“The phenomenon of Holocaust denial in the Arab world is wrong, misleading and causes damage to the Palestinian cause.” In his new book, Lebanese-French academic Gilbert Achcar grapples for the first time with the Arab attitudes towards the Holocaust.
Gilbert Achcar left Lebanon in 1983, during the first major war Israel waged in his land. Nearly 30 years later Achcar, a professor of international relations at the London School of Oriental and African Studies and a militant leftist and peace activist, asserts that it was that brutal war between Israel and the Palestinians in Lebanon that was a turning point in the way the Arab world related to the Holocaust. The comparisons that Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin made at the time between Yasser Arafat and Hitler and between Israel’s rivals and the Nazis, he contends, cheapened the Holocaust and made many people on the Arab side compare Israel to the Nazis and even claim that Israel invented the Holocaust to justify its policy in the Middle East.
A few weeks ago, the 59-year-old French Lebanese academic published a new book in France, whose title speaks of its unusual contents: “The Arabs and the Holocaust.” In this book, Achcar, who previously published books with well-known US and Israeli left-wing activists Noam Chomsky and Michael Warschawski, addresses a most explosive subject for the first time: the Arabs’ attitude towards the Holocaust, from the rise of the Nazis to power until today. The book, which does not shy away from the most problematic aspects of the issue, just came out in two Arabic editions, in Cairo and Beirut.
Achcar, who has lectured in Paris and Berlin, begins his book with a quote from the Gospel of Matthew: “And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?” “The lesson of this parable is that before criticizing others, a person has to ask what is wrong with himself,” Achcar tells Yedioth Ahronoth, in the first interview he has ever given to an Israeli newspaper.
But then, he goes on to ask what is wrong with us. “On the Israeli side a series of accusations are raised against the Arab world about the Holocaust, without any self-criticism,” he says. “There are some Israeli writers who are so egocentric they cannot see that their claims against the Arab world could be directed at Israel, sometimes all the more so. However, the parable also refers to the Arabs, of course. In the book I tried to address current issues that I think are reprehensible. I do not defend anybody uncritically. I think a critical look at the group to which you belong before criticizing others is the desirable approach.”
Q: Could you be more specific?
A: “On the Arab side I feel no sympathy whatsoever for what the mufti of Jerusalem, Hajj Amin al-Husseini, did during World War II. I also think Holocaust denial in the Arab world is wrong, misleading and damaging to the Arab and Palestinian cause. But on the Israeli side, how can you criticize Holocaust denial in the Arab world when Israel denies the Palestinian nakba?
“I am not comparing the expulsion of 1948 and the Holocaust. The Holocaust was genocide and therefore it was a much greater tragedy than the suffering of the Palestinians since 1948. But the Arabs and the Palestinians did not commit the Holocaust, whereas Israel stands behind the nakba. Israeli historians have proven it. Yet still, Israel continues denying its historic responsibility for this drama. Former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni protested to the Secretary General of the UN over the use of the word Nakba, which in Arabic means “disaster.” It is like protesting that Israel uses the word shoah.
“In my book I strongly denounce Palestinian and Arab Holocaust deniers, whose numbers are greater than they were 30 or 40 years ago. It is mainly a reaction driven by rage and not deliberate denial. A Palestinian or an Arab who says that the Holocaust was invented by the Zionists to justify their actions is reacting to Israel’s use of the Holocaust for its needs.
“It is a stupid reaction. I think Holocaust denial is the anti-Zionism of fools. But these are people who are denying a historic phenomenon in which they and their people played no part. On the other hand, the Israeli denial of the nakba is much more important because Israel was responsible for it. It was a defining moment in the foundation of Israel. There were other countries that arose under similar circumstances but you must recognize the historic reality and the historic responsibility. The situation is getting worse today because of Israeli oppression of the Palestinians.”
Achcar was born in Senegal to a family of Lebanese émigrés but was raised and schooled in Lebanon. “I went to a French high school in Lebanon and I learned about the Holocaust very early in my life,” he says. “I am a humanist. The Holocaust has always been very important to me.” A few years ago, he was asked to write an article for an academic publication about the Arabs and the Holocaust. The research he did for the article led him to write this thick book on the subject.
Even those who don’t agree with everything Achcar writes will acknowledge that he bravely engages with an issue that in recent years has become taboo in the Arab world.
“I suppose if the subject didn’t interest me they would not have asked me to write about it. The people who asked me knew that I understood the historic importance of the Holocaust and that I have the necessary sensitivity to address the subject,” says Achcar. “I knew from the start that it is a very loaded subject and that each side has a different narrative, especially concerning the Arab world’s attitude towards the Holocaust. There is a lot of propaganda involved. I felt there is a very strong caricaturing of historic positions. In the course of my research I discovered that it is even more extreme than I thought and that there has been a substantial distortion.”
