Coming to Terms with the Past

    Confronting the Enemy’s Sorrow
    Arab Responses to the Holocaust

    The Arab perspective on the murder and displacement of the European Jews in the Second World War can only be assessed in connection with the Jewish settlement of Palestine. Periods of Holocaust denial have alternated with the acknowledgement of Jewish history in Europe. Now, however, there is growing recognition of the fact that only a mutual acknowledgement of the history of each other’s suffering will open up new perspectives for coexistence.

    In the 1940s, Emil Zaydan worked as the editor of the Lebanese journal Al-Ansar. In June 1944, he dedicated an article to the ongoing conflict in Palestine. At this time, news about massacres of Jews in Eastern Europe had reached the local Arab public. In brief articles and reports, local newspapers had noted the systematic extermination of the Jewish population under German occupation. Zaydan explicitly took up this information in his articles in which he defended the cause of the Arab national movements. In one commentary, Zaydan insisted that his warning of a Zionist threat looming over the Arab world was not meant as an offence against the Jews. He considered his warning as being ‘in no contradiction to empathy for the Jews in Europe and to deeply mourning their sufferings from persecutions and deportations. We have to differentiate clearly between these two things, so that we can declare without any ambiguity: the Jewish problem is not the Zionist problem!’

    Distinction between Jewish and Zionist

    Very similar arguments were raised by observers from diverse political spectra. From this perspective, sympathy for the fate of the Jews in Europe stood in no contradiction to a vehement rejection of the Zionist project in the Eastern Mediterranean. For many Arab nationalists, for instance, demands for a Jewish settlement in Palestine that were based on the plight of Jewish refugees from Europe were illegitimate as they were seen as instrumentalising the suffering of European Jews for imperialist ends.

    This perception of the Holocaust as a crime against European Jewry that was turned against the Arab population of Palestine has regained new currency in contemporary Arab debates about Nazi German history. From the 1950s until the late 1990s, the Holocaust had widely been neglected or denied in Arab public discourses; in contrast, the last decade had been marked by a growing recognition of the Holocaust as an historical fact that has shaped collective Jewish memory. One striking example of this is the recent publication by Gilbert Achcar, a French-Lebanese political scientist who has published an outstanding book entitled The Arabs and the Holocaust: The Arab-Israeli War of Narratives. In this book, Achcar explicitly challenges persisting narratives in the Arab world according to which the Holocaust is nothing but a Zionist myth. What makes this book particularly interesting is the fact that Achcar clearly shows that his position is nothing new. Citing his father’s Ph.D. dissertation from 1934, Achcar highlights the disgust expressed by many Arab observers about the developments in Germany at the time. Writing in his thesis, Joseph Achcar, the father of Gilbert, referred to the Nazi German regime’s anti-Jewish policy in the following terms:
    ‘It goes without saying that we condemn (...) the atavistic, savage conception that professes to purify the German nation by eliminating elements foreign to it. (...) The result (of this conception) was to drive away ‘the undesirables’, the Jews, who had to appeal to the hospitality of other countries.’

    Arab responses to the Holocaust

    In this sense, Arab responses to Nazism and the Holocaust have come full circle. Arab responses to the anti-Jewish persecutions in Nazi Germany were – and continue to be – immediately linked to the broader context of local, regional and international politics. The recent increase in interest in National Socialist history can be understood as a reflection of the developing intellectual pluralism that allows the questioning of established narratives. From this perspective, it is not surprising that the publication of books like those of Gilbert Achcar and others coincides with a revision of other narratives that have marked Arab public discourses for decades. Questions of national unity, of class, ethnic and religious minorities, and of gender have long remained taboo in most Arab societies that were controlled by authoritarian regimes and their constituencies, which were eager to limit intellectual debate and cultural diversity. Since the 1990s, these taboos have increasingly been challenged, a fact reflected in an increasing diversity and polarisation of public controversies and intellectual debates. This intellectual opening that is related to the changing balances of power in the region is also echoed in a growing interest in the Holocaust.

    The case of Garaudy

    One particular event represents a turning point in recent controversies surrounding the Holocaust in the Arab public sphere: the debate sparked by the French philosopher Roger Garaudy and his work The Founding Myths of Israeli Politics. In this book, which was first published in 1995, Garaudy explicitly referred to the Holocaust as a myth that was invented by the Zionist movement to blackmail the world and to gain support for the creation of Israel. In the years following its release in France in December 1995, Garaudy’s book was given extensive coverage in the Arab media. The first interviews with Garaudy and articles about his book appeared in Arab newspapers just weeks after it was released in France. Known for his earlier writings on Marxism and, especially, on Islam, Garaudy enjoyed a considerable popularity with the Arab public. The huge public interest in his theses finally made for a particularly warm welcome at a lecture he gave at the Cairo International Book Fair in February 1998.

