More Frightening Than Fiction: Virulently Antisemitic Egyptian Film Impresario Honored by the Institut Français
To Hollywood movie fans of my generation, Mideast history on the silver screen meant cinematic blockbusters like The Ten Commandments (1956) and Exodus (1960). The one Egyptian actor who stood out was the late Omar Sharif, featured first in Lawrence of Arabia (1961), who later won the hearts of American audiences playing Jewish gambler Nicky Arnstein opposite Barbara Streisand in Funny Girl. But for this very reason, he was boycotted by Egyptian audiences!
Alas, the real popular face of Egyptian television and movies — Mohamed Sobhi — has now been revealed anew. Sobhi became a legendary star in Egypt for writing, directing, and starring in Horseman Without A Horse, a lurid melodrama that propagated the antisemitic conspiracy theories of the notorious Czarist forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
Debuting in 2002 during Ramadan on Egyptian state-owned television as a 40-part mini-series, Horseman offered a soap opera view, billed as “a true story,” of how Jews and Zionists were responsible for all Arab woes. Watched not only in homes but also coffee shops and other places throughout the Arab world, the first episode began with the narrator intoning: “The sons of Zion took Palestine through organized deceit and plundering. Some of these events have already taken place, some may happen, and some are expected to happen. I will tell you everything. I won’t hide anything.”
This promise enticed naïve, religiously-minded Egyptian viewers who believed that Jewish plans to dominate the Mideast from the Nile to the Euphrates were a sign of “the end of the world.” Mild-mannered high school math teacher Ahmed Helmy told an American reporter: “All of Egypt hates the Jews. They are our No. 1 enemy.” Hayman Abdel Tawab, a 23 year-old Palestinian civil engineer, mused: “I want to understand America’s excessive bias toward the Jews. Every day more Palestinians are killed, and we can’t do anything about it.”
Sobhi — arguably Egypt’s Orson Welles — declared that his series was not antisemitic: “The Protocols are briefly mentioned in the series, but … the focus is on what ‘Zionist gangs’ did ‘to take over Palestine.’ … We ourselves are Semites, even more so than them.”
In fact, Egypt’s Security Chief at the time, cognizant of possible diplomatic complications, had forced Sobhi to cut back — but not eliminate — numerous invocations of the Protocols. Relatively few cynics accused the Egyptian government of exploiting the series’ rampant anti-Jewish, anti-Israel conspiracy theories to distract public attention from economic problems and political repression at home.
But Sobhi never deviated from his faith in Horseman. When the Muslim Brotherhood took control of the Egyptian government after the 2011 elections, Sobhi saw to it that the entire series — without edits or expurgations — was broadcast on Egyptian television.
And just last month, the prestigious Institut Français, which specializes in North African cultural outreach for the French government, honored Sobhi. The Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Director for International Relations, Dr. Shimon Samuels, bitterly protested.
What explains this French soft spot for a notorious Arab antisemite? For a clue, consider the peculiar case of French philosopher Roger Garaudy, who converted to Islam in 1982, authored the antisemitic The Founding Myths of Modern Israel in 1995, and was convicted of incitement to racial hatred in 1998. Almost a decade after his death in 2012, Garaudy maintains his iconic status as a truth teller about Jews and Israel among many deluded French intellectuals.
Another example: the web site of France’s Arab World Institute has removed, but only under pressure, a picture showing protesters wearing Netanyahu masks. It advertised a debate in Paris, entitled: “Stranglehold on Israel. Netanyahu or the end of the Zionist dream,” and depicted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holding up bloody hands.
Antisemitism has age-old religious roots in the Islamic tradition, but some modern antisemitism, such as the Protocols, was exported from Europe and the US to the Arab and Muslim worlds during and after the Hitler era. Now it is returning from the Mideast to Europe and America by means of a feedback loop, with Mideast immigrants carrying anti-Jewish attitudes as baggage with them, especially to Western Europe. The Sobhi award hints why many French and even English Jews are considering making aliyah to Israel — because they no longer feel safe in European countries.
Historian Harold Brackman is a long-time consultant for the Simon Wiesenthal Center on global issues of intolerance and tolerance.