The Holocaust in Arab Public Discourse: Historicized Politics and Politicized History

, December 24, 2008

 

 

The Holocaust has become increasingly important in international historical culture, and the murder of six million Jews during the Second World War is arguably the ultimate symbol of evil in Western politics, culture and academia. This fact has had its consequences in the Arab world as well, even though the effects there have been significantly different than in the West. Traditional Arab public discourse has a history of feelings of superiority vis-à-vis the Jews, largely based on Muslim theology. The creation of the state of Israel and its repeated victories over Arab armies have kindled political resentment partly based in this tradition, which in turn has made it virtually impossible to assimilate the dominant Western understanding of the Holocaust into Arab public discourse. Instead, Arab public discourse on the Holocaust is highly politicized and almost always displays hostility toward Israel or Jews. Even though the Arab-Israeli conflict is a major motif in this hostile discourse, there is no saying whether a settling of the conflict would open Arab public discourse to the international understanding of the Holocaust and its universal messages of tolerance and anti-racism.

In the last few decades, interest in the Holocaust has increased worldwide. This tendency was already apparent in the early 1980s, in the wake of the broadcasting of the TV series Holocaust in North America and Western Europe. Roughly a decade later, with the fall of the Iron Curtain, this renewed interest spread eastward into the former communist countries as well. The reawakening of these countries from state-imposed ideological amnesia, where history was only interpreted through the prism of narrow historical materialism, has led to the return of old conflicts and ethnic divisions thought by many to have been dead and buried in the 1940s.

One of the issues that resurfaced after the lifting of the heavy hand of historical materialism was the Holocaust. The former communist countries had to bring their narratives of World War II atrocities into line with those in the Western world, where ideology and political censorship had not stifled open historical debate in the years following the end of the war. This process of reassessment of the past was part of the general closing of the gap which had been the result of nearly four decades of a divided Europe.

Many Eastern European countries had to rewrite their war-time past, and in some cases this resulted in painful revisions of previously heralded glorious grand narratives of sublime national suffering under fascist occupation. One clear example is Poland, where the population had to start to grapple with the fact that many of the “Polish” victims of the Nazi occupation had in fact been Polish Jews, and that the lion’s share of those who perished in the gas chambers at Auschwitz and other death camps on Polish soil had been Jews. To add insult to injury, they had to face the fact that some Poles had even collaborated with the Germans in their genocidal designs. At times, the radical revision of the previous historical narrative has led to negative reactions such as Holocaust denial and other forms of anti-Semitism. Nevertheless, a new and sometimes painful understanding of the past has already made some considerable headway in Eastern European society, but much work still remains to be done.

The Holocaust as the Symbol of Absolute Evil

The increased interest in the Nazi-orchestrated annihilation of European Jewry during World War II has put a new focus on the Holocaust. The Holocaust has become a touchstone in European history and culture in the early 21st century. Auschwitz has become the very symbol of absolute evil, and the most obvious example of barbarism of inhumanity to be drawn upon in any political, historical, cultural or ethical debate, no matter the context at hand. This omnipresence of the Holocaust in historical consciousness and public debate has been decried by some, who see it merely as cheap rhetoric and cynical abuse of the memory of the victims of the Holocaust. However, taking into account that the Holocaust has conquered such a central place in Western historical culture, where it now represents absolute evil, it seems only logical that it should also be invoked in contexts where it might seen less appropriate. The abandonment of historical exactitude is the price that has to be paid for this centrality of the Holocaust, which has become an event outside, or above, history with a universal and eternal message. The controversy over what this message might be is political or perhaps ethical,  but hardly a historical debate.

