a taxi I took the other day to La Guardia, I had a South Korean Taxi man in New York who told me that in fact Arab taxi drivers had been told to stay away from the World Trade Centre on September 11, though I managed mercifully to reach La Guardia airport  in New York before he told me why the North Koreans were, gave me the proof, why the North Koreans were also involved. Yea, look, there is a whole series of what I call 'slidy-slidy explanations' from Muslims, not just the antisemitic one of well, you know this was part of a Jewish plot. This is bound up, by the way, with a story that unfortunately was correct, which is that some Israeli citizens were arrested after September 11, two or three of them it seems were taking pictures of the World Trade Centre and appeared to be expressing their appreciation of what had happened though that might be a misinterpretation. Certainly the FBI arrested some Israeli citizens and some were later deported, but I think that this is a perversion of the reality. We also find, for example, in one magazine in India , I remember a Muslim writer claiming that no-one was piloting the aircraft on September 11, they were all robots in the flight deck. I mean, this sort of rubbish goes on, but I think that you know, one of the major problems is that the whole of the Middle East is, and this includes Israel , is absolutely obsessed with conspiracies. They believe in the conspiracy theory of history- the ... in Arabic.


PA: Well it goes wider than that, doesn't it. I was wondering what the response in the Arabic press was to the outgoing Malaysian Prime Minister and his utterances at the 10th Islamic Conference which were -


RF: I noticed that they said he was trying to tell "a truth". This is the one where he said Jews rule the world, it was Mahatir Mohammed we're talking about? -


PA: Of course -


RF:  - a man who has always tried to stir up opinion by making such a deliberately inflammatory comments and lying comments I might add. I think he was playing to his audience, and I think he did so fairly successfully.  The problem, you see, is that once the whether we call it a germ or a cancer  of believing that a whole race of people are deep down evil or wrong, you need a very strong medicine to erase that cancer from the society or the groups of people that believe it. I'll give you an example of the sort of thing that happens. I made a series called 'Beirut to Bosnia' about why Muslims were coming to hate the west for television, for Channel 4 in Britain and Discovery in the States, about ten years ago, and in this sequence I took a Palestinian family in Beirut, found out where their home was, from which of course they were ejected by the Israelis in 1948, then I went and knocked on the front door of their home and found an elderly Israeli Jew living there, and he told me how he had been ejected from his home in southern Poland by the Nazis in 1939, and then we took our camera crew to his home and found it in a southern Polish village and knocked on the front door where the woman said, "Are they coming back?"  You see, we took the history back into the Nazi period and it gave me an opportunity over twenty minutes to tell the story of the Jewish Holocaust in the setting of the Middle East . And when New TV, a Lebanese television station bought the rights to the three-part series, of course I watched them like a hawk, the beaver eye???  , and I noticed the moment we came to the sequence of the holocaust they cut the film and went into advertisements, and I went round in a rage next day to see Tassin Haia the owner of the company, I said, "Tassin, what are you doing? You promised to show this film and it's very critical of Israel and then we come to a sequence of the Nazi holocaust and you decline to show it. You're gutless, and it turned out it was not his fault at all, it was his producer in the studio who said that some people might not like it. I suppose he meant the Syrians, I have no idea, but in fairness I have to say that they showed that series five more times and on each occasion did include the entire sequence of twenty minutes on the Jewish holocaust, the first time the Jewish holocaust on film had been shown on any Arab TV station - little victory but not a big as one would like.


PA: I'm talking to Robert Fisk on LateNightLive on Radio National, Radio Australia and the WorldWideWeb. In the last conversation on this topic, one of the participants was a Radio National colleague, our religious broadcaster, Rachel Cohn, who wrote in her new book "of an epidemic of hatred that has spread throughout the Muslim world and ecl clerics, congregations, schools and mobs alike" and she cited antisemitism in the curriculum in the Saudi Arabian schools, for example, have you observed this in Saudi?


RF: I have. I can remember very well attending the Taif(?) conference more than a decade ago, and a Saudi professor approaching me to say he'd just written a new book called Jews under the microscope, and I said WHAT?, and sure enough it was a racist tract.  there is no doubt that it's there. How you get rid of it, I don't know. As long as the Israeli-Palestinian dispute/conflict/atrocities occur I don't think it's going to be possible to erase this racist slur which continues in the Arab press, particularly the Egyptian press where cartoonist routinely depict Israelis as hook-nosed Jews, just as they were depicted by the Hitler's press.


PA: Yes, and where incidentally The Protocols of the Elders of Zion get incorporated into a documentary on Cairo television.


