Palestinian Authority chief Mahmoud Abbas’s recent despicable comments on the Holocaust may have seemed like just another example of the diplomatic mud-slinging typical of Middle Eastern politics. But it’s important to understand why Abbas felt safe to vent such vitriol on the international stage.
At a news conference in Berlin, standing next to German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, Abbas was asked by a journalist if he would apologize for the 1972 Munich Olympics Massacre. Abbas replied in Arabic, “From 1947 to the present day, Israel has committed 50 massacres in Palestinian villages and cities. 50 massacres, 50 holocausts, and until today, and every day there are casualties killed by the Israeli military.”
Afterwards, Scholz tweeted, “I am disgusted by the outrageous remarks made by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. For us Germans in particular, any relativization of the singularity of the Holocaust is intolerable and unacceptable. I condemn any attempt to deny the crimes of the Holocaust.”
In Abbas’s 1982 Ph.D. dissertation, later published as the notorious book The Other Side: The Secret Relationship Between Nazism and Zionism, the Palestinian leader suggested—among other spurious claims—that the figure of six million murdered Jews was exaggerated for political gain and one million was a more reasonable estimate. There is an ongoing debate as to whether Abbas still holds this view. Either way, his comments in Germany last week did not deny the Holocaust, but they did distort it via the libelous claim that Israel has done even worse to the Palestinians.
While it is true that surveys conducted around the world regularly show an increasing lack of awareness of the basic facts of the Holocaust or outright denial that it occurred, Holocaust distortion is arguably an even greater threat. According to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, distortion of the Holocaust is “rhetoric, written work or other media that excuse, minimize or misrepresent the known historical record.” This, intentionally or not, “feeds into anti-Semitic narratives and can lead to more violent forms of anti-Semitism.”
Holocaust distortion takes many forms, such as excusing or minimizing the Holocaust, accusing Jews of using it for potential gain or employing the term “Holocaust” to refer to events unrelated to the extermination of the Jews. Abbas’s remarks, for example, fall into the final category. Another example is the yellow stars worn by anti-vaccine protestors in the United States and Europe, or comparisons of COVID-19 restrictions to the persecution of the Jews. Frequently, those engaging in distortion don’t deny the Holocaust outright, which often makes it harder to call them out.
The across-the-board condemnation of Abbas’s remarks was vital, but the only solution to Holocaust distortion and denial is education. Indeed, condemnation without education risks politicizing the issue. If the Israeli-Palestinian conflict festers, people may form their attitude towards the Holocaust based on which side of the conflict they support. This would be regrettable.
I may be naïve, but I believe that with proper education Palestinians will be able to express their grievances against Israel without comparing their experiences to the Holocaust. In recent years, I have seen many examples of Palestinians seeking to further their Holocaust education, whether through a trip to the concentration camps in Poland or a visit to Yad Vashem. They did not think that this undermined their Palestinian identity.
A survey of American university students carried out by the Anti-Defamation League, the University of Southern California’s Shoah Foundation and Yad Vashem found that those who learned about the Holocaust in high school had “more pluralistic attitudes” and were “more open to differing viewpoints.” They were also more likely to challenge intolerant behavior. It may be that some of these students were likely to do so anyway—correlation doesn’t equal causation—but the survey does provide some evidence that Holocaust education produces better citizens.
This is why the work of the new International March of the Living chapter in the Gulf is so important. Earlier this year, I had the privilege of joining the March of the Living in Poland with an official delegation from the United Arab Emirates, including H.E. Ahmed Obaid Al Mansoori, who established the first Holocaust memorial in an Arab nation. For far too long, the Arab world saw the Holocaust in much the same way as Mahmoud Abbas, but this is rapidly changing. Increasing numbers of young Arabs are showing an interest in learning the truth about the extermination of the Jews.
As relations between Israel and the Arab world continue to improve, reducing Holocaust denial and distortion can play a vital role in bringing Jews and Arabs together and improving the way we treat one another, with the goal of securing peace and security for us all. Abbas’s apology must be acknowledged, but it cannot hide the fact that his comments represent an old, conspiratorial way of thinking that will do nothing to bring peace between Israelis and Palestinians. It will only entrench hatred. Proper education alone will remove this poison from the public discourse forever.
Eitan Neishlos is the founder and President of the Neishlos Foundation, and a founder and Ambassador for the March of the Living in the Gulf.