Making mutual hatred

Two well-researched volumes examine the ways in which the Arab world reacted to Nazi policies towards Jews

By Irwin Mansdorf, April 1, 2010

Nazi Propaganda for the Arab world
By Jeffrey Herf
Yale University Press, £20

From Empathy to denial
By Meir Litvak and Esther Webman
Hurst, £25

Jeffrey Herf's book presents a déjà vu look at how Arab society's link with Islam can create tendencies that appeal to what the author calls, "the ancient tradition of hatred of the Jews within Islam itself". Curiously enough, this enmity was sometimes stoked by using the language of the West. In the period leading up to and during the Second World War, the Nazis exploited Arab fear of "imperialism", portraying themselves as reliable adversaries of both Zionism and the British. Then, as now among Islamists, many Arab leaders did not distinguish between religion and politics in adopting a pro-Nazi stance to thwart both British colonialism and Jewish nationalism.

And then, just as now, the Arab world seemed to embrace an ally whose ideology was at odds with its own culture. As the progressive liberalism of modern Islamist and Palestinian supporters in the West conflicts ideologically with the conservative fabric of Islam, so then did the racial philosophy of Nazism represent an ideological challenge to the Arab "Semites" of the Middle East. But then, as now, the overriding political nature of the Arab world led it adopt the old sentiment that "the enemy of my enemy is my friend."

Nazi propaganda emphasised values that it shared with Islam, such as obedience and unity, in its attempt to be an ideological mirror of Islam's conflict with the West, appealing to the Arab and Muslim desire for independence, freedom and, ultimately, regional hegemony.

The political pragmatism of Arab affinity with Nazism is more nuanced, as it specifically pertains to the development of attitudes and discourse relating to the Holocaust. In From Empathy to Denial: Arab Responses to the Holocaust, Meir Litvak and Esther Webman analyse the complex and varied nature of Arab responses to the Holocaust.

As with the benefits of a political alliance with Nazi Germany, the Arab view of the Holocaust coloured the ongoing conflict with Israel. In some circles, denial was predominant; in others, the universal qualities of the Holocaust were promoted, downplaying or rejecting unique Jewish victimisation. Many Arab writers recognise the Holocaust's targeting of the Jews, but link the tragedy to that of the Palestinians, who are portrayed as the collateral and undeserving victims of European wrongs.

Using primary Arab sources, Litvak and Webman painstakingly present a well-researched overview of Arab Holocaust discourse. Key events such as the Garaudy affair in France (when the political philosopher and convert to Islam, Roger Garaudy, was sentenced for Holocaust denial) and Arafat's proposed visit to the US Holocaust Memorial are compellingly described.

While both books will interest readers wishing to learn more about the Holocaust, their primary appeal is as gripping accounts of how Israel's quest for acceptance by its neighbours is fraught with deep-rooted sentiments involving Arab nationalism, Islamic thinking and political reality.

Either way, the experience will be an enriching one.

Irwin J Mansdorf is an Israeli psychologist who has published widely on the subject of political psychology as it relates to the Israel-Arab conflict.

Last updated: 3:16pm, February 18 2011