RF: Not just Cairo television, it was also used as the basis  for a series that appeared on Hesb'Allah Television, Al Manar, in Beirut . The Americans believed at first that it was meant for Syrian TV  which it might have been. I think they then pushed it across to Hesb'Allah allies in Lebanon and the Lebanese government's response was, well, we have a free television service, we can't censor it, which is a load of rubbish because they managed to censor a whole television station and TV off the air, and has frequently tried to stop any criticism of Saudi Arabia, perhaps because the Prime Minister of Lebanon also holds a Saudi Passport. I have to come back to one thing and say Arabs are also aware of the language used about them by Israelis. Remember we've had Palestinians compared to cockroaches by former chief of staff  Rafael Eitan, two-headed beast was a phrase used about Palestinians by Menachim Begin, the late Prime Minister of Israel, Palestinian advances have been described by the present chief of staff as a cancer with which chemotherapy has to be applied. You can see there for Arabs, they would immediately say that this is racist, which frankly it is, but what we're talking about, you see, is a racism against Jews which goes back much further than the racism against the Arabs. Arabs will say, of course, and they're right in this, that they too are Semites. How can a Semite be accused of being antisemitic? But we know that some Israeli supporters say exactly the same about some Jewish Americans who, for example, support the Palestinians, or feel great injustice has been done to the Palestinians by the Israelis.  The very phrase 'antisemitic', you see the real problem is when it is used against people who are antisemites it's the correct use, they are racists, but when it's used, and I'm coming back to the subject you raised at the very beginning of this, this interview, when it's used about people because they dare to criticise Israel  and do so fairly, then it makes antisemitism a respectable word, and that is a problem.


PA: There's something of a cottage industry built around attacking your coverage of the Middle East, isn't there?


RF:  Well, it's not much of an industry, it doesn't work very well, but I have a very strict rule. When people write me letters saying I'm an, or write letters to the editor saying I'm antisemitic, I threaten them with legal action. In Britain that is, to call a person a racist when they are not is a libel, it is a slander, it is actionable, and I've very often found that when the people are brave enough to put their address on, and they're often not, they write back very politely and say that perhaps they became a little bit overawed in their anger at something I'd written and they didn't really mean it, and so on, and I normally find that if a person puts an address on an accusation of racism its possible that, I write back to all letter writers, it's possible to explain to them why it actually helps racism and antisemitism to falsely accuse innocent people of that. I had a big debate actually at a conference, Le mud(?) Conference as it was called, on December 20th last year in Nottingham, which was a very large group of the Jewish community of Great Britain about five to six hundred, and we had a debate, lots of time to attack Bob, of course, which they did, not all but some others came up and said well done, keep it up, of my coverage of the Middle East, again one needs to point out we're not talking about solely Israeli supporters when we talk about the Jewish community in Britain, America, or anywhere else, but it was very interesting to see the way in which some of those present could see this danger and realize that if you were going to call a real racist an antisemite, and they are, and they're out there, and they're dangerous, and they're my enemies too, then we must be very careful that that word is not loosely employed by every lobbyist for Israel against anyone who dares to say that Arial Sharon, for example, should be on a charge of war crimes for the Sabre Shatilla Massacre of 1982 for which I happen to think he should because the Kahn Commission of Israel described him personally responsible. So I think that, but in the anger generated in the Middle East, anger generated by suicide bombers, for example, in Israel, by the killing of innocent Palestinians and the occupation of Arab land and the building of settlements on Arab lands by the Israelis, the, it's, it's almost like a whirlwind, you cannot switch it off, you cannot calm the storm down, the degree of racist libel that extends both ways in the Middle East is such that the likes of you and me could only describe it and point out the evils of it. That's all we can do. We can't do much more.


PA: Rob, Robert, one of the key criticisms from Israel and the friends of Israel in Australia is that western liberal press, western liberal intellectuals, are obsessed with what Israel is doing, obsessed perhaps with Sharon, and they say there is very little coverage of what Yasser Arafat is or isn't doing, a lack of appraisal of the Palestinian Authority, the corruption of Arafat, money squirreled away, the lack of development, what do you think of this argument?


