The walls of Holocaust denial are crumbling, wrote Washington Institute for Near East Policy executive director Robert Satloff earlier this month. We are seeing the green shoots begin to sprout that he personally had helped seed to combat Holocaust denial in the Arab world.
Since Satloff published his book Among the Righteous in 2006, calling for an awareness that Arabs were bystanders, perpetrators and also rescuers in the Holocaust in North Africa, there has been an explosion of academic research; Emiratis and Saudis have visited Auschwitz; and Holocaust denial has been condemned by Morocco.
Change may be painfully slow but is to be applauded and must give us hope for a better future.
On the same day that Satloff published the above blog, however, three broadcasts on official Palestinian Authority TV indicated that Holocaust distortion and denial are still very much alive. These shows charged that Jews had betrayed “the warm Palestinian welcome” given to them as refugees, called Hebron a Nazi-style ghetto and equated Israeli leaders with Nazis.
Despite Satloff’s strenuous efforts to the contrary, his campaign still has the unfortunate side-effect of projecting the Holocaust as a European story. The complicity of key Arab figures in the Nazis’ extermination project, such as “leader of the Arab world” Haj Amin al-Husseini, is barely touched upon in Among the Righteous.
The mufti broadcast virulent anti-Jewish propaganda from Berlin, where he and dozens of other Arab Nazis were Hitler’s guests. He was a willing party to the “final solution.” For political reasons, he was never tried for his war crimes, which entailed sending 20,000 Jews to their deaths, and massacres perpetrated in Yugoslavia by the SS units he established.
The Palestinian leadership has never repudiated the eliminationist anti-Semitism spearheaded by the wartime mufti, who concocted a deadly blend of Koranic anti-Jewish prejudice and anti-Semitic conspiracy theories imported from Europe. Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas himself wrote a Ph.D. thesis minimizing the Holocaust.
Pan-Arabism attempted to coalesce the Arab world against Communism, the West and Zionism. In the 1930s, there arose Arab parties founded on the Nazi model and paramilitary “shirt” groups emulating the Nazi Brown and Black Shirts. When it looked like the Nazis would win the war, Arabs were not shy to show their overwhelming support for the Germans.
For two months in 1941, Iraq had a pro-Nazi government and declared war on the British. Virulent Nazi propaganda and incitement were an important factor in the massacre of hundreds of Jews known as the Farhud. Yet Satloff views this event stripped of its Nazi significance, as just another pogrom among others that erupted from time to time in the Arab world.
Egged on by the mufti to declare war on the fledgling State of Israel, Abdul Rahman Azzam, the Arab League’s first secretary-general, threatened that the establishment of a Jewish state would lead to a “war of extermination and momentous massacre which will be spoken of like the Mongolian massacre and the Crusades.” A genocide would have been likely if the Arab side won.
After the war, Nazi war criminals escaped justice by fleeing to Syria and Egypt, and there continued the Nazis’ anti-Semitic campaign. In spite of the signing of the Abraham Accords, anti-Semitism is rampant even in countries that have peace treaties with Israel. Egypt, for example, where Islamism—whose legacy of terrorism and anti-Jewish hatred goes back to the Nazi era—still has much support among the Arab rank and file.
As a result of Palestinians’ failure to defeat Israel militarily or through terrorism, their intention to commit genocide has morphed into politicide, through the demand of the “right of return” of Palestinian “refugees” to Israel proper, “lawfare”‘ to delegitimize Israel in international fora and the BDS movement.
Robert Satloff’s strategy has been to create empathy among Arabs by attempting to find Muslims who saved Jews. But this approach has its pitfalls: Holocaust education has been manipulated to confirm Palestinians in their victimhood. Spurious, morally equivalent comparisons are made between the Nazi victimization of the Jews and the “Nazi-like” behavior of Israelis towards Palestinians.
A Holocaust museum set up in Nazareth by Khaled Mahamed, an Arab Israeli, was initially praised by Yad Vashem until he displayed a Palestinian flag, photos and posters of the so-called nakba, the “catastrophe” of the exodus of Palestinian refugees from Israel in 1948. Yad Vashem condemned Mahamed for “conflating the Holocaust with other events and contributing to the misappropriation of the Holocaust as a tool against Israel.”
The Anti-Defamation League spokesman in Israel pronounced himself “troubled” that Palestinians were said to be paying the price for European guilt over the Holocaust.
Professor Mohammed Dajani won praise as one of the few Palestinians to campaign against Holocaust denial. He led a group of students from Al-Quds University on a visit to Auschwitz in 2014. Consequently, he found himself in hot water with his own people, and promptly lost his job; he went to work for Satloff at the Washington Institute.
On a previous visit to Auschwitz, however, he had said: “We do not compare the nakba and the Holocaust as if the atrocities that occurred are on the same level.” But he made just such a comparison when he stated: “I feel we must have empathy for each other, in the sense that I, as a Palestinian, must understand what the Holocaust meant to a Jew and a Jew must understand what the nakba is to a Palestinian.”
The best way to prevent distortion and manipulation is to raise awareness of anti-Semitism in the Arabs’ own backyard— eliminationism against Israel and the Jewish nakba of almost a million Jews from the Arab world, who now comprise more than half of Israel’s Jewish population. The Jewish nakba has been thought of as collateral damage of the Arab failure to destroy Israel, yet we know that the Arab League drafted a plan to persecute and dispossess their Jewish citizens before a single Palestinian refugee had fled Israel.
The League states applied Nuremberg-style laws, criminalizing Zionism, freezing Jewish bank accounts, instituting quotas and imposing restrictions on jobs and movement.
The path to true reconciliation surely lies in a balanced view of history, where Jewish victims of Arab anti-Semitism are allowed to tell their stories, and Arab states are called to account for their own actions.
Lyn Julius is the author of “Uprooted: How 3,000 years of Jewish Civilization in the Arab World Vanished Overnight” (Vallentine Mitchell, 2018).