[Dr. Catherine Chatterley is a Research Affiliate, University of Manitoba, Department of History
Founding Director, Canadian Institute for the Study of Antisemitism (CISA).This paper was presented in Montreal on November 6, 2011 at a conference on The Delegitimation of Israel, sponsored by the Canadian Institute for Jewish Research (CIJR).]
In general, discussions of the Holocaust in the Arab and Islamic worlds are convoluted, distorted, and contradictory. Commentators are not usually concerned with historical accuracy or historiographical interpretation, nor are they interested in the moral, philosophical, theological, and cultural implications of the Holocaust. The long history of antisemitism is absent from these discussions, as is European racism, and there is little to no understanding of Christianity and its fraught relationship with the Jewish people.
Instead, the concern is only that this foreign disaster was imposed unjustly upon the Middle East and therefore becomes key to understanding the Palestinian predicament. In other words, the Holocaust is understood as the event that caused the Western powers to establish the State of Israel, and so it alone is used to explain why there is a Jewish state in the Middle East. This state is understood to be a European import produced out of Western guilt for the Holocaust and a convenient way to solve that dilemma.
In this way of thinking, the Holocaust—which is a European problem and therefore a European responsibility—was transferred to the Middle East and imposed upon the Palestinians. The Palestinian people never consented to this European solution in the first place, they have no involvement in or responsibility for the Holocaust, and yet they are made to suffer for it nonetheless. This sense of injustice, and the resentment it provokes, is inseparable from Arab discussions about the Holocaust.
This perception of the Holocaust creates an ambiguous, but also obsessive, relationship to it in the minds of many Arabs. The Holocaust is a fixation in the Middle East because of its central position in the Arab understanding of how and why Israel came into existence.
Over the last 60 years, there has been a range of reaction to the Holocaust in the Arab and Islamic worlds. Holocaust denial is only one manifestation that is very often combined with other opinions and adaptations that logically depend on the fact that the Holocaust did indeed occur. There is little consistency here. In fact, one gets the sense from these discussions that there exists an enormous frustration and confusion in relation to the Holocaust throughout the region of the Middle East. Part of this can be explained by the fundamental ignorance about European history in these countries, and about the history of the Holocaust and antisemitism in particular.
Esther Webman and Meir Litvak have studied the shifting Arab reaction to the Holocaust over the last seven decades and have demonstrated that up until the early 1950s and during the 1990s there was some acknowledgement of, and sympathy for, Jewish suffering in liberal Arab circles. However, more prominent are the following themes: the justification of Jewish suffering under Nazism, either as a form of divine punishment or as German retaliation against alleged (in reality, fictitious) Jewish crimes; the years after the Eichmann Trial of 1961 produced the accusation that Zionism collaborated with Nazism in destroying European Jewry for the cynical purpose of establishing the Jewish state; celebrating the idea of a second Holocaust or promising to “finish the job,” as it were; minimizing or relativizing the Holocaust by comparing it to a plethora of crimes in history; and outright denial of the Holocaust as a fact of history.
Perhaps the most common and popular approach to the Holocaust is the attempt to equate Zionism with Nazism. This strategy allows its creators to convey the supposed racism and evil believed to exist at the heart of the Zionist enterprise. It also reverses the role of the Jews in history, transforming their status as victims to that of racist aggressors who now act against a new group of victims—the Palestinians. In this narrative, the Palestinians become the true victims of the Holocaust—the Jews are compensated with their own state and, beginning in 1953, are given billions of dollars in reparations, while the Palestinians suffer displacement and exile for a crime that happened on another continent.
This last approach is not simply reflective of Arab and Muslim perceptions of their own history, but has now been harnessed by a conscious strategy to transform public opinion in the West against Israel. The Nazism-Zionism and Israel-Apartheid equations are both inventions of the Soviet Union and are now used as a conscious strategy to undermine support for Israel in the West, especially on campuses and in progressive circles of people who dedicate themselves to social justice and anti-racist work.
These equations are designed specifically for our consumption so that Western sympathies for Jews and Israel can be reduced and eroded over time. Western protection of Israel is perceived by many to be rooted in the Holocaust experience and the ongoing guilt about unleashing that catastrophe. (Let me say, parenthetically, that this, again, is another example of ignorance about Western culture and its relationship to the Jews because in reality there is very little guilt outside Germany for the Holocaust, and we know that even there the fourth generation is unsure of its responsibility toward the past.)
