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Gilbert Achcar’s book on Arabs and the Holocaust

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A review of Gilbert Achcar’s book, The Arabs and the Holocaust: the Arab-Israeli War of Narratives (Metropolitan Books; in England, from Saqi).

Gilbert Achcar is a Lebanese Professor based at SOAS (University of London) and writer of numerous books on geopolitical power relations and imperialism in the Arab world. His new book is a reasoned intervention that at once disputes anti-Arab racism and develops a strong set of arguments against the notion ‘Arab anti-Semitism’. It brings together sources from English, French and Arabic archives and engages with contemporary debates. Doing so, he both deepens and broadens the important contributions on this theme by Philip Matar and Joseph Massad. This book will undoubtedly become a basic reference both to activists and academics working on the Middle East. With more than 70 pages of notes and literary references, Achcar engages in an almost breathless historical and empirical untwisting of the massive body of counter-truths stemming from polemic writings in academia, such as Harkabi’s constantly recycled 1974 classic Arab Attitudes to Israel and in popular media, detritus from the pro-Israel watchdog MEMRI. The book is at its most relevant where it steps outside the ‘academic discourse’ and engages with Arab social movements.

An examination of religious sources brings down important stereotypes about the region’s most important religion. To put it crudely, Achcar makes clear that anti-Semitism is rather insignificant in Islam compared to the deeply ingrained anti-Jewish tradition in Christianity. European anti-Semitic racism is a fantasy-based hatred of the Jews. Hatred felt by Arabs is relatively new and stems from the oppression by a state that defines itself, above all, as Jewish. Xenophobia was and is undoubtedly present. But as even the orientalist historian, and inventor of the ‘clash of civilisation’ thesis, Bernard Lewis admitted: “For [European] Christian anti-Semites the Palestinian problem is a pretext and outlet of their hatred; for Muslim anti-Semites it is the cause.”

Despite their insignificant role in Nazi politics, thousands of pages have been written about Arab collaboration with Nazism. As Philip Mattar showed in his important study, it is not true that often-mentioned Amin al-Hussaini – the Mufti of Jerusalem from the influential Hussaini family – wholeheartedly identified with the Nazi war effort, nor was he a fervent supporter of the mass murder of Jews. Astonishingly the article on al-Hussaini in the Encyclopedia of the Holocaust is much longer than that of Goebbels, Himmler and Eichmann. There was indeed "fascination from a distance," but Achcar makes an important distinction between ideological apologists and those acting in a calculated manner. The tactics of al-Hussaini basically mirror Churchill’s ‘I would ally with the devil himself against Hitler’ after being deceived over and again by the British (Balfour Declaration and the Peel Commission). He then demonstrates that such reactionary tactical alliances were mostly proposed by rightwing Arabs in line with their letdown of the 1936 Palestinian uprising (sabotaging the general strike in specific). Achcar argues there is no point to refute that some political figures were copying the Italian fascist style and admired the Führer – not unlike Zionist admiration for and collaboration with Nazis. A fascinating example Achcar notes is the origin of the ‘Zionism = Nazism’ slogan. This often misconstrued equation was invented by Arab communists in the 1930s to call for equal aversion for both: as a way to bend the stick against anti-Semitism. This was important because right-wing tendencies diverted popular resentment against Britain and later Israel and its backers towards Jews.

Thus, in essence, this was, and still is, a debate about and between the right and the left of the political spectrum. To show this, Achcar has been dusting off the archives of the main political journals. The Holocaust-denial thesis is easily disproved: there was no doubt about the reality of Nazism from which millions perished, and the majority of the independence movement in the Arab world unconditionally rejected Nazism and explicitly condemned those who flirted with Mussolini for instance. Achcar tackles the orientalist notion of a single Arab discourse. Instead, his unfolding displays that most movements were (and still are) informed by local, regional and global power relations. The first half of the book is a synchronous study of the main ideological currents (Western liberals, pan-Islamists, nationalists, communists) that formed Arab politics from the beginning of the 20th century until WWII and the influx of more and more Jews to Palestine. Much changed as the traumatic 1948 events catalysed crucial political transformations. The Nakba dealt a heavy blow to the main ideological currents as we observe in the second half of the book; right wing Islamist regimes were condemned for allying with imperial forces, and communists who were guilty by association—with a few exceptions that Achcar discusses, most communists followed the political zigzags of Stalin and hardly engaged (this explains the curious gap in archival material from that period). Incidentally the damage to the main currents and the political vacuum it produced helps explain the popularity of Arab Nationalism a decade later.

