March 28, 2001

Fertile soil for Holocaust denial

by Eliahu Salpeter

Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri decided last Friday to cancel a conference in support of Holocaust denial that had been scheduled to be held on March 31 in Beirut. The chief beneficiary of that decision is Lebanon. The conference would have tarnished whatever reputation remains of a country that was once a hospitable home for Muslims, Christians and Jews. The holding of this conference would have fueled anti-Semitic passions in other Arab states, would have established a link between the Arabs and Holocaust denial, and would have been interpreted as Pan-Arabic and Muslim authorization for a movement spearheaded by Christian pseudo-historians. The decision to cancel the gathering, on the other hand, is encouraging some people to hope that the Arab states are aware of the damage that the promotion of anti-Semitism -- one of whose chief vehicles today is Holocaust denial -- could inflict on them.

Over the past few years, Holocaust deniers have been trying to expand their activities into the Arab states in hopes they will be able to find new, fertile ground there for their "theories," now that they have found it difficult to make many inroads in the Western world. A manifesto signed by 14 Arab intellectuals against the convening of this conference apparently was the deciding factor that led the Beirut government to cancel it. Whether the decision to cancel stemmed from intellectual or moral reasons, or whether it was strongly influenced by warnings that were issued concerning the possible diplomatic damage Lebanon might sustain, the fact that such a decision was made is cogent proof of the presence of some element of political sanity and some element of respect for the views of secular intellectuals in a region deeply immersed in anti-rationalist fundamentalism.

In any event, the choice of Beirut as the site for the proposed conference draws attention to the degree to which Holocaust denial is prevalent and to the depth of anti-Semitism in the Arab states. It is certainly no coincidence that, whenever tensions mount between Israel and its neighbors, there is an increase in anti-Semitic statements and incidents and in declarations supporting Holocaust denial -- as if the denial of the Holocaust automatically eliminates Israel's raison d'etre. Thus, considerable weight should be given to the words of Abe Foxman, director of Bnai Brith's Anti-Defamation League, who believes that Jewish organizations throughout the world should show considerably less tolerance toward Arab anti-Semitism, and should instead judge it by the same criteria that are applied to anti-Semitism in Europe.

The defeat of historian and Holocaust-denier David Irving at his trial in London last year has further undermined the academic-scientific facade of Holocaust denial. A survey conducted in 2000 by the American Jewish Committee indicates that only one percent of all Americans, Swiss, Swedes and Poles think the Holocaust never took place. Among Russians, the percentage of doubters is two percent, while among Australians the figure is four percent. Even in Austria, it is no more than seven percent.

One can, of course, seriously question whether the above statistics nonetheless signal some sort of danger. In any case, no self-respecting politician or newspaper in the Western world would ever dream of denying the Holocaust. Given these circumstances, Holocaust-deniers have found fertile soil in the frustrations of Arabs, who are seeking further "evidence" for the anti-Semitism they are promoting. It has, in fact, emerged that Holocaust denial now occupies a "distinguished place" in Arab propaganda against Israel. Furthermore, the Holocaust is being denied these days not just by extremists, but also by official -- and supposedly enlightened -- Arab media.

There is a unique aspect to Arab denials of the Holocaust. There may be differing views as to what role Western feelings of guilt played in the United Nations General Assembly vote on November 29, 1947, on the partition of Palestine and on the creation of the State of Israel. But there can be no doubt that the Zionist movement considered the Holocaust to be conclusive evidence of the need for a Jewish state, while the U.N. General Assembly's decision reflects international support for this argument. However, the Arabs consider the U.N. vote to be the West's attempt -- at the expense of the Palestinians -- to repent for what the Germans did to the Jews. This Arab claim has been sounded ever since 1947, and it is not easy to separate it from the historical truth.

A similar Arab claim is being raised regarding compensation for Palestinian refugees. Arab commentators and politicians are saying that, just as Israel received enormous sums of money as reparations for the fate of Holocaust victims, the Palestinians deserve to receive restitution for their banishment and for the assets they left behind in Israel.

On the surface, there seems to be a contradiction between Holocaust denial and the claim that Israel's creation was the Western world's act of penitence for the injustice of the Holocaust. Nonetheless, Arab Holocaust-deniers argue that the Jews succeeded in prodding the West's conscience through the invention of the "Holocaust legend," and that it is the West's guilty conscience, not the Holocaust (which never took place, as far as the proponents of this claim are concerned), that drove the West to this act of repentance.

The idea of comparing the Holocaust and the suffering of the Palestinian refugees is totally unreasonable. Yet it cannot be denied that both Jews and Arabs do display a considerable degree of insensitivity on this issue. Israelis do not understand that, in Arab eyes, there is a direct cause-and-effect relationship between the Holocaust, for which they are not responsible, and the Palestinians' nakba -- their catastrophe, which was ushered in, according to their way of thinking, by Israel's establishment. For their part, the Arabs are totally unaware of both the depth of emotions and the apocalyptic feelings that the Holocaust arouses among Jews. The Arabs must understand that Jews consider Holocaust denial to be the basest expression of anti-Semitic sentiments. Furthermore, Holocaust denial provokes, even among Jewish champions of Middle East peace, a virulent anti-Arab feeling.