One of the reasons for the shift toward Apartheid as a comparison to Israel instead of Nazism is that the Nazi analogy, while successful in many parts of the world, fails to convince most of us in the West given even a basic familiarity with Hitler and his crimes. IAW is a very smart political strategy on the part of pro-Palestinian activists, as it relies on our widespread ignorance about the white supremacist system of Apartheid and the history of South Africa as well as the lack of public and student knowledge about Israel and the history of the Middle East. It is relatively easy to make a comparison if people are ignorant about the examples being compared. It is also true that largely because of Hitler’s war, and its after effects on Western thought and culture, racism and human rights are a central preoccupation for many of us, and for many of our students. As a result, students can be easily and actively mobilized against those labeled racists and human rights violators, for whom there is little sympathy in our contemporary culture. Those of us who attended university in the late eighties and early nineties know how powerful and effective the anti-Apartheid movement, including its calls for divestment and boycotts, was on Canadian campuses. This is the successful model of delegitimation adopted by pro-Palestinian activists since Durban I (2001) and it requires a thoughtful, engaged, coordinated intellectual response (as CIJR is currently implementing in this city).
Given the following Middle Eastern perceptions: 1) that Israel was set up by the Western powers as a solution to the Holocaust; and 2) that the West continues to be obsessed with the Holocaust, and with its own “sense of obligation” toward the Jews and to Israel, it seems logical for the Holocaust to become a central target in the campaign to delegitimize the Jewish state. If the Holocaust is thought to form the foundation of Israel’s legitimacy on the world stage, and one believes that Israel has no actual historical or moral legitimacy, then one must coordinate one’s attack on that foundation by either denying that the event occurred, or claiming that it has been exaggerated and overemphasized, or that it pales in comparison to other crimes, especially those believed to be committed by Jews themselves. What we often see is a combination of these contradictory arguments, sometimes in the same presentation.
There is, today, a leader who has made Holocaust denial a major theme in his anti-Israel policy and rhetoric. The current leader of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, appears to have a conscious strategy to divide Israel and the Western world, and the Holocaust plays a key role in this strategy.
Since his appointment as president in August 2005, Ahmadinejad has stated publicly that the Holocaust is a “legend fabricated by Zionists”; that this “myth” is held to be more sacred than the Almighty (this, of course, explains the reasoning behind Iran’s 2006 International Holocaust Cartoon Competition, designed to counter the offence of a Danish newpaper printing cartoons of the Prophet); and, that if Germany and Austria believe Jews were massacred in Europe a state of Israel should be established on their soil—not in Palestine.
Ahmadinejad believes in the age-old libel of a “worldwide Jewish conspiracy” and this antisemitism structures his thinking about Israel, the Holocaust, and world politics. In his imagination, the Holocaust is a “myth” created by “Zionist conspirators” specifically to facilitate the imposition of a Jewish state on the Arab world. This is the “lie” he seeks to expose, by arguing that the Holocaust has not been subjected to adequate scholarly examination, that there is “another side” to the debate.
The other side, of course, are the Holocaust deniers and racist antisemites whose lies have marginalized them in the West—people like David Duke, former Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan; Robert Faurisson, who has stood trial in France for Holocaust denial; Frederick Töben, also sentenced to five years in Germany for Holocaust denial, among others. These men, along with 64 others from 30 countries, joined Ahmadinejad in Tehran on December 11 and 12, 2006, to convene a government sponsored event called the “International Conference on Review of the Holocaust: Global Vision.” This event was held at the Institute for Political and International Studies in Tehran, an arm of the Iranian foreign ministry. It was promoted using the rhetoric of “freedom of expression,” a right few Iranians actually enjoy, and as a place where the “Zionist conspiracy” couldn’t suppress the discussion. The topics discussed were the usual fare of Holocaust deniers and antisemites: did the Holocaust happen; how many Jews died during the war; did the gas chambers exist; what is the connection between the “myth” of the Holocaust and the creation of Israel?