    Hundreds of articles were dedicated to Garaudy’s book, and to the subsequent trial at which Garaudy was sentenced and fined for denying the Holocaust. Two narratives were central to these reactions: first, the claim that the Holocaust was a myth fabricated by Zionists to justify their drive for a national home in Palestine. Taking up Garaudy’s claim that the numbers of Jewish victims were exaggerated and no proofs for a systematic extermination policy existed, the vast majority of Arab commentators used the case to challenge the centrality of the Holocaust in Israeli narratives. From this perspective, the state of Israel had been created on a myth and thus lacked any moral and political legitimacy. This argument was further elaborated on by references to an assumed collusion of Zionist and National Socialist interests. The Zionists, it was argued, had in the 1930s and 1940s shared the interest of the Nazis in driving out the Jews from Europe and then forcing them to settle in Palestine. This claim of a historical alliance between Zionist leaders and the Nazi German regime was supported by references to Israeli politics towards the Palestinians. In this respect, it was asserted that the official Israeli narrative of Israel as a Jewish state echoed the racial worldview of the Nazis. Israeli politics towards the Palestinians, it was claimed, mirrored Nazi Germany’s anti-Jewish policies.

    The contradiction implied in this argument – that the Holocaust was a fake, and that Jews were now responsible for a second Holocaust against the Palestinians – was rarely noted in these articles. It was obvious that these arguments did not reflect an interest in the historical events as such, but were directly linked to the political struggles of the mid-1990s over the legitimacy of Israel and its policy in the region.

    The peace process with the Palestinians and Jordan had brought to the fore the political battles over the future of the region, confronting the various Arab nationalist and Islamist currents on the one hand, and those calling for an intellectual opening and political reforms in the Arab world on the other.

    Conspiratorial thought

    The second narrative that was central to these responses to Garaudy echoed the idea of a Jewish-Zionist conspiracy that was controlling international politics, media and public opinion. Countless commentators argued that the Jews were using their power and influence to shape international politics, and were behind most of the destructive developments in the region. One of the most explicit examples for this argument was an article by Muhammad Salmawy, then the editor-in-chief of the weekly newspaper al-Ahram Hebdo and a personal aide of Naguib Mahfouz, the Nobel-Prize-winning Egyptian writer. Salmawy offered a lengthy discussion of the ongoing lawsuit against Garaudy in which he echoed views commonly held by the Arab public. In his article entitled ‘Look for the Jews!’, Salmawy addressed three issues of concern at the time of writing, in February 1998. In addition to the case of Garaudy, Salmawy referred to the fate of David Irving, the British Holocaust denier, and to the Monica Lewinsky affair in the US. Salmawy opened his article with the following observation:

    ‘The American President Bill Clinton is currently in the spotlight due to his supposed extramarital relations [with Monica Lewinsky]. The French thinker Roger Garaudy is on trial in Paris. The British historian David Irving has been expelled from Austria, Italy, Germany, Canada and the countries of the Commonwealth. Three incidents which at first sight seem unconnected. Remembering the famous words of Napoleon: “Look for the woman!”, we could also say, if we want to understand what is going on around us, “Look for the Jews!”’

    This statement, whose basic premise was shared by several commentators, stood for the persistence of conspiratorial thought that was clearly based on the idea of an Arab collective of victims on the one hand, and a Jewish collective that was mastering history on the other.

    These arguments that were formulated in response to the Garaudy affair did not originate at the margins of society; they were voiced by mainstream intellectuals with regional and international reputations.

    Against the denial of history

    The importance of these responses to Garaudy’s writings lies in the fact that they were paralleled by a growing number of voices that explicitly challenged established narratives and mainstream intellectual approaches to the topic, including the Palestinians Edward Said and Azmi Bishara, the Lebanese Hazem Saghiyeh or the Egyptian Ali Salem. While the political and intellectual backgrounds of these voices were often very diverse, they shared a drive to question longstanding interpretations of the state of Arab societies and of regional politics. To be sure, all of these authors were critical of Israeli politics, but they shared a conviction that the denial of history went against the immediate interests of the Arab public.

    Edward Said for instance was one of the first to recognise the importance of the Holocaust in collective Jewish memory. While he vehemently rejected the notion that the Holocaust provided a justification for Israel’s policies towards its neighbours, he considered it crucial to recognise the Holocaust as a key event in Jewish history in order to understand the reasoning of the Israeli public. Similar arguments were formulated by Azmi Bishara. In an outstanding article published in 1994, Bishara insisted that ‘a historical compromise with the Israeli state has to be based on two collective memories. Any compromise in the Middle East has to reflect the past.’

    These calls for a shift of perspective with regard to the Holocaust did not occur in an intellectual and political vacuum. The growing readiness to question established approaches to the German past – and thus to the historical origins of Israel – can be linked to similar revisions in other fields of Arab intellectual debate. For instance, the shifting perceptions of the Holocaust have to be seen in the context of the peace process and the political opening it provided for intellectual debates on both sides of the conflict. As with developments on the Israeli side, where the so-called new historians drew attention to the experiences of the Palestinians and their perspectives on the conflict, similar shifts were noticeable among the Arab public – and Palestinians in particular.