Q: You state in your book unequivocally that while there is no comparison between the Holocaust and the nakba, there is a connection between them.
A: “The connection is obvious. Without the Holocaust and without the rise of the Nazis I don’t think the Zionist project would have come to fruition. When you look at the Jewish migration to Palestine before 1933 and the drop in the number of immigrants after the outbreak of the 1929 riots, it is clear that without the terrible historic phenomenon called Nazism and the outbreak of anti-Semitism in Europe there would not have been a massive Jewish migration to Palestine that allowed the establishment of Israel. Hitler’s rise to power and everything that happened in World War II gave legitimacy to the Zionist idea. After all, Zionism was a minority ideology among the Jewish communities before the rise of the Nazis. Most European Jews were not Zionists. On top of that was the hypocrisy of the Western world, which closed its doors to the Jewish refugees.
“There are Israeli academics who claim the Palestinians have a responsibility for the Holocaust, because they revolted and demanded the British limit Jewish migration to Palestine. They thereby prevented hundreds of thousands of Jews from migrating to Palestine and they were exterminated in the Holocaust. That is a very tendentious justification. Why blame the Palestinians for revolting against a project whose declared goal was to establish a foreign state on their land, and forget that while the British restricted Jewish migration to Palestine they could have allowed Jewish migration to their country and to other parts of the huge empire they controlled?
“You could make the same claim against the U.S. and the other countries of the world, who were convened at the Evian conference in 1938 by President Roosevelt, and did not want to receive Jewish refugees into their countries. They are responsible for the Holocaust. Not the Palestinians. The Holocaust created the conditions that allowed the implementation of the Zionist project, which was not possible to carry out nonviolently. The violent implementation created the nakba, so that the nakba is the result of those developments.
Q: Did the cooperation of certain Arab parties with the Nazis stem from a common ideology, or was it a political tactic in the spirit of “my enemy’s enemy is my ally?”
A: “For mufti al-Husseini there was a certain amount of political opportunism and anti-Semitic ideological affinity, which seems evident to me. The mufti did not share the Nazis’ political, social and economic worldview. Those aspects of the Nazi ideology did not interest him. Meanwhile, hatred of the Jews and the British was a common basis for him with the Nazis. He was not a full-fledged Nazi but a collaborator with the Nazis. He developed hatred towards the Jews that connected with Nazi anti-Semitism. He did not hide it. In his recently published memoirs, he presents a clear anti-Semitic worldview.”
Q: How do you explain the warm welcome that he received in the Arab world after World War II?
A: “The idea that the mufti received a triumphant welcome in the Arab world is a myth. The fact that the Palestinians treated him as a national leader persecuted by his enemies — the British and the Zionist movement — is one thing. If you look at his real influence in the Arab world, even during the war, you will see that it was very limited. The mufti spent his time in Berlin and Rome in an attempt to recruit the Palestinians and the Arabs to join the German and Italian Axis against the Allies and of course against the Zionist movement. It is estimated that only 6000 Arabs joined the various armed organizations of Nazi Germany.
“Meanwhile, 9000 Palestinian Arabs fought alongside the British. A greater yet number of Arabs served in the Allied forces, including a quarter of a million North Africans who fought in De Gaulle’s ranks. Therefore, the mufti’s real influence was negligible. Today in the Arab world the mufti is of little regard. He is associated with defeat even before he left for Europe: defeat of the revolt in Palestine, the failed revolution against the British in Iraq. The fact that he stood with the Germans added to the feeling of revulsion towards him, even by Arab nationalists.”
Why, then, Achcar asks, does the mufti get so much attention in Israel? “Israel and the Zionist movement had no answer to the Palestinian claim that the Holocaust may have been a terrible thing but they were not responsible for it, and therefore there was no reason for them to pay the price for the acts of the Europeans,” he explains. “Then came the Zionists and said that the mufti is the proof that the Palestinians were complicit in the Holocaust. This created a narrative that presents the Arabs as accomplices with the Nazis, and therefore you could say that the war of 1948 was the last battle of World War II against the Nazis. But this narrative does not hold up to the historic fact. It is propaganda.”
Q: The collaboration did not stop with the mufti. There were many Nazi criminals who found refuge in Arab countries and various Arab parties such as the Baath that took inspiration from the Nazi ideology.
A: “There is no proof that the Baath was influenced at the beginning by Nazi ideology. Even the attempt to present the Baath and its founder, Michel Aflaq, as Nazis is propaganda. Aflaq was influenced by the left and was in contact with communists and Marxists who opposed Nazism. The only evidence against him is that in his library there was a translated copy of a book by Alfred Rosenberg [the chief ideologue of the Nazi movement and author of its racist platform – E.B.]. That is like saying that anyone who had a copy of Mein Kampf in their house was a Nazi. People who read books don’t necessarily agree with their contents. When you talk about the Baath in the 1960s and 70s, Nazism no longer existed then. Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi Baath party may have used anti-Semitic arguments but it was not connected to Nazism.
