In the past 24 hours, John Kerry and Mahmoud Abbas made two extraordinary sets of remarks about Israel and the Holocaust. Yesterday, the PA press agency, Wafa released this statement that Abbas had conveyed to U.S. Orthodox Rabbi Marc Schneier a week ago. It was released to mark Yom HaShoah:
…What happened to the Jews in the Holocaust is the most heinous crime to have occurred against humanity in the modern era. He expressed his sympathy with the families of the victims and many other innocent people who were killed by the Nazis.
President Abbas stressed that the Holocaust is a reflection of the concept of ethnic discrimination and racism which the Palestinians strongly reject and act against.
‘The world must do its utmost to fight racism and injustice in order to bring justice and equality to oppressed people wherever they are.
Understandably, given the hostility raging between Israel and the Arab world, many, including the Palestinians have been loathe to express great sympathy for Jewish suffering in the Holocaust. In fact, a 2009 poll by University of Haifa sociologist Sammy Smooha finds that 40% of Israeli Palestinians express some form of Holocaust denial. It should be noted that any poll of Palestinian opinion in 2009 would be heavily influenced by Arab rage at the devastation Israel perpetrated in Gaza during Operation Cast Lead (2009). Further, the Smooha poll does not track opinion of Palestinians in the Territories. In years prior to 2009, the numbers were substantially lower. I’ve searched in vain for any polling numbers since 2009 and found none.
Lebanese scholar George Achcar has written the definitive book on the role of the Holocaust in the Israel-Arab conflict. He wrote in the Guardian:
There is no dispute that Holocaust denial has been on the rise in Arab countries during the last two decades…
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.
That’s why Abbas’ unprecedented acknowledgement of the trauma of the Holocaust for the Jewish people has been received with disdain among the Israeli ultra-nationalist political world. Bibi Netanyahu viewed Abbas’ statement as little more than a PR ploy. Even a supposedly purely academic-research body like Yad Vashem weighed in with an Arabophobic statement. as conveyed by Jodi Rudoren:
Yad Vashem…said…that Mr. Abbas’s statement “might signal a change” from a situation in which “Holocaust denial and revisionism are sadly prevalent in the Arab world, including among Palestinians.” The email said “we expect” the new approach to “be reflected” in Palestinian websites, school curriculums “and discourse…”
In this statement there’s nothing of the nuance of Achcar’s understanding of the political background to this issue. And this from individuals who claim to be scholars but show themselves to be ideologues of the same stripe as Netanyahu. Further, the claim of “prevalent” Holocaust denial among Palestinians rests, as I wrote, on a single poll taken in 2009.
Even Rudoren gets into the act by inadvertently channeling the skepticism of those like Netanyahu:
Why “terrible?” Because Abbas made his declaration during the same week in which he announced a reconcilation with Hamas. Why the two should have anything to do with each other is a mystery to anyone but Rudoren and the Likudniks. But she allows Bibi to explain it here by quoting him:
“Hamas denies the Holocaust even as it attempts to create an additional Holocaust by destroying the State of Israel.”
Hamas’ 30-year old charter may deny the Holocaust, but you won’t hear any such statements by Khaled Meshal or his senior leadership. In the struggle to parse the views of Hamas, Meshal, the chief political leader of the movement trumps a dusty document no one reads of consults (except pro-Israel propagandists). As for creating a new Holocaust, that charge doesn’t even pass the smell test.
Not to mention that despite their putative reconciliation, Abbas doesn’t run Hamas. He speaks for the PA and Fatah. The attempt to demean the Palestinian leader’s significant gesture by smearing him with lies and distortions about Hamas is disturbing.
Instead of acknowledging with the smallest measure of grace Abbas’ statement, the Israeli leadership has spat on it. It’s a shameful performance. Not worthy of anyone who genuinely cares about the Holocaust and wants it to be given its due throughout the world, including in Palestine.
Furthermore, such churlishness also diminishes important efforts by Palestinian educators and activists to bring the Holocaust into Palestinian consciousness. A Palestinian teacher recently brought a delegation to Auschwitz and another Palestinian created a Holocaust museum in Gaza. Though these stories were covered in Haaretz, you won’t hear a whisper about them from the likes of Netanyahu, because they disturb his own perverted narrative, no doubt inherited from his father, which suggests Arabs are anti-Semites and Holocaust deniers to the core.
John Kerry is the other man of the hour. In remarks he made to the Trilaterial Commission (yes, it still exists), Kerry warned Israel that it faced a fate of becoming an apartheid state if it continued to refuse any compromise with the Palestinians:
“A two-state solution will be clearly underscored as the only real alternative. Because a unitary state winds up either being an apartheid state with second class citizens—or it ends up being a state that destroys the capacity of Israel to be a Jewish state,” Kerry told the group of senior officials and experts from the U.S., Western Europe, Russia, and Japan. “Once you put that frame in your mind, that reality, which is the bottom line, you understand how imperative it is to get to the two state solution, which both leaders, even yesterday, said they remain deeply committed to.”
This statement is riddled with questionable assumptions, but the main point is Kerry’s recognition that an Israel that continues down the road of rejectionism is an apartheid state. This, of course, is close to the message of the BDS movement, which makes the Israel Lobby apoplectic. It’s well-paid leaders were suitably outraged by Kerry’s use of the A-word. No doubt, by tomorrow morning the Jerusalem Post will feature a column by Alan Dershowitz accusing Kerry of perpetrating a “blood libel” against the Jews.
But the truth is that use of this term is not unusual in Israeli discourse. Israeli political leaders, newspaper columnists and analysts use it routinely. It is only in the U.S. where the Lobby attempts to enforce a speech code that prohibits use of such terms.
The main difference between my perspective and Kerry’s is that he’s about six months to a year behind the times. In about that amount of time, it will become even clearer than it is now (and it’s pretty clear now) that there is no feasible path to a two-state solution. There is no Israel partner, no Israeli political party, no ruling coalition with any interest in getting to “yes” on this issue. There’s no prospect at this time of any other Israeli party that could take power and advance such a goal.
That leaves no alternative except massive levels of pressure exerted by the international community in the form of BDS and recognition of Palestinian national rights by organizations like the UN. Israel has really left the world with no other choice and has only itself to blame for the outcome.
The irony is that if there had been an Israeli political party or leader who “did a DeGaulle” and led Israel to make the painful choices necessary to achieve a two-state solution, then even the Palestinians and skeptics like me would’ve gone along. It was within Israel’s grasp. But for whatever reason, Israel’s leaders took the easy way out. They refused to confront any painful choices and decided that the status quo was its preferred mode of existence.
The coming year or two will prove the folly of this strategy as BDS gains momentum and strength; as the UN acts on applications for Palestine to join 15 international bodies; as the EU grows increasingly more vocal in its demands of Israel regarding the Occupation.
Foreign Policy in Focus published my piece on the failure of the Kerry peace talks and what comes next.