The Holocaust and the Middle East

The increased international interest in the Holocaust can be discerned in the Arab world as well, but there it manifests itself quite differently than it does north of the Mediterranean. Instead of adopting the Holocaust as the symbol of absolute evil, a unifying reference to man’s inhumanity to man, Arab public discourse displays considerable difficulty in finding a way to deal with the genocide against the Jews during World War II. Because of its omnipresence, the Holocaust cannot be ignored, but the Western view on the event is unacceptable in the Arab world, since the Jews are impossible to cast in the role of innocent victims in any narrative that will have claims to a general following in the Arab world. Such a victim role for the Jews would go against years of intense anti-Jewish and anti-Semitic propaganda in Arab public discourse, propaganda that even increased in intensity in the years following the Holocaust.

One school of thought holds that the main reason for this increasing hostility toward Jews in the Arab world is to be found in the unresolved Arab-Israeli conflict. Once this issue is settled, the Jewish state will be accepted in mainstream Arab culture and this will in turn also have a positive effect on how Jews and Jewish issues – such as the Holocaust – are treated in Arab public discourse. Others view this position as overly optimistic, and instead stress that animosity vis-à-vis the Jewish state stems from an Arab view that the state of Israel is an unnatural usurper situated in the middle of the Arab heartland. From this perspective, the incapacity to come to terms with the existence of the state of Israel, together with traditional Muslim as well as imported European racially inspired anti-Semitism are the main causes of a situation where it seems all but impossible to deal with the Holocaust in a rational fashion in Arab public discourse.[1]

Matthias Küntzel, associate researcher at the Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism at the Hebrew University, has analyzed attitudes toward the Holocaust in the Islamic Republic of Iran, where the religious and political circumstances with regards to the Jews and their state are similar to those in the Arab world in general. In his analysis, Küntzel points to a paradox in the public discourse in the Middle East regarding the Holocaust. On the one hand, Holocaust denial is widespread, but on the other Hitler is admired for having murdered so many Jews. The common ground uniting these two conflicting perceptions is anti-Semitism.[2]

Traditional anti-Semitism has been a part of Iranian culture for hundreds of years, and Iran today is a society where anti-Semitism is prevalent in the mainstream public discourse.[3] However, with the election of Mahmud Ahmadinejad as President of the Islamic Republic, anti-Semitism has taken on a prominent place in public discourse at the highest level of state. Küntzel concludes that:

Since December 2005, the Iranian President has placed the denial of the Holocaust at the center of his agitation. During this time, the Iranian regime has spared no effort to establish the “exposure” of the “Holocaust Myth” as a new historiographical paradigm. Thus the “lie about the Holocaust” has become a regular topic on televised Friday sermons. Talk shows on public television feature a parade of historians who mock the “fairy tale about the gas chambers.” The Iranian state press agency has developed into a platform for Holocaust deniers from all over the world.[4]

According to Küntzel, the public discourse on the Holocaust in the Middle East contains some central elements. Among these is the aforementioned paradox of denial and praise for the Holocaust, the allegation that “the Zionists” have created “the Holocaust myth” and that Israel is benefiting from it; that the Holocaust was the product of a collusion between the Nazis and the Zionists; and last, but certainly not least, that Israel today is carrying out a Holocaust against the Palestinians that exceeds what the Nazis did to the Jews.[5] These elements are also frequently found in public discourse on the Holocaust in the Arab world. The following analysis will focus on some key themes in Arab public discourse on the Holocaust, and shed light on the political, or rather politicized, framework of this discourse.

Denying the Holocaust

Holocaust denial is widespread in the Arab world, and criticism of this phenomenon is rare.[6] However, as Holocaust denial has developed and been refined internationally, the new forms of more sophisticated denial have also reached the Arab world. Outright denial of the Holocaust is something best kept for preaching to the faithful. When in mixed company, Holocaust deniers have developed a more sophisticated strategy which runs less of a risk alienating their audiences. This strategy, cultivated internationally as well as in the Arab world, aims at minimizing the Holocaust, either by arguing that the Germans had no genocidal intent, and that Jews were not targeted qua Jews, or by minimizing the number of Jewish victims. Among prominent Arab public figures to foster minimization, is Dr. Musa al-Zu’but, Chairman of the Education Committee of the Palestinian Legislative Council, a man with considerable influence over the education of Palestinian school children.[7]

