Conference on the book of Dr Gilbert Achcar “The Arabs and the Holocaust”

On the Tuesday 19th October 2010 I attended the conference entitled “Arabs and Israelis Facing the Holocaust and the Nakba” in SOAS University with Dr Gilbert Achcar presenting his book “The Arabs and the Holocaust” and the presence of a panel composed of Nur Masalha (Centre for Religion and History and the Holy Land Research Project, St. Mary’s University College, University of Surrey) and Idith Zertal (Institute for Jewish Studies, University of Basel). They both commented the books following the presentation of Dr Gilbert Achcar and a debate was then launched between the panels and the public. You can imagine that such a subject brought many people to come and attend to the conference, especially from SOAS students.
Dr Gilbert Achcar started his presentation on the book he had written by saying that through it he wanted to show and deconstruct the mainstream narratives on both sides. Narratives do play a very important role in the conflict, particularly in relation to the European audience. Narratives on both side relates to two events: the Holocaust and the Nakba. He started to speak about the mainstream narrative on the Arab sides, claiming that one should be first very critical towards its own ones.  The Nakba is rightly described as the result of Zionism colonial enterprise and an ethnic cleansing was the terrible consequence of it. The Nakba was the defining moment in this narrative, and in many ways the Nakba has been going on since then. Palestinians, as well as other Arab population, have actually been living in continual oppression, suffering from occupation and expulsion from Israel. Arab mainstream narrative nevertheless do not speak about the fact that Zionism is rooted in anti-Semitism, which I define for the sake of that conference as Anti Jewish, in the historical oppression of Jewish communities in Europe. This unfortunately favors some drifts and forms of conspiracies stories with anti-Semitic theory.                                                                                                                                             
On the other hand, the Zionist mainstream narrative affirms that Zionism was the only consistent response to anti-Semitism. The only getaway to Anti-Semitism was through the creation of Israel, as a form of redemption to the Holocaust. In the Zionist mainstream narrative, Arabs are represented as pro Nazi and anti-Semitic. The creation of Israel is therefore presented as the continuation of the Second World War with Jews actually continuing their fight to save their existence against the “Pro Nazi and anti Semitic Arab population”. The Mufti of Jerusalem, Mohamed Amin Al Husseini, who collaborated with the Nazi during his exile in Germany but had no influence whatsoever on the Palestinians at this moment of the History (his calls to the Palestinians to join the Nazi forces were completely ignored and were unsuccessful) is portrayed as reflecting the main opinion of the Palestinians, the Arabs and the Islamic world in many respects as anti-Semitic.  The 1948 war is therefore described in Zionist mainstream narrative as defensive war against genocidal Arabs.                                                                                       
This book is engaging in deconstructing and refuting these narratives, it rejects the view that there is only one discourse, especially the pro Israeli mainstream narrative that claims and presents the Arab discourse as anti Semitic. Actually, if one looks at the history of the Arabs during the 2nd world War, you can refute totally this mainstream historic view. There was no concrete and large-scale sympathy towards the Nazis, although many circumstance could have pushed in this direction, with Germany fighting England and Jews, both occupiers and colonizers at the time in Palestine. There was actually a much higher number of Arabs fighting in allied armies.
There is a strong need to deconstruct discourses so as to stop the demonization of the “other”. On the other side, in the Arab world, we do find rising anti Semitic discourses from certain groups, which constitute a form of retrograde discourse in Gilbert Achcar view. This is nevertheless the result of the escalation of violence and aggression against Arabs and the rising forms of racist right-wings in Israel.                                                                
This war of narratives prevents a real understanding between Israeli and Arabs. The need to condemn and acknowledge the criminal actions of the Israelis during the Nakba and after, while Arabs should acknowledge the role and importance of the Holocaust in Jewish minds, to understand it despite the political use made by Israelis authorities of the Holocaust. It is also true that numbers of acts and attempts have already been done by the PLO and intellectuals acknowledging the importance of Holocaust in Jewish minds. This is the key for a real dialogue for a just peace.
Nur Masalha’s intervention  
I would like to tell you first two stories: I was once invited to speak about the Arab-Israeli war at the institute of anti-Semitic study in Berlin and when I started my presentation about Zionism archives, the organizers stopped me in the middle of it fearing of what I would say.  The second one takes place in the 1970s, when I was studying in Jerusalem University. I had a Jewish teacher who characterized the settlers as “Judi Nazi”. If I would say this now I would get fired straight away, as well as Gilbert Achcar, but as for Idith Zertal she would be presented as a self hated Jew or a hero.                                                     
To come back to the book, this is not a book on the Nakba, the word Nakba is only present on four pages. We must say it clearly that we, the Palestinians or the Arabs, are not responsible for the Holocaust. In this respect, Achkar agrees with Azmi Bichara’s opinion that it was like writing a book on the Indians and the Shoah, no relation. Nur Masalha, however, goes on saying on the opposite that we are indirect victims of the Holocaust. Germans payed billions of Dollars to Israel for the Holocaust, but we Palestinians still pay for it now. Jews of course are also the victims, but we are the victims of the victims, the Jews of the Jews, as used to say Mahmoud Darwish. We have been kicked out of our lands, living under occupation and in prisons like in Gaza.
