Muslim Demonization of Jews as ‘Pigs and Apes:’ Theological Roots and Contemporary Implications by Neil Kressel

Neil J. Kressel’s books include Bad Faith:  The Danger of Religious Extremism (Prometheus, 2007) and Mass Hate: the Global Rise of Genocide and Terror (Perseus/Westview, rev ed., 2002).  He has written several articles on Muslim antisemitism and is currently completing a book on the topic.  Kressel, who holds a Ph.D. in social psychology from Harvard, was recently Visiting Associate Professor at the Yale Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Anti-Semitism.  He is Professor of Psychology at William Paterson University where he directs the Honors Program in the Social Sciences.”

Muslim Demonization of Jews as ‘Pigs and Apes:’  

Theological Roots and Contemporary Implications

Neil J. Kressel

ABSTRACT

            In recent years, Western scholars have noted an increasing tendency in some parts of the Muslim world to describe Jews as “pigs and apes ” and “the descendants of pigs and apes.”  This paper presents an analysis of the theological origins of these bestial epithets, exploring religious arguments within Islam that support and oppose their application to present-day Jews.  Following an historical  discussion, I suggest that, in the contemporary Muslim world, it is not only extremists who are willing to describe Jews with dehumanizing and demonizing names.  This is especially disturbing because social psychologists who study genocide have identified dehumanization and demonization as precursors to mass killing.  The paper concludes by considering the relative importance of indigenous and imported sources of Jew-hatred in the Muslim world. 

Introduction   

            On January 9, 2009, about two weeks into Israel’s attack on Gaza – which had been launched with the declared goal of protecting Israeli citizens from rocket fire — the Saudi daily newspaper, Al-Jazirah, published a bit of heated verse:    

“You were merciful, oh Hitler.

[That is my conclusion] when I see around me

The cruel acts

Of the descendants of apes.

You were wise, oh Hitler

To rid the world

Of some of these wild pigs.. . .”[1]

Angry sentiments such as these from early 2009 have been attributed in part to Israel’s military campaign in Gaza.  Indeed, Hannah Rosenthal – the Obama administration’s Special Envoy who heads the State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism – has collected data on antisemitic incidents showing that 2009 was a particularly bad year.  She has stated that the spike in bigotry can be largely tied to the war in Gaza.[2] 

            Whether justifiably or not, the Gaza fighting was perceived by many in the Arab and Muslim world (and beyond) as an atrocity.  And, according to one argument,  when people feel that they are the target of an atrocity —  or those whom they care about are the target of an atrocity — they might understandably forget the social niceties of modern intergroup relations and allow their baser instincts to dominate.     

            Thus, for example, the poem in the Saudi newspaper did not distinguish among Israelis, Zionists, and other Jews.  The poem continues: 

“Oh Hitler, The descendants of apes

“None are more cruel and horrifying than they are…

Their wars of destruction

Are worse than the ‘Holocaust.’

Destruction of the world is their motto,

And they are implementing it in practice

In Gaza, in the Golan and in Lebanon.

The descendants of apes are the cruelest creatures

That mankind has ever known…”[3]

            This poem references several arenas in which the Israeli government has carried out policies that are tremendously unpopular in much of the Arab world.  Allusions such as these lead some to suggest that harsh anti-Jewish sentiments in Arab and Muslim countries are fundamentally political, and not without a kernel of truth – even if the mode of their expression is excessive and boorish.  One frequently encountered theory holds that the anger behind the bigotry starts with the understandable frustrations endured by Palestinians in the Arab-Israeli conflict.  Due, at least partly to Israeli insensitivity, paranoia, ethnocentricity, and/or overreliance on military methods, the Palestinians have for generations been unable to get a fair shake.  After decades of mistakes made by the Israelis, the West, and the Arab states, the Palestinian situation has deteriorated to the point of extreme suffering and humiliation.  And, unfortunately, some of this legitimate anger has boiled over into prejudice.   Along with the Palestinians — and acting mainly out of similar motivation — many other Arabs and Muslims have experienced indirectly the suffering and pain of their brethren and have joined in their hostility to Jews.  But this prejudice against Jews is not like old-fashioned bigotry; rather it is an outgrowth of a political conflict and its solution is at bottom political.[4] 

            One way to evaluate this perspective is to examine the content of anti-Jewish messages delivered in recent years.  We should note that the dramatic intensification of animosity toward the Jews, not merely toward Israel or Zionists – even if recent by the long measure of world history — dates back to well before the brief Gaza conflict.  Indeed, in 1999, Israel and the Palestinians had for several years been pursuing a peace process that would culminate the following year in Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s offer to establish a two-state solution.  At that very time, however, Hitler’s Mein Kampf  became a best-seller in the Palestinian territories, not presumably because of a local upsurge in interest in the modern European history.[5]  Even in relatively liberal Turkey in 2005, Mein Kampf made it on to best-seller lists.  Since 1940, the book has been published there at least forty-five times.[6]  Thus, while the level of anti-Jewish hostility may indeed fluctuate in response to regional and world events, one should be cautious about reductionistic explanations that attempt to explain away antisemitism as a consequence of particular recent incidents.