Holocaust denial and revisionism is far from a fringe phenomenon found only in less reputable media outlets. Even state-controlled media propagate Holocaust denial. In 2004, Egypt’s ruling National Democratic Party newspaper al-Liwaa al-Islami, published two articles by Dr. Rif’at Sayyed Ahmad called “The Lie About the Burning of the Jews”, where he claimed that there was no such thing as the Holocaust as we understand it. Instead, he emphasized the two key minimizing aspects mentioned above. He told his readership that the Jews died during the war because of reasons of war, not because of a plan to kill Jews. They were, in Dr. Rif’at Sayyed Ahmad’s words, not targeted more than any other people. Hitler hated all non-Germans, nothing special about the Jews. At the end of the article, he added that in the West you can blaspheme and curse religion (Islam), but you cannot question the Holocaust, his conclusion being: “All this proves that we are standing before new Western idol-worship that requires a genuine cultural revolution within it in order to destroy it.”[8]

People involved in the denial or minimization of the Holocaust on a more sophisticated level obviously try to make their claims as believable as possible. One way of doing this is by referring to recognized scholars in the field of Holocaust studies. It is especially useful to fall back on arguments used by Jewish scholars, since this – in the opinion of some – renders the argument immune to any accusations of anti-Semitism. In 2006, Lebanese New TV employed this strategy. The channel broadcasted a show where it was stated, falsely, that the noted Holocaust scholar Raul Hilberg would have claimed that only 50,000 Jews perished in the Holocaust. New TV stressed that Raul Hilberg and Norman Finkelstein (also referred to in the program) are Jewish. Both Hilberg and Finkelstein were used to legitimize claims that the Holocaust never happened, has been manipulated and exaggerated. Both of these men are Jews, but while Hilberg has a solid reputation as a Holocaust scholar, Finkelstein’s only connection to the issue is his Jewishness and, perhaps, his starkly worded and oft-repeated anti-Zionism.[9]

Of course, not everyone is interested in sophistry and subtle forms of undermining the veracity of the Holocaust. Outright denial of the genocide of the Jews is also common in Arab public discourse that invokes well-known deniers of the Holocaust. In 1999, for instance, the Palestinian newspaper al-Manar claimed that the Holocaust is a myth, and proclaimed that deniers such as Fred Leuchter, Roger Garaudy, Robert Faurisson, and Ernst Zuendel are modern-day versions of Galileo Galilei, who are silenced by force when they try to speak the truth.[10]

On 6 September 2000, the English-language Syria Times, owned by the Syrian government, published an article called “Holocaust!!!??” by Mohammad Daoud. In this clearly anti-Semitic piece, Mr. Daoud wrote that “history has not witnessed a people who have mastered lying, dodgery, and myth making such as the Israelis.” He continued: “Their most famous myth is that of the so-called Holocaust”, and elaborated, claiming that “since the invention of this word, they have been living on it and blackmailing the whole world.” His conclusion was that “due to this alleged Holocaust, the Palestinian people were and still are exposed to inhuman practices by the Israelis.”[11] This article by Mr. Daoud features many of the elements that are central to Arab attitudes toward the Holocaust, as will become apparent further on.

Israel Exploits the Holocaust

The key sentence in Mr. Daoud’s article that captures a central aspect of Arab attitudes toward the Holocaust was “Since the invention of this word, they have been living on it and blackmailing the whole world.”[12] The Israelis or the Jews are portrayed as ruthless and unscrupulous people, making up a lie about a massive genocide in Europe in order to obtain either money or political support. The Jews, so the argument goes, cynically claim fake compensation from various European government and banks, bullying them to pay what effectively is extortion money to Jewish organizations. Political support is amassed by Israel and its supporters abroad by invoking the fabricated memory of the Holocaust as a carte blanche for the Jewish state to do whatever it sees fit to guarantee that another Holocaust will never happen again. In this vein, al-Manar wrote in the spring of 1999: “Since the end of WWII, the victors have imposed their hegemony over history, and forged the legend of the Holocaust to extort the entire world, using the face of the ugly Nazi.”[13]

The claim that Israel exploits the myth about the Holocaust for its own sinister purposes is a major argument in Arab public discourse against Holocaust education. The logic behind the opposition to Holocaust education is that the Holocaust did not happen in the first place, and even if it did, talking about it or educating future generations about it is only going to play into the hands of the Jewish state. This Holocaust consciousness will then be exploited by Israel.

