Gilbert Achcar interviewed by Christophe Ayad of Libération.
In "The Arabs and the Holocaust," Gilbert Achcar, a Lebanese scholar, rigorously analyzes the history of the Arab world’s perception of persecutions of the Jews, from Nazism to today.
Fifty-eight-year-old Lebanese intellectual Gilbert Achcar is a professor at the University of London School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). He has just published Les Arabes et la Shoah: la guerre israelo-arabe des recits (Sindbad Actes Sud) [The Arabs and the Holocaust: The Arab-Israeli War of Narratives] (Metropolitan, New York, and Saqi, London). This very comprehensive work studies the Arab world’s perceptions of Jewish persecutions before, during and after the Holocaust. Its exhaustiveness allows the work to go beyond cliches, beginning with the one concerning the mufti of Jerusalem Amin al-Husseini, who was invited to attend an SS parade in Berlin right in the middle of the Second World War. Other voices are allowed to be heard in this book; other positions are related and explained in it. One learns, notably, that the Egyptian Anwar al-Sadat and the Palestinian Mahmoud Abbas, presented as champions of peace, were distinctly more anti-Semitic in their youth than Nasser and Arafat, unjustly criticized on this score. Achcar, impeccably rigorous both intellectually and morally, also describes the complexity and ambiguity of the relationship between the Shoah and the Nakba, i.e. the dispossession of Palestinians driven off their lands in 1948 (although the two words do not designate the same thing, they translate to the same word in French and English: the "Catastrophe").
Previously, Gilbert Achcar had published Le Choc des barbaries [The Clash of Barbarisms: The Making of the New World Disorder] (2002, 2006), L’Orient incandescent [Eastern Cauldron: Islam, Afghanistan, Palestine and Iraq in a Marxist Mirror] (2003), La Guerre des 33 jours [The 33-Day War: Israel's War on Hezbollah in Lebanon and its Consequences] (2006) and, with Noam Chomsky, La Poudriere du Moyen-Orient [Perilous Power: The Middle East and U.S. Foreign Policy] (2007).
Chistophe Ayad for Liberation: As an epigraph to your latest book, you chose a phrase 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?"
Gilbert Achar: It’s an excellent rule of life to acknowledge one’s own faults before going after those of others. I applied it to myself in my position as a person who came from the Arab world in order to say things without concession. It should also be applied by those who blame the Arabs and do not see the injustice they themselves inflict on others . . .
Is your book the first exhaustive work on this subject by an Arab academic?
Yes, absolutely. There has not been any systematic study of this question. There are classics that cover the relations between Nazi Germany and the Arab world (1), but they are more concerned with diplomatic history than with a specific study of the perception of Nazism, anti-Jewish persecutions and the Holocaust in the Arab world. There is also a recent book by Israeli authors (2), that I criticize a great deal because it’s a catalogue that puts unknown despicable persons on the same level as more significant personalities. They make no mention whatsoever of Arafat’s visit to the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam — a strong symbolic act intended to make up for his aborted visit to the Holocaust memorial in Washington.
What attitudes dominated the Arab world during the Holocaust?
In the first place, "the Arabs" do not exist. To speak of an Arab discourse in the singular is nonsense. The Arab world is traversed by a multitude of perspectives. At the time of the Holocaust, one could distinguish four major ideological currents that ran from liberal Westernizers through Marxists and nationalists to Islamic fundamentalists. Out of these four currents, two clearly rejected Nazism: liberal Westernizers and Marxists, in part for shared reasons (the Enlightenment legacy, the denunciation of Nazism as racist) and in part because of their geopolitical affiliations. Arab nationalism is contradictory on this question. However, if one looks closely, the number of nationalist groups that identified themselves with Nazi propaganda is ultimately very limited. There was a single Nazi clone in the Arab world — that was the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, founded by a Lebanese Christian, Antun Saadeh. The Young Egypt movement flirted with Nazism briefly, but it was a weathervane party. As for the accusations that the Baath Party owed the inspiration for its birth in the 1940s to Nazism, they are completely wrong. I am far from an admirer of the Baath, especially the dictatorial Baath of today, but Michel Aflaq (Syrian intellectual Christian and Baath founder) was a leftist.
What about the Islamists?
Fundamentalist Pan-Islamism has no reservations concerning Nazi anti-Semitism. That choice went back to the beginning of the 1930s; it was inspired by Rashid Rida (reformist Egyptian Muslim intellectual who died in 1935). At first, Rida was rather pro-Jewish — in rejection of the West. For example, at the time of the Dreyfus affair, he condemned the persecution of the Jews by Christian Europe. Rida even tried to parley with the leaders of the Zionist movement — to little avail. With the exacerbation of tensions in Palestine, he changed course after 1929 and went on to take up and Islamicize the European anti-Semitic discourse by applying a religious varnish to the "Protocols of the Elders of Zion" (3) and Nazi propaganda. In a general sense, there are elective affinities between Islamism and Nazism: The two "essentialize" the enemy, one through a religious mode and the other, still worse, in the form of biological racism. Please note that I’m talking here about Islamic fundamentalism and not about Islam. In the end, two leading figures of the fundamentalist movement were to collaborate closely with Berlin: Sheikh Shakib Arslan (from one of the two great feudal Lebanese Druze families, along with the Jumblatt) and the mufti of Jerusalem, Amin al-Husseini. The two had established tight relations with Saudi Arabia, which, itself, had approached the Nazis. The Saudi kingdom interrupted those contacts out of caution and fear of Britain as soon as they began to be known.