            Consider, for example, the sources cited by one Palestinian cleric in a televised sermon delivered several months following the Gaza War. After expressing a wish for the death of every Jew in the world, he shared with his audience some foundations for his judgment about the fundamental evil of the Jewish people.  One source was the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.  According to the sermon:  “ . . . [in the Protocols,] the Jews included their plan to besiege the whole world by land, by air, by sea, by ideology, by economy, and by the media, as is happening today, my brothers in the nation of the Prophet Muhammad. The Jews today are weaving their spider webs in order to encircle our nation like a bracelet encircles the wrist, and in order to spread corruption throughout the world.”  The speaker’s next source was religious.  He informed believers that: “ . . . We Muslims know best the nature of the Jews, because the Koran has informed us about this, and because the pure Sunna of the Prophet Muhammad has devoted much space to informing the Muslims of the truth about the Jews and their hostility to Islam and its Prophet.”[7]  

            We must be clear that this imam and others who claim to rest their hateful beliefs on sacred Islamic texts are in no sense the final arbiters of what those texts really intend, or how they should be interpreted in the twenty-first century.  Many Muslims are not hostile to Jews and sometimes, even when Arabs and Muslims do express unfair and extremely negative views of Israel, it can be more a matter of politics or nationalistic loyalty than bigotry in the traditional sense.  More important, there are many Muslims who resist religion-based calls to antisemitism and a few others who are even dedicated to fighting it.[8]

            The Arab-Israeli conflict has undoubtedly fueled and increased Muslim Jew-hatred.  Still, it is possible to see anti-Jewish bigotry as a major reason why the conflict has, in the first place, lasted so long and proved so resistant to a compromise solution.  I consider this argument in some depth elsewhere.  But one thing is immediately clear.  To fully understand Muslim and Arab Jew-hatred, we must examine some sources – homegrown and imported from Europe — that predate the Arab-Israeli conflict by many centuries.   

Widespread Acceptability of ‘Pigs and Apes’ Thinking

            In the Saudi poem mentioned above, the author referred to Jews as “wild pigs” and “descendants of apes.”  While certain Quranic verses (Sura 2.62-66; 7.163-166; 5:59-60), hadiths (sayings of the Prophet), and later commentaries clearly provide a potential source for the poet’s ethnic slurs, it is no simple matter to assess the meaning and significance of this religious material.  For example, Suhaib Webb – an American convert to Islam — suggests that the Quranic transformation into pigs and apes “does not refer to all people of the Jewish faith, but only a certain group of people from the followers of Musa [Moses].”  Moreover, he argues that “It is not appropriate for one to call people of the Jewish tradition ‘pigs and apes’ or ‘sons of pigs and apes’ since, besides being extremely rude, it is not correct.”[9]   Similarly, Ruquaiyyah Waris Maqsood – a very learned moderate British Muslim who has authored more than forty books – concludes that:  “None of. . . [the Quranic] passages has any racist intent, or is racist in any way whatsoever; they all refer to a punishment that fell upon certain particular sinners, and they have nothing to do with racism.”[10]  If Webb and Maqsood are correct – and, in my view, they at least partly are — clearly quite a few of their coreligionists didn’t get the memo. 

            A review of recent “pigs and apes” references can rapidly become tedious, but it is necessary in order to observe the epithet’s acceptability in public discourse as well the range of uses to which it has been put.  As we have already noted, the late – and, in many Western circles, well-regarded — Sheik Mohammed Sayed Tantawi of Al Azhar University at least for awhile called Jews: “enemies of Allah, descendants of apes and pigs.”  Similarly, Dr. Muhammad ‘Ab Al-Sattar, the Syrian Deputy Minister of Religious Endowment said that “. . . the people who were given the Torah were likened to a donkey carrying books.  They were also likened to apes and pigs, and they are, indeed, the descendants of apes and pigs, as the Koran teaches us.”[11]

            Sheik Abdul Rahman Al-Sudais also throws his considerable prestige behind the use of the “pigs and apes” epithet.  An imam at one of the most important mosques in Mecca and the holder of a doctorate in Islamic religious law, he is renowned across the Muslim world for his beautiful recitations of Quranic verse.  When he visited England to participate in the dedication of London’s Islamic Cultural Center, key British media spoke of the sheik’s message of peace and moderation.[12]  Yet, about a year before this trip that played so well in the British press, Sudais had advised his flock:

 “Read history and you will understand that the Jews of yesterday are the evil forefathers of the even more evil Jews of today: infidels, falsifiers of words, calf worshippers, prophet murderers, deniers of prophecies… the scum of the human race, accursed by Allah, who turned them into apes and pigs… These are the Jews – an ongoing continuum of deceit, obstinacy, licentiousness, evil, and corruption…”[13]

            Given the utterances of these prominent leaders, it is perhaps not surprising that many more extreme Islamic figures have taken to describing Jews consistently as pigs and apes.  For example, Hassan Nasrallah, the head of Lebanon’s Hezbollah organization, addressed the Jews as  “the murderers of the prophets, the grandsons of apes and pigs.”[14] And on Palestinian Authority television, Muslim cleric Sheik Ibrahim Mahdi used the phrase to add vigor to his cri de guerre against Israel, declaring “All weapons must be aimed at the Jews, at the enemies of Allah, the cursed nation in the Qur’an, whom the Qur’an describes as monkeys and pigs.”[15] 

            In addition, Abdallah Bin Matruk Al-Haddal – a Saudi cleric sympathetic to Osama bin Laden, saw in hostility to Jews a means to divide Jews and Christians in the West.  He declared on the al-Jazeera television network: “I am surprised that the Christian U.S. allows the ‘brothers of apes and pigs’ to corrupt it.  [The Jews] have murdered the prophets and the messengers. [The Jews] are the most despicable people who walked the land and are the worms of the entire world. . . The Muslims have mercy on the Christians more than they have on the Jews.  Bin Laden defended the oppressed.  We warn the U.S. and advise her to get rid of the Jews.”[16]  A number of years earlier, before Al-Qaeda’s declaration of war against the United States, the Egyptian Al-Jihad organization–  a radical group headed by Bin Laden’s number two man Ayman al-Zawahiri — issued a communiqué explaining that: “The only way to recover our rights is the way of sacrifice and martyrdom, the one followed by the Jordanian mujahid who fired a whole round into the chests of the offspring of apes and pigs.”[17]   On this occasion, “apes and pigs” referred specifically to Israeli school children. 