It is perhaps important to note that this toxic compound—the lie of a worldwide Jewish conspiracy, its fabrication of the Holocaust to blackmail Europe into establishing and financing a Jewish state in the Middle East—is invented by European and American antisemites beginning immediately after the war. Like so much of the antisemitism we see today in the Arab and Islamic worlds, Holocaust denial—its myths, lies, and accusations—is European in origin and has been adapted for use in the Middle East.
One does wonder: what can Ahmadinejad be thinking?
There is no question that the man shares the antisemitic views of Holocaust deniers in the West: that the Holocaust is a “lie”; that the Jews orchestrate a “conspiracy to dominate the planet”; that Israel has no legitimate right to exist, and in his own words, “must be wiped off the map.” Dismissing the Holocaust as a “hoax” in public is seen as a brave provocation in the Middle East—“speaking truth to power,” as it were, by standing up to Israel and the United States, which no doubt elevates his profile and that of Iran among millions of Muslims.
Ahmadinejad is now known to ask two questions about the Holocaust: did it actually happen, and, if it did, then whose fault was it? His response: “The answer to that has to be found in Europe and not in Palestine. It is perfectly clear: If the Holocaust took place in Europe, one also has to find the answer to it in Europe.” (Der Spiegel)
It appears that denying the Holocaust is not having the benefits he expected in the Western world, but this approach may have an affect by activating European guilt, colonial and otherwise, for supporting the establishment of a Jewish state in the Middle East. Anyone friendly with people on the progressive end of the political spectrum has heard individuals say, “Israel was a mistake.”
Relatedly, the leader of Iran appears to be attempting to encourage the growth of existing resentment against the Holocaust and its ongoing memorialization in Germany and Europe, asking Der Spiegel in 2006, “why is such a burden heaped on the German people . . . why are the crimes of one group emphasized so greatly, instead of highlighting the great German heritage . . . why should the Germans not have the right to express their opinion freely . . . how much longer do you think the German people have to accept being taken hostage by the Zionists . . . when will that end—in 20, 50, 1000 years?” Just how many Germans share this view is difficult to ascertain, but one imagines that it resonates with a significant segment of the public, especially in the former East.
So much is offensive in this man’s rhetoric, but perhaps most troubling is its classic antisemitic depiction of “the Jews,” in the contemporary form of Zionists, as operating outside the values and interests of common humanity and all that is good. Worse still is the fact that this seems to go unnoticed by the majority of people in Western nations, including otherwise progressive academics and members of government. Few seem to notice that the West is being courted by Ahmadinejad to be recruited into his global antisemitic strategy under the banner of humanistic inclusion and spiritual redemption.
Here, for instance, is his appeal to the world in his 2008 address to the United Nations (note: his appeal to unify with Christians):
“Let us, hand in hand, expand the thought of resistance against evil and the minority of those who are ill-wishers. Let's support goodness and the majority of people who are good and the embodiment of absolute good that is the Imam of Time, The Promised One who will come accompanied by Jesus Christ, and accordingly design and implement the just and humanistic mechanisms for regulating the constructive relationships between nations and governments. Oh great Almighty, deliver the savior of nations and put an end to the sufferings of mankind and bring forth justice, beauty, and love.” (Italics added.) (UN.org)
To conclude, I will quote from the last page of Deborah Lipstadt’s 1993 study of Holocaust denial.
Incredibly, and depressingly, her words are as appropriate today as they were eighteen years ago:
“When we witness assaults on truth, our response must be strong, though neither polemical nor emotional. We must educate the broader public and academe about this threat and its historical and ideological roots. We must expose these people for what they are. The effort will not be pleasant. Those who take on this task will sometimes feel . . . as if they are being forced to prove what they know to be fact.
Those of us who make scholarship our vocation and avocation dream of spending our time charting new paths, opening new vistas, and offering new perspectives on some aspect of the truth. We seek to discover, not to defend. We did not train in our respective fields in order to stand like watchmen . . . Yet this is what we must do. We do so in order to expose falsehood and hate. We will remain ever vigilant so that the most precious tools of our trade and our society—truth and reason—can prevail.
The still, small voices of millions cry out to us from the ground demanding that we do no less.” (Lipstadt, 1993, 222)