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Palestinian Leader Abbas’ Attack on Zionism Cites Late Egyptian Intellectual’s Denial of Jewish Peoplehood

avatar by Ben Cohen

The late Egyptian academic Abdel Wahab Elmessiri speaking in 2004. Photo: File.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s angry speech on Sunday castigating the US and Israel drew on the work of an Egyptian academic who dedicated his career to denying the existence of an independent Jewish people with political rights.

In his speech, Abbas described the late Egyptian academic Dr. Abdel Wahab Elmessiri as “one of the most important people that spoke about the Zionist and Jewish movement.”

On Israel, Abbas said, Elmessiri “described this entity with these words: ‘The significance of Israel’s functional character is that colonialism created it in order to fill a specific role; it is a colonialist project that is not connected to Judaism, but made use of the Jews so they would serve as pawns, and they were, under the motto ‘the Promised Land’ and ‘the Beloved Land,’ and they brought them here.'”

Abbas’ comments drew furious condemnation from Israeli leaders. Israeli President Reuven Rivlin accused the Palestinian leader of saying “exactly the things that led him to be accused years ago of anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial,” while Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stated that the speech was a reminder that the “root of the conflict between us and the Palestinians is their steadfast refusal to recognize the Jewish state in any borders whatsoever.” Danny Danon, Israel’s Ambassador to the UN, declared that the “hateful words of the Chairman of the Palestinian Authority, which seem to question the very right of a United Nations member-state to exist, are completely unacceptable and must be unequivocally condemned.”

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A graduate of Columbia and Rutgers Universities, Elmessiri, who died in 2008, taught at universities in Egypt and Malaysia during his academic career. Politically active, he was a founder of the reformist “Kefaya” movement in 2004, which grew from the national network of Palestinian solidarity committees in Egypt.

Regarded in the Arab world as an expert on Judaism and Zionism, Elmessiri was not known to have spoken Hebrew, nor to have conducted joint research on these subjects with recognized Western and Israeli specialists in Jewish studies. Nonetheless, his prodigious output included an eight-volume, Arabic-language Encyclopedia of Jews, Judaism and Zionism, as well as books with titles like Zionism, Nazism and the End of History: A New Cultural Perspective, Israel and South Africa: Progression of a Relationship, and The Palestinian Intifada and Zionist Crisis: A Study in Perception and Dignity.

Elmessiri argued that instead of being a real nation like the Arabs, the Jewish society that emerged in the State of Israel represented “the functional state” of a “functional group.” As with Karl Marx and other Western social theorists who posited that the continued existence of the Jews was a consequence of their economic function in society, rather than their beliefs and aspirations as a community, Elmessiri defined the Jewish people according to their “definite, limited, abstract function rather than their complex, full humanity.”

In his writings, Elmessiri claimed that the Jews imported these “functional group” traits into their “colonial project” in Palestine, developing “a myth of hypothetical sacred origin and attaching themselves to an original, sacred homeland, either real or fictive, from which they have come and to which they will eventually return.”

A vocal supporter of the so-called “one-state solution,” Elmessiri remains an intellectual figurehead for Arab opponents of “normalization” with Israel. At a Cairo seminar honoring Elmessiri in 2000, one participant declared that his writings proved that the “argument that Israel can be well understood from the outside is valid.”

Elmessiri had demonstrated that “intellectuals do not need to normalize with Israel or go on trips to know it,” remarked Abdel-Alim Mohamed, the then head of the Israeli studies section at Egypt’s Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.

The region’s hardcore antisemites have also embraced Elmessiri’s work. In a July 2017 column in the Omani daily newspaper Al-Watan that charged Jews with engaging in “human sacrifice,” writer Faiz Rashid ended by recommending that his readers purchase Elmessiri’s book Zionism and ViolenceFrom the Beginning of Settlement to the Al-Aqsa Intifada.

Elmessiri did criticize the prevalence of antisemitic conspiracy theories in the Arab world, but only from a tactical perspective.

“What benefit do we gain if we know that they are conspirators and criminals? So what?” he told the Cairo seminar in 2000. “The important question is how to utilize this knowledge in deterring the Israelis from penetrating Egyptian society and forcing them to halt the construction of settlements in the West Bank.”

“In other words, this knowledge should be turned into a plan of action and resistance,” Elmessiri emphasized.

Elmessiri was also a bitter critic of the US, arguing in a 2004 interview that America had fallen victim to a “hedonism” that had weakened its resolve.

“As the tendency to hedonism grows, what we call the inclination to fight erodes,” he said. “Therefore, in Vietnam, for instance, the protests began after 20 or 30 thousand soldiers were killed, but in Iraq demonstrations started after only 300 soldiers were killed.”

“One must tell the US that whoever wants to establish an empire should expect more than 300 casualties,” Elmessiri concluded, before predicting that Israel would also shrink from future conflicts because of its diminishing “tolerance threshold” for casualties.

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