The issue of Holocaust denial in the Arab world has been widely covered in the media. Every public display of Holocaust denial by an Arab source is prominently reported and construed as further evidence of the pro-Nazi inclinations that Arabs, or Muslims, hold in their deepest hearts, especially when they are hostile to Israel. The deliberate provocations that the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, stages regularly contribute considerably to fostering this image.
There is no dispute that Holocaust denial has been on the rise in Arab countries during the last two decades. This has been illustrated in a disgraceful way by the hero-like reception that Roger Garaudy, the French former communist turned Catholic, turned Muslim, turned Holocaust denier, received in several Arab countries in the late 1990s, after his sentencing by a French court for a Holocaust-denying book. Likewise, the rise of Holocaust denial among Palestinian citizens of Israel has been attested by recent opinion polls.
Yet western-style Holocaust denial — that is, the endeavour to produce pseudo-scientific proofs that the Jewish genocide did not happen at all or was only a massacre of far lesser scope than that commonly acknowledged — is actually very marginal in the Arab world. Rather, manifestations of Holocaust denial among Arabs fall for the most part under two categories.
On one hand, there are Arabs who are shocked by the pro-Israel double standard that is displayed in western attitudes towards the Middle East. Knowing that the Holocaust is the source of strong inhibition of western critiques of Israel, many Arabs tend to believe that its reality was amplified by Zionism for this very purpose. On the other hand, there are Arabs who express Holocaust-denying views out of exasperation with the increasing cruelty of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. Unable to retaliate in kind, they believe that they can harm Israel symbolically in this way.
In both cases, Holocaust denial is not primarily an expression of antisemitism, as western Holocaust denial certainly is, but an expression of what I call the "anti-Zionism of fools". Yet it remains a minority phenomenon in the Arab world, fought by enlightened intellectuals and politically educated activists who explain that such attitudes are not only based on ignorance but do a disservice to the Palestinian cause. They point to the way any utterances of Holocaust denial are relayed by pro-Israeli websites, which use them in their propaganda.
Much less reported, however, are public acknowledgements by Palestinians of the Holocaust and of the universal lessons it bears for all persecuted peoples and groups. When researching my book, The Arabs and the Holocaust, I found innumerable reports about the enunciation by Palestinians or other Arabs of insanities about the Holocaust, while I noticed that expressions of Palestinian compassion with the victims of the Holocaust were barely reported, if not blatantly ignored. During my public talks in various countries, every time I told the audience about some of the most impressive examples and asked if they had heard about them, I encountered general surprise.
I will mention here only three of the most outstanding cases:
In January 1998, the Palestinian negotiators in the Oslo process advised Yasser Arafat to visit the Holocaust museum in Washington in order to undo the damage wrought by the Garaudy affair. The planned visit was, however, aborted by the refusal of the museum’s directors to receive the Palestinian leader as a VIP. Arafat sought to make up for the missed occasion by visiting the Anne Frank house in Amsterdam three months later, on 31 March 1998. Despite its obvious symbolic importance, this visit received very little coverage in the western media. In Israel, however, it provoked bitter controversy.
On 27 January 2009, International Holocaust Remembrance Day, an exhibition on the Holocaust, opened in the West Bank village of Ni’lin (or Naalin). It was reported by Israel News as follows: "Naalin, a village that has become the symbol for the Palestinians’ battle against Israel’s construction of a separation fence in the West Bank, erected a display of photographs purchased from Yad Vashem Holocaust museum and invited the public to learn more about the persecution of the Jews." What is remarkably moving is that these victims of the Israeli occupation wanted to "empathise with and further understand their occupier".
Most stunning of all, on 9 January 2009, at the peak of the brutal Israeli onslaught on Gaza, inhabitants of Bi’lin, another West Bank village known for standing at the forefront of the struggle against the Israeli occupation, organised a demonstration in protest, wearing striped pyjamas similar to those of Nazi concentration camp inmates. An account by the still available. That the message the Palestinian demonstrators conveyed was "exaggerated" is obvious (and natural); but the point is that they were identifying with the Jewish victims of Nazism and regarding the Holocaust as the highest standard of horror, rather than denying it.
Very few people have ever heard of these occurrences. In the context of a worrying rise of Islamophobia in the west, most media — often unconsciously — play a negative role in putting much more emphasis on the dark side of the Arab world or the Muslim world than on the bright side. This increases public prejudices against Arabs and Muslims, and sends back to the latter a detestable image of themselves with damaging consequences.
One would wish that the media instead promoted expressions such as the three reported above. Unlike counterproductive pronouncements by apostates of Islam busy outdoing the neocons in pro-western or pro-Israeli statements, these are expressions by credible and respected fighters against the national oppression that their people endure. Such are the most truthful Arab or Muslim upholders of the universal lessons of the Holocaust — like the Palestinian demonstrators in striped pyjamas.
Gilbert Achcar is professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. His many books include The Clash of the Barbarisms: The Making of the New World Disorder, The 33-Day War: Israel’s War in Hezbollah in Lebanon and Its Aftermath, (with Michael Warschawski) and Perilous Power: The Middle East and US Foreign Policy, co-authored with Noam Chomsky. His book, The Arabs and the Holocaust, is published this month by Saqi.