Gilbert Achcar is professor of development studies and international relations at the School of Oriental and African Studies of the University of London. His research has included the study of politics and economics in the Middle East and North Africa; US policy in the Middle East; the sociology of Islam and Islamic fundamentalism; and social theory and movements, among other topics. He is the author and editor of numerous books on the aforementioned subjects, which have been translated into well over a dozen languages. Achcar's latest work is “The Arabs and the Holocaust: The Arab-Israeli War of Narratives,” published in 2010 by Metropolitan Books.
While on a speaking tour to promote his book, Achcar sat down with me in Berkeley, California, to further discuss the subject. Here, he talks about what he calls the “Nazification” of the Arabs, what implications this narrative has had on the past and present political situation in the Middle East and some of the context from which anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial has taken root in a segment of Arab society. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation. To view a 12-minute edited selection of the video, click here.
David Zlutnick: Can you please start by explaining why you wrote “The Arabs and the Holocaust”? From your perspective, why do you feel a work on this topic is necessary?
Gilbert Achcar: Seeing how much distortion, propaganda, lies even, you had mixed with scholarly pretensions you would get on the topic, which is the attitude among Arabs, in the Arab world, toward not only the Holocaust in the strict sense of the term – that is the Jewish genocide – but about Nazis and anti-Semitism and all these issues. This kind of propaganda that is very dominant in the Western perception of this history has a very negative effect because it actually prohibits any real dialogue, any real discussion because, you know, and for good reason, characterizing anyone as being pro-Nazi or even a Holocaust-denier or whatever is so stigmatizing that it cuts any possibility of dialogue. Had the image been truthful, had it been correct, okay, you'd say, “that's how it is.” But actually, what I had found out already from my initial investigation is that it was a completely distorted image of reality …
Fortunately the book is not alone. It so happens that there's a convergence of a few books that have been published over the last couple of years focused – I mean the other books are focused on narrower topics than mine. That is they would take for instance one country and in that country – one Arab country – and in that country the attitudes that you would find in the '30s for instance. So you have similar books on Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, and Egypt and they converge in deconstructing this image of the Arabs as pro-Nazis and the rest. And the image that comes out of this scholarship, especially for Egypt, or even Palestine actually, is that the level of the media – what we would call the media nowadays: the dailies, monthlies, weeklies that you had at that time – the attitudes that were dominant were not at all pro-Nazi, but on the contrary; criticism of the Nazis but even condemnation of Nazism as totalitarian, dictatorial, racist – including its anti-Semitic dimension being rejected, especially with the knowledge that the Arabs themselves ranked very low in the Nazi classification of races. They ranked with the Jews at the bottom.
DZ: As one critical review of your book noted, “Readers made uneasy by [the ideas put forward] may be even more ill disposed to give them a hearing when they learn the identity of the author … a Lebanese-born socialist.” How do you respond to such implications of partiality on your part, both from an ethnic and political perspective, especially on a topic with such sensitivity?
GA: Yeah, well, you know what is always striking in such things is the ethnocentrism of those who – or I would even say the egocentrism of those who make it. Because if that was any criterion – I mean if your ethnic background meant that you were necessarily biased, in the worst sense of the bias, then what about all these writers of Jewish background who are pro-Zionist? And the best proof that this doesn't hold water is that you also have a lot of Jewish writers who are anti-Zionist, so it's not a matter of, ultimately, ethnic background. The issue here of course in what you just mentioned. There is this is mixture of Lebanese – so this guy is an Arab – and a socialist. So this is meant [for] a certain audience …
This said, I do believe that any claim to be neutral, unbiased, when dealing with the Israel/Palestine conflict, for instance, or any such conflicts – contemporary conflicts – is just, you know, either illusory or just dishonest. So I don't claim to be neutral or even “objective,” whatever this means … I mean, my approach to this is intellectual honesty. And honesty means also saying what I'm saying: that is, not claiming to be unbiased or whatever. But honesty means also acknowledging facts, not hiding any facts that don't match whatever image you want to project. Denouncing what has to be denounced. I mean if you speak in the name of a certain number of values, then you have to apply these values in a systematic and universal way, and not to double-standards. And there again you have a lot of practice of the double-standard in the literature [on this topic], a huge lot …
DZ: You're very careful to acknowledge the importance of the Holocaust in Israeli society as a traumatic and historic event in Jewish history. Would you discuss your understanding of this and how it plays out in your study?
