‘The Arabs and the Holocaust’: The War of Words in the Uses and Misuses of the Holocaust

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.

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”.

RATING 7 / 10