Differing Arab Views on the Holocaust
Since the 1980s, Holocaust denial has become increasingly popular in the Middle East.
To some extent, this is due to the efforts of propagandists in the West to export their creed to that region. Especially since the mid-1990s, deniers have been burdened by legal challenges arising from anti-hate legislation in Canada, Europe and Australia, and some have turned to the Middle East -- already awash in various anti-Israel and anti-Jewish beliefs -- for refuge and support. But indigenous Middle Eastern deniers should not be dismissed as mere dupes of their Western counterparts; in the ongoing propaganda wars of the Middle East, Holocaust denial can be a potent weapon, and it is wielded by numerous politicians, writers and religious authorities to advance their own agendas.
The Arab perception of the Holocaust has never been monolithic, and has often been influenced by the vicissitudes of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The perception that the West created Israel out of guilt over the attempted genocide of the Jews during World War II is widespread in the Middle East; coupled with their hostility towards Israel, this leads many Arabs to complain that they are "paying" for the sins of the West. This opinion was especially widespread among Palestinian opinion-makers -- until the breakdown of the 2000 Palestinian-Israeli peace process, when many came to view the recognition of any historical Jewish suffering as a political liability, and the Palestinian Authority-controlled media outlets increased their dissemination of Holocaust denial (see below).
Another, more troubling approach to the Holocaust also exists in the Middle East. Hatred of Israel has led some Arabs to embrace Nazism itself, and to applaud its attempted genocide of the Jews. "[Give] thanks to Hitler," wrote columnist Ahmad Ragab recently in the Egyptian newspaper,
Al-Akhbar.1 "He took revenge on the Israelis in advance, on behalf of the Palestinians. Our one complaint against him was that his revenge was not complete enough." Nazi-style anti-Semitism has in fact had a long history in the Middle East, beginning as early as 1937, when Nazi leaders conducted propaganda campaigns in the region.2
The Mufti of Jerusalem during World War II, Hajj Amin al-Husayni, attempted to establish an alliance between Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and Arab nationalists, for the ultimate purpose of conducting a Holy War of Islam against "international Jewry." Several Nazi-influenced political parties arose in the Middle East in the 1930s and 1940s, some of which went on to play important roles in shaping the leadership of Arab nations in the post-World War II period. Egypt, Syria and Iran are widely believed to have harbored Nazi war criminals, though they do not admit doing so.
Mein Kampf has been published and republished in Arabic since 1963.
|This cartoon likening "Israel" to Nazis was distributed by the Arab Layers Union at the World Conference on Racism's NGO Forum in Durban, South Africa, in August 2001
The Rise of Denial
But now another approach to the Holocaust has arisen in the Middle East: to deny it ever occurred. In some cases, Holocaust denial is actively sponsored by national governments -- by Iran, for example, which has become a sanctuary for Western Holocaust deniers fleeing legal entanglements in their home countries, and whose leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, suggested in 2001 that the statistics of Jewish deaths during the Holocaust had been exaggerated. The numerous expressions of Holocaust denial that have appeared in Teshreen, Syria's main daily newspaper, which is owned and operated by the ruling Baath party, suggests that the Syrian government also condones the propaganda. The same holds true for the Palestinian Authority, whose newspaper,
Al-Hayat Al-Jadeeda, and television station have frequently denied basic facts of the Holocaust in their reporting.
In other Middle Eastern countries, however, denying or minimizing the extent of the killing of Jews during World War II has been adopted by opposition parties and dissident factions that oppose attempts at normalizing relations -- legal, diplomatic, economic -- with Israel or the United States. For these factions, Holocaust denial is a tool to discredit their government rivals, who have allegedly been "taken in" by Israeli Holocaust propaganda, and to increase popular hatred of Israel. This is true in Jordan, for example, where anti-normalization organizations sought to hold Holocaust-denial conferences in 2001 but were opposed by the Jordanian government. (Despite government opposition, the strongly anti-Zionist Jordanian Writers' Association was able to hold a conference; see below.) The Lebanese government also opposed the attempts of several foreign organizations to hold a Holocaust-denial conference in Beirut in 2001.
It is no coincidence that Holocaust denial, which has been embraced by those governments and groups that oppose Israel and Western-style democracy, only rarely appears in countries like Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates. Middle Eastern governments that are on good terms with the West and are not currently active players in the Arab-Israeli conflict have little reason to disseminate such lies. This underscores the fact that whether it is adopted by neo-Nazis, white supremacists or Middle Eastern anti-Israel parties, Holocaust denial is essentially a propaganda tool. In the Middle East, it has been adopted by those who already sought to portray Jews as hook-nosed, foul-smelling, greedy conspirators intent on world domination by way of ritual murder, the use of chemical weapons, and the deliberate poisoning of Arab populations. For those who circulate these lies, the claim that Jews created the story of the Holocaust in an attempt to defraud the world of billions and elicit support for the creation of Israel is simply another weapon in their propaganda arsenal.
The phenomenon of Arabs embracing Holocaust denial is in some respects puzzling, even perverse. Since the Six-Day War, Arab opinion makers have consistently used World War II-era associations in describing Israel and its actions. Israeli leaders have been compared with Hitler, and its army with the SS; Palestinian refugee camps have been dubbed "concentration camps." Associating Israel with Nazi Germany in general remains a standard rhetorical device. But, especially of late, propaganda demonizing Israel as "Nazi" competes in Arab media and politics with propaganda that denies the existence of the Nazi Holocaust.
An example of this contradiction -- condemning Israel with Nazi labels while denying the worst of the Nazi crimes -- can be found in the Syrian daily,
Teshreen, on January 31, 2000. In the space of a single column, ("The Plague of the Third Millennium"), editorialist Muhammad Kheir Al-Wadi called on the international community to "adamantly oppose the new Nazi Plague that breeds in Israel," while claiming that Zionists "invented" the notion of a "Nazi Holocaust in which the Jews suffered." The intellectual bad faith underlying such a formulation appears to be irrelevant to many Middle Eastern writers.
1 April 20, 2001. Despite Western criticism, Ragab reiterated his beliefs on April 25, 2001, and May 27, 2001. Return to text
2 The growth of the Jewish population in Palestine, coupled with the importation of European anti-Semitic ideas in the second half of the 19th century (including spurious racial concepts and conspiracy theories involving Jewish greed and power), had created a receptive audience. Return to text