GA: I'm calling people to repel [anti-Semitic] attitudes and I'm not only fighting such attitudes as Holocaust-denial and the rest, but I go further than that in saying that it's important also to understand that the Holocaust plays an important role – or a central role actually – in the Israeli psyche, in the Israeli collective memory or conscience that exists. There is a tendency among Arabs to believe that the Israelis have a purely instrumental relation to the Holocaust. That is, they use the Holocaust for political purposes, to extort support from Western countries, exploiting their guilt-complex on what they did – because I mean the genocide of the Jews is a European act – and it's used to deflect any criticism aimed at Israel, and the rest. So there's this perception that the Israelis are just using, or misusing, or abusing or whatever, the Holocaust for political purposes. So I'm keen on explaining that there's more to that story than that.
Of course there are misuses of the Holocaust for political purposes and I give in the book a lot of examples of these, but people should be aware that the Holocaust is such a horrific historical tragedy that of course it is very normal that among the Jews generally – so including the State of Israel which is a state with a majority of Jews – of course this would play an important role in the collective conscience. And people should be aware of that as a precondition to be able to have a real dialogue because any attitudes ignoring this fact make it very difficult for real dialogue to take place. And if Arabs and Palestinians want to address the Jewish public opinion, the Israeli-Jewish public opinion, if they want to convince people away [from] Zionist, or at least hard-line-Zionist kind of attitudes, they should be able to talk to them in a way where people would be listening to them.
DZ: What are the historical reasons for the development of the Israeli narrative of collaboration between Arabs and the Nazis, and how does this play out today?
GA: Well, this kind of narrative was mostly developed, of course, after [World War II]. Well, let's say, since '41. After '41 the Mufti of Palestine, Amin al-Husseini, the main villain of this story, fled to Europe and went into exile there, lived between Berlin and Rome, and became a prominent collaborator of the two regimes – Italian fascist and German Nazi regimes – and their spokesperson for the Arab and Muslim world – I mean of the propaganda. This is when the narrative started unfolding of the Arabs being the allies of the Nazis, given the role of the Mufti – or the Palestinians more specifically, but even the Arabs at large. And this of course increased a lot at the end of the war when the Zionist movement was fighting for the creation of the state, which would be the State of Israel, and fighting for Western, or even broader-than-Western approval by the victors of World War II. I'm saying broader than Western because it included the Soviet Union. And so that's the period where all this was shaped, this narrative focused on the central figure of the Mufti and Nazifying the Arabs and the Palestinians.
And, well, this is a convenient explanation, or justification, for a number of things like saying that whatever happened in 1948 – what the Palestinians and Arabs call the Nakba [catastrophe] – even if you can find some people acknowledging that there was an act of ethnic cleansing that took place against the Palestinians in Palestine by the Zionist movement in its fight to create its state, that was justified because the alternative to that was genocide. That is, a continuation of the Nazi genocide since the Arabs – or the Palestinians, and the Arabs when it went into the Arab-Israeli War – are depicted as being represented by the figure of the Mufti as a collaborator of Nazism.
So that's the origin of this whole narrative and this expanded later on in the sense that regularly you have new forces compared to Nazis and Hitler and the rest. And you can see every prominent figure in the confrontation with Israel on the Arab side has been compared to Nazis and Hitler. This goes for Egyptian President Nasser [from 1954-1970], who in his time was compared to Hitler, his regime to [the] Nazi regime. So it starts from there and it ends up today with comparisons of movements like Hamas in Palestine or Hezbollah in Lebanon being similar to Nazis. And in between you have a whole range of forces or figures being compared [to Nazis or Hitler].
Yasser Arafat, by the way, he was very systematically compared to Hitler before Oslo to the point that when Ronald Reagan wrote Menachim Begin who was the Prime Minister in Israel in '82 at the time of the invasion of my country, Lebanon, and the siege of Beirut – I lived there during the time, I was there during the siege. But when Reagan wrote to Begin saying, “Well, there are civilians there and the siege of the city should be ended in some way,” Begin's reply was “Mr. President, my army is facing Hitler in his bunker” – Hitler being Arafat. From every possible angle this is a completely grotesque comparison, not to mention the balance of forces, who was the occupier of what, etc. So just to say that this narrative, this Nazification of the Arabs, this Nazification of all foes of the State of Israel, of all foes of Zionism is a very, you know, convenient and easy manner of trying to dismiss completely, or discredit completely whatever they represent. At least in the eyes of Western public opinion, for which – and for good reason – Nazism, anti-Semitism and all that are seen as the absolute evil. So that's where it comes from.
DZ: You've also said how you believe the lessons of the Holocaust have in many ways been learned as much by Arabs, and Palestinians in particular, as the larger Israeli population. Would you explain this?