One wonders why there is little outcry about Indian leaders having welcomed the Japanese during independent struggles The Holocaust discourse has become part of a propaganda industry, the adjoining anti-Arab outcry in particular has become malicious. One wonders why there is little outcry about Indian leaders having welcomed the Japanese during independent struggles against the British Empire. Achcar’s book offers an answer to this, seemingly contradictory, stance: it is not relevant to contemporary imperialism. Zionist exploitation of the Holocaust could grow more out of proportion because of what is called ‘philosemitism’: any critique of Israel is dealt with panic and exaggerated caution, it is a form of anti-Semitism; one put on its head. It has been quite simple to maintain the Arab phantom: polemics are deliberately racialised by entwining Zionism with Judaism while categorically refusing to contextualise the linguistic Arab tradition.

Arabs have lived with Jews for centuries and ‘Jew’ was the common reference, not a slander, and unsurprisingly, as Israeli politicians consistently call Israel a Jewish state ‘Jew’ becomes the norm. Confusing references to Jew, Israeli, and Zionism muddle the debate. Another explanation is the political refusal to use the term ‘Israel’ for it implies an acknowledgement of the loss of Palestine. These linguistic muddles are rather innocent but become dangerous when it is part of such enormous power differences.

An important historical era that Achcar scrutinises is the Nasser period when Arab nationalism became increasingly leftist. It was also a political turn vis-à-vis the Jewish question. Nasser formed a threat to Western imperialism, now the ‘Nasser = Hitler’ dictum began to be deployed. This was outrageous. It was not only the period when the linguistic reference was the least muddled – Zionism was the common term – Nasser publicly repudiated the ‘throwing Jews into the sea’ mantra and consistently identified imperialism as the key enemy. By doing so he targeted Arab lackeys: ‘… Arab leaders say Israel and the Jews. They are afraid to say England’. Even after Israel’s direct involvement with Britain and France as part of 1956 tripartite attack on Egypt over the Suez canal, the main enemy remained imperialism. Nasserism did not credit the explanation that an international Zionist movement controlled the US. Israel was considered the ‘imperialist base in the heart of Arab homeland’. One of the events causing enormous outcries was Nasser’s authorization in 1955 of death sentences against two Egyptian Jews. But Achcar offers an indispensable account that puts the event in a new light. Firstly, the Egyptian Jews were convicted because they were spies and part of a large scale terrorist operation prepared by Israel. Secondly, Egyptian Muslims convicted of espionage were also executed. Moreover, many of the Egyptian opposition (mainly communists and Islamists) suffered this fate too. I found the enormous international uproar about the judicial killing of the Jewish spies mindboggling, as merely two years before that case two Jewish (communist) Americans, the Rosenbergs, were executed in the United States for conspiracy.

Not a competition of tragedies

Overall, the Nazi genocide in mainstream Arab discourse during and after WW2 was certainly not disputed, in fact rather than minimising the Holocaust, Arabs began employing it. Frustrated by the international/Western silence, they used Western references, hoping it might remove the blinders. This appropriation is often condemned, although condemning a reference to Nazis become trivial coming from the crafters of this reference, most notably David Ben Gurion calling Menachem Begin ‘another Hitler’. There is another example of the analogy between Israel as Nazism but one which (pro-) Israel pundits never mention, that of conservative Jews: for instance orthodox Jewish philosopher Yeshaayahu Leibowitz compared the IDF to Nazism by calling the soldiers ‘Judeo-Nazis’ during the First Intifada. Today not only anti-Zionist but practically any outspoken Jew and leftist Israeli gets the label ‘anti-Semite’. Such Israeli smear campaigns devalue the history of anti-Semitism and thereby complicate the recognition of present forms of racism.