            The phrase enters not infrequently into Arab discussions of Israel.  In some political cartoons, Israeli leaders – for example, Benjamin Netanyahu – are portrayed with pig snouts.[18]    And when Israeli troops left Lebanon in 2000 ostensibly in an effort to forward the peace process, Salim ‘Azzouz – a columnist for the Egyptian opposition newspaper Al-Ahrar  wrote that:  “They fled with only the skin on their bodies, like pigs flee.  And why say ‘like’ when they actually are pigs and apes?”  More recently, during the Gaza War, an Egyptian cleric, Safwat Higazi, described Jews as “smooth as a viper, and who lick their lips as [does] a speckled snake.”  He then said: “Dispatch those sons of apes and pigs to the hellfire, on the wings of the Qassam rockets.”[19]            

            There is even some evidence, admittedly anecdotal, that the characterization of Jews as pigs and apes has been spreading beyond the rhetoric of clerics and into the consciousness of even some very small children.  In a poignant 2002 interview,  one three-and-a-half year-old girl told a pleasant, smiling hostess on “The Muslim Woman Magazine” broadcast that she did not like Jews because God in the Qur’an said they were “apes and pigs.”  The interviewer couldn’t have been more pleased on this Saudi-Egyptian satellite station that purportedly aimed to highlight the “true and tolerant picture of Islam and. . . [refute] the accusations directed against Islam.”  A true Muslim, the interviewer explained, should know who her enemies are.[20] 

            Al-Manar TV, a Hezbollah station, featured in December 2005 a clay animation special for small children that illustrated the transformation of some Jews into animals.[21]  “Pigs and apes” language even made its way to British schoolchildren via the Saudi-funded King Fahad Academy in Acton.  The textbooks were brought to the public’s attention by Colin Cook, a Muslim teacher, who felt he had been treated unfairly by his employer.  The books noted “the repugnant characteristics of the Jews” and said they were: “Those whom God has cursed and with whom he is angry. . . he has turned [them] into monkeys and pigs.  They worship Satan.”[22]  The principal at first refused to drop the book from the curriculum saying that the offensive sections were not used, and that the text included some good chapters.  But, later, facing public pressure, she relented.

Religious Origins

            One must ask then how it came to pass that a few controversial — or perhaps non-controversial — Quranic passages became the basis for so many references to Jews as “pigs and apes,” “sons of pigs and apes,” “descendants of pigs and apes,” “brothers of pigs and apes,” and “grandchildren of pigs and apes.?”   The most common version of the ancient story of transmogrification starts with a Jewish taste for fish – though precise details vary somewhat, depending on which Quranic commentaries one chooses to follow.   One frequently encountered version sets the tale at an unspecified time prior to Muhammad’s era in the village of Iliya on the coast of the Red Sea.[23]

            According to both Jewish and Islamic tradition, God had prohibited Jews from working on the Sabbath and work, by common agreement, included fishing.  Muhammad believed that Jews were obligated to follow the laws God had given them and that, if they did not, they would be punished.  On one occasion, God wanted to test the faith of the Jews.  According to the Quran, God arranged things so that “Each Sabbath the fish used to appear before. . . [the Jews]  floating on the water, but on week-days they never came near them.”  Thus, Sabbath fishing became an alluring, though deeply forbidden, activity.

            The Jews sought ways to get around this dilemma.  According to one traditional commentator, a Jew secretly caught a fish on the Sabbath, tied it to a string, threw it back, and then “caught” it again on the following day.  When he got away with the deception, he repeated it.  Soon some of his neighbors caught on.  They began to fish openly and even sold their catch at the market. 

            At least, this is one version of the tale.  Another has some Jews digging a tidal pool to trap the fish.  There are endless stories in the commentaries about precisely what the Jews did to incur the wrath of God, some going beyond the fishing incidents.  Yet, in these tales, the common theme is that the Jews were punished because they broke their own religious laws.

            In the end, as Sura 7:166 in the Quran tells us, “. . . when they scornfully persisted in what they had been forbidden, We changed them into detested apes.”  In another translation, the Quran said:  “When in their insolence they transgressed (all) prohibitions, We said to them:  “Be ye apes, despised and rejected.”  Two other Quranic verses make reference to the transformation, reinforcing the message and adding that some of the Jews were transformed into swine.  One tradition holds that the young Jews became apes and the older ones became pigs.   

            The sinning Jews, some say, locked themselves into their homes, went to sleep, and awoke as apes.   (According to other early Islamic sources – for example, Al-Jahiz’s The Book of Animals —  it was also believed that other animals, specifically, cheetahs, lizards, eels, and mice were originally Jews.)  There are also commentaries suggesting that some Christians – also People of the Book, according to Islam – had been transformed by Allah into animals, though this tradition does not get much play nowadays.  More generally, in ancient as well as very recent times – though not necessarily at all times in between – the Jews have, more often than Christians, aroused the disdain and anger of the Muslims.  Jacob Lassner suggests why, noting that : “. . . unlike the Christians, who are blamed only for theological error, the Jews, who resisted Muhammad’s prophethood, also played a central role in the political arena at the birth hour of Islam.  According to Muslim tradition, they became the Prophet’s opponents and the supporters of his most dangerous enemies.  Engaging in these activities, they broke agreements between themselves and the Prophet that had been made in good faith.  Thus, the Jewish rejection of Muhammad represented a denial twice delivered, and in the sharpest, most direct, and dangerous of confrontations.” [24]

            How, then, are we to understand the “pigs and apes” story?  For starters, Muhammad was trying to win supporters.  To do so, he needed to highlight the power of Allah and the superiority of the new message to those revelations that came before and to which Muhammad was obviously indebted.   Lassner explains that: “. . . in large measure, the Muslim response to the Jews and Judaism stemmed from an intense competition to occupy the center of a stage held sacred by both faiths.”  Muslims contended  that “. . . the Jews rejected authentic Jewish scripture, which foretold Muhammad’s prophetic coming, and – following a tampered version of the Hebrew Bible – suppressed disclosure of the true Jewish past, thus denying the obvious validity of Muslim claims. “[25]  In this context, portraying the Jews as hypocrites down to the deepest core of their existence was central to the Muslim religious agenda.  That motivation is evident in the “pigs and apes” tales as well as in numerous other  references to the Jews in Muslim religious works.