Against this background, it is hardly surprising that in 2003, when Archimandrite Emil Shoufani of the Greek Orthodox Church suggested that Palestinian pupils should visit Auschwitz, this met with strong opposition. Palestinian historian Dr. Isam Sisalem claimed that “the Zionist movement exploited [the Holocaust] in order to cover up its loathsome crimes in Palestine. It also continues to extort the European states to this very day.” Tamim Mansour, a high school teacher in Tira and lecturer at Beit Berl College in Kfar Saba echoed these sentiments, saying that “The Zionist enterprise uses [the Holocaust] to justify Israel’s crimes today… In my opinion, Israel can use a project of this sort to reinforce the victim psychology in Israeli society much more than we can use it to bring about openness in Israeli society.” The then Arab Israeli Member of the Knesset Azmi Bishara was also critical, warning of Israeli exploitation of the Holocaust:

To date, when other people took an interest in the Holocaust, the result was that Israel turned this opportunity into an instrument. A situation arose in which the more you understand the history of the persecution of the Jews [the more] you must justify and understand Israel and its behavior today. This is what they call instrumentalization of the Holocaust. There are two great crimes regarding the Holocaust – denying it and [using it] as it is being used.[14]

The Israelis are like the Nazis

The supposed criminality of Israel, and heinous crimes carried out by Israel, is a theme that runs through all the above-mentioned reactions to Holocaust education. In fact, the theme that Israelis are criminals, even comparable to the Nazis, is a strong element in Arab public discourse on the Holocaust. This sometimes goes beyond mere false comparisons to actually claiming that the Jews themselves supported or participated in the Holocaust. Preferably, this ludicrous accusation is hurled at Zionists in order to connect Zionism to Nazism.

For instance, Muhammad Daoud, quoted above, claims that Zionists in the Land of Israel “expressed its desire to take part in the battles on Germany’s side”.[15] Mr. Daoud is not alone in expressing this position. In 2001, Palestinian Authority television broadcasted a Friday sermon by Sheikh Ibrahim Madhi, a lecturer at al-Aqsa University in Gaza. In his sermon, the Sheikh said “One of the Jews’ evil deeds is what has come to be called ‘the Holocaust,’ that is, the slaughter of the Jews by Nazism. However, revisionist [historians] have proven that this crime, carried out against some of the Jews, was planned by the Jews’ leaders, and was part of their policy.”[16]

Dr. Abd al-Aziz al-Rantisi, a leading member of Hamas in Gaza, propagated the falsehood that the Zionists were the ones who bore the actual responsibility for the Holocaust. In 2003, he wrote in the Hamas weekly al-Risala:

It is no longer a secret that the Zionists were behind the Nazis’ murder of many Jews, and agreed to it, with the aim of intimidating [the Jews] and forcing them to immigrate to Palestine. Every time they failed to persuade a group of Jews to immigrate [to Palestine], they unhesitatingly sentenced [them] to death. Afterwards, they would organize great propaganda campaigns, to cash in on their blood. The Nazis received tremendous financial aid from the Zionist banks and monopolies, and this contributed to their rise to power.” [...] “There is no doubt that this great financial aid helped the Nazis build the military and economic force it needed to destroy Europe and annihilate millions.[17]

Thus al-Rantisi combined the idea that Zionists were responsible for the Holocaust with the accusation that Israel exploits the Holocaust today. He continued:

