MEMRI: "Beyond the Pale of Normal Human Considerations:"
Perspective on Jews, Israel, and Zionism
May 30, 2000
By Aaron Mannes*
In early April, Cairo University held a seminar to discuss philosophy
Professor Abd Al-Wahhab Al-Masiri's encyclopedia on Jews, Israel, and
Zionism. At the seminar, Al-Masiri's book was touted by Arab League
secretary-general 'Ismat Abd-Al-Magid as a way "to better know the enemy,"
and to avoid the mistakes made in the past. (1) Abd-'Alim Muhammad, head of
the Israeli studies department at the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and
Strategic Studies said that this book shows that, "Intellectuals do not need
to normalize with Israel or go on trips to know it." (2)
Al-Masiri's "Encyclopedia" is clearly written from a hostile perspective
towards its subject, and its essential premises embrace anti-Semitic
stereotypes. But it is not a fringe publication. Al-Masiri introduced his
ideas in a four-part series of articles in Al-Ahram, Egypt's largest
newspaper. Prominent figures in Egypt's cultural elite attended the seminar
at Cairo University. The book is part of the mainstream Egyptian
intellectual discourse. (3)
The Concept of the "functional group"
Al-Masiri proposes a new paradigm for understanding Jews, Israel, and
Zionism. Because the Jews, in several periods throughout history, have been
excluded from society and were restricted to limited professions, they are,
according to Al-Masiri, a "functional group." The "functional group" is a
minority, imported from outside or separated from society, which performs
functions that members of a "traditional" or pre-modern society cannot
perform due to social mores. Such jobs include handling garbage or corpses,
prostitution, medicine, and money lending. In the first of his four
articles, Al-Masiri writes, "To perform any of these tasks, one must be
emotionally and morally detached, characterized by as much neutrality as
possible, and without a power base in the society. .one should be a
rootless outsider, beyond the pale of normal human considerations -- envy
and disgust, competition or emulation, love or hatred and severed from the
rest of the community.." Al-Masiri elaborates on the example of money
lending. In a traditional society, non-economic sacred and human
considerations govern relationships, so that when the debt is to be
collected, these considerations take precedence over the strictly commercial
relationship. Thus, for these jobs to be done, the society must include a
group that is not subject to such concerns.
To fulfill these roles, the "functional group" is isolated from the host
society, "either in a physical ghetto, or a symbolic one [characterized by]
(special badges; a special language, or even a [distinct] religious
doctrine...) [They] internalize their isolation and even promote it..
preserving their special dress, ghetto, or dialect and resist[ing] any
attempt at de-ghettoisation, seeing it as a threat to their identity (which
indeed it is.)" Isolated from society as a whole and accumulating wealth
because of their unique status, the "functional group" is envied by the poor
and relies, for protection on the ruling classes, which use them to exploit
the masses. (4)
The "functional group," according to Al-Masiri has two essential
characteristics: myths of a sacred origin and different sets of morality for
"functional group" members and outsiders. The myths are developed both to
loosen their ties to their host society, which makes it easier for the
"functional group" to perform its tasks and alleviates the alienation they
experience due to their isolation. The dual moral standards are also
necessary for the "functional group" to perform their tasks. Non-members of
the "functional group" are "not fully human. and therefore can be utilized
and instrumentalised without any moral compunctions." (5)
Applying the paradigm to Jews and Israel
While Al-Masiri gives other examples of "functional groups," he describes
the Jews as "a prime example." He then argues that the various
distinguishing characteristics of the Jewish people, their religion,
rituals, double standards of morality, physical isolation, and longing to
return "to a hypothetical country of origin," are necessary responses to
their role as a "functional group." To support his thesis, Al-Masiri cites
the restrictive legal conditions placed on Jews during the Middle Ages, and
of course, Shakespeare's Shylock, who epitomizes the contractual,
utilitarian relationship between the Jew and his host society. (6)
Finally, Al-Masiri applies his "functional group" paradigm to the state of
Israel, which he calls a "functional state." The modern state does not need
the "functional group," so Jews were no longer necessary for that purpose.
By creating Israel, the West could rid itself of its Jewish problem and its
Oriental problem at the same time. The Zionist state is a "functional state"
with a utilitarian relationship with the Western powers in exchange for
financial support Israel serves the West's strategic interests. Al-Masiri
states that the dual morality towards Jews and non-Jews that characterized
the Jewish "functional group" pervades the Israeli state. As an example, he
cites the Law of Return, under which any Jew can immigrate to Israel and
become a citizen while Palestinians cannot. (7)
"The Judaisation of Society" Al-Masiri on Modernity
Al-Masiri does not confine his observations to the Jews. He also criticizes
modern societies for taking on some of the traits of the "functional group."
