March 20, 2001

Denying the Holocaust in Beirut

The 14 Arab intellectuals who published a letter of protest, directed at Lebanese authorities and public opinion, demanding that a conference on Holocaust denial in Beirut be canceled, are taking a stand which bolsters intellectual integrity and political sense in the Middle East, during a period of crisis and distress. No less important is the stand taken by the London based Arabic language newspaper, Al-Hayat, which in an editorial wrote that the conference "disgraces Lebanon" by trying to defend the crimes of Nazi executioners in the name of the Palestinian victims.

The conference, with the supposed academic title of "Revisionism and Zionism," and scheduled to be held in Beirut between 31 March and 3 April, is not a new initiative. Conferences dealing with Holocaust denial take place every few years in Arab states and their agendas repeat themselves. One of the most notorious guests at these conferences is usually the French philosopher and Holocaust denier, Roger Garaudy, a convert to Islam who, in 1998 was found guilty of denying "crimes against humanity" and "racial defamation" -- both crimes in French law.

Holocaust denial in the Arab world is a common and well known phenomenon. Like all deniers of the Holocaust -- neo-Nazis or other pseudo historians -- those in the Arab world also try to prove that Jewish historians have exaggerated the extent of the Holocaust and the numbers the Nazis murdered. They also emphasize that other groups -- gypsies, for example -- were also slaughtered. Then there are those who argue that the Holocaust of the Jewish people is not a unique historical phenomenon, and that the Turkish massacre of the Armenians, for example, is also deserving of the term "holocaust" rather than the term "genocide," which they think belittles the scope of the crime against the Armenians.

Some of the serious arguments appear to be legitimate points. Indeed, as to whether the Jewish Holocaust is a unique historical phenomenon, a number of serious and convincing answers have been given by various respectable Holocaust researchers. Some of them belong to German research centers and are not colored -- as deniers claim -- by Zionist or other ideological motivation.

Furthermore, to call the disaster perpetrated against the Armenian people "a holocaust" does not contradict or deny the singularity of the Holocaust of European Jewry that was spawned by a specific ideological and social context and a system that created a killing machine specifically designed to systematically exterminate a whole people.

Like many other deniers of the Holocaust, the organizers of the conferences in Arab countries are simply not concerned with addressing fundamental historical questions. What they attempt to prove is that the Nazi killing machine did not exist, that the gas chambers in the extermination camps are a fabrication, and that these facts were invented to bolster the notion of a Jewish tragedy, and thus convincingly support the founding of the State of Israel. Some Arab mouthpieces even claim that Israel has been using Nazi methods against the Palestinians.

This claim is revolting nonsense of course, even if it didn't suffer from a blatant internal contradiction. It is therefore perfectly right that individuals like Mahmud Darwish and Edward Said understand that the Palestinian demand for independence, and the undeniable tragedy of the Palestinian people, do not need to be bolstered by pathetic attempts to deny the Holocaust -- like that planned for Beirut.