RF: Look, this is trotted out every time criticism of Israel is to be suppressed. The press in general in the west, particularly the American, but European as well, have for decades been hopelessly biased towards Israel and against Arabs in general and Palestinians in particular. The phrase 'terrorist', the word terrorist, terrorist, terrorist, terrorist, terrorist, terrorist, has become a punctuation mark in the western press about Arabs and Palestinians in particular for decades. What has been happening in the last twenty years, starting I think with the invasion of Lebanon, the massacre of Sabra and Shatila, that in Europe though not in America, there has been a much fairer reporting of the Middle East in which the sins of the Israelis  as well as the Arabs  have been pointed out, and this is a new phenomenon which Israeli lobby groups cannot control or suppress as they are largely able to do in in the united States through the claims of antisemitism and racism, and so on. And this has meant that instead of trying to deal with the problems involved, i.e. what on earth is Israel doing still occupying other people's land, it's become a cry that therefore the press themselves must be coming antisemitic in their liberalism, and that's not true, in many cases I know that the condemnation of the articles as being antisemitic, in many cases the articles have been written by people of Jewish origin, or people who openly say they're Jewish. Look, there's a problem Ha'aretz has. A good friend of mine, a very fine Israeli journalist who constantly points out the sins of Israelis, as well as the sins of Arafat and co. and is constantly threatened with death by calls from Israel though she is an Israeli.  But let's go back to the Arafat thing. All through Arafat's period of long rule in west Beirut wrote about his corruption, about his murderous gangsters, and so on, and when 1993, the Oslo Agreement was signed, I was in Jerusalem . I was talking to some officials of the Israeli government in the Beta Gran, the press centre in Jerusalem , "Are you aware of what you're doing? Do you really want Arafat? If he, don't you realize he's a corrupt man!" "You must be against peace. Arafat is prepared to sign the Oslo Agreement. We've got an agreement with the Palestinians", and I said "hold on a second, this guy, you can't trust him. What are you doing making peace with him?" At this point, because it was what the Israelis wanted, you see they wanted a peace with the Palestinians, they thought Arafat was going to be a good little policeman in Gaza and the West Bank . Suddenly it was antisemitic to criticise Arafat.


PA: Hmm.


RF: Only a year later, when Arafat was beginning to cause some doubts among the Israelis, a bit late in the day, the Israelis started talking to a religious group called Hamas and had some talks with them between the Israeli army and Hamas leadership. Indeed, while Arafat had been their enemy the Israelis were encouraging Hamas to build mosques in Gaza as a balance against the nationalism of the PLO whom they regarded as the greatest terrorists, you know, ever. Nowadays Arafat, then Arafat was brought forward as a statesman and Hamas were the terrorists, and now Arafat ad Hamas are supposed to be the same thing. You can't keep re-writing this narrative and expect journalists and educated people to go along with it. There are a whole series of issues here. Hamas, like Hesb'Allah was partly created by Israel 's own actions, invasion of Lebanon created Hesb'Allah, and we need to remember how it started. People tell me, oh, Hesb'Allah were bombing Israel in 1957. Hesb'Allah didn't exist until 1982, and I have to add if you read the Israeli press, and many of these critics will not do so, you'll have a much better idea of what's going on in the Arab-Israeli world than you will reading the European press and certainly more than you will read the American press. Read Ha'aretz is what I say to people, especially if there are Arabs in the audience.


PA: When I'm reeling from nasty letters and emails I take comfort in the fact like you that I get letters from individual Jews and Jewish organisations in support, who want to have this quality of discussion. Is there a parallel within the Muslim world? Are there Muslims who are just as worried about this vortex of slander against the Jews?


RF: That's a very good question. there are some, yes. Just as you find Turks who will tell you that the Turkish forces did commit holocaust and genocide against the Armenians in 1915, another issue we don't have time to raise, but it's a good point. There are individual Muslims who will say that but collectively you don't find as you do among Jewish Americans for example, the sort of powerful individual lobby group that says, stop, enough, this is wrong. You do find, I mean people like Hanan Ashrawi, here's a name that's going to come very close to home for you at the moment, they have stepped up and said who gave anyone the right to carry out suicide bombings in our name?  They have maintained links with Israeli liberals whatever the provocation to break them off. But they're individuals, you see, and that is one of the big problems there. I've actually sort of talked about this in vaguer terms because it was never a main subject with some of the Jewish American groups. I go through America on average  every three-and-a-half weeks to give lectures, and more than half the invitations come from Jewish Americans. Some of them, I should add, not entirely sympathetic to my point of view, I mean I gave a big talk in Los Angeles a couple of years ago to one of the largest Jewish philanthropists in Los Angeles, and there were an awful lot of detractors from my point-of-view there, but they respected the fact that I came forward and gave my perspective on what I thought was the future collapse of the Middle East peace, which indeed unfortunately regrettably happened. But among Arabs there are two problems. One is that most Arabs come from particular countries originally, so they're always looking over their shoulders, what would the Syrians say? What will the Iraqis say? Well, they would have said that before, what would the Saudis say? So there is always this thing that they may have an American or British passport, they also have a Saudi passport or Kuwaiti passport, or whatever.


PA: Robert, we got to wrap it. I thank you very much for your time. Robert Fisk, good to have you back. Robert is, of course, the Middle East correspondent for The Independent, and appeared by popular demand. This is L and L on Radio National, on Radio Australia, on the WorldWideWeb.


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