Political failures lead to intellectual defeatism and in turn removed the earlier ethical compass of Arab politics. Achcar argues there is an important connection with a deterioration of the principal rejection of anti-Semitism. The prevalent double standard in international politics regarding the right to self-determination and any other basic human right spurred again with the Second Intifada and the 2006 war on Lebanon. And the Gaza conflict of ’08-’09 further feeds anti-Semitic conspiracies. In light of these conditions there has been troubling incidences of holocaust denial – as illustrated by the popularity of pseudo-intellectual French Holocaust denier Roger Garaudy a few years ago. In other words, they fall right in the Zionist ideological trap of linking the Jewish genocide to Israeli statehood. As Joseph Massad argued before, it comes down to a twist of logic, that if recognising the holocaust means accepting a colonial-settler racist state, then the holocaust must be denied or at least questioned. In other wordsm they fall right in the Zionist ideological trap of linking the Jewish genocide to Israeli statehood.

A complacent attitude (and terms like ‘Hollow-cause’ and ‘Holo-hoax’ slipping into political discourses) finds its way through the back door and amount to condoning anti-Semitism. Achcar identifies several such examples and argues that for all the anti-imperialist rhetoric the ultimate tragedy is that anti-Semitic language helps Israel produce anti-Arab propaganda, which in turn undermines Palestinian resistance and pro-Palestinian solidarity.

Achcar touches a sensitive nerve; the deterioration of political currents shows a dynamic that is also visible on smaller scales in the Western context. But here too the dubious forms of Holocaust-denial rarely come from anti-Semitic incentives. Protest movements experienced a down-turn and in some cases suffer state oppression, it has become difficult to organise outward-looking grassroots activism. Some have been indulging in inward-looking (and time-consuming) campaigns to prove a pro-Jewish bias. Among Muslim migrants in Europe it clearly relates to condoning Islamophobia in the name of free speech while condemning critique on Israel. An important conclusion is that the struggle against anti-Semitism cannot be separated from the struggle against contemporary Islamophobia.

During mass protests against the Israeli invasions of the West Bank in 2002, banners were carried with swastikas drawn on Ariel Sharon’s face, meant to underscore the magnitude of Israel’s crimes—and the savage irony being that these crimes were committed by Jews. Achcar shows an appalling transformation: the targeting of the use of such symbols, which are not acts of anti-Semitism, and the targeting of the (anti-Zionist) critique of Israel as anti-Semitism has gained official status, when the European Union’s Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia incorporated this logic in its 2005 definition of racism. On the one hand, such (dangerous) redefinitions explain the increase of anti-Semitism. On the other hand it helps cleanse European anti-Semitism by disparaging Muslims as the real perpetrator of such attitudes–the enemy within.

The aim for many Muslims has become to unveil the hypocrisy of Western liberal ideals, but meanwhile the racist assumptions about Arabs that underlie such debates make it uncomfortable to speak out against anti-Semitism: there is a growing discontent and to some extent a legitimate refusal, to apologise on command. Yet speaking as an Arab public intellectual Achcar himself is uncompromising, he shows that recognising the tragedy of the other side without attaching conditions to it (let alone ridicule it) and keeping the debate political rather than cultural is the only appropriate strategy. 

By mentioning the Hussaini-Nazi flirtation Achcar opens a can of worms, and raising the issue of Holocaust denial is an invitation for attack. Some of those mentioned in his naming and shaming will undoubtedly be upset. But, like other Arab outspoken critics (Joseph Samaha, Azmi Bishara and others), Achcar does not shy away. The most inspiring part of the book is where he shows that the best advance is to reclaim the progressive traditions. It brings back to the public domain what was there all along and it offers inspiring lessons for today.

Although the traumatic crushing in 1967 exhausted the potentials of a progressive Arab national project in the 1970s, Palestinian politics secured the progressive Arab intellectual mindset emerging under Nasser. Palestinian intellectuals took pains to differentiate between Jews and Zionists, and Palestine had the most radical analyses concerning anti-Semitism/Israel of the whole Arab/Muslim world. Those continuous debates concerning a democratic, secular, state for all inhabitants were a far cry from today’s Abbas-based PLO. These heated debates were discussed openly in Arabic and English magazines. To the Zionists, progressives thinkers like Abu Iyad and Ghassan Ghanafani were a bigger threat than any reactionary conspiracy theory. Israel assassinated them one after the other in a liquidation campaign of its political cadres. Western states too have been complicit, in supporting right-wing dictators subservient to them; while actively helping to crush left-wing movements. This brings to mind another bias that will lurch people: the West’s hugging and handshaking of those dictators that entertain anti-Jewish conspiracy, while calling independent leaders the latest Hitler.