“There were indeed a number of ex-Nazis who found refuge in the Arab world, in Egypt and Syria. Except for Alois Brunner [Eichmann’s right-hand man] who escaped to Syria, there was no other senior Nazi among them who was part of the extermination machine. But why is this argument raised against the Arabs, when Israel’s friends, starting with the US, gave refuge to Nazis and helped the migration of much bigger criminals than the ones who found refuge in the Arab world?
“After all, Israel received tremendous funding from federal Germany, which was full of ex-Nazis, who also sat in the government. The closest advisor to Chancellor Adenauer, Israel’s friend and financier, wrote the Nuremberg race laws. The desire to present the Arabs as Nazis retroactively makes all of Latin America, the US and Germany into Nazis. It is pure propaganda.”
Q: Does the lack of discussion about collaboration with the Nazis in the Arab world have an impact on Holocaust denial in different sectors of Arab and Muslim society?
A: “The heightened tension between Israel and the Arabs and the Palestinians in the last years has radicalized positions on both sides. But even Hamas never established brigades named for mufti al-Husseini. Nor are there any missiles or streets named after him. Nobody is interested in him. The hero of Hamas is Izz el-Din al-Qassam. You have to understand that in order to cut through the propaganda. Furthermore, if people cared about the mufti, there would be no Holocaust denial.
“Al-Husseini was not a Holocaust denier. In his memoirs he tells how Himmler told him in 1943 that Germany was exterminating the Jews and had already killed three million of them. The mufti writes with satisfaction that in the bottom line of the war, the Jews paid a heavier price than the Germans, and that one third of world Jewry was dead. He thereby confirms the known number of Holocaust victims.
“The denial in the Arab world today comes mainly from ignorance. However, you have to distinguish it from Holocaust denial in the West, which is a pathological phenomenon. In the West these people are mentally ill, complete anti-Semites. In the Arab world, the denial that exists among certain strains of public opinion, who are still in the minority, comes from rage and frustration over the escalation of Israeli violence, along with the increased use of the Holocaust. It began with the invasion of Lebanon in 1982.
“Menachem Begin abused the memory of the Holocaust, including in Israel’s domestic political discourse. This led people and the Arab world to react in the stupidest way and say: if Israel is trying to justify its actions by reference to the Holocaust, then the Holocaust is an exaggeration or a propaganda invention. The more violence there is, the more you will find this reaction, which is actually a symbolic challenge. It is nothing deeper.”
Q: You also claim that Arabs who compare Israel to the Nazis are reacting to the Israeli comparison between Arab leaders and Hitler.
A: “The desire to see Nazis everywhere leads to the banalization of the Nazis. Hitler was such a negative historic figure that comparing [Iranian president Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad to him is absurd. You can think whatever you want about the president of Iran, but his country does not have concentration camps and is not carrying out genocide. It is a society in a political conflict. But it is not a totalitarian society like Nazi Germany. The comparison to Nazis and Hitler is very common in Israel, too. Ben Gurion compared Begin to Hitler. The extreme right in Israel distributed pictures of Rabin in an SS uniform. Israelis see Hitler everywhere: Nasser, Saddam Hussein, Arafat, Nasrallah. So why be surprised when the Arabs do that too? It is of course political hyperbole that is not helpful.”
Q: How can the many obstacles be overcome if the Arab side does not recognize Israel’s sensitivity to the Holocaust?
A: “The Arab side does understand that sensitivity. You do not have to see the Arabs as a monolithic bloc. Of course there are streams of people who do not understand it. But that is not the position of the majority. Take Arafat, who was completely demonized. After all, the PLO began a serious effort to understand this issue in the 1970s. When the French Holocaust denier Roger Garaudy was welcomed with honors throughout the Arab world, Arafat understood the damage it would cause the Palestinian cause. That is when he asked to visit the Holocaust Museum in Washington. The museum administration refused to treat him as a VIP and he was insulted and canceled the visit. Yet he still went to visit the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam. The press, except for in Israel, almost completely ignored it.
“People like Edward Said and Mahmoud Darwish completely understood the Israeli sensitivity towards the Holocaust. We have to stop portraying a caricature image of the enemy, which poisons the atmosphere. I guarantee that if Israel had a different attitude towards the Arab world and the Palestinians, an attitude of peace, these phenomena that have gotten stronger in the last few years would disappear very quickly.”
The following interview with Gilbert Achcar about his latest book, The Arabs and the Holocaust, was published on April 27, over two pages, in Yedioth Ahronoth, the daily newspaper with the widest circulation in Israel. A differently edited English version was published on May 2 in The Jerusalem Report, the best-known Israeli biweekly magazine in English. It will be soon available on the JR website. Above is the translation of the interview as it was published in Yedioth Ahronoth.