GA: No, I didn't say they'd been learned. I said they should be learned … [The Holocaust] is of such a scale that it has really universal lessons. It's not something that is only related to the Jewish experience. The occurrences of such terrible crimes against humanity, as they are called, shows that you have a really universal problem at the core of it and therefore the lessons of all that – the necessary fight against any sort of racism, discrimination, ethnic hatred and the rest – these are really universal lessons. Whatever direction of the ethnic hatred – hatred of the Jews, hatred of Arabs, hatred of Muslims, hatred of you-name-it – I mean all these forms of hatred are really very dangerous. Very dangerous.
Now we've seen what anti-Semitism produced, historically. We've seen recently what – I mean this is one single event – we've seen what Islamophobia might produce with what happened in Norway [in July 2011] with this crazy ultra-right-winger [attacking civilian and government targets because of anti-Islam beliefs] … I mean, the Jews of the day are Muslims. And here we see Islamophobia playing the role anti-Semitism used to play in the '30s. So I mean this is something that any progressive person should be fighting with all our strength – fighting all these forms of hatred, ethnic hatred.
So, for Palestinians who are victims of an ethnic oppression, who are faced with a state which is practicing this oppression, which is not only depriving them of historical rights but continuing the occupation and all the rest – for Palestinians the Holocaust should not be the preserve of the “enemy,” as some of them might see it, but on the contrary they should themselves identify with the Jewish victims of the Holocaust and say: “We are also victims. We have to identify with all victims.”
DZ: In addition to your analysis of the Israeli narrative, you've also targeted what you've called Arab “self-representation,” the reactionary positions found in Arab societies that fit into misrepresentations. Would you discuss your efforts to examine this point?
GA: In my approach of Holocaust-denial, for instance – attitudes that have been developing among some sectors in the Arab world over the last two, three decades – in approaching this without justifying or excusing, but explaining the context. At the same time I don't mince my words in assessing such attitudes when you have a range of reasons why they are very bad, from the ethical fact and the purely factual – I mean you can't deny history, anyway; this is history, real history – to the fact that when they are done in an anti-Semitic kind of context they are abject, of course, and ultimately anyone having these kind of attitudes and believing that these attitudes serve in the struggle against Zionism is just foolish, completely foolish. That's why I call these kind of attitudes an “anti-Zionism of fools,” because actually it ends up doing a great service to exactly what Zionist propaganda would want people to perceive and see about the Arabs … So, these attitudes are therefore wrong ethically, wrong factually, and counterproductive to the cause that they claim to be serving when it is the case.
DZ: I don't know if you read the review of your book in the Jewish Review of Books by Derek J. Penslar –
DZ: It's an interesting review because he's critical of some of your conclusions, but spoke highly of other aspects of your work. But I want to read you a quote … While Penslar recognizes the role Israel has played in alienating secular movements and at times promoting an extreme Islamic alternative, he states that in your analysis of anti-Semitism in Arab and Palestinian society, your emphasis on the role of Israel “demeans Palestinians, and Arabs as a whole, by denying them agency or moral freedom, and presenting them as mere playthings in the hands of awesome, unstoppable Israeli power.” What is your response?
GA: If I say that whatever anti-white attitude developed among black people is due to what they perceived of the “white man” as an oppressor, as a terrible oppressor, does it mean that I am denying them agency? No, it's the normal reaction that they would have to that. But then you have a range of reactions. It's a matter of political choice, education, and conscience. So had I been saying that all the attitudes [of Arabs] are the same, then I would make a kind of automatic response without any real agency. But I condemn Holocaust-denial attitudes, I condemn anti-Semitic expressions. I explain that there are a lot of other attitudes in the same Arab world, among Palestinians and among Arabs. I denounce the tendency to present Palestinians or Arabs as one monolithic group, with authors speaking of the Arab discourse, the Palestinian discourse, or the Arab attitude in the singular, as if the Arabs or the Palestinians were a homogeneous political group or one sect with one single position, which is absurd of course. So you have a range of positions among Palestinians in reaction to what they experience from Israel.
I mean there are plenty of authors, including Israeli authors – including mainstream Israeli authors – who acknowledge the fact that the hostility, the specific hostility toward Jews that developed in the Middle East was a product of the Israel-Palestine conflict. That is, it was a watershed in the history between Muslims and Jews, or Arabs and Jews. And if you look at the previous history – which is not idyllic as some would present but which anyway was not one preventing the coexistence of these communities – and you look at what happened after the development of the Zionist project, and then the creation of the State of Israel, and then the exodus of Jews from Arab countries, you see here that there is a major turning point … If you believe, like I do, that the anti-Semitic attitudes that are to be found among Palestinians and Arabs – and they are there – that these attitudes are part of a range of attitudes, which result from the Israel-Palestine conflict and from what the Zionist movement and then state did to the Palestinians, then you get to a very different conclusion; one that explains that in the same way that such attitudes resulted from a historical oppression, they can be dispelled by a change in the conditions, by a resorption of this oppression and duress.
