How Bad Is It That Egypt's Mursi Hates Jews?

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By Lisa Beyer

Confronted by visiting U.S. senators about anti-Semitic statements he was captured on video making two years before his election, Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi came up with a lame response yesterday.

According to Mursi's spokesman, he was criticizing not Jews but Israel's aggression against Palestinians.

Let's run the tapes. In one, Mursi, who was then the chief of the Muslim Brotherhood's political arm, speaking at a rally, reminds Egyptians "to nurse our children and our grandchildren on hatred" for Jews. In a television interview, he refers to Jews as "the descendants of apes and pigs."

A repudiation or apology from Mursi was probably never an option. Expressions of raw bigotry are too common, and too acceptable, in the Middle East for that. In the nine years I worked as a Jerusalem-based correspondent, I heard a lot of such talk across the Arab-Israeli divide.

I first encountered the slur for Jews that Mursi used while interviewing a mid-level official of Hamas, the Palestinian branch of the Brotherhood, in the Gaza Strip. He was an educated man, a pharmacist who owned his own shop. Cheerful and hospitable, he served me cookies and tea.

The pharmacist wanted to impress upon me that Gazans were on the cutting edge of technology, so he showed me a program on his computer on which Koranic verses were searchable. "We can use this, for instance," he said, "to prove that Jews are the descendants of apes and pigs." My eyes must have widened. "No, really," he said. "The reference is right here."

The news of the Mursi tapes could have been worse. At least they dated to a time, before the Arab Spring, when Mursi could have had no idea he would become Egypt's president. Strongman Hosni Mubarak was then in power and the Muslim Brotherhood was officially banned.

The criticism of Mursi's 2010 remarks may make him and perhaps other prominent Egyptians more careful about what they say. That's important in a conflict in which communal hatred is passed from one generation to the next.

It's also important what officials in the region do. The burden of responsibility can have a sobering effect on the actions of a hostile figure like Mursi. So far, that seems to be happening. Mursi has honored Egypt's 1979 peace treaty with Israel, and he expended political capital to broker a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas last year. These acts give hope for lasting, positive change in the face of old and ugly words.

Lisa Beyer is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board. Follow her on Twitter.)

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-0- Jan/17/2013 19:02 GMT