             On the other hand, the idea that Sabbath violators might be severely punished was not a highly controversial one at the time.  Given how little we actually know about the Jews of the Arabian peninsula before Muhammad, it is not implausible that the story even had roots in a local Jewish tradition – though to assert this would be pure speculation.  Even the transformation of humans into animals, though it sounds discordant to 21st century, scientifically inclined ears, was not unprecedented or even unusual for Muhammad’s day.  However, the specific choice of pigs and apes as the animals was not accidental.  As Harvard Arabic scholar Ilse Lichtenstadter suggested, “. . . we can assert with a great deal of confidence that the ape/baboon represented at the time of Muhammad’s activity. . . the very emblem of depravity and turpitude. . . [The Sabbath violators] were not just changed into animals – punishment enough – but as apes or baboons they were expelled from human society and thrust into the sphere of Satan, the very antithesis of Allah.” [26]  Pigs too were held in low regard by Muslims as evidenced by the dietary laws.[27]

            The “pigs and apes” story, after all, tells that some Jews – the genuinely observant ones —  escaped punishment.  Moreover, Muslim commentators disagree among themselves about whether the transformation was literal or metaphorical; most early ones apparently believe that there were actual changes in the physical characteristics of the Jews.  Classical Muslim commentators  also have differing opinions about whether the transformed Jews had offspring — with most believing that they did not.  

            There are, however, those like Sheikh Ahmad ‘Ali ‘Othman, superintendent of da’wa affairs at the Egyptian Ministry of Religious Endowments, who issued a 2009 fatwa declaring that all pigs in the world today are descended from Jews.  According to Othman:  “I personally tend to believe that the pigs living today are descended from those Jews, and that is why Allah forbade us to eat them, saying, ‘Forbidden unto you [for food] are carrion and blood and swineflesh [Quran 5:3].’ In addition, one of the things that Jesus will do when he returns to earth on Judgment Day is kill all the pigs, and that is proof that they are descended from Jews. All the pigs on earth will be destroyed by Jesus on Judgment Day.”[28] 

            A more progressive response to Othman came from Sheik ‘Ali Abu Al-Hassan, head of the Al Azhar University Fatwa Committee in Egypt.  He said:  “When Allah punishes a group of people because they have incurred his wrath, the punishment applies only to them. When Allah was angry with the people of Moses, he turned them [and only them] into apes and pigs. It was an unusual punishment, meant to serve as a deterrent to others. But [those apes and pigs] died, and did not multiply, as Sheikh Ahmad ‘Ali ‘Othman claims.”[29]  Othman, for his part, maintains that the Al Azhar sheiks secretly agree with him, but that they do not want to be labeled antisemites by Westerners.

            If one reads the Quranic verses and commentaries in a liberal frame of mind, one can certainly see how Ruqaiyyah Waris Maqsood arrives at her ultimate judgment that the “pigs and apes” punishment  “. . . was simply used as a metaphor for supposedly believing persons (either Jews or Muslims) who had deliberately and willfully chosen to ignore commandments from God.”  Moreover, her notion that the transformation into animals was figurative, that no physical metamorphosis took place – while at odds with most classical commentators – is at least arguable and not altogether without  classical support.   Similarly, a reading of the religious sources might support the position of Dr. Muzammil H. Siddiqi, the president of the Fiqh Council of North America, who wrote that:  “The Qur’an does not say in any place that all Jews are apes and pigs. . .  About the Jewish people in particular it is said in the Qur’an: “And of Moses’ folk there is a community who lead with truth and establish justice therewith. . . [7:159].”  If one accepts the line of argument advanced by Siddiqi or Maqsood, one might then infer that the Islamic religious tradition plays no role in the genesis of anti-Jewish prejudice and that bigots have misused and corrupted essentially benign source material.

            In my view, this judgment absolves the religious tradition a bit too quickly.  The question remains, for example, why malevolent interpretations of the Quranic tale of the metamorphosis have developed such traction in our era.  One reason is that many who do not accept the notion of a literal transformation or of a punishment that persists to the present still feel free to use the “pigs and apes” slur.  Thus, Hamas leader Nizzar Rayyan  — who was killed in the 2009 Gaza war — told Atlantic reporter Jeffrey Goldberg years earlier that to allow a Jewish state to survive in the Muslim Middle East was an “impossibility” and “an offense against God.”  He had some interesting thoughts on the matter of pigs and apes.  Rayyan said: “Allah changed disobedient Jews into apes and pigs, it is true, but he specifically said these apes and pigs did not have the ability to reproduce. So it is not literally true that Jews today are descended from pigs and apes, but it is true that some of the ancestors of Jews were transformed into pigs and apes, and it is true that Allah continually makes the Jews pay for their crimes in many different ways. They are a cursed people.”[30]  “What were our crimes?” the Jewish reporter asked Rayyan. “You are murderers of the prophets and you have closed your ears to the Messenger of Allah,” he said. “Jews tried to kill the Prophet, peace be unto him. All throughout history, you have stood in opposition to the word of God.” 