The Mufti al Husseini was definitely in Germany, because he was expelled from Palestine by the British. The Mufti was Machiavellian, I totally agree, but he was not anti Jewish in the congenital way. This anti Judaism that we found in Europe was not present in the Islamic world, the Jews fought together with the Muslims at the time of Salaheddin. The Holocaust is not a Middle East or an Islamic issue. It is an European issue. The exploitation of the Holocaust is actually made by the Israeli Jews and some Islamic fundamentalists. There is no history of anti Semitism in the Middle East. The Mufti was appointed by the British and when the Palestinians rose in the 1930s, the Mufti did not launch the uprising which was lead by the peasants, he only followed it. The peasants were struggling against Zionism and the immigration of Jews to Palestine. The British crushed the rebellion in the end of the 30s and there was no more leadership, which in many ways lead to the Nakba. British are as well responsible for the Nakba, because they crushed the Palestinian resistance in the end of the 30s. The Mufti in Germany had no power at all, but he nevertheless let a terrible legacy. He bet on the victory of the Nazis.                 
There is a problem in the way we treat the Nakba and the Holocaust. In France if you deny the Holocaust you are sent to prison, while if I would deny it I would lose my job, while if you deny the Nakba you go the House of Lords in England.
The Nakba is in the present and is continuing, while the Holocaust is in the Past. Is acknowledging their suffering is the solution for a just peace? I am not sure. In the same manner I don’t want a Nakba industry.
  Idith Zertal’s intervention
I first would like to say that I have learned a lot through this nook and appreciated greatly Gilbert Achcar’s way and style to write about such a controversial issue. I agree with Nur Masalha on the issue of the Arabs and the Holocaust, there was no role played by the Arabs for the Holocaust. The Mufti had no role whatsoever too in the Holocaust, he is a despicable person and there should not be this Mufti industry all around him, it is undermining and vulgarizing the Holocaust. The Holocaust is an European, Jewish and Universal history and only in this respect are the Arabs included, as part of the human society. The chapters dedicated to the Mufti and his role are done with great precisions; everything is put in right perspective with right proportions. In the Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, which is written by some of the best scholars, the part on the Mufti is as important as the entry of Hitler and bigger than Himmler, Heinrich and other Nazis criminals. To Nazify the Mufti is lousy politics and against the truth.                                                                                                                                                   There is a process of arabization of the Holocaust as well as a nazification of the Arabs made by the Israelis. There is a triple transfer:
          Transfer of the Arabs in the history of the Holocaust
          Transfer of the Holocaust in the present conflict
          Transfer of the hatred and rage of the Jewish against Palestinians. We, Israelis, are indeed transferring our rage on the Palestinians.
In relation to the law in Israel condemning people that have collaborated with the Nazis during the war, most of the condemnations made in the 1950s and 60s were against Israeli Jews. They were survivals from the Holocaust, but they were part of the system of collaboration in the camps. The Nazis actually did put some victims themselves as in charge or as servant of the camp. They were Holocaust victims, but they were put on trial and not the Nazis, well not until the 1960s with A. Heichmann’s trial. There was a huge confusion in relation to the Holocaust, many disproportionate reactions.                                                                                                                                             The Mufti was used in Zionism narrative from day one, Begin besides said in 1948 that the struggle will not be against Hitler and his disciples, but against Hitler’s mentors in relation to the Mufti and the Arabs. This is a total aberration. In 1948, Arabs were systematically presented as Nazis. An account from an Israeli woman said that we saw Arabs and we killed the Nazis. This was made spontaneously in the mid 30s and 40s. This could have been understandable in the 40s  with the phase of extermination, but it had become a policy now. There is a nazification of the conflict which is made few different manners such as turning into a Nazi any enemy, rival and opponent.  This results in no dialogue, no concessions and no reconnaissance. The conflict is being Holocausting and Israeli policies have used the personality of the Mufti in this process. We are devaluating the meaning of the Holocaust.
Gilbert Achcar’s last intervention
Firstly, I totally agree that there is no relation between the Arabs and the Holocaust, yes there are no responsibilities of the Arabs in any way. But the Palestinians are the victims of the victims and the Nakba was in many ways boosted by the Holocaust. I am myself exploring actually the relationship between this non responsibility in the Holocaust of the Arabs and themselves being victims of it.
Secondly, I disagree with Nur Masalha: the Mufti Al Husseini was anti-Semitic and quite a few discourses by him can attest it. He was influenced by the western anti-Semitism that came from Europe to the Middle East, but now if there is a rise in anti-Semitism, it is the direct result of the Arab Israeli conflict.  The importance of the Mufti is completely blown up by the Zionists and his discourses led to nothing. Interest in the Mufti’s personality came mainly from the Western world, not of the Arab world where he is ignored in many respect.  


The conference was very interesting, and as I read the book few months ago I advise you to read it. You’ll definitely learn a lot from it. How to approach the Holocaust in the Middle East and especially in relation to Arab Israeli conflict is the key question through this book I believe. For a number of people, we should not link these issues because Arabs had no role in the Holocaust, which is completely true, but the way the Zionist narrative use the Holocaust and Mufti Al Husseini personality to justify their acts push activists from the Palestine Solidarity Movement and others as well to learn the arguments and tools to deny the false Zionist narrative. Culture, learning and getting more knowledgeable every day is definitely our best ally in this struggle against lies from the mainstream narratives whether being from Zionism or Western narrative. 

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