The Holocaust, Palestine and the Arab World: Gilbert Achcar interviewed

Gilbert Achcar (Arwa Aburawa)

In his latest book The Arabs and the Holocaust, Gilbert Achcar, a professor of Development Studies at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, explores the Arab world’s complex and sometimes contradictory relationship with the Holocaust.

Focusing on the Israeli occupation of Palestine, Achcar tackles the Zionist caricature of all Arabs as anti-Semitic Holocaust-deniers complicit in Nazi crimes by meticulously deconstructing the evidence put forward. Achcar also doesn’t shy away from condemning the persistence of unacceptable attitudes towards the Holocaust across the region. The Electronic Intifada contributor Arwa Aburawa spoke to Achcar about The Arabs and the Holocaust.

Arwa Aburawa: Your book is a huge undertaking which explores Arab attitudes towards the Holocaust from the rise of Hitler to the present. What motivated you to write the book?

Gilbert Achcar: Well I came across this subject through various conferences and what struck me was the massive distortion that exists in the way Arabs and Palestinians are represented in relation to the Holocaust, anti-Semitism and Nazism. Over the last few years, I also noticed that there was an increase in the literature portraying the Arabs or the Muslims as basically Nazi-like people or Nazi-minded or stating that they supported Nazism in history. So, that’s why I decided to write this book and although I started with very modest intentions, the more I worked on the topic, the more it became clear that I needed to go for a voluminous book in order to cover all major issues. So what I ended up with is a thorough, critical examination of Zionist and pro-Zionist narratives, which portray the Arabs and the Palestinians through what they claim is the historical record.

By deconstructing Zionist representations of the Arabs and the Palestinians, I also wanted to dispel any Arab self-representation that conforms to the Zionist image or internalizes it in adopting reactionary attitudes of an anti-Semitic character. So this book is a contribution to the defense of the Palestinian and Arab causes against such distortions as well as a contribution to a more accurate representation of Arab attitudes.

AA: The main argument of your book is that Arab attitudes towards the Holocaust and anti-Semitism — in contrast to widespread clichés about Arabs — are quite complex, contradictory and have changed over the course of history. What are some of the main political movements and figures which influenced Arab attitudes towards the Holocaust?

GA: The Zionist narrative of the Arab world is based centrally around one figure who is ubiquitous in this whole issue — the Jerusalem Grand Mufti Hajj Amin al-Husseini, who collaborated with the Nazis. But the historical record is actually quite diverse. The initial reaction to Nazism and Hitler in the Arab world and especially from the intellectual elite was very critical towards Nazism, which was perceived as a totalitarian, racist and imperialist phenomenon. It was criticized by the liberals or what I call the liberal Westernizers, i.e. those who were attracted by Western liberalism, as well as by the Marxists and left-wing nationalists who denounced Nazism as another form of imperialism. In fact, only one of the major ideological currents in the Arab world developed a strong affinity with Western anti-Semitism, and that was Islamic fundamentalism — not all Islam or Islamic movements but those with the most reactionary interpretations of Islam. They reacted to what was happening in Palestine by espousing Western anti-Semitic attitudes.

However, that was only one particular current and when we look at the balance sheet of Arab participation in the Second World War, we see that it was overwhelmingly on the Allied side. Even with the presence of the Mufti in Europe, all his exhortations for Arabs and Palestinians to join the forces of the Nazis and Italian fascists led to very, very little results — almost negligible. This just shows what little credibility and popularity the Mufti actually commanded in the Arab world. There were incomparably more Arabs who fought with the British and French troops against Germany and Italy than the other way round, so this really refutes the widespread notion that the Arabs supported the Nazis.

AA: Clearly, we can’t really talk about Arabs and the Holocaust without mentioning the Mufti. But what was his role in the Holocaust and how complicit was he in the Nazis’ war crimes?

GA: The first thing that must be said about Amin al-Husseini is that there is a lot more interest in him in the West and in Zionist literature than there is in the Arab world. It is amazing that in the Arab world, his name has almost disappeared into oblivion and almost no one refers to him, whereas in the West new books on him are coming out all the time. There is an entire industry dealing with the Mufti in the West from Zionist and pro-Zionist sources and the key aim of this industry is the Nazification of the Arabs. They are trying to Nazify the Arabs, if not the Muslims in this age of Islamophobia, through the figure of the Mufti.

Now the fact is that al-Husseini did his best up to 1937 to serve his British masters and prevent the Palestinian national movement from clashing with them. It was only in 1937 that he broke with the British and went into exile. In 1941, he fled to Europe and lived between Rome and Berlin, supported by the two fascist regimes until the end of the war in 1945. He became the key figure in their propaganda towards the Muslim world: he gave a lot of speeches over the radio and wrote lots of statements reproducing the whole range of Nazi anti-Semitic propaganda. Due to his ideological allegiance to Islamic fundamentalism and its tendency to essentialize the enemy, he held rabidly anti-Jewish views.

