The Arabs and the Holocaust: The Arab-Israeli War of Narratives
(Picador; US: 2 May 2011)
Gilbert Achcar’s masterly, finely-researched The Arabs and the Holocaust: an Arab-Israeli War of Narratives probes a vast topic but clocks in under an admirably-restrained 298 pages, with an additional 60 pages of detailed footnotes. A Lebanese professor who is currently based at the School of African and Oriental Studies (SOAS) in London, Achcar’s wide-ranging study on the purported bogeyman popular to Zionist and Euro-American discourse – that of “Arab anti-Semitism” as the “new anti-Semitism” – is rigorously implemented through an expansive array of primary sources from Israeli and Arab media, political statements, speeches, historical studies, and official state-based PR spin. From the very early pages of the book it is clear that Achcar is not setting out to merely buttress a personal or biased agenda, but is doggedly committed to getting to the heart of the matter through study and scholarship.
Achcar concedes in his introduction that to make his task “somewhat more manageable”, his book focuses on the countries “most directly affected by the creation of the State of the Israel, those of the Arab East”. In current discourse fashioned by American-Israeli media and political interests, “the Holocaust” is a term that is absorbed and deployed in various propagandist guises to effectively silence all political critique and resistance to the methods of the Israeli state. But as Achcar’s book clearly proves, the terms and uses of “Zionism” and “anti-Semitism” and the ways in which these phrases are deployed for political mileage intersect with how the Holocaust is referenced. Why? Because the founding of Israel and its subsequent colonial expansion is, in simple terms, a devastatingly fraught project:
Israel is currently the only state in the world that combines three modes of colonial oppression: members of the indigenous minority who remained after 1948 (the “Israeli Arabs”) have the status of second-class citizens; since 1967, inhabitants of the West Bank and Gaza have had the status of a population under either foreign occupation or direct control by the former occupiers; and the great majority of Palestinians have the status of people uprooted from their land and barred from returning.
Israel has fought seven major wars in its six decades, and the years since Ariel Sharon’s assumption of leadership in 2011 that lead to the 2002 reoccupation of the West Bank “for the purpose of crushing the second Palestinian intifada” has led to what Achcar explicates as the inevitable effect in how Zionism construes and deploys the Holocaust to its own liking: “The more the image of the “Jewish state” suffers – above all in the West, where its image counts a great deal – the more it turns to the Holocaust to shore up its legitimization.”
Achcar dissects Arab perspectives of the Holocaust through several stages, beginning with the origins of Zionism and its subsequent realisation in the state of Israel, and the various colonialist battles fought along several fronts. As he writes early on:
The beginnings of the Zionist colonization of Palestine considerably antedate Hitler’s assumption of power, as do the first hostile Arab reactions. The Arab inhabitants of Palestine perceived the Zionist undertaking there as one more avatar of European colonialism, all the more that it mostly unfolded under the post-World War I British colonial mandate.
Thus, Achcar begins his study with Arab reactions to Nazism and anti-Semitism between the years of 1933 and 1947, a section which he evocatively titles ‘The Time of the Shoah’. Achcar attempts to consistently bring into sharp focus the diversity of Arab countries’ historical relations to Nazism and Zionism while acknowledging that conceptual and intellectual parameters need to be sketched out, even in a somewhat generalised sense, if sweeping generalised myths of prevalent “Arab anti-Semitism” needs to be stood on its head.
As such, Achcar groups various Arab reactions according to ideological strains in this section, categorising them into four different chapters involving ‘The Liberal Westernizers’, ‘The Marxists’, ‘The Nationalists’, and ‘Reactionary and/or Fundamentalist Pan-Islamists’. Achcar’s commitment to outlining the dimensions of each group in the introduction to each chapter is important, and serves as a valuable guide for the reader who lacks knowledge on the intertwining complexities of Arab political histories.
The second half of the book covers the period from 1948 to the present, and is titled ‘The Nakba’. As Achcar explains, the Arabic term ‘nakba’ means ‘grievous catatrosphe’, although scholars like Joseph Massad have alluded to the difficulty of conveying its exact meaning in English while explaining the resonance of the word in the Palestinian context. In this section, Achcar surveys the scene chronologically, beginning with ‘The Nasser Years’, followed by ‘The PLO Years’ and concluding with ‘The Years of Islamic Resistances’.
Propaganda and stereotypes are flimsy constructions at its base, and one needs nothing more than the solid hammer and chisel of research and understanding to bring the entire edifice crumbling down. Achcar, in this book, doesn’t set out to exonerate everyone from all charges of anti-Semitism and Holocaust-denial, but only to set right a particular strain of discourse that has been grievously misused, distorted, and skewered to serve Israeli state interests. For that reason, Achcar’s incisive comments on Yehoshafat Harkabi’s influential Arab Attitudes to Israel is valuable, particularly since Achcar situates Harkabi’s work against his background as a former general who headed Israeli army intelligence for four years between 1955 and 1959.
In Harkabi’s work, and much of the later work influenced by his text, Achcar notes a tendency for the authors to “identify a variety of Arab attitudes” to the Holocaust only “to claim that they converge in one and the same ‘discourse’”. Achcar finds much that is wrong with Meir Litvak and Esther Webman’s 2009 book, From Empathy to Denial: Arab Responses to the Holocaust because he says the authors are “guilty of libelous amalgam when they lump together those who maintain that Zionism ‘invented’ the Holocaust with people – whose numbers far exceed just intellectuals – persuaded, on the basis of evidence cited by countless Jewish and Israeli critics who are above all suspicious of Holocaust denial, that the State of Israel has exploited and continues to exploit the Holocaust for financial and political purposes.”
This is an important point, and one that is addressed in detail in Norman Finkelstein’s well-known text, The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering. Achcar’s project is adamant in its refusal to accept a singular, simplistic discourse of Arab attitudes to the Holocaust as somehow being intrinsic to its culture and society, as some of the more extreme Zionist discourses have chosen to portray it, particularly as anti-Arab sentiment and growing Islamophobia merge to serve the political interests of both the United States and Israel.