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Elders of zion { October 26 2002 }

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October 26, 2002
Anti-Semitic 'Elders of Zion' Gets New Life on Egypt TV

CAIRO, Oct. 25 The images flash quickly across the television screen. They show a bloody face, Victorian men and women in a drawing room, soldiers wielding rifle butts. And a man in black hat with side curls and long beard.

An Egyptian satellite television channel has begun teasers for its blockbuster Ramadan series that its producers acknowledge incorporates ideas from the infamous czarist forgery "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion." That document, a pillar of anti-Semitic hatred for about a century, appears to be gaining a new foothold in parts of the Arab world, some scholars and observers say.

The series, "Horse Without a Horseman," traces the history of the Middle East from 1855 to 1917 through the eyes of an Egyptian who fought British occupiers and the Zionist movement.

It is divided into 41 episodes and will be shown nightly through the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, which begins in about two weeks and guarantees maximum viewership because many Muslims congregate at home after breaking the daily fast.

With Egyptian state television and other Arab channels also broadcasting the series, the potential audience numbers in the tens of millions.

A historical epic with a pulpy look, judging from the commercials, the series is the first production of one-year-old Dream TV.

The channel is one of the country's first two private stations, and has a somewhat freewheeling format compared with state television. It is controlled by Ahmed Bahgat, a prominent Egyptian businessman.

The "Protocols," which purports to depict Jewish leaders plotting world dominion, has long been recognized as a fabrication by the czarist secret police. It was used in early 20th-century Russia and in Nazi Germany as a pretext for persecution of Jews. Still, the show's backers say they are keeping an open mind about its authenticity. They say that in any event, reality seems to bear them out, in that Israel controls part of the Middle East.

"In a way, don't they dominate?" said Hala Sarhan, Dream TV's vice president and feisty personality on the air. "Of course, what we read from the `Protocols,' it says it's a kind of conspiracy. They want to control; they want to dominate. I represent everybody in the street. We will see whether this happened throughout history or not."

Ms. Sarhan is quick to point out that the material about the "Protocols" is only one aspect of a sweeping television panorama. But others who have seen the entire program say that a Zionist conspiracy to control Arab lands is one of the themes running through the series.

At one point, men in the Arab anti-British resistance movement find the "Protocols" and have it translated, said a co-writer, Muhammad Baghdadi. "They discovered that many things in this document were happening in reality," Mr. Baghdadi said, "whether they were written by the Jews or not."

The underlying focus of the drama "is how the Zionist entity was planted in Palestine and in the Arab world," he said. Mr. Baghdadi said the series respected Judaism as a religion. "We only criticize the Zionist movement," he said.

Nevertheless, the program has troubled the United States as well as Israel. American Embassy officials say they raised their concerns with the Egyptian government but received a noncommittal response.

The series is closely associated with Muhammad Sobhi, a popular Egyptian screen and stage actor who is not shy about courting controversy and whose previous works have sometimes poked fun at Arabs. He co-wrote the script and plays the main character.

Mr. Sobhi declined to be interviewed, but earlier this year he told Al Jazeera television that whether or not the "Protocols" was authentic, "Zionism exists and it has controlled the world since the dawn of history."

He said that many of the book's predictions had been borne out and that it would be "stupid" not to consider the possibility that the book was true, even if the chance was "one in a million."

Commentators, like David I. Kertzer, a professor of anthropology at Brown University, have noted an increase in anti-Semitic imagery more typical of Western societies cropping up in the Arab world since the Sept. 11 attacks, along with the canard that Jews were warned of the attacks.

Michael A. Sells, a professor of comparative religion at Haverford College, said, "With each new wave of war and anger, the European-imported brand digs itself deeper into society."

Indeed, the "Protocols" lately appears to be gaining more attention in the Arab media and more space on bookshelves. Yet the extent of its impact in Egypt is questionable. Egyptian observers say that most people in this country of limited literacyhave not heard of the book, although those who have probably accept it as real.

"Once it goes on television it enters everyone's living room, and that's where the danger is," said Samir Raafat, a writer and chronicler of Cairene life who is critical of the series. "You are spoon-feeding them more hate propaganda. This is not conducive to tolerance of the other or knowing the other. There's a price going to be paid."

The "Protocols" spread through Europe in the 1920's, and has had a presence in the Middle East for decades, said Abraham H. Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith.

He said he had asked European governments and the United States to press Egypt to ban the broadcast.

Mr. Foxman and experts say anti-Semitic writings and images are on the rise in the Arab world. Some here say anger at Israeli actions against the Palestinians is being expressed in anti-Jewish terms, with the line sometimes blurred. Perhaps that is not surprising when the words Jews, Zionists and Israelis are often interchangeable in the Arab media and official discourse.

Scholars of the Islamic world, which historically has had a closeness with Judaism, say demonization on both sides is inevitable after such long conflict in the Middle East.

An Egyptian government spokesman, Nabil Osman, rejected criticism of "Horseman Without a Horse." "It's the same old gimmick, to raise the issue of anti-Semitism when it's convenient," he said. "To prejudge something you didn't see underlines some ulterior goals, which I'm not in a position to decipher."

Mr. Osman disputed that there was an increasingly anti-Jewish strain in Egyptian society. "There is a world of difference," he said, between anger at Israeli policies and anti-Semitism.

He said the program had been reviewed by the government broadcasting committee, which vets all television programs for things like pornography or the "desecration of religion." It was approved, he said.

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