New York Times’ Michael Slackman’s statement that Egyptians “generally” don’t differentiate between Jewish people and Israelis was subject to much criticism, mainly for making such generalization and concluding, in the very first line, that since Egyptians see Israelis as the enemy, the Jews are enemies too.

But to be honest, I agree with the Slackman’s opinion, albeit partially. Many Egyptians don’t make this distinction. But this opening paragraph of the Sept. 6 article http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/07/world/middleeast/07cairo.html lacked one important detail that would have provided much needed accuracy. “Egyptians generally do not make any distinction between Jewish people and Israelis” and the rest of the world doesn’t make this distinction either.

You support Israel, so you support Judaism. You criticize Israel, you are automatically anti-Semitic. That’s the general belief that dominates mainstream media and world politics. For many people — usually influential voices in the West and in the Middle East— Israel, Zionism and Judaism are one package. You love it all or you hate it all. No compromise here.

In the saga that still follows Egypt’s Minister of Culture Farouk Hosni’s UNESCO bid for having said that he would burn any Israeli books if he found them in Egypt, the anti-Israel statement was reported as anti-Semitic discourse. Both phrases (anti-Israel and anti-Semitic) were synonymous in press reports and politicians’ statements reacting to Hosni’s quote.

Like a Chinese whisper, Hosni’s damning quote turned in news agencies’ reports from “burn Israeli books” to “burn Hebrew books.” Aside from the fact that there are Hebrew books in Egypt — I’m assuming the Hebrew and Jewish Studies departments in Egyptian public universities do read Hebrew text (check this story for more on one of these departments http://www.thedailynewsegypt.com/article.aspx?ArticleID=23494) —the people who changed the quote assumed that the word “Israeli” encompasses all the Hebrew heritage. In the same reports, the word “Jewish” was usually used as another synonym for Israeli or Hebrew. And assuming that there’s no malice involved here, I think the editors/reporters responsible for such changes truly believe that “Israeli”, “Hebrew” and “Jewish” can be used interchangeably.

While Slackman’s article didn’t use these words interchangeably, it focused on examining the Egyptian government’s efforts in the restoration of the country’s synagogues in the light of Hosni’s bid. Is it a publicity stunt to boost Hosni’s bid and to offer an unofficial apology to Hosni’s statements? This is an underlying question in the NYT article and an accusation in other reports and commentaries in world media.

This is not a defense of Hosni by the way (Daily News Egypt’s Editor Rania Al Malky has an excellent editorial that analyzes all the issues at stake if Hosni wins http://www.thedailynewsegypt.com/article.aspx?ArticleID=24653 and I agree with everything she says and I think that burning books, any books, is a crime), but out of fairness, Hosni never said he’d burn Hebrew or Jewish books.

Thus, calling him anti-Semitic for making an anti-Israel statement is, in my opinion, unfair and, most importantly, inaccurate.

A criticism of Saudi Arabia and its government, for example, should never be viewed as an attack on Islam or Arab culture and heritage and it should be the same with the Israeli government and Judaism.

I often find myself in situations explaining to baffled eyes that even though I’m against Israeli policies, I do respect Judaism (usually while traveling to US or Europe or while talking to some of Egypt’s expats). Using the same argument I also have to explain to some Egyptian and Arab friends that even though I honor and respect Judaism as a faith, I’m against the actions of the government of Israel.

But most of the time, I think this distinction is lost on both sides. What I think is an argument is often dismissed as meaningless statements. For many, I only contradict myself by saying in the same sentence that I respect something and stand against it at the same time. After all, Israel is The Jewish State, and therefore Israel and Judaism are synonymous (even though my Microsoft thesaurus seems to disagree).