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DR. CATHERINE CHATTERLEY: USING THE HOLOCAUST AGAINST ISRAEL: DENIAL, INVERSION AND THE THREAT OF REPETITION

By Dr. Catherine Chatterley, posted November 14, 2011

[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
 
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