Although the PLO lent credit to its avant-garde thinkers, it was not immune to the deadly blows from Israel and the Arab regimes: all had its toll. Many of the progressive Arabs had in any case disproved the idea that it is ‘impossible to see Jews as victims while you are victimised by them’. Everyone who spends time in OPT or the overpopulated poor refugee camps, knows that the racist approaches are not embraced, perhaps precisely because they know what subjugation is. A powerful quote from Mahmoud Darwish in Achcar is telling: “However intense the hostility between Israelis and Arabs no Arab has the right to feel that his enemy’s enemy is his friend, for Nazism is the enemy of all the worlds’ peoples.”

From the progressive anti-colonial nationalism of Nasser to the more recent shift in the discourse of the Islamic resistance movements described by Achcar, one can conclude that a crucial link in the shift is the success, or prospect, of a grassroots movement which includes broad sections of society that shape the movement’s general ideology. For a long time the overall approach was avoidance, but an important move is taking place. They are not Achcar’s favourites, but he acknowledges that the surge of Islamic resistance also shows a shift towards a clearer stance. This is notable in the political evolution of Hezbollah leader Nassrallah (his famous speeches undermine anti-Semitism) of which Achcar gives fascinating examples.

At the outset of the book Achar offers a way to avoid the heavily laden term Holocaust and proposes ‘Jewish genocide’ from the French variant shoah. Towards the end of the book Achcar raises a difficult issue: is the Holocaust comparable to other events? To my surprise, Achcar complicates the debate: it should not be compared, but the arguments given are confusing. One can emphasise the unique quantitative or technical parameters of WWII, but I do not think this should mean it therefore is incomparable. Firstly, this stance does not allow space to analyse comparable experiences—the transatlantic slavery, the wiping out of Native Americans, the Armenian genocide, and so on—but turns these historical episodes into metaphysical events. Sociologist Zygmunt Bauman (1989) argues that the holocaust was the act of human beings against other human beings, a historical event, exceptional as it was, that must be compared. True; for Palestinians the numbers are unequal, and the methods incomparable with the Jewish genocide, but with ¾ of the native population disappeared through killing and forced exile, for many Palestinians the Nakba was a genocidal extermination. That is why Darwish added to the aforementioned quote: ‘It is not overly severe to say that the Israeli Zionist behaviour towards the original people of Palestine resembles Nazism’.

All the same, Achcar’s argument about the unprecedented methods and scale in combination with Nazi ideology is indeed convincing. Rather than methods or scale, it was the plan to wipe out an entire population not because they are an obstacle to an expansionist settler colony; or they resist imperialism or acts of state aggression– Nazism was about the industrial mass murder to satisfy a sadistic desire born of ethnic hatred and the fantasy of breeding a pure race and wiping out Jews, and also Roma, Sinti, gays, and disabled (and all political opposition standing in its way such as trade unionists and communists). This is undeniably exceptional and belittling this is a sin.

To Arabs the holocaust debate is tied with the Nakba in two consecutive ways. First, the Nakba is itself denied and ridiculed and now being banned from Israeli curriculum. The denial of the Nakba provokes another denial. But an important difference is that the Nakba is not a matter of the past. Nevertheless, it requires moral bravery to rise above one’s own identity in a time when anti-racist voices are drowned out by the noise of bombs. The old adage ‘No justice, no peace’ has never been so relevant.

Miriyam Aouragh is a a Dutch-Moroccan anthropologist and activist. She got her Ph.D. at the University of Amsterdam in study on the social implications of the internet for Palestinians both in Palestine and the diaspora. She has a book coming out this fall with I.B. Tauris. She is currently a research fellow at Oxford University working on the impact of web 2.0 for activist politics [‘Cyber Initifada’] in Palestine and Lebanon, where she has done fieldwork.

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