Why Holocaust Denial Hurts the Palestinian Cause

They may have been thousands of miles away, but the death camps of Europe had a profound impact on Arab history.

By bringing together a macabre assortment of neo-Nazis, Klansmen and other right-wing cranks — many of whom would be just as keen to rid Europe of Muslims as the Nazis were to empty the continent of its Jewish population — in Tehran this week, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad seeks to deny or diminish the reality of the Holocaust. And while that may seem like just another slap in the face of the West, to the extent that anyone in the Arab world takes him seriously, the Iranian president is also doing them a profound disservice.

As a Jew, of course Holocaust-denial sickens me. But it causes the same revulsion for me as a person who believes in justice for the Palestinians, for whom Israel's emergence meant displacement and dispossession. Those who deny or diminish the Holocaust aren't only callously negating the lived experience of the Jews of Europe; they are also negating what has been — despite the distance at which it occurred — a defining episode of 20th century Arab history. Trying to negate the Holocaust stokes blind hatred on both sides of the divide, and reinforces the most hard-line positions. That may suit Ahmadinejad's own domestic power game, but it does nothing to help the Palestinians and Israelis find a way out of their endless conflict.

Zionism, the political movement advocating the creation of a Jewish State in Palestine, had been around for a half century before the Holocaust, but it had always been a minority movement among the Jews of Europe. The Holocaust changed that, creating a new sense of dire necessity in which a Jewish State had to fight its way into being. In the war that accompanied Israel's emergence, the Palestinian Arabs who had been two-thirds of the population of Palestine found themselves confined to 22% of its territory (the West Bank and Gaza), and prevented by new Israeli laws from reclaiming the homes and land from which hundreds of thousands had fled.

Thus the events celebrated by many Jews as a moment of deliverance from the evil of the Holocaust is commemorated in the Palestinian national narrative as al-Nakbah, the catastrophe, in which hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were turned into refugees. It is these entirely separate narratives that have made the conflict so intractable over the past half century. The importance of the Palestinians understanding and acknowledging the Holocaust would have been underlined at the Tehran conference had Iran granted the visa applied for by Khaleed Mahameed, a Palestinian lawyer from Nazareth, who runs a small Holocaust museum there. He has dedicated himself to impressing on Palestinians the need to understand the trauma at the heart of the Israeli psyche, in order to make progress in their own national struggle.

Ahmadinejad is hardly the first voice in the Middle East to question the basic facts of the Holocaust — even the moderate Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas wrote a Ph.D thesis in the early 1980s in which he claimed that the number of Jews killed by the Nazis was less than 1 million, and that it had been inflated by the Zionist movement to win international sympathy. (Abbas later denied diminishing the Holocaust, which he denounced as "a terrible, unforgivable crime against the Jewish nation, a crime against humanity.")

It's not hard to understand the attraction of Holocaust-denial among many Arab intellectuals. After all, the Palestinians ultimately paid a heavy price as the international community sought to redress the unspeakable horrors inflicted on the Jews of Europe. The 1947 U.N. partition plan allocated 55% of Palestine to a Jewish state and 45% to an Arab state, with Jerusalem to be kept under international control. The Arabs of Palestine and its neighboring states rejected the plan, focusing on its implications for their own people rather than on the horrors visited on the Jews by Europeans, and they went to war to prevent it taking root.

When FDR had met with Ibn Saud, the Saudi king, three years earlier, the U.S. president had asked for help in resettling Jewish survivors in Palestine. Ibn Saud countered that the survivors should be given choice land in Germany under the protection of the Allies. "Make the enemy and the oppressor pay; that is how we Arabs wage war. Amends should be made by the criminal, not by the innocent bystander. What injury have Arabs done to the Jews of Europe? It is the 'Christian' Germans who stole their homes and lives. Let the Germans pay."

That view is still widespread in the Arab world today, but it's very different from denying the Holocaust. The idea that tens of thousands of Eastern European Jews would choose to move to the impossibly harsh environment of an increasingly violent Palestine in the two years after World War II out of anything but a perception of dire necessity reminds me of another myth — albeit a Zionist one — with which I was fed growing up: that Israel's Jewish majority was ensured when hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Arabs had "miraculously" chosen to up and leave their homes in 1948, answering the call by Arab leaders promising that they would come and drive out the Jews. No, the Palestinians in many parts of what became Israel fled in fear for their lives. And the reason tens of thousands of Jews had arrived from Europe willing to fight by any means necessary to stay there was that they had nowhere else to go.

Those who deny the Holocaust in the belief that this helps the Palestinians might also learn from Nelson Mandela. Throughout his struggle against apartheid, Mandela made it his business to understand and empathize with the motives of apartheid's die-hard Afrikaner supporters. The central collective trauma that they had used to justify their system of minority rule was the terrible suffering inflicted on them by the British during the Anglo-Boer War. The resulting sense of victimization allowed the Afrikaners to focus only on their own suffering and ignore what they were inflicting on others. Mandela always praised the Boer's courageous fight and honored their suffering, understanding that dismissing or diminishing your adversary's primal fears simply reinforces his sense of being threatened. Instead, Mandela set out to convince them that the trauma they had suffered at the hands of the British did not justify the suffering they imposed on black South Africans, and that a different relationship was possible. As long as Middle Eastern leaders like Ahmadinejad continue to deny the very real experience of the Holocaust, they condemn both Palestinians and Israelis to remain locked in a cycle of misery.

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