When we compare the Zionists to the Nazis, we insult the Nazis … The crimes perpetrated by the Nazis against humanity, with all their atrocities, are no more than a tiny particle compared to the Zionists’ terror against the Palestinian people. While disagreement proliferates about the veracity of the Zionist charges regarding the Nazis’ deeds, no one denies the abhorrent Zionist crimes, some of which camera lenses have managed to document.[18]

On 6 July 2006, the English-language edition of al-Hayat, the London-based Arabic newspaper, published an article by columnist and former editor Jihad al-Khazen called “From One Intifada to Another.” In his article, al-Khazen does actually not deny the Holocaust, but instead turns the genocide against the Jews, writing that “about six million Jews lost their lives in the Nazi Holocaust” [...] “there are obvious similarities between what the Jews suffered under Nazism and what the descendants of the Holocaust victims are afflicting on the Palestinians.” He then elaborates: “The whole Gaza strip is a Nazi-like concentration camp, just as the Warsaw Ghetto was after the German occupation of Poland.” [...] “The numbers are different, but all the other details are similar. I think that the government of ‘Führer’ (leader) Olmert will not send the people of Gaza to gas camps [sic] because oil is too expensive.”[19]

Later that same month, on 24 July 2006, al-Khazen took equating Nazi Germany with Israel one step further. He launched a theory claiming that the Nazis who carried out the Holocaust actually escaped justice and clandestinely moved to Israel:

Ehud Olmert’s government perpetrates definite Nazi practices against the Palestinians and the Lebanese. He is a young Führer, and his generals, like Dan Halutz and Moshe Kaplinsky, are commando generals. The question now is: Is it logical for the survivors of the Holocaust and their descendants to do what the Nazis had done to them? [...] Historically, six million Jews died in the Holocaust, and 97.5 percent of the Polish Jews were killed in the gas chambers, and by other means. My explanation is that the number of the Jews who were killed might be higher. All the Polish Jews might have been killed, too, and the Nazi political and military leaders might have realized since 1944 that defeat was imminent and, therefore, assumed the identity of Jews and then fled to Palestine as Jews who had survived the Holocaust.[20]

This, in al-Khazen’s view, would provide the only “logical reason for Israel’s Nazi-like practices.”[21]

The Palestinians are the Victims of the Holocaust

If the Israelis are the Nazis of today, then it only stands to reason that the Palestinians must be the true victims of the Holocaust. This is a position that was present in several of the articles quoted above, such as the one by Muhammad Daoud in the Syria Times and in the reactions to the proposal to provide Palestinian pupils with Holocaust education.[22]

In 2004, the mouthpiece of the Egyptian regime, the newspaper al-Liwaa al-Islami, belonging to the ruling National Democratic Party managed to both deny the Holocaust and claim that Israel is slaughtering the Palestinians like a Holocaust.[23] A similar position was expressed for instance by Dr. Hayat al-Hwayek Atiya, a “researcher on Zionism” and follower of Holocaust denier Roger Garaudy, whose book was translated into Arabic. In 2001, she participated in a televised debate on the al-Jazeera network, where she – in no uncertain terms – made clear that the Germans did not carry out any genocide against the Jews during the Second World War, but that Israel is in fact the perpetrator of genocide. She concluded: “This is the Holocaust, this is the Holocaust. There is no Jewish Holocaust, there is only a Palestinian Holocaust.”[24]

The Holocaust as a Political Weapon

As this overview clearly shows, there is very often an explicit linkage between the Arab-Israeli conflict and the way the Holocaust is treated in Arab public discourse. It is apparent that the issue of the Holocaust cannot be treated outside of the highly politicized anti-Israelis discourse that is prevalent in the Arab world. It would seem that no Jewish issue, not even the Holocaust, can be debated without connecting it to the Arab-Israeli conflict and the Arab interpretations of this conflict.