How representative was Amin al-Husseini? Did his alliance with the Nazis tarnish the Palestinian cause on a permanent basis?
In the Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, the article devoted to Amin al-Husseini is exceeded in length only by the one on Hitler: that’s completely absurd because this man was nothing but a little cog in the Nazi machine and because he did not participate in the execution of the genocide. I don’t want to exonerate him from the abjection of his positions, but that’s out of all proportion. As for what he undertook on the Nazis’ account, it was a total fiasco. His exhortations generated no resonance in the Arab world. If we count the number of Arabs and Berbers who fought alongside the Axis forces, it is minimal compared to those who fought with the Allies, including among Palestinians. Moreover, when Husseini took refuge in Berlin (in 1941), he was already discredited, since he had accumulated defeats: both in Palestine with the Arab Revolt of 1936-39 and in Iraq in 1941. One must note in passing that Amin al-Husseini’s memoirs are an antidote against Holocaust denial: He knew that the genocide took place and boasted of having been perfectly aware of it from 1943 on. I believe he is an architect of the Nakba (the 1948 defeat and the departure of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians driven off their lands) in the sense that he bears a share of responsibility for what has happened to the Palestinian people.
In the Middle East, the Palestinians are the first to have undergone the consequences of the Holocaust. Are they more inclined than others to deny it, or, on the contrary, to recognize it?
One finds two symmetrical attitudes among the Palestinians. Some of them have understood that the lessons of the Holocaust are universal and that to deny it is not only wrong but also counter-productive. But does anyone know that a Palestinian created a museum of the Holocaust? Does anyone know that the village of Ni’lin (on the West Bank), known for its struggle against the separation wall, organized an exhibition on the Holocaust? Western media show these kinds of attitudes far less than their opposite. . .
The obverse is that there is, to a growing extent, an attitude of Holocaust denial among Palestinians. Take the Arab citizens of Israel, who speak Hebrew and who, in the framework of their schooling, have been over-informed about the Holocaust: it has been found that the rate of Holocaust denial among them has gone from 28% in 2004 to 40% in 2006. This phenomenon shows clearly that it’s not a matter of thought-out Holocaust denial, as one found in Europe, but a form of defiance. It’s a way — the worst possible way — of expressing resentment over the systematic escalation of violence since 2001 and Israeli society’s slide to the right. It’s a way of saying: They use the Holocaust to justify what they do to us; therefore, the Holocaust is an invention. It’s a simplistic argument, one which an enlightened minority fights against. To combat it, one must become aware that the lessons of the Holocaust are universal and that any oppressed people, including the Palestinians, may refer to them. Instead of denying the Holocaust, it is in the Palestinians’ best interest to deny Israel the right to exploit the Holocaust to justify its actions and reject all criticism. That’s what several Israeli authors, including Avraham Burg (former Chairman of the Jewish Agency and the World Zionist Organization,, and former Speaker of the Knesset), are saying today.
Do Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s provocations concerning the Holocaust reveal a general tendency?
Stupidity is one thing, abjection another. Unfortunately, these kinds of obscenity are on the rise in the Arab world, a phenomenon which delights the specialized pro-Israeli sites that collect them. As for Ahmadinejad, who is not Arab but who belongs to the regional landscape, his discourse is riddled with contradictions. On the one hand, he says: The Holocaust is a lie, a myth. On the other, he explains that it’s a problem for the Germans and the Austrians who should create a Jewish state out of their own territory.
Where is Anti-Semitic discourse the most widespread in the Arab world?
In Saudi Arabia where Wahhabism — a form of ultra-archaic fundamentalism — is the state ideology. Under American pressure, the Saudi government has tempered its attitude, but at the institutional Wahhabite religious level, strong anti-Jewish feeling remains. Apart from that, there is no country in particular where anti-Semitism crystallizes. You find it most frequently wherever the fundamentalists prosper: the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, the Palestinian Hamas, the Lebanese Hezbollah, even though Hassan Nasrallah stopped using this discourse three years ago. Some nationalists, such as those who consider Saddam Hussein a hero, also promote this type of idea.
Was Pan-Arabism, which dominated the Arab world ideologically during the 1950s and 60s less anti-Jewish than Pan-Islamism?
Neither Nasser nor the Baath party in its early years was anti-Jewish. Leftist Pan-Arabism promoted cultural nationalism versus religious affiliation. That went so far as to consider the Jews — to the extent they did not act against the Arab nation — as cultural Arabs.
One of the most vicious anti-Jewish campaigns of that period was conducted by a pro-British Iraqi, Nuri al-Said, while Iraqi Jews were very deeply rooted in their country.
Several Israeli historians have revisited their own history in the light of the Nakba. Have Palestinian historians taken the Holocaust into account in their analyses?
When we talk about the history of the Zionist movement, many Palestinians and Arabs have done so and still do so, even though access to the archives is not always easy. But if you talk about the history of the Holocaust itself, they don’t feel involved. Israel’s relationship to the Nakba is not the Palestinians’ relationship to the Holocaust. The dominant attitude in the Arab world is not so much to say, "That never happened," but rather: "Nazism is hideous, but one should not answer one injustice with another injustice by developing the colonization of Palestine. Why must we pay the price for what the Germans did?"
(1) "The Third Reich and The Arab East," Lukasz Hirszowicz (1966).
(2) "From Empathy To Denial: Arab Responses To The Holocaust," Meir Litvak and Esther Webman (2009).
(3)This counterfeit document was produced by the Czarist police at the end of the Nineteenth Century. It supposedly revealed the Jews’ and Free Masons’ world domination master plan.