LONDON – In the small town of San Dona di Piave near Venice last Friday, an imam, Raoudi Albdelbar, asked Allah to, “Kill them all (the Jews), down to the last one; make poison of their food; transform the air that they breathe into flames, and put terror in their hearts.”
The imam was so proud of his sermon that he made a video of it and posted it on his Facebook page — from where it went viral. Earlier this week, Italian antiterrorist police showed up and arrested the imam on charges of inciting violence, and began the process of expelling him to his native Morocco.
There’s a doleful, five-century-old parallel to the iman’s prayer. In his “Trials of the Diaspora,” Antony Julius, a polymath British lawyer, has taken Shylock’s trial in the Merchant of Venice as the trial of diaspora Jews, seeing in it a subtle re-imagining of the old blood libel. In Shylock’s pitiless pursuit of a pound of flesh cut from the merchant Antonio’s body, Julius detects another instance of Jews seeking Christian blood.
Shakespeare gave Shylock a speech that seemed to challenge the dehumanization at the heart of anti-Semitism — “Hath not a Jew eyes. … If you prick us, do we not bleed?” — even as the play drove inexorably to the ghastly humiliation of the Jew.
But Shakespeare did not know any Jews; they had been expelled from England in 1290 after centuries of oppression and were not readmitted till the 1650s. Shylock was a composite, born of the normal anti-Semitism of a Christian Englishman but softened by the sympathetic insight of one who recognized common humanity even as he assumed uncommon Jewish malignancy.
For the imam of San Dona di Piave, there is no such generosity. For him, the trial of the Jews should conclude with a mass death sentence — found, as a race, collectively guilty of creating a bloodbath in Gaza, where the victims this time were not Christians but Muslims.
Some among his audience, when later interviewed by a Corriere della Sera reporter, sought to excuse the imam’s remarks. “I understood [his sermon] this way,” said a man named Ali. “There was a massacre of children in Gaza and he prayed to Allah to punish those who did the killing. It’s normal, it seems to me.”
There’s another tragedy here beside the obvious one in Gaza. What Ali sees as “normal” is, in fact, normal for many Muslims, just as anti-Semitism was for many Christians in the 16th century. What he said was in his heart, and he felt he should broadcast it. Because Ali probably doesn’t know any Jews to wish them personally dead, it was an easy matter for him to condemn all Jews to death, divorced as he is from any inconvenient images of real people.
Divorced, too, from any wider context. In Iraq, well-trained and well-armed fighters for the Islamic State are wholly ruthless in the business of slaughtering their Muslim foes. Their religious fervor countenances no apostasy; it’s either be converted to their beliefs or be killed. They are sweeping through Sunni areas and most recently have advanced into Kurdish areas in northeast Iraq, leaving in their wake piles of headless bodies and desecrated religious shrines. The Sunni militants now threaten death to thousands of members of the Yezidi sect, a religious minority whose faith mixes Islam and ancient Persian Zoroastrianism.
The fighting in Iraq is but one theater in the bloodiest struggle in the world, that between Islam’s two major sects, the Sunnis and Shiites, a horror that firebrands like the Imam Raoudi ignore. The enemy is, and must ever be, the eternal Jew. Most — not all and not everywhere — of the malign energy in Christian anti-Semitism is now spent.
The Catholic Church, for a long time at best ambiguous toward Jews, has under the leadership of Pope Francis become more proactively friendly to them, while many Pentecostal churches in the United States and elsewhere are outright philo-Semitic. But Muslim Arabs’ detestation of Israel’s existence easily spreads to include all Jews — and as easily displaces any attention paid to the cancer in the midst of Islam.
Andre Aciman, the scholar and novelist who teaches comparative literature at the City University of New York, was a child when his Jewish family was expelled from Egypt in 1965, after Gamel Abdul Nasser came to power. Returning in 1995 to Alexandria, where he grew up, he found the city much the same, but its people had changed. “They were no longer cosmopolitan; people would come up to me and ask, ‘Are you a spy?’ perhaps thinking I was a Jew. Then in a taxi, I began to speak in Arabic. ‘Why did you leave?’ asked the driver. ‘Because I’m a Jew, they were hunting me.’ But he had no memory of that: the memory of Jews in Egypt had been rubbed out.”
The memory of Jews has been rubbed out all over the Arab world. “Death to the Jews!” the proud call of the imam in San Dona di Piave, is now heard on the streets of European cities.
It is a call most easily pronounced by those who know nothing of those they wish to see dead.
John Lloyd is a columnist for Reuters. The opinions expressed here are his alone.