Time and again, reporters and public figures return to the issue of Israel when discussing the Holocaust, and their negative opinions of the Jewish state are allowed to influence the way they interpret and understand the Holocaust. As has been illustrated above, this leads to a situation where the Holocaust can be denied or minimized, blamed on Zionists; i.e., the forerunners of today’s Israelis, Israel can be accused of exploiting the Holocaust for its own financial and political gain, Israel can be seen as the successor state to Nazi Germany, and finally the Palestinians can be described as the true victims of the Holocaust.

The widespread denial of the Holocaust in the Arab world is sometimes criticized by Arab journalists or public figures themselves. This does not, however, mean that all those who accept the Holocaust as a historical fact are willing to discuss it outside of the anti-Israeli context of the Arab-Israeli conflict. One example of this is the columnist and former editor of al-Hayat quoted above, Jihad al-Khazen. On 15 April 2000, he wrote in al-Hayat: “Personally, I think the Holocaust occurred and I have no reason to doubt the number of victims.” This statement apparently met with protests from his readers, and so one week later, he responded to the criticism in his column on 22 April 2000:

The strangest thing about the Holocaust of the Jews committed by the Nazis, is that some Arabs insist on denying it with an enthusiasm that equals that of the neo-Nazis. [...] The Arab attitude toward the Holocaust should not be reduced to its denial. Rather, the Arabs should question how a people that suffered such massacres can take the role of the executioner and persecute other people. [...] The only rational possible Arab approach toward the Holocaust is to point out to the Jews and to others that a people saved from the Holocaust persecutes other nations now and treats them in the same manner from which it has suffered itself.[25]

Thus, al-Khazen does not deny the Holocaust, but – probably recognizing its international importance and stark moral lesson for posterity – instead he turns it against the Jews and uses it as a political weapon against them in the ongoing conflict in the Middle East. In this way, he might not deny the Holocaust outright, but he distorts it, falsely equating Israeli and Nazi policies when he concludes that “it is inconceivable that a people that was saved from the Holocaust persecutes another people, deports it, destroys its property, and steals its land.”[26]

The benefit of this politicized use of the Holocaust as a weapon against Israel in the Arab-Israeli conflict was mentioned explicitly by Dr. Hayat al-Hwayek Atiya in the al-Jazeera broadcast discussed above. She claimed that equating Israel with Nazi Germany serves the interests of the Palestinians and the Arabs in general, and went on to explain why she thought so: “The comparison of Zionism to Nazism in the media is a blow to Western psychology, because the Western conscience is particularly sensitive to the Nazis.”[27] Thus, Dr. Atiya explicitly recognizes the importance of the Holocaust in international historical consciousness, but her conclusion is completely different from that prevalent in the West. She strives to employ the significance of the Holocaust in the struggle against Israel.

Arab Criticisms of Arab Holocaust Abuse

However, Dr. Atiya’s approach was met by criticism on the same al-Jazeera show. The liberal Tunisian intellectual Lafif Lakhdar protested against her proposed strategy of employing the Holocaust as a weapon against Israel, but even though he also stressed his disgust at Nazism, his main argument against such a politicized use of the Holocaust was not that it would be ethically questionable. Instead, Lakhdar points out that Dr. Atiya’s strategy is bound to fail:

If we adopt the Nazis’ garbage [...] we will lose on our issue, namely the liberation of the Arab lands occupied in 1967 [...] Politically, if we support revisionism and Holocaust deniers [...] we will lose international diplomacy. [...] The main thing for us is the struggle against the occupation and the settlements. What is the point, then, to constantly say: Israel is Nazi, Israel is worse than Nazism, Israel is worse than fascism, etc. We cannot fight against international diplomacy, because then we will lose our cause.[28]

Lakhdar’s approach, which is more attuned to Western sensitivities in connection to the Holocaust, and which is based on an understanding of the boundaries for the international Holocaust discourse, seems to be gaining ground also among certain circles of Arab intellectuals, most notably among those who live in, or have connections to, the West. Yigal Carmon notes that this new development might be a result of increased awareness of Arab public discourse in the West. In his view, the exposure of Arab Holocaust denial and anti-Semitism “induces shapers of Arab public opinion to back down from their antisemitic stances – or at least to refrain from making antisemitic statements.”[29]