            Some contemporary Muslim theologians would disagree with this logic, but Rayyan did not manufacture his opinions out of thin air.  And Sheik Yousuf Al-Qaradawi also denies that the Jews of today are descendants of those who were turned into pigs and apes – but he remains deeply bigoted and a strong supporter of suicide bombings against Israeli civilians.[31] 

            Despite Muhammad’s partial respect for Jewish and Christian faith, there are aspects of the Islamic religious tradition that could plausibly be read as support for the hostile interpretation of the “pigs and apes” source material.  Mostly, such potentially inflammatory elements again involve stories about some particular Jews — rather than all Jews.  One incident concerns Muhammad himself  presiding over the massacre of hundreds of unarmed noncombatants from the Jewish Banu Qurayza tribe.  Another deals with how a Jewish woman – partly motivated by anger that some of her relatives were killed by the Muslims —  tries to poison the Prophet; she is unsuccessful in the short term but, according to some, her act left  an illness in Muhammad that, years later, resulted in his death.[32]  Other stories of Jews who lack virtue and integrity show up throughout the religious literature.  Thus, when speakers nowadays describe Jews as dishonest, cunning, violators of treaties, or killers of prophets, they may – correctly or incorrectly, depending on which experts one chooses to believe – be drawing on an early religious tradition that is highly valued by Muslims across the globe.  Some of these stories originate in materials whose authenticity has been questioned by various contemporary and traditional Islamic scholars; yet some come from sources consensually regarded as authentic.       

            Stories casting Jews in a negative light and those showing anti-Jewish behavior by Muhammad need to be considered carefully in their historical and religious context – though the antisemites themselves often do not do so.  But, one could reasonably argue that none of the negative references to Jews requires that a contemporary Muslim believer possess hostility to Jews.  Moreover, anti-Jewish references in the sacred sources do not explain why hostility to Jews is far more intense today than in many past eras of Islamic history.  Finally, contemporary Christianity possesses at least as strong a religious foundation for Jew-hatred as Islam – in truth, much stronger — yet in the present day much of its potential for bigotry and hatred has been neutralized. 

Demonization and dehumanization

            Whatever the roots of “pigs and apes” thinking, one should not minimize the significance of religiously based dehumanization of the Jews.   Referring to Jews as pigs and apes is far more than mere name-calling.  Indeed, nearly all scholars who study the dynamics of genocide have highlighted the role of such dehumanization in creating the preconditions for mass murder.  In Rwanda, the Hutus referred to the Tutsis as inyenzi, or cockroaches.  Nazis spoke of the Jews as rats, tumors, or vermin.[33]  As Professor Milson explains, “. . . the belief that God once turned some Jews into apes, pigs, or other creatures [should not] be considered merely as an indication of primitive magical thinking.   Repeated reference to the Jews as despised beasts dehumanizes them and provides justification for their destruction.”[34]  Dehumanization is often the first step to mass murder.  It is much more effective when it can be plausibly attributed to an ancient and sacred source, held by believers to be infallible. 

            The antisemite may well reason that, formally, the Quranic punishment of some impious Jews in ancient times does not say anything about Jews living today.  Yet, he or she might further reason that surely an infallible God would not have described so many Jews so unfavorably if, in fact, they were not deeply flawed and evil creatures.  This reasoning process may be dead wrong from the perspective of more progressive coreligionists.   Islam, after all, includes the notion of Jews (and Christians) as dhimmis, or “protected” peoples; though this controversial status established the “peoples of the book” as second-class citizens and imposed various hardships on them, it also afforded them a shield against the rhetoric of dehumanization – provided they played by the rules.  Nonetheless, everyone reads their sacred scriptures selectively and one can also see clearly how some Muslims might have arrived at very negative – even if incorrectly negative – perspectives on the Jews solely by reading Islamic religious sources.

            Dehumanization plays a key role in the social psychology of genocide; it might be viewed as a precondition for mass killing, as something that clears, tills, and fertilizes the soil for murder.  However, the story of pigs and apes and – indeed – the entire Islamic religious tradition  — can at most be viewed as only component of mass hatred toward Jews in the contemporary Muslim world.  Another important ingredient that one usually observes in violent forms of mass hatred is fear.  One usually does not kill members of groups one dislikes in large numbers unless one is afraid.  Thus, Bosnian Serbs painted an image of themselves as the long-time victims of Croats and Muslims; they justified their violence against these groups as essentially defensive and preemptive.  Similarly, Rwandan Hutus feared the consequences of advancement by the Rwandan Patriotic Front, a Tutsi rebel army, and they looked to their own past and to the situation in Burundi for “evidence” of what might happen if the Tutsis became ascendant.  The Turks during the First World War saw Armenians in their midst as a potential threat to the interests of their empire and the Nazis, of course, developed a complex paranoid system concerning the Jews, whom they perceived as demonically powerful.  In some cases of mass hatred, the obsessive fears rest on a kernel of truth; in others, the phobic reaction is entirely fictitious and imagined.[35]  A belief in immense Jewish power and secret Jewish conspiracies was long a prominent aspect of European antisemitism and, especially during the past eight decades, such beliefs have migrated over many roads to Arab and Muslim lands.  Any understanding of contemporary Jew-hatred in Arab and Islamic countries must therefore understand numerous sources that would seem, at least upon initial examination, to have little or nothing to do with the Islamic religion.            

The Truth About the Past

            At present, a heated debate is raging among the small cadre of serious analysts of contemporary Muslim antisemitism.  One side in this debate, the prevailing side in the academic world, sees Jew-hatred as essentially alien to Islamic history and culture.  These experts may acknowledge a variety of negative references to Jews in the Islamic religious literature, but they portray Islamic political and social traditions as fundamentally tolerant, at least when judged by the standards of their day.[36]  They call attention to religious verses that they interpret as respectful of Jews and supportive of peaceful coexistence.  They see antisemitism as a European import, brought to the Muslim world by manipulative European antisemites and fueled by the Arab-Israeli conflict.  Historian Mark R. Cohen suggests, for example, that “. . . it is precisely because classical Islamic sources have so little that can be construed as anti-semitic that the Protocols of the Elders of Zion are so popular in the Muslim world today.”[37]   Only in the 20th century, they say — when Zionism, European colonialism, globalization, and other modern movements disrupted the natural course of Islamic history  — did the magnanimity of the essentially tolerant Islamic faith begin to show cracks.  Present-day hostility toward Jews, they maintain, is consequently without deep indigenous roots.

