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From Empathy to Denial: Arab Responses to the Holocaust
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2 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on 3 February 2011
One of the misconceptions promoted by the Arab world is that the extreme tragedy of the Holocaust is used by Jews as both a shield and instrument of power for the State of Israel. The Arab response has been to seek out ways to attack Holocaust memory and common Jewish connection to it. The book observes that the Arab response itself is not monolithic and has differs by political and religious association and over time. Litvak and Webman have produced a thorough and nuanced analysis of the different arguments used, identifying by whom, when and where arguments are made and the cultural biases behind them. The use of sources down to original publications and pronouncements in Arabic is impressive. There is also a minimum of interjection and editorializing, the authors do an excellent job of presenting each pattern's view except for the occasional correction of fact. This is an honest scholarly approach, not a polemic.

Generally Arab proponents of these views have lacked interest Holocaust itself and have had at best a superficial understanding of it's operations. Webman and Litvak organize their material into 11 chapters, which I'll summarize into 5 themes: Rejection, Denial, Endorsement, Inversion and Entanglement.

Rejection: Ch 2 looks at historic arguments against Jewish immigration and against Israel itself receiving compensation from Germany after WW II. There was a viewpoint that Israel would have collapsed (fulfilling Arab goals) without such assistance. Arabs also rejected the notion of Israel as a Jewish State representing the Jewish people and thereby did not accept the concept that it might accept restitution for the destruction of whole Jewish communities and communal life, especially for situations where there were no survivors. Chapter 4 considers Vatican II and wariness of Catholic rejection of historic antisemitism.

Denial: Chapters 5 examines pervasive and wide spread Holocaust Denial including its minimization largely borrowed from Western sources. However a degree of acceptance of Nazi crimes is necessary in order to make the argument. that Israel has behaved as bad or worse than the Nazis. Much of this takes the form of cultural appropriation of terms from other, often Jewish sources, in order to make a poetic statements such as the victims have now become the victimizers. Thus Palestinian "holocaust", "genocide", "diaspora", "ethnic cleansing", the metaphor of Gaza as "the world's largest concentration camp", comparisons with the Warsaw ghetto (where the residents were exterminated) and "apartheid" become labels to apply in a war of words, either as if they were facts or projected outcomes. Often there are appeals to authority wherein if a Jew applies these terms to Israel it is taken as confirmation, whereas if a Jew applies these terms to Arab or Palestinian aggression it is viewed as frenzied hyperbole. The reference to the original application of these terms becomes lost.

Palestinian poet Mahmud Darwish warned that the acceptance of these "tempting metaphoric images" reflected Israeli domination of Palestinian identity.

Hazim Saghiya, Lebanese, editor of the newspaper al Hayat posits that the Palestinians were envious of the Jews who were a "model of victimhood" and of their "profitable" tragedy. (pp316).

Endorsement: Worse (Chapter 6), is the view from fundamentalist Islamists that yes, the Holocaust occurred, and Hitler should have finished the job because the Jews, by nature and by their actions, deserved it. "God have mercy on Hitler. He knew the Jews and describe them well; he revealed their wickedness (lu'm) and excelled in hating them". (pp194). Sayyid Qutb and Muhammad al-Ghazalia, leading founders of the Muslim Brotherhood depicted Jews as "the eternal enemies of Islam". Qutb: "God had brought Hitler to dominate Jews, thereby placing Hitler in the role of the Biblical 'Slave of God' (one who carries out God's will) " pp198. During the 1962 Eichman trial (the subject of Ch 3) the Saudi newspaper al-Bilad ran the headline "Arrest of Eichmann, who had the honor of killing 5 million Jews".