So it's not that there's some built-in essential anti-Semitism among Arabs. This is completely wrong. But you have a state that wants the Palestinian – as the Netanyahu government is asking the Palestinian Authority now to do – wants the Palestinians to recognize it as Jewish state. A state which claims very loudly that it is the state of the Jews, and of the Jews of the world … So you have this there, some anti-Jewish attitudes with not always being able to make the distinction, which is absolutely necessary, between Zionist Jew and non-Zionist. The fact that you have such attitudes is not the same as Western anti-Semitism. That's the problem with using the same term to a certain degree if you don't qualify it. Because anti-Semitism that you have in the West is based on a pure fantasy, of, you know, conspiracy theory, of the Jews running the world, etc., and in a context of historical oppression of the Jews in European lands. And this leads, or it led to this terrible twentieth century experience.
Whereas here, the attitudes of the Palestinians and the way the Arabs see the State of Israel is not a fantasy. They have there a domineering state, which is by far the most powerful military power in the region, which has waged war after war and [has become] more and more violent and oppressive. If you think of the invasion of Lebanon in 1982, the occupation of major parts of this country for 18 years, until the year 2000; if you think of the second war on Lebanon, 2006, which was extremely destructive; if you think of everything the Palestinians had to endure since – I mean I'm not mentioning here the Nakba which of course you have that – but also after 1967 in the West Bank and Gaza everything that the Palestinians had to suffer up to the reoccupation of the West Bank in a very bloody manner in 2002; in 2006 the bombing of Gaza; and especially in 2008/2009, the very intensive bombing assault on Gaza. And you take all that in consideration and the fact that you have among those that are suffering all that some development of attitudes like anti-Jewish or anti-Semitic or Holocaust-denying is – I mean, of course wrong, and I said what I needed to say about that, so I won't repeat it – but we have to understand that it is a reaction of the weak. It is the reaction of a people who are oppressed and against their oppressors, however incorrect and wrong it is. I can't put that on the same level as Western anti-Semitism.
And I can give you several examples of making the distinction between oppressor and oppressed. I give some in my book but I will start here with one concerning Arabs – a situation where Arabs are oppressors. Arabs in Iraq, in Syria have been oppressors of Kurds. Now, I can't equate anti-Kurdish attitudes that you can find among Arabs with anti-Arab attitudes that you can find among Kurds. Of course you can say “any form of ethnic hatred is wrong.” Okay, I agree with that. But, there are some that are more serious than others, some that are reactive. I mean the main guilt is always on the oppressor in that regard. So, that's why I'm saying that Arab hatred of Kurds is, in my view, worse than Kurdish hatred of Arabs when it is reactive to the first one. So you can multiply the example. I can't equate white anti-black racism with black anti-white attitudes that may develop among black people because of this terrible oppression, racial oppression that they suffered at the hands of whites. I can't equate the anti-Jewish, anti-Semitic attitude that you might find among – historically – among Poles, for instance, in Poland – I can't equate that, the anti-Jewish attitudes that you had, with the anti-Goyim attitude that might have developed among Jews there – because they were oppressed! So the oppressor is more guilty. And you have to extend the comparison. It applies. There is no exception here. It's not because people are of a Jewish background that they can't be oppressors. This is the way Israel presents itself: “We are the eternal victims. Even when we are victimizing others, we are the victims.” No, it doesn't work like that.
The State of Israel, in its relation with Palestinians is the oppressor. The anti-Arab racism in Israel – it is a very large phenomenon. And, worse than that, the state is the embodiment of that in its actual oppression and all that of Palestinians and other Arabs. And so that's the key point here. I can't equate that with anti-Jewish attitudes that may develop among Palestinians, or Arabs in general … But how about the evolution of the Israeli society to the far-right actually? And so to forget all that and to focus all the attention on the Arabs and the Palestinians and requesting from them to be one hundred percent perfect, they should behave, they should all be politically correct, as if there were any people on earth politically correct as a whole. I mean you have various currents and attitudes within any people. So you have this attitude toward them and forgetting completely any critical stance toward what's happening in Israel. That doesn't work.