    From Arab to Palestinian Nakba

    Post-Zionist historiography was paralleled by similar debates about the place of the Nakba, or ‘catastrophe’, of 1948 in Palestinian collective memory. The Israeli historians Meir Litvak and Esther Webman have pointed to the fact that these years witnessed a gradual revision of the Nakba from an Arab catastrophe to a Palestinian catastrophe – which in itself marked a significant break with the Arab nationalist discourses of the 1950s and ’60s. These revisions reflected a growing diversification of public memory, echoed in an increasing acceptance of multi-perspective approaches to history.

    This changing perception of history also relates to emerging debates about ethnic and religious minorities such as the Copts in Egypt or the Kurds in Syria and Iraq, and about their status in mainstream national narratives of Arab unity. Similar debates had developed after the end of the civil war in Lebanon in the early 1990s. The end of the bloodshed made it necessary to come to terms with different, and often conflicting, accounts of the events that had decimated the Lebanese population. In a very similar way, the Palestinian intifada that started in 1987 had encouraged self-reflection and self-critique among the Palestinian public. Questions of national unity, of gender relations and of the future state were reflected in an increasing plurality of narratives and intellectual visions.

    This pluralisation of narratives and the multiplication of perspectives on historical events and society were paralleled by a re-inscription of Arab societies in global history. The call for an universalisation of the Holocaust as a potentially universal human experience reflects this development. In an article published by Hazem Saghyeh and Saleh Bashir in late 1997, the two authors stated:
     ‘Coexistence on the land of Palestine between the two peoples is unlikely as long as each side is living its own history, alongside the other or in isolation from the other. To have coexistence, each side will have to assimilate the history of the other, even to make it its own, based on what the Holocaust has entailed for both of them separately or together.’

    This argument reflected a significant shift from past discourses, which had focused on claims of authenticity and cultural and intellectual purity. At the core of Arab nationalism – and, in a very similar way, of Islamism – lay the idea of an authentic community whose boundaries were clearly defined and whose essence was unaffected by outside influences. To demand a universalisation of the Holocaust, and thus of history, explicitly went against such claims of an undisputed Arab or Islamic nation. According to this reading, the history of Arab and Muslim identities had to be situated in the global context of the twentieth century and its often existential conflicts. History and memory were not things as such, but only emerged in negotiations and encounters with ‘Others’.
    There is a second dimension to these developments that took shape in the mid-1990s, and gained momentum in the wake of the debates around Garaudy and his thesis. This relates to the popularity of the conspiracy theories that were used to explain the centrality of the Holocaust in international discourses on European history. Since the late 1990s, authors such as Saghiyeh and Said have become increasingly outspoken in their objection to conspiratorial thought in dealings with the past, but no less so in dealings with the present.

    Growing interest in memory politics

    This rejection of conspiratorial interpretations of history is paralleled by a growing interest in memory politics in general, reflecting a growing awareness of the impact of the past on contemporary politics. A recent edition of the journal Alif, a journal of comparative poetics published by the American University in Cairo, provides an illustration of this interest. In the introduction to the November edition of 2010, which was dedicated to the theme of trauma and memory, the editors stated:
    ‘This issue of Alif focuses on trauma and loss and their presence in collective and individual memory. The question of traumatic events has been recognised in psychology, psychoanalysis, and literature, but scholarly studies have mostly concentrated on traumas enacted in the West – World Wars and the Holocaust. This issue attempts to extend the field of trauma and memory studies to include other parts of the world: Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Iran, India, Ireland, Lebanon, Palestine, Pakistan, multi-ethnic America and ethnic Greece.’

    This recognition of traumatic historical experiences in contexts other than the purely ‘Arab’ or ‘Islamic’ marks a major break from previous narratives about history and society. This break provided an intellectual opening for an increasing interest in Jewish history in general, and in the history of the Holocaust in particular. It is important, however, to stress that such openness is actually not without historical precedents. In fact, the 1930s and 1940s in many ways resemble the current state of Arab intellectual and political life. As today, in the 1930s and 1940s domestic political culture in countries like Egypt, Syria or Iraq was at a crossroads, and this was echoed in heated debates over the future of society and political order.

    These periods are often described as periods of intellectual and political crisis. I suggest a more positive reading of these debates and conflicts. At least with regard to questions of memory and memory politics, they provide an opening of political culture that clearly breaks with collective myths of the past.
    Götz Nordbruch
    is Assistant Professor at the Centre for Contemporary Middle East Studies at the University of Southern Denmark in Odense. He is co-editor of the book Sympathie und Schrecken. Begegnungen mit Faschismus und Nationalsozialismus in Ägypten, 1922-1937 [Sympathy and Horror: Attitudes to Fascism and National Socialism in Egypt, 1922-1937] (Berlin 2011).

    Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
    November 2012

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