Inversion: Holocaust Inversion is the attempt to demonize Israel's Jews (one notes that Druze, Bedouins other non-Palestinian groups are never so described) as Nazis, casting the victims as victimizers, as already seen in Ch 5, a POV requiring both ignorance and mendacity:

"Arab writers were probably aware of the particular painful effect of such an equation on the Israeli psyche, in view of the past suffering of the Jews under the Nazis. They sought to deprive deprive Jews of their human dignity by equating them with their worst tormentors. Moreover not only does this accusation transform victims into perpetrators, but it threatens them with the ultimate fate of the Nazis." (pp 215)

In Ch 3 (which dealt with the Eichman trial) Egyptian media was also rife with Holocaust Inversion claiming that the Jews were far worse than Nazis - the paper Egyptian Al Musawwar had the headline "Who will Judge a Million Eichmans". Other articles presented Eichman as an enemy of Zionism, not of the Jews. Jordanian/Palestinian media was even more aggressive. Overall the approach was viewed through the lens of the Arab Israeli conflict, not the Holocaust itself. The Lebanese press stood out in presenting mostly factual accounts.

Chapter 8 "The Alleged Nazi-Zionist Cooperation" is similarly themed casting aspersions against Zionists for either negotiating with Hitler's regime or not pushing for solutions other than Jewish migration to Palestine. Among the allegations, that the "Haavera" or "Transfer Agreement" went counter to the Jewish boycott of German business. Implicit in these charges is a glossing over of timelines (in 1933 Hitler was just another potential tyrant - the Final Solution did not begin until late 1941) and an over the top overestimation of Jewish power, not an uncommon antisemitic trop. The boycott was symbolic in nature and had no chance of toppling the Nazi regime. A sense of this abuse of historical narrative can be found in some of the Amazon reviews of Edwin Black's The Transfer Agreement, and then contrasting them with the endorsements for the book on Black's own web site transferagreement dot com.

Webman and Litvak also take a look at the 1970's UN resolution equating Zionism with racism (which was eventually repudiated) and the 2001 effort both at the main conference and among the NGOs to revive it at Durban South Africa.

Entanglement: A recurring motif is linking the Holocaust to the Palestinian Nakba. When Germany paid compensation to Israel there came calls to tie that to compensation for the Nakba. (Ch 2). Most of the material though is contained in Chapters 10 and 11. A common meme is "Why should the Palestinians pay for the crimes of Europeans". (I'll respond to this later in a comment under the review but it's a false equation.)

Rashid Khalidi (pp318) likens Israel attitudes towards the Nabka similar to Holocaust Denial. Joseph Massad who teaches at Columbia: "While the Nakba and the holocaust (sic - note smaller case "h") are not equivalent in any sense," he contended, "the logic of denying them is indeed the same". He also falsely claimed that the PLO and most Pal. intellectuals expresssed solidarity with Holocaust victims and attacked deniers.

Edward Said (pp333) - "We must recognize the realities of the Holocaust not as a blank check for Israelis to abuse us, but as a sign of our humanity, our ability to understand history, our requirement that our suffering be mutually acknowledge.". "By recognizing the Holocaust for the genocidal madness that it was we can then demand from Israelis and Jews the right to link the the Holocaust to Zionist injustices towards the Palestinians, link and criticize the link for its hypocrisy and flawed moral logic"

Even positive moves are somewhat suspect. In 2001 a conference of US and European Holocaust Deniers was scheduled in Beirut - it was canceled by then Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, called for in a letter signed by Mahmud Darwish, Elias Khouri to him, uging the Arabs to reject any understanding of Nazism who had committed crimes against many people, including Jews. Lebanese writer Joseph Samaha branded the conference a "a dishonor for Lebanon". Holding the conference of the "falsifiers of history" would be interpreted by Israel and her supports as "as the prolongation of the Nazi extermination project", and that this would harm the Palestinian cause and the Palestinian victims, and put Lebanon in a poorer light. It was the right move for the wrong reasons. 3 months later Darwish claimed the cancellation was "a violation of human rights and the rights of scientific research of revisionist historians." One sighs that poets can be fickle. (pp358)

Said also argued that it was important that both sides acknowledge each others' tragedies as means to bring hostilities to an end. The Arabic term is "sulha", a form of reconciliation. This is very much a minor voice, often drowned out by the others, but one that I believe has promise.

A couple of minor criticisms: The type face is 1-2 pts smaller than is usual and the density and degree of detail may make it slow going. On the plus side it was remarkably free of jargon.

It does take time but the effort is worth it. In spite of the length of my review it really only scratches the surface of the material covered. A good personal read and I recommend you ask your library to order a copy or two as well. Unfortunately this material does not age.
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