Beyond Despair

Last September, in Khartoum, Sudan, a rumor surfaced that Westerners were going about town, shaking the hands of Muslims, and thereby causing the Muslim’s penises to disappear. Really. This was reported in the Arabic language Al-Quds Al-Arabi and translated by the Middle East Media Research Institute (

The rumor spread, mass hysteria ensued, hospital rooms filled with nervous men and police arrested some 40 foreigners on suspicion of sorcery. Only when the health minister publicly discredited the claims did quiet return to Khartoum, but not before a Sudanese columnist blamed the sorcery on “an imperialist Zionist agent that was sent to prevent our people from procreating and multiplying.”

I thought of the Great Penis Panic of 2003 when I heard the now-infamous remarks of outgoing Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. In a keynote speech to the Organization of the Islamic Conference, he called for the world’s 1 billion Muslims to take on the several million Jews who he says, “rule the world by proxy.”

Mohamad’s speech earned a standing ovation from the Arab and Muslim potentates, but that’s hardly surprising. In societies where rumors of a Zionist genital-wasting disease gain instant traction, tirades like Mohamad’s must seem positively Churchillian.

My reaction to the speech teetered from outrage to fear. The outrage was tempered by the fact that Mohamad’s speech was actually an articulate critique of Muslim rulers that stand in the way of reform and modernity. And my fear was tempered by the thought that not every anti-Semitic statement presages Shoah II. As Norman Mailer has written, “How splendid it will be in the next century if we are rid finally of Hitler’s curse, and begin to see ourselves as a strong people who need not mistake every passing anti-Semite for the Angel of Death.”

But I, like so many other Jews I know, harbor an uneasy sense that what’s passing before us is not a random anti-Semite, but an entire parade. Consider the results of a new Gallup Poll conducted for the European Commission, which shows that more Europeans consider Israel a threat to world peace than any other country.

There is no question that some of Israel’s policies contribute to instability in the Middle East, but to say, as 59 percent of Europeans surveyed did, that Israel is more of a threat than Iraq, Syria, Iran, Pakistan and North Korea is to look upon a complex and dangerous world and find solace in the simplicity of “Blame the Jews.”

“There is a sense the world will not accept us and will continue to reject us,” said Stephen P. Cohen, president of the Institute for Mideast Peace and Development. “There is hostility in the Islamic world and anti-Semitism in Europe.”

Cohen was speaking at a Beverly Hills parlor meeting hosted this week by the Israel Policy Forum. But as much as Cohen understands our fears, he counseled against our despondency. The perception that we are under siege, he said, “is in fact becoming our mood.” And that is very bad for the Jews.

Malaysia’s Mohamad disguised his spot-on critique of Muslim rulers as an attack on Jews. Those in Europe and elsewhere who refused to condemn Mohamad, or who say Israel is more of a threat than, say, North Korea, are in some ways using criticism of Israel as away to attack the Unites States. What this pas de deux-plicity illustrates, Cohen said, is a “new linkage between Jews and the United States. The hostility toward one and toward the other are linked together.”

In every Muslim land he has visited, Cohen has seen that one issue — Israel — was poisoning the attitude of elites and people to the United States. You begin to wonder, he said, whether there’s an emerging theory linking the old resentment over the idea of Jews as a Chosen people to the new resentment of America as a modern world power.

“Ancient chosenness and modern chosenness are the objects of a joint hostility that is widely spread,” he said.

Standing at the crossroads of this hate is American Jewry: strong and scared, powerful and paranoid, secure and anxious. We read of the Gallup Poll, Mohamad, The New Republic fracas, the anti-Israel hate fest at Ohio State University, and we can’t be sure if the writing on the wall is in pencil or ink.

Cohen’s concern is that, in our fear, too many of us have turned to what he calls, “cognitive self-ghettoization.” We hold conferences, collect evidence and point fingers, but do little that is positive other than calling attention to our dilemma. In the beginning of the last century, Jews answered their enemies with two energetic and brilliant ideas: the creation of American Jewish culture and of Zionism itself. At the beginning of this century, we are all but bereft of ideas when confronting new threats. American Jewry, at the crossroads of the animus toward Israel, Jews and America, has both an obligation and opportunity to do something beyond crying, “Oy.”

I asked Cohen to name one thing we could do that could possibly make a difference. His immediate answer: education. A younger generation of Muslims is starved for American education. We need to enable more Muslim youth to study here, and open more American campuses in Muslim lands. We need to bring ourselves into an “effective relationship” with the troubled world beyond our borders. Instead of withdrawing, we need to reach out. We need to shake hands, so to speak, and let things fall where they may.