The crucial point here is that even after 1943, when he learned about the genocide of the Jews and that millions of them had already been massacred, his contribution to the harsh anti-Semitic discourse broadcast from Germany continued. His knowledge of the genocide did not deter him one bit; rather he increased his anti-Semitic vitriol. He supported a regime which he knew was committing an awful genocide, one of the worst crimes against humanity, and so it makes what he did at the time criminal. He even took it upon himself to write to Axis power governments asking them to not allow Jews to leave to Palestine, adding — and here to get to the criminal aspect of the letters — that he suggests they send them to Poland instead where he knew there were concentration camps. So he went far beyond his role as a national leader fighting for the interests of his country into complicity with the Nazis. Clearly, this is something that has to be denounced for what it is.

AA: In your book you state that the impact of Nazism on the Arab world was actually limited. Considering that the Nazis were fighting the Arabs’ colonial enemies at the time — the British and French — why was this?

GA: Well, there were a lot more people attracted to Nazi ideology in Western countries, including Britain and the United States, than there ever were in the Arab world. In fact there were fewer adherents to Nazi ideology in Arab countries, even in relative figures, than were found in Europe and North America. One of the reasons for this was fascist Italy’s persecution of Libyans and the perception that it was a colonial power a lot worse than Britain or France. There was also a perception in the Arab world when the war started that this was a conflict between imperial powers who wanted to divide the world amongst themselves. Most people were observing the war therefore with a more or less neutral attitude and were only hoping that Arab independence might result from the clash of world powers. So even as “the enemy of their enemy,” support for the Nazis was by no means automatic.

Of course, my book isn’t just about developing an ideological counter-narrative portraying all the Arabs as anti-fascist progressives. That is not the point of my book at all. Anyone reading it will see that I don’t try to hide anything on the Arab side and I don’t mince my words when it comes to Arab attitudes that I believe must be condemned — especially that of the Mufti. At the same time, I reject all suggestions that the Mufti was the embodiment of all Arabs or all Palestinians and expressed their collective attitude — that was not the case and is purely slanderous. I mean, when you read the Zionist propaganda you get the impression that the Mufti al-Husseini was one of the key figures in the Nazi regime, which is of course completely ridiculous. In terms of al-Husseini’s overall contribution to the Nazi regime, his input is negligible compared to thousands and thousands of Nazi leaders, bureaucrats and military commanders.

AA: If the Mufti was so unrepresentative of the Arab world, why has he become such a pivotal figure in any discussion of the Arab world and the Holocaust?

GA: The answer to this question is quite simple. The reason for this distortion is that until the Second World War, the Zionist movement didn’t have any arguments for its colonization of Palestine other than religious or colonial. The fact that the German Jews were persecuted by the Nazis did change this but even then, the natural reaction from the Arab world was to say“ ‘we condemn and resent the persecution of the Jews, but why should the Arabs and the Palestinians be made to pay for what the Europeans did?” The Zionist movement knew that a decision on Palestine would soon be made by the victors of the war and therefore did their best to depict the Palestinian Arabs as accomplices of the defeated Nazis. So to the Arab saying “why should we pay for what the Europeans did?” the response became, “because you played a part in the genocide.” So in this way, 1948 and the Nakba was represented in the Zionist narrative as the last battle of the Second World War against Nazism.

One striking illustration of this argument is in the famous, openly racist interview that [Israeli historian] Benny Morris gave to [the Israeli daily]
Haaretz in 2004 and in which he basically says that in 1948 the choice was between the ethnic cleansing — he doesn’t shy away from using this term — of the Palestinians by the Jews or the genocide of the Jews by the Palestinians and the Arabs. In order to justify whatever cruelty they do to them, the Zionists and their unconditional supporters paint the Palestinians and the Arabs as Nazis. You can see this same pattern at work up to our time. How was the cruel war against Lebanon in 2006 justified? Well, by portraying Hizballah as Nazis. And how was the criminal slaughter in Gaza in late 2008 and early 2009 justified? Again, Hamas were portrayed as Nazis.

AA: Although your work is careful to point out the complexity of views with regards to the Holocaust in the Arab world, there is no denying the presence of Holocaust denial. How and why did Holocaust denial emerge in the Arab world?