            The other side of the debate, the minority, acknowledges that Jews at times fared reasonably well under Muslim rule in some places; however, they emphasize that the Islamic environment was fundamentally a very difficult place for Jews.[38]  These scholars place greater weight on hostile statements and incidents concerning Jews in the Quran, hadiths, and other religious documents of Islam.  Moreover, they reject as historically untrue the notion that Islam has been a tolerant culture and they call attention to burdensome, discriminatory, and degrading rules Jews had to abide by in order to survive.[39]  The vision of tolerant Islam, they argue, is – despite a few prominent exceptions – mainly an idyllic fairy tale created partly by poorly informed European Jewish historians (especially Heinrich Graetz), dismayed by conditions in the West, and seeking – for various political, ideological, and psychological reasons —  to see greener grass on the other side. They argue that a considerable body of anti-Jewish material, significant anti-Jewish discrimination, and substantial violence preceded the modern Israeli state and Zionism by many centuries and indeed sprouts from seeds planted at the very inception of Islam.

            Those who see Islamic Jew-hatred as largely indigenous sometimes complain that advocates of the opposing viewpoint are attempting to whitewash Islam in the interest of political correctness or other misguided and, perhaps, naïve political motives.   Those who argue against the Islamic roots of Jew-hatred sometimes accuse the other group of poor scholarship and/or anti-Islamic prejudice.

            I am not a historian of Jews under Islam and a resolution of this disagreement lies beyond my competence.  However, this debate might benefit from being toned down a bit.  Islamic history, after all, covers a great many people, many years, and many places.  The story is complex and doesn’t, in truth, fit either perspective perfectly.  Polemics aside, there is considerable basis for agreement based on what reasonable people on both sides of the debate have asserted. 

            The best summary, I think, is that Jews, under Islam, were treated considerably better much of the time than Jews in Christian Europe – but, also, that such a conclusion is  unfortunately is not saying all that much.[40]  Christianity until recent times set a very low standard for decency toward Jews, varying from bad to worse to intolerable to genocidal.  Islam, by contrast, created a political and religious world that – despite some violent episodes — did sometimes provide some degree of tolerance for Christians and Jews.  This tolerance was based upon second class citizenship, and  often – but not always – came at a high price.  Like many religions that believe they possess the one true faith for everyone, Islam historically showed considerable disdain toward those who did not see things similarly.   Muhammad’s high hopes for converting the Jews, like Luther’s, turned into anger when not fulfilled. 

            Later Muslim leaders believed that Islam had been ordained to dominate, and one-hundred percent acceptance of this domination was generally the cost of physical survival for Jews.  Within that limitation – which was a big one — Jews could sometimes carve out a decent lifestyle of sorts.  Under both Christianity and Islam, the fate of the Jews usually depended on the needs and whims of particular leaders.  But, most of the time, Islam lacked the obsessive preoccupation with the Jews that one generally observes in Christianity from the very beginning, or at least from several decades after the very beginning.  Once the seventh century tribal struggles described in the Quran had concluded with the victory of Islam and the expulsion of the Jews from Arabia, the Muslim obsession with the Jews reemerged mainly when Jews were no longer occupying the role prescribed for them by Islam, and when Muslims could no longer force them to do so.  Even before that time, however, there were numerous, non-trivial incidents during which Jews were treated terribly.

            Even taking all this into account, the distant religious and historic tradition was only one contributing source of contemporary Jew-hatred in Muslim and Arab countries.  One need not probe very deeply before the tremendous overlap between Christian and Arab antisemitism becomes apparent; those who focus on ancient religious traditions are omitting an important part of the story.  Almost every major theme from Christian and secular European antisemitism makes an appearance in the contemporary Islamic world, none more prominently than the dangerous idea that rich, powerful, ubiquitous, immoral Jews lie at the center of a conspiracy to control the world.[41] 

            A few more conclusions about the origins debate are in order. 

It does not make one a bigot to argue that Islam as a religion bears some – even much —  responsibility for contemporary anti-Jewish prejudice in Muslim and Arab countries.  Similarly, it does not make one an apologist for antisemitism to argue that today’s Jew-hatred is largely an import from the West.  However, the most sensible conclusion is that both indigenous and borrowed sources are important.

Those who argue that recent Jew-hatred comes from Europe should not necessarily conclude that contemporary Muslim antisemitism has shallow roots.  The depth and intensity of a belief are not immediately determined by what happened in the past;  they are instead a function of the extent to which  the belief is currently embedded in a society and its modes of indoctrination as well as the degree to which that belief currently meets the social and psychological needs of its adherents.   A belief that was brought to the Islamic world fifty years ago can be every bit as powerful and difficult to eradicate as one that has roots going back many centuries.  In other words, we must supplement any historical understanding with a better sense of the social psychological processes through which the past becomes psychologically and socially relevant at any given time.

 The argument that Jew-hatred comes to the Islamic world via Europe is not really an argument that the hatred has “recent” roots.  The process of importing antisemitism dates back at least to the nineteenth century and even Sayyid Qutb’s highly influential and notorious work of religious and political antisemitism – Our Struggle with the Jews – is now six decades old.[42]

 If, as some historians contend, Islam did not make much use of its potentially anti-Jewish religious source material until the twentieth century, this does not mean that current uses of such material will not endure or have serious consequences.