Al-Masiri ventures that modern societies are dominated by "contractual
relationships in lieu of traditional and moral loyalties," in which people
"are instrumentalised and functionalised." Al-Masiri writes: "This is the
total elimination of the sacred. Marx, in his own flamboyant way, called
this 'the Judaisation of society.'" (8)
Professor Al-Masiri's theory is little more than anti-Semitic canards
wrapped in a veneer of academic writing. He makes two arguments about the
Jewish people and Israel. First, Judaism, both the religion and culture are
based on myths that were contrived in response to socio-economic conditions.
Second, because of their long isolation from surrounding society, Jews are
not capable of viewing non-Jews as human beings. This reveals the
underlying goal of Al-Masiri's work, which is to dehumanize and
de-legitimate the Jewish people. His work could be particularly effective
since he uses neologisms and academic jargon to help indoctrinate the next
generation of educated Egyptians for a continued enmity towards Jews,
Zionism, and Israel.
But Al-Masiri's attack does not end with the Jews and Zionism. In praising
traditional pre-modern society, while arguing that modernity is
dehumanizing, he helps to inculcate anti-Western sentiments. Ultimately,
such arguments will not only exacerbate antipathy towards Israel, but will
work to isolate Egyptians from the liberal democratic ideas of the West.
Fortunately, there are alternative viewpoints in Egypt. Having witnessed
the damage done by various ideologies pan-Arab Nasserism, socialism, and
Islamic fundamentalism - segments of Egypt's cultural elite began, in the
1990s, to endorse the classical and modern values of the West: human rights,
democracy, civil society, separation of religious and political authority,
globalization, and free markets. An important corollary of this movement is
greater acceptance of the Jews and Israel. (9)
As these groups promoting classical liberal values have grown they have come
into increasing conflict with those holding fast to the Nasserite and
Islamist ideologies. Al-Masiri's "Encyclopedia" and its reception reveal
the hold these ideologies have on much of Egypt's elite, as well as the
general public. The conflict between Westernizers on the one hand and
Nasserites and Islamists on the other has begun on the pages of newspapers
and journals. It may end up on the streets. It is a struggle over the soul
· Aaron Mannes is MEMRI's Director of Research.
(1) "Learning about Zionism," Al-Ahram Weekly, Umayma Abd Al-Latif, April
6-12, 2000. Officials from the Israeli Embassy were invited to attend by
the book's editor, but were refused entry because the University opposes
cultural normalization with Israel.
(3) In a May 20, 2000 article in the London-based Arabic daily Al-Hayat,
Al-Masiri alleges that on several occasions the Israeli Mossad and the Kah
movement (Jewish Defense League] attempted to thwart his work.
(4) "The function of outsiders," Al-Ahram Weekly, Abd Al-Wahhab Al-Masiri,
June 24-30, 1999.
(5) "The kindness of strangers," Al-Ahram Weekly, Abd Al-Wahhab Al-Masiri,
July 1-7, 1999.
(6) "A chosen community, an exceptional burden," Al-Ahram Weekly, Abd
Al-Wahhab Al-Masiri, July 8-14, 1999.
(7) "A people like any other," Al-Ahram Weekly, Abd Al-Wahhab Al-Masiri,
July 15-22, 1999.
(8) "The kindness of strangers," Al-Ahram Weekly, Abd Al-Wahhab Al-Masiri,
July 1-7, 1999. The concept of Judaisation of society was common in
Hitler's ideas of the damage Judaism does to the surrounding society. See,
for example, Mein Kampf, Ralph Manheim, translator, (The Houghton Mifflin
Co., 1971), pg. 318.
(9) See Special Dispatch No. 91, "Egypt's Opposition Press attacks Peace
Activists," May 12, 2000; and Special Dispatch No. 93, "'Let's Not Blame
Israel for Arab Faults,''Conspiracy Theories Retard Arab Progress:' Egyptian
Intellectuals Fight Common Arab Misperceptions," May 5, 2000. There are
several groups and institutions devoted to promoting classical liberal
values in Egypt, many of them are part of the Egyptian cultural elite and
connected to the core of Egypt's establishment. One leading group is the
Ibn Khaldoun Institute, which is devoted to encouraging civil society in
Egypt. Another interest group are the Egyptian businessmen who seek better
trade relations with the West and better business conditions within Egypt,
and see confrontation with Israel as a barrier to these goals. A leading
advocate of these ideas is Egyptian Nobel prize winning novelist Najib
Mahfuz. He has long advocated, first implicitly in his fiction and later
explicitly in essays and interviews, accepting peace with Israel, democracy,
rejecting pan-Arabism in favor of focusing on Egyptian problems, and
openness towards Western ideas and culture. Inquiry & Analysis No. 5, "The
Pen vs. The Sword: Nobel Laureate Mahfuz and Nasser," by Aaron Mannes and
Yigal Carmon, September 28, 1998.
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