How Do Narrators Disagree?
For Achcar, it is important that scholarship on this war of narratives makes a distinction between “anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism, and even anti-imperialism”. The last point, in particular, is one that is considered in rigorous detail in the chapter on ‘The Nasser Years’, where he draws attention to Nasser’s 1954 manifesto that paints the “main enemy of the Arab nation” to be “not Zionism but (British) colonialism”. That the Israeli project is fundamentally a settler-colonialist project is, naturally, the fundamental point when considering contemporary Arab resistance to the state of Israel. And, as Achcar continually reminds us, the main threads of European anti-Semitism and the subsequent growth of Nazism is rarely weaved into the larger narrative when considering the implications of Israel’s existence on Palestine and surrounding Arab regions. Of the British disengagement, he writes:
The attitude of the Arab states would certainly have been different if Britain had supervised enactment of the UN partition plan before withdrawing its troops, instead of criminally washing its hands of the tragedy that it had directly created.
Admittedly, many would find it hard to imagine a better outcome even if Britain had not “criminally washed its hands of the tragedy it had directly created” – colonialism tends to shape-shift into imperialism once former-occupiers intervene from a distance. Following that note, of special interest is Achcar’s searing critique that “some of Israel’s – and the United States’ – best friends in the Arab world are rabid anti-Semites”, pointing out US alliance with the Saudi kingdom, and Israel’s alliance with Germany when “Adenauer’s government was chock-full of former Nazis, including former members of the SS and the Gestapo, and even war criminals.” And in what can only be deemed a tragic yet repugnant irony, Germany’s obligation to be Israeli’s “defender” has in retrospect become nothing more than an exploitation of the Holocaust – a theatre of absurdities that sees Germany providing arms to Israel for the IDF’s continued terrorisation of the Palestinian people and occupied territories.
Throughout, Achcar deals stringently with certain prominent Holocaust-deniers while also giving credence to the occasional Israeli politician, academic, or thinker who has spoken out against Israeli colonial and military expansion. But the project of this book is to deconstruct propaganda that posits all criticism of Zionism and the Israeli state apparatus as anti-Semitism and Holocaust-denial, which Achcar notes is particularly specious. In the meantime, he notes, Islamophobia has increased since September 11, 2001 in tandem with philosemitism, a term which he borrows from Frank Stern’s The Whitewashing of the Yellow Badge, who in turn quotes from Martin Stohr on the definition of the “philosemitic syndrome”: “An emotional, enthusiastic liking of Jews or for the State of Israel, an affection indifferent to any form of critical perspective and all exact information.”
Equally crucial in understanding this “war of narratives” is coming to terms with the fact that the exploitation of the Holocaust by the Israeli state to serve its own political, military, and colonial interests leads to the very thing no one wants: a devaluation of the Holocaust and a trivialisation of the Jewish experience under Nazism. Achcar refers to Didier Pollefeyt’s “Holocaust fatigue”, which Polleyfeyt cautions that “Israel itself can become a danger for the memory of the Holocaust.” These words find a mirror in the reflections of Tony Judt, who warned of precisely the same thing in his 2008 essay, “The ‘Problem of Evil’ in Postwar Europe” :
Meanwhile, we should all of us perhaps take care when we speak of the problem of evil. For there is more than one sort of banality. There is the notorious banality of which Arendt spoke—the unsettling, normal, neighborly, everyday evil in humans. But there is another banality: the banality of overuse—the flattening, desensitizing effect of seeing or saying or thinking the same thing too many times until we have numbed our audience and rendered them immune to the evil we are describing. And that is the banality—or “banalization”—that we face today.
One suspects that Achcar’s book will not be read by those who need to read it most, particularly in the United States where punditry on Palestinians as “terrorists” runs rampant and criticism of US complicity and assistance in Israel’s atrocities is considered unmentionable, or even unthinkable. If we travel back to 2000 we find that Edward Said had already warned us of this in his 2000 essay, “America’s Last Taboo”:
The American flag can be burned in public, whereas the systematic continuity of Israel’s fifty-two year old treatment of the Palestinians is virtually unimaginable, a narrative with no permission to appear.
What seems alarming is how little has changed in the last 11 years.
The Arabs and the Holocaust is likely to be a disconcerting read for most, which makes it all the more necessary, and its detailed footnotes and sources hint only at the vast expanse of history surrounding the issues Achcar delves into – which should only serve to increase the public’s caution before throwing around accusations of anti-Semitism and “Nazism”, something which one can see all too frequently on social media sites and comment boards on the internet whenever the issue of Palestine rights comes up.
It’s also a valuable antidote to the “narrative hegemony” of US and Europe-based media that, over and over again, privileges the Israeli narrative and point of view – and furthers its propaganda – without turning its media eye on the Palestinians and their systematic dispossession by Israel. A “war of narratives” is never just about words, as Achcar’s book shows – discourse translates into policies and actions, and people bear the consequences of these narratives in their lived experiences.
No one would have known this more than Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, who in his poem, “In Jerusalem”, raises the ever-present yet unanswerable question on the nature of narratives and the consistently tricky, winding, and dangerous roads of irresponsible discourse:
I was walking down a slope and thinking to myself:
How do the narrators disagree over what light said about a stone?
Is it from a dimly lit stone that wars flare up?
Some of us might want to take comfort, perhaps, in the hope that an answer may come at some point if one is brave and resolute enough to attempt to understand “how do narrators disagree”.