One example of the increased sensitivity is the reaction to a vulgar approach to the Holocaust in the Arab public discourse. It occurred in 2003 when the news was announced of a planned Holocaust denial conference in Beirut met with protests from some Arab intellectuals. Joseph Samaha, a columnist for the Arabic-language London-based daily al-Hayat joined in their protests. In his criticism, he echoes Lakhdar’s concerns about the damage to the Arab cause from wielding the political weapon of the Holocaust. Samaha wrote:

Holding the conference in Beirut brings no honor to the Lebanese capital. Perhaps its conceptual, political, and economic damage are inestimably greater than its benefit, which from the outside was nearly nonexistent. The conference will convene forgers of history who have stood trial in their own countries. This is, in effect, a conference against the truth. This is a conference against consciousness. [...] Some Arab intellectuals have condemned, and rightly so, the dubious call to convene a conference in Beirut with the aim of casting doubt upon the Jewish Holocaust [carried out] by the Nazis. [...] While this conference will make no impression on the issue of the Holocaust, the damage caused to Lebanon will be certain.[30]

The plans for a Holocaust denial conference in Beirut were eventually dropped in March 2003 by Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, later assassinated. However, some three years later, such a conference did take place in Tehran, the capital of Iran. Similar criticism as had been voiced in 2003 was heard in connection with this conference as well. British Arab journalist ‘Adel Darwish wrote in the London daily al-Sharq al-Awsat about Iranian President Ahmadinejad “he only caused damage to his country, which is [going through] a difficult period in [terms of] its foreign [relations]. He also caused severe damage to the Muslims by creating a political-cultural climate in which feelings of hate drown out the Muslims’ noble and humane sentiments.” This criticism, which once again focuses on the damage of this strategy to the Arab or Muslim cause, and not on its inherent ethical problems, was put also forward by others.[31]

The fact that the Holocaust is constantly seen in the political context of the Middle East conflict does not, however, always hinder criticism of Holocaust denial per se as well. In a comment on the 2006 Holocaust denial conference in Tehran, Kuwaiti journalist Dr. Khaled al-Janfawi delivered sharp criticism. In the newspaper al-Siyassa on 17 December 2006, he wrote:

Holding a conference devoted to Holocaust denial reflects a lack of cultural and human sensitivity which may exacerbate hatred among human beings. [...] We Muslims need to display human, cultural, and moral sensitivity in order to be a positive force in a humane world that no longer tolerates ethnic and religious conflict. We must stay away from anything that generates conflict among human beings. [...] Holding a Holocaust [denial] conference in Iran is adding fuel to the fire. [...] Some of the participants were agitators, and [others] were [individuals] involved in racist discrimination against [minorities] other than the Jews, such as the African -Americans in the U.S.[32]

Conclusion

Despite such hopeful expressions of disgust at Holocaust denial and racism as this one, there is cause for concern when reviewing Arab public discourse on the Holocaust. It is largely detached not only from the dominant Western view of the genocide of the Jews, but also from accepted international scholarship and the lessons of universal tolerance, anti-racism and non-violence embedded in most international commemorations of these horrible events during the Second World War. Clearly, the politicized and hostile tone in which things Jewish are discussed in Arab public discourse has influenced the treatment of the Holocaust as well. In a discourse where Jews are seen as aggressive, hostile, deviant or evil, it is connected with considerable difficulties to depict them as the victims of ultimate evil.

The question is what can be done to alter this situation. One school of thought claims that the solving of the Arab-Israeli conflict not only would lead to general peace in the Middle East, but also to a normalization of Arab attitudes toward Jews, including the position on the Holocaust. However, as hostility vis-à-vis Jews and Israel in Arab public discourse has taken on such proportions, it is far from certain that any settling of the Arab-Israeli conflict would make it disappear. Since a solution to the conflict does not seem to be in the cards for the immediate future, the best one could hope for is probably a stricter division between history and politics in the Arab world, leading to a situation where the Holocaust could be treated separately from any quarrels with the state of Israel. Only time will tell whether this is possible, and whether international Holocaust commemoration with its message of universal tolerance and anti-racism will make inroads as well in Arab public discourse.

