When news broke of the bombing of the Al-Ahli hospital in Gaza, Western media and the Muslim world rushed to judgment. It was an Israeli airstrike, they said. It had to be. By the time the IDF announced the results of its investigation into the incident, which revealed that a misfired Palestinian Islamic Jihad rocket that fell in the hospital parking lot was to blame—later confirmed by numerous governments and intelligence services—it was too late. The “Arab street” was in an uproar.
The repercussions rippled as far as Dagestan, where Muslims attempted a pogrom against the passengers on a plane arriving from Tel Aviv.
Meanwhile, the Arab media stubbornly persists in claiming without evidence that Israel caused the hospital explosion. Not only that, but some deny that the Oct. 7 Hamas massacre ever took place or claim the Israelis inflicted it on themselves.
The hospital libel has a long pedigree. Blood libels date back in some form to the time of ancient Rome and emerged in full in 12th century England. It was a classic trope of Christian antisemitism, alleging that Jews murder children in order to use their blood to bake matzah. This monstrous lie in various forms led to violence against Jews well into the 20th century.
The blood libel was spread by Christians in the Muslim world. The 1840 Damascus Blood Libel was the first of dozens in the Ottoman Empire. After the French consul in Damascus joined Capuchin monks in accusing Jews of murdering a monk and his servant, many Jewish notables were arrested.
In the Arab and Muslim world today, a fabricated accusation is still enough to incite violence against Israel and Jews. Indeed, the power of the mob has always been a tool of the unscrupulous.
The Gaza hospital libel unleashed these mobs. For example, in Tunisia, the shrine of Rabbi Yossef HaMa’aravi, 30 kilometers from Gabès in the south, was torched. The tiny 1,500-member Jewish community—once 100,000 strong—fears for its future.
Over the centuries during which Jews lived in Muslim-majority countries, many acts of antisemitic violence originated with false accusations. A favorite pretext was connected to the Jewish use of alcohol. Charges that Jews defiled the Qur’an or Muslim holy sites, committed blasphemy or had supposed designs on the Al-Aqsa mosque have fueled anti-Jewish violence for decades—and still do today. The destruction of Jewish neighborhoods was often accompanied by looting, murder and rape.
Historically, the Jews had few rights and could not defend themselves against such false allegations. In the 19th century, Britain and France cast themselves as champions of defenseless minorities in the face of injustice. But these same colonial powers helped incite violence through a policy of “divide and rule” or were complicit in the violence by failing to protect vulnerable minorities. The forces of law and order were conspicuously absent until Jewish blood had been spilled.
Arab autocracies have long used the conflict with Zionism as a means to unite the masses and distract them from domestic failings. From the 1930s to the ‘50s and ‘60s, the power of the mob was directed against the Jews living in Muslim countries. These Jews became proxies for Israel. Often, the accusations descended into farce: A Jew smoking a cigarette could be accused of sending smoke signals to the “Zionists.”
In this age of instant information, how does one explain the persistence of such libels? It is clear that social media is a double-edged sword. It can be used to tell the truth but also to amplify lies.
People believe what they want to believe, even in the face of overwhelming empirical evidence. Telling the truth in the Arab world, however, has a political dimension. Whatever Arab leaders might think in private, correcting lies could endanger their survival.