 About the status of Jews under Islam in the past, there is room for reasonable people to debate.  About the prevalence of Jew-hatred in the contemporary Muslim world, it seems to me that there is no such room.


[*]The Yale Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Antisemitism (YIISA), Institution for Social and Policy Studies, Yale University, New Haven, CT., and Department of Psychology, William Paterson University, Wayne, NJ.  Mailing Address: Dr. Neil J. Kressel, Department of Psychology, William Paterson University, Wayne NJ 07470.  E-mail: Kresseln@wpunj.edu.

[†] Paper presented at the “Global Antisemitism: A Crisis of Modernity” International Conference,  August 23, 2010, Yale University, New Haven, CT


[1] S’ad Al-Bawardi quoted in B. Chernitsky and E. Glass, “Antisemitic Statements and Cartoons in Wake of Gaza War.”  MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis Series Report No.507, accessed July 1, 2010, available from http://www.memri.org/report/en/0/0/0/0/0/0/3213.htm#_edn9.

[2] Hannah Rosenthal, talk delivered at Yale University, April 12, 2010, accessed July 1, 2010, video available online from the Yale Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Antisemitism (YIISA), http://vimeo.com/11079679.

[3] S’ad Al-Bawardi quoted in Chernitsky and Glass, “Antisemitic Statements.”

[4] For one example of this approach, see Joseph V. Montville, “Commentary on ‘Mass Hatred in the Muslim and Arab World:  The Neglected Problem of Anti-Semitism’ by Neil Kressel,” International Journal of Applied Psychoanalytic Studies 4, no. 3 (2007): 216-220.  See, also, Nadia Ramzy, “Commentary on ‘Mass Hatred in the Muslim and Arab World:  The Neglected Problem of Anti-Semitism’ by Neil Kressel,” International Journal of Applied Psychoanalytic Studies 4, no. 3 (2007): 191-196. 

[5] See Robert S. Wistrich, A Lethal Obsession:  Anti-Semitism from Antiquity to the Global Jihad (New York:  Random House, 2010), 748.

[6] See “Hitler Book Bestseller in Turkey,”  BBC News Online, March 18, 2005, accessed July 1, 2010, available from http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/4361733.stm.  See, also, Wistrich, A Lethal Obsession,  823-829.

[7]Quoted in “On Hamas TV, Friday Sermon Cites ‘Protocols of Elders of Zion.’  

[8] See Postscript to this book for a discussion of the varieties of Muslim and Arab opposition to Jew-hatred.

[9] Suhaib Webb, “Does the Qur’an call Jews pigs and apes?  And is it allowed for Muslims to do so?,”  Suhaib Webb Blog, April 27, 2008, accessed July 1, 2010, available from http://www.suhaibwebb.com/blog/br-suhaib/does-the-quran-call-jews-pigs-and-apes/

[10] Ruqaiyyah Waris Maqsood, “Apes and Pigs?,”  Website of Ruqaiyyah Waris Maqsood, accessed July 1, 2010, available from http://www.ruqaiyyah.karoo.n et/articles/apes.htm.

[11] “Syrian Deputy Minister of Religious Endowment Muhammad ‘Abd Al-Sattar Calls for Jihad and States Jews ‘are the Descendants of Apes and Pigs,’”  MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 1217, July 28, 2006, accessed July 1, 2010, available from http://www.memri.org/bin/printerfriendly/pf.cgi.

[12] Neil J. Kressel, Bad Faith:  The Danger of Religious Extremism (Amherst, NY:  Prometheus Books, 2007), 42-49.

[13] “Friday Sermons in Saudi Mosques: Review and Analysis,”  MEMRI Special Report No. 10, September 26, 2002, accessed July 1, 2010, available from http://www.memri.org/report/en/0/0/0/0/0/0/736.htm#II.

[14] Nasrallah quoted in Aluma Solnick, “Based on Koranic Verses, Interpretations, and Traditions, Muslim Clerics State: The Jews Are the Descendants of Apes, Pigs, And Other Animals,”  MEMRI Special Report No. 11, November 1, 2002, accessed July 1, 2010, available from http://www.memri.org/report/en/0/0/0/0/0/0/754.htm.

[15] Mahdi quoted in Irwin Cotler, “The New Anti-Semitism:  An Assault on Human Rights,”  in Antisemitism: The Generic Hatred, eds. Michael Fineberg, Shimon Samuels, & Mark Weitzman (Portland, OR:  Valentine Mitchell, 2007), 28-29. 

[16]“Saudi Government Official on Bin Laden as a Hero: He Did Not Present a Distorted Picture of Islam to the West’ American Jews are ‘Brothers of Apes and Pigs,’” MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 343, February 8, 2002, accessed July 1, 2010, available from http://www.memri.org/report/en/0/0/0/0/0/51/606.htm.

[17] The communiqué is quoted in Taguieff, Rising from the Muck, 56.

[18] See Ishtar, “Antisemitisme Ordinaire en Terre D’Islam:  Grippe Porcine et Diabolisation d’Israel,”  May 8, 2009, accessed July 1, 2010, available from http://www.bivouac-id.com/2009/05/08/antisemitisme-ordinaire-en-terre-dislam-grippe-porcine-et-diabolisation-d%E2%80%99israel/.

[19]“ Egyptian Cleric Safwat Higazi on Hamas TV: Dispatch Those Sons of Apes and Pigs to the Hellfire – On the Wings of Qassam Rockets,” MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 2176, January 6, 2009, accessed July 1, 2010, available from http://www.memri.org/report/en/0/0/0/0/0/51/2997.htm.