 

 

Publication of this article was made possible in part by support from the Conference on Jewish Material Claims against Germany (Rabbi Israel Miller Fund for Shoah Research, Documentation and Education) to the JCPA program on Contemporary Holocaust Distortion

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Notes

[1] See for instance Goetz, Nordbruch, “The Socio-historical Background of Holocaust Denial in Arab Countries: Arab reactions to Roger Garaudy’s The Founding Myths of Israeli Politics“, ACTA 17, SICSA, Hebrew University: Jerusalem 2001.

[2] Matthias Küntzel, Unholy Hatreds: Holocaust Denial and Antisemitism in Iran, Posen Papers in Contemporary Antisemitism, 8, Hebrew University: Jerusalem 2007, 4.

[3] Ibid., 6.

[4] Ibid.,14.

[5] Ibid., 5.

[6] MEMRI, Special Dispatch Series, 89, 28 April 2000.

[7] Aluma Solnick, “An Israeli Arab Initiative to Visit Auschwitz”, MEMRI, Inquiry and Analysis Series,  136, 25 April 2003.

[8] MEMRI, Special Dispatch Series, 756, 30 July 2004.

[9] MEMRI, Special Dispatch Series, 1194, 29 June 2006.

[10] MEMRI, Special Dispatch Series, 33, 20 May 1999.

[11] “Holocaust!!!??”, Muhammad Daoud, Syria Times, 6 September 2000.

[12] Ibid.

[13] MEMRI, Special Dispatch Series, 33, 20 May 1999.

[14] Aluma Solnick, “An Israeli Arab Initiative to Visit Auschwitz.”

[15] Muhammad Daoud, Syria Times.

[16] MEMRI, Special Dispatch Series, 276, 25 September 2001.

[17] MEMRI, Special Dispatch Series, 558, 27 August 2003.

[18] Ibid.

[19] “From One Intifada to Another”, Jihad al-Khazen, al-Hayat, 6 July 2006.

[20] “Is It Logical for the Survivors of the Holocaust and Their Descendants to Do What the Nazis had Done to Them?”, Jihad al-Khazen, al-Hayat, 24 July 2006.

[21] Ibid.

[22] See for instance Muhammad Daoud, Syria Times, and Aluma Solnick, “An Israeli Arab Initiative to Visit Auschwitz.”

[23] MEMRI, Special Dispatch Series, 756, 30 July 2004.

[24] MEMRI, Special Dispatch Series, 225, 6 June 2001.

[25] MEMRI, Special Dispatch Series, 89, 28 April 2000.

[26] Ibid.

[27] MEMRI, Special Dispatch Series, 225, 6 June 2001.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Yigal Carmon, “Harbingers of Change in the Antisemitic Discourse in the Arab World, MEMRI, Inquiry and Analysis Series, 135, 23 April 2003.

[30] Ibid.

[31] MEMRI, Special Dispatch Series, 1425, 16 January 2007.

[32] Ibid.

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Dr. Mikael Tossavainen obtained his PhD. in history from Lund University, Sweden. His doctoral dissertation, “Heroes and Victims,” deals with the role of the Holocaust in Israeli historical consciousness. Tossavainen’s earlier research focused on anti-Semitism, historiography, and the connection between nationalism and religion. He is currently the research director of the Post-Holocaust and anti-Semitism Project at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

About Mikael Tossavainen

Dr. Mikael Tossavainen obtained his Ph.D. in history from Lund University, Sweden. Tossavainen's earlier research focused on anti-Semitism, historiography, and the connection between nationalism and religion. He was research director of the Post-Holocaust and Anti-Semitism Project at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.