Program on Extremism Panel Analyzes Roots of Antisemitism in the Middle East

Experts discussed the causes of and possible solutions to antisemitism in that region.

December 4, 2023

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The Program on Extremism (POE) at George Washington University hosted a virtual panel where speakers discussed their observations of an unprecedented surge in antisemitic rhetoric emanating from the Middle East following the Oct.7 terrorist attacks on Israel by Hamas.

The event, “Antisemitism in the Middle East: Unpacking the Root Causes and Implications for Regional Stability,” was held on Nov. 21. It was moderated by Omar Mohammed, a senior research fellow at the Program on Extremism.

“Today's problem is one of the most pressing problems that we face and requires more honest attention,” Mohammed said. “Since the recent attacks of Hamas against Southern Israel on Oct. 7, we have seen a surge in antisemitism. That requires more discussions and requires more attention from many parties. Today we are trying to address this surging antisemitism, whether it's on social media, in public discourse and many other platforms.”

Vered Andre'ev, head of research at CyberWell, a nonprofit dedicated to democratizing the fight against online antisemitism, began the discussion. She presented CyberWell’s research showing that since the Hamas attack in Southern Israel, there has been an 86% increase in content flagged as highly likely to be antisemitic by their artificial intelligence technology.

“In my opinion, this is one of the most important numbers in this presentation,” Andre'ev said. “The increase of potentially hateful and violent content in percentages is very sharp since Oct. 7.”

She said their research also uncovered differences in rhetoric around Jewish people before and after the conflict.

“We saw a significant shift from the usage of the term Jew in singular to referring to Jews as a collective,” Andre'ev said. “And from a semantic point of view, this wave of generalization may indicate some dangerous, alarming changes both on social media and in the real-world perception of Jews.”

The next speaker was Evin Ismail, senior lecturer in political science at the Swedish Defense University, who answered a question posed to her by Mohammed.

“It seems that antisemitism has been for a very long time normalized in the region,” Mohammed said. “It's part of discussions among a very young generation that doesn’t even know the basics of the recent history. They don't know anything about the Holocaust, yet they are engaged in Holocaust denial. They don't know anything about world relations, yet they are involved in more dangerous antisemitism. What does history tell us about this?”

Ismail shared her findings from her study, “The Antisemitic Origins of Islamist Violence: A Study of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamic State.”

Ismail first made a distinction between Islam and Islamism.

“I believe it's important to emphasize this distinction,” Ismail said. “And I view Islamism as a politicization of Islam. And Islam is understood as a spiritual faith. To make this distinction clear, many scholars have stated that the Quran is not antisemitic. However, Islamists have developed an Islamist antisemitism where they claim that Muslims are in a permanent war with Jews.”

Ismail said the Muslim Brotherhood based its movement on the concept of lost dignity of Muslims caused by British imperialism and their movement was channeled into the ideas of Nazism that blamed Jews for the ills of the world.

“My main argument is antisemitism is an integral part of Islamism, antisemitism as in the ideology that politicizes Islam and not the religion itself, was born out of antisemitism and still depends on it for its survival,” Ismail said. “Here the Muslim Brotherhood plays a key role as the first Islamist movement.”

Ismail said Islamist movements politicize religious identity and position Jews as either political subjects or perpetrators in the war against Islam.

Matthias Küntzel, a political scientist and historian, then discussed how Nazi antisemitism reached the Middle East and the significance it plays in the conflict today.

“The Hamas massacre of Oct. 7, this ecstatic killing, proved that Nazi-like antisemitism flourished still today. And it proves that we have to find out how this Nazi-like hatred of Jews reached the Arab world and Hamas,” Küntzel said.

During the discussion, Küntzel detailed the findings of his book, “Nazis, Islamic Antisemitism and the Middle East.”

Küntzel argued that Nazi ideologues saw the 1948 conflict in Palestine as an opportunity to further antisemitic narratives.

“Islamic antisemitism, it was only from the year 1937 onwards that Berlin began massively to intervene in the Middle East conflict,” Küntzel said. “It wanted to prevent the establishment of even a tiny Jewish state.”

Küntzel said in the beginning, however, the Nazis had difficulties spreading their propaganda in the Middle East because Muslims were not ready to accept the racist antisemitism. Nazi propaganda then sought to embed antisemitism into the consciousness of the Arab world through the use of tailored antisemitic interpretations of Islam and the Quran, Küntzel said.

Küntzel argued the Nazi strategy shaped genocidal rhetoric toward Zionism that continues today.

Mohammed then posed a question about the role of social media in the current spike of antisemitism to Tal-Or Cohen Montemayor, the co-founder and CEO of CyberWell.

“If we understand that traditional media was hijacked by the Nazis in the Middle East to popularize this idea of antisemitism or antisemitism that's rooted in Islam, through radio and traditional media, well, what's happening today on social media is that on steroids,” Montemayor said. “Now it's algorithmically empowered machines.”

She also argued that people are more susceptible to believing video-based content versus text-based content, making the information spread on video-based apps like TikTok more dangerous.

“In text-based forms of expression, the person has to engage their mind in reading the content and is engaged in some level of critical analysis, whether they like to or not, because they have to read,” Montemayor said. “That’s not the case with video when you're consuming content, and you're more likely to believe the content that you're seeing.”

Based on CyberWell’s findings, Montemayor said social media platforms can implement certain policies to combat antisemitism. She recommended the use of positive engagement pop-ups for users who search terms linked to hate speech to counteract antisemitic rhetoric and conspiracy theories. Montemayor also noted the need for the robust application of automatic flagging of hate speech online to counter the spread of antisemitic content more effectively.

The session was one in a series of panel discussions hosted by POE on topics in the Middle East this fall, and it continues the POE''s commitment to shedding light on antisemitism across ideologies. In 2020, the program released the first ever report on antisemitism carrying the U.S. Department of Homeland Security logo as part of POE’s affiliation with the National Counterterrorism Innovation, Technology and Education Center. The report was the foundation of dozens of workshops and briefings conducted by POE staff for federal, state and local law enforcement agencies throughout the country. POE also has hosted high-level speakers from federal agencies such as the U.S. State Department Office of the U.S. Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism, the EU Countering Antisemitism coordinator and the assistant secretary for counterterrorism and threat prevention for DHS.