[20] “3-Year-old Egyptian Basmallah: Jews Are Apes and Pigs,”  Iqra TV (Saudi Arabia), May 7, 2002, MEMRI TV Video Clip #924, accessed July 13, 2010, available from http://www.memritv.org/clip/en/924.htm.

[21] “Hizbullah Al-Manar TV’s Children’s Claymation Special: Jews Turn Into Apes & Pigs, are Annihilated & Cast into the Sea,”  December 16, 2005, MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 1050, accessed July 1, 2010, available from http://www.memri.org/report/en/0/0/0/0/0/51/1557.htm.

[22] See Alexandra Frean, “Teacher Accuses Islamic School of Racism,”  The Times [London], April 15, 2008, accessed July 13, 2010, available from http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/education/article1878298.ece.

[23]Six  discussions of the source material from very different perspectives are: 1) Solnick, “Based on Koranic Verses,” 2)  Maqsood, “Apes and Pigs?,”  3) James M. Arlandson, “Did Allah Transform Jews into Apes and Pigs?”  accessed July 22, 2009, available from http://www.answering-islam.org/Authors/Arlandson/jew_apes.htm, 4) Jamie Glazov, Kenneth Levin, Nancy Kobrin, Peter Raddatz, David Gutmann, & Robert Spencer, “Symposium:  Apes, Pigs and Anti-Semitism,”  Front Page Magazine Online, accessed July 22, 2009, available from  http://97.74.65.51/readArticle.aspx?ARTID=26007; 5) Ilse Lichtenstadter, “’And Become Ye Accursed Apes,’” Jerusalem Studies in Arabic and Islam 14 (1991), 153-175.  Uri Rubin provides an interesting discussion of a related issue, how transformation into pigs and apes was suggested by some Muslim commentators as a potential punishment for Muslims, especially those suspected of following Jewish and Christian dogma.  See Uri Rubin, “Apes, Pigs, and the Islamic Identity,”  Israel Oriental Studies 17 (1997), 89-105;

[24] Jacob Lassner, “The Origins of Muslim Attitudes Towards the Jews and Judaism,”  Judaism 39 (Fall 1990): 501.

[25] Ibid., 497-498. 

[26] Lichtenstadter, “And Become Ye,” 175. 

[27] Ibid., 157. 

[28] “Egyptian Religious Endowments Ministry Official: The Pigs Living Today Are Descended from Jews – And Must Be Slaughtered,”  MEMRI Special Dispatch 2359, May 15, 2009, accessed July 1, 2010, available from http://www.memri.org/report/en/0/0/0/0/0/51/3300.htm.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Jeffrey Goldberg, “Nizar Rayyan of Hamas on God’s Hatred of Jews,”  Atlantic, January 2, 2009, accessed July 1, 2010, available from http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2009/01/nizar-rayyan-of-hamas-on-god-apos-s-hatred-of-jews/9278/.

[31] See “Sheik Yousuf Al-Qaradhawi, Recently Barred from the U.K., Reiterates His Position on Suicide Bombings and Declares: Jews Are Not the Offspring of Apes and Pigs,”  Al-Jazeera TV (Qatar), MEMRI TV Clip #1691, accessed July 1, 2010, available from  http://www.memritv.org/clip/en/1691.htm.

[32] See Lassner, “The Origins of Muslim Attitudes,”  494.

[33] See Neil J. Kressel, Mass Hate:  The Global Rise of Genocide and Terror, rev. ed. (New York:  Perseus Books Group/Westview Press, 2002),  172.

[34] Menahem Milson, “Arab and Islamic Anti-Semitism,”  MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis Series Report No. 442, May 27, 2008, accessed July 1, 2010, available from http://www.memri.org/report/en/print2680.htm

[35] Kressel, Mass Hate.

[36] See, for example, Mark R. Cohen, Under Crescent and Cross:  The Jews in the Middle Ages, rev. ed. (Princeton, NJ:  Princeton University Press, 2008); Mark R. Cohen, “Modern Myths of Muslim Anti-Semitism,”  in Muslim Attitudes to Jews and Israel, ed. Moshe Ma’oz (Portland, OR:  Sussex Academic Press, 2010),  31-47.  See, also, John L. Esposito, What Everyone Needs to Know About Islam (New York:  Oxford University Press, 2002), 81.

[37] Cohen, “Modern Myths,”  41.

[38] See, for example, Andrew G. Bostom, ed., The Legacy of Islamic Antisemitism (Amherst, NY:  Prometheus books, 2008).

[39] Bruce S. Thornton, “Islam Without Apologetics,”  City Journal, August 8th 2008, accessed July 1, 2010, available from http://www.city-journal.org/2008/bc0808bt.html.  See, also, Robert Spencer, “The Persistent Fiction that Islamic Anti-Semitism is a Borrowing from Nazism,”  Jihad Watch Web Site, April 21, 2010, accessed August 10, 2010, available from http://www.jihadwatch.org/2010/04/the-persistent-fiction-that-islamic-anti-semitism-is-a-borrowing-from-nazism.html;  Robert Spencer, “The Persistence of Islamic Anti-semitism,”  FrontPage Magazine,  December 8, 2009, accessed August 10, 2010, available from  http://frontpagemag.com/2009/12/08/the-persistence-of-islamic-anti-semitism-by-robert-spencer/print/.

[40] Bernard Lewis, Semites and Antisemites (New York: Norton, 1987), 121. 

[41] Some Muslims do blame Jews for their purported attempts to harm Jesus, but – of course – this is much less central to Islamic Jew-hatred than it is to Christian Jew-hatred.  (Muslims view Jesus as a prophet though they deny his divinity, the crucifixion,  and, hence,  the Jews’ role as Christ-killers.)

[42] For an English translation of Qutb’s work, see Ronald L. Nettler, A Muslim Fundamentalist’s Views of the Jews (New York:  Oxford, 1987).

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