Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi's blatantly anti-Semitic statements nearly three years ago should hardly be shocking to anyone familiar with the history of the Muslim Brotherhood movement.
In newly unearthed videos, Morsi is shown railing against Jews as "the descendants of apes and pigs," and urging Egyptians to "nurse our children and our grandchildren on hatred" for Israelis and Jews. After the videos came to light, Morsi was silent, although his spokesman attempted to explain his remarks were "taken out of context" and meant to be understood in relation to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
This is pure hogwash, of course. Whatever Morsi may think of the conflict, the context of his comments does not and cannot ever justify the virulently anti-Jewish beliefs he espoused.
Going back to its founding by Egyptian schoolteacher Hassan al-Banna in the 1920s, the Brotherhood has a history of rejecting the legitimacy and existence of the State of Israel -- and of unadulterated anti-Semitism.
So what is different now? It is that, for the first time, the Brotherhood, being the largest voting bloc in the Egyptian parliament, is today the most significant political player in the largest country in the Arab world.
Under former President Hosni Mubarak, there was a drumbeat of anti-Semitic statements and cartoons in the Egyptian press. And Mubarak did nothing about it, even though Egypt had a peace treaty with Israel. With Morsi, however, the concern is greater. Now the governing party itself appears to be the source of anti-Semitism, and not merely tolerant of it.
Last October, Muhammed Badie, the Muslim Brotherhood's Supreme Guide, sermonized that Jews had "increased their corruption throughout the world, shedding the blood of the people, trampling sanctuaries and holy places..." That same month, Morsi and other top government officials attended a nationally televised sermon where the Imam called on God to "deal harshly with the Jews," to which Morsi was shown mouthing "amen."
Naturally, all of this does not bode well for Israel. The decades-long conflict between Israel and the Arab world has been difficult enough as a nationalistic dispute over land and the legitimacy of Israel's existence.
Still, as long as the conflict was essentially nationalistic, there was hope it could be resolved. And in Egypt's case, when Anwar Sadat decided in 1977 that Egypt's national interest lay in making peace with Israel, things changed and a peace treaty was achieved.
If it becomes a religious conflict dominated by rejection of Jews and of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, then it has no bounds. It could lead to the abandonment of the treaty with Israel.
On the other hand, Morsi has shown a pragmatic and responsible side. He needs American financial and political support. He needs tourism. He knows the last thing Egyptians want is a military conflict. And he says he wants to maintain the peace with Israel.
In this conflict between ideology and pragmatism, Morsi needs to stand up and state clearly that anti-Semitism is unacceptable. If he fails to do that, even if he intends to be more pragmatic, a momentum and atmosphere of hatred toward Jews and Israel could take hold that could lead him and his government toward irrational decision-making.
That is why it was so important the White House and State Department made clear that Morsi's comments three years ago were as unacceptable then as they are now.
The Obama administration has been trying to establish a working relationship with the new Egyptian government. That is understandable, considering all that is at stake. It must, however, make the theme of the need for Morsi to be clear about rejecting anti-Semitism a priority in all its ongoing discussions with all Egyptian officials, from the top down.
Abraham H. Foxman is National Director of the Anti-Defamation League and co-author of the forthcoming book "Viral Hate" (Palgrave Macmillan, June 2013). This article originally appeared in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel and is reprinted here by permission.