In a puff piece on Nabih Berri, the speaker of the Lebanese parliament, published on the occasion of his 80th birthday last year, the broadcaster France 24 headlined its profile, “The Great Survivor of Lebanese Politics.” This wording suggested that Berri is a successful politician in the sense that this image is understood in the Western democracies; someone who negotiates, navigates, cajoles and compromises his way through his country’s legislature and invariably comes out on top.
But if Berri has been the “great survivor,” this is due to far more than his acknowledged political skills. Berri has also been a warlord—specifically one of the founders of (and still the head of) the Lebanese Shi’a Amal militia. While at the helm of a paramilitary whose English name translates as “The Movement of the Disinherited,” Berri amassed a fortune of $78 million—not as much as some other Lebanese politicians, but enough to place him in a “top 10” list. Many of the more gruesome episodes of his career have long been forgotten; for example, Berri’s mid-1980s alliance with Syrian dictator Hafez Assad (the late father of current dictator Bashar Assad) against Yasser Arafat’s PLO. For three years, Amal militiamen imposed a punishing siege upon three of the main Palestinian refugee camps, during which thousands of Palestinian civilians were killed, wounded, starved, arrested and tortured in the ultimately successful bid to drive Yasser Arafat out of Lebanon.
Lebanon’s sectarian politics have served Berri well: He has never been held accountable for his war crimes (and probably never will be), and he has served uninterrupted as the speaker of the country’s parliament, a position reserved for a Shi’a Muslim, since 1992. Once an enemy of Hezbollah, Iran’s proxy in Lebanon, Berri is now the terror group’s political guardian, stating only last year that Hezbollah’s “resistance” was one of the three pillars, along with the “people” and the Lebanese regular army, of Lebanon’s national security.
That status merely enhances his reputation with foreign leaders, who use Berri, according to France 24, as a conduit for messages to Hezbollah, a proscribed terrorist organization in several countries. As the man with the most institutionalized power in Lebanon alongside the president and the prime minister, Berri is seen as a vital port of call for visiting U.S. politicians and diplomats, including U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who met with him in Beirut two months ago.
Another U.S. politician who met with Berri more recently was Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), a leading congressional ally of Israel. Among the subjects they reportedly discussed was the maritime border between Lebanon and Israel as it relates to the vast natural-gas deposits in that part of the Mediterranean Sea.
On May 29, Berri gave the Lebanese newspaper Al-Joumhouriya, in which he mentioned his talk with Engel, and then reflected that Israel’s apparent unease with the present status of the maritime border was rooted in that age-old Jewish characteristic: greed. For those who missed it the first time around, this is how he expressed himself.
“Someone was once asked, ‘How can you recognize a Jew?’ ” posed Berri. “The answer was: ‘It’s simple. If you see a pregnant woman, get close to her and toss a piece of gold next to her, or at her feet. If the fetus jumps out of his mother’s womb and grabs the gold, you know that he is a Jew.’ ”
This grotesquely anti-Semitic gag—peppered with a bit of misogyny for good measure—doubtless went down a storm with those who were in the room. But in the 24 hours that followed the publication of Al-Joumhouriya’s interview with Berri, only Jewish news outlets and the MEMRI think-tank reported on his comments. No politician of note stepped forward to condemn him.
Make no mistake: This sort of anti-Jewish barb belongs naturally to the pages of Der Stürmer, the Nazi propaganda sheet that exhibited a similarly pornographic anti-Semitism. It makes the other anti-Semitic canards uttered over the years by other Muslim leaders, like the Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammed, seem almost mild by comparison. And yet it was met with silence.
Part of the explanation why lies in the bigotry of low expectations. For all the transformations of our culture’s sensitivity to race and gender in the last 50 years, we still don’t bat an eyelid when Arab or Muslim leaders come out with same anti-Semitic garbage that has dominated casual discourse about Israel and Jews in the that region for at least a century. As Robert Wistrich, the scholar of anti-Semitism, described it, this has involved a fusion of “traditional Islamic anti-Judaism with Western conspiracy myths, Third Worldist anti-Zionism, and Iranian Shi’ite contempt for Jews as ‘ritually impure’ and corrupt individuals.”
All those strands were represented in Nabih Berri’s anti-Semitic joke. In telling it, Berri sent a message to the next generation of Lebanese politicians that anti-Semitism is a legitimate instrument of politics, and that violently mocking Jews is a normal component of rhetoric. Meanwhile, the silence of the outside world tells them that because of Lebanon’s conflict with Israel, attacks on Jews, even vilely medieval ones, will pass without comment or censure. After all, this is how it’s always been.
Ben Cohen is a New York City-based journalist and author who writes a weekly column on Jewish and international affairs for JNS.