In-depth: Why is Israeli-Arab Shoah denial rising?

By Nathan Jeffay, May 27, 2009
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Two in five Arab citizens of Israel believe that the Holocaust did not take place, according to newly released research from the University of Haifa.

This represents a sharp rise in Holocaust denial among Israeli Arabs since the university conducted a similar poll two years ago. The figure then was 28 per cent. It is now 40.5 per cent.

Israel’s Holocaust organisations have reacted with concern. The finding is “alarming”, said Dan Michman, chief historian at Yad Vashem, which last year launched an Arabic website to counter denial in the Arab world.

It is part of a historical shift that is starting to be closely studied. Last month, Tel Aviv University academics Meir Litvak and Esther Webman published From Empathy to Denial: Arab Responses to the Holocaust, in which they argued that straight after the Holocaust, Arabs reacted with understanding but that attitudes have deteriorated ever since, to a point where denial is now fashionable.

“The politicisation of the Holocaust is today very high on the Arab agenda,” said Dr Webman.

Sammy Smooha, the Haifa sociologist who headed the survey, believes that this trend has been accelerated in recent years, in part due to the high profile of Iran’s Holocaust-denying President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Other experts point their fingers at the Arab media.

“The main source of attitudes towards the Holocaust is the Arab mass media, mainly Al Jazeera, which has become the mouthpiece of Jihadists and deniers of the Holocaust like Ahmadinejad,” said Mordechai Kedar, a Bar Ilan University researcher on Arab media and public opinion and a regular interviewee on Al Jazeera. Scholars say that the figure needs interpretation, a process which yields good news and bad news.

On the plus side, both Jewish and Arab experts agree that the statistic is artificially high; many Arabs feel the need publicly to deny the Holocaust, although they know it did take place.

But on the negative side, this may show just what an intractable problem denial has become in the Arab world, as it is embraced even by those who know the position is intellectually dishonest.

One of the attractions of Holocaust denial for Israeli Arabs is that it is seen as a way of venting anger towards Israel.

According to Dr Smooha, the level of denial is directly proportional to the extent of antagonism. The shift since 2006 “should be understood in the context of protest”, he said, citing three sources of friction: the closing down of investigations against police officers who shot to death Arab demonstrators in October 2000; Israel’s conduct in Lebanon during the Second Lebanon War