GA: What needs to be said first of all is that Holocaust denial in the Arab world is not the same as Holocaust denial in Germany, for instance. In Germany, it can only emerge out of deep anti-Semitism as Germans have every means of knowing about the full scale of the genocide. But for people in Palestine, the Holocaust is a historical event which is not directly related to their own history. So when some Palestinians say that the Holocaust has been invented or exaggerated by the Zionists in order to blackmail the West, they are attempting to give an explanation for the way in which Israel uses the Holocaust to legitimize its aggression. It seems to hold also for an explanation of the fact that Western powers, especially the United States, tend to support Israel unconditionally. Of course, this is a stupid and very simplistic argument, which is why I call it “the anti-Semitism of fools.”

In most cases, Holocaust denial becomes a very weak and stupid form of protest by people who feel crushed by the military violence and supremacy of the Israeli state. This explains why Holocaust denial attitudes increase every time Israeli violence flares up. Palestinians are facing this harsh reality and the misguided views of some of them on the Holocaust must therefore be judged in their context. We can’t put the two on the same level, in the same way that we can’t judge the racism of a white anti-Black lynching mob as being equivalent to the anti-White racism that might develop amongst their victims. One could say they are both forms of racism, but there is a crucial difference: the racism of the oppressed is reactive to the one that inspires their oppressors, and this is a distinction that I emphasize.

Last but not least, whatever form of Holocaust denial exists in the Arab world, it is denial of something that Arabs are not actually responsible for. Much more serious is the official denial of the Nakba [the 1948 ethnic cleansing of historic Palestine] by the Israeli state — this is an instance of state denial of a crime that they perpetrated. Fortunately the Nakba was no genocide and can’t be compared to the Holocaust in that respect, but it was nevertheless a crime against humanity and, moreover, the Nakba is not finished — in the sense that the oppression of the Palestinians by the State of Israel continues to this day. So the denial by the State of Israel of this reality and of its responsibility in the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians and in their continuing oppression is ultimately much more serious that any expressions of Holocaust denial by Arabs or Palestinians.

AA: The claim that the Holocaust has been exploited by the State of Israel for political gain is a statement which needs to be carefully assessed. Would you agree?

GA: Yes, of course. It is obvious that the Israeli state and Israeli politicians make cynical use of the Holocaust to justify their stances. What is even worse is that the Israeli government perpetrates war crimes and crimes against humanity — as confirmed by Judge Goldstone who is a Jew and a Zionist himself — and tries to justify them in the name of the Holocaust. This is a major insult to the memory of the victims of the Holocaust. This said, the Holocaust (and this is still not understood by everybody in the Arab world) is not the property of “the Jews” or the Zionist movement. In fact, the Zionist movement has little legitimacy to speak for the victims of the Holocaust, as the historical record shows that it failed to prioritize the rescue of the Jews during the Holocaust and focused instead on its goal of a Jewish state.

The Holocaust is one of the major tragedies of the twentieth century and it bears universal lessons for us all about the dangers of ethnic discrimination and racism. This is what the Holocaust is about and these lessons teach us that we need to counter the Zionist state and what it is doing to the Palestinians. In fact, as victims of national quasi-racial oppression, the Palestinians are much more entitled than the Zionists to invoke the lessons of the Holocaust.

AA: In your book you assess the impact of 11 September 2001 and the rise of the neoconservative narrative and the impact it has on the clichés about Arabs as Nazi-supporting anti-Semites. In your view, are perceptions of Arab attitudes to Nazism getting better or worse?

GA: They are getting worse. After 11 September and the Islamophobic trend increased sharply, especially in the United States, the Zionists seized the opportunity to intensify their anti-Arab and anti-Palestinian propaganda since most Palestinians are Muslims. There’s a widespread discourse about so-called Islamofascism which tries to weave a narrative that starts with the Mufti and ends with Bin Laden, Hamas and Hizballah, with every opponent to Israel in between, be it Gamal Abdel Nasser, Saddam Hussein or Yasser Arafat. So it is important to challenge these attitudes, just as it is necessary to fight those attitudes in the Arab world and among Palestinians that are facilitating this kind of propaganda.

Most people in the Arab world would agree that the Holocaust was an awful crime perpetrated by the Nazis. The best illustration of this is the fact that Zionism is widely compared to Nazism — of course, this comparison is over the top but it shows that people see Nazism as an insult. People should also know other stories, like that of the West Bank villagers of Bilin who dressed in striped pajamas similar to those of concentration camp inmates in order to protest against the Israeli army in January 2009, during the onslaught on Gaza. Again, the comparison is certainly over-exaggerated but the demonstrators’ intent was clear. This was a way of identifying with the Jewish victims and saying: “We are the Jews of the Middle East who are oppressed by the Israeli state in the same way that European Jews were oppressed by the Nazis.”

Arwa Aburawa ( is a freelance journalist based in the UK who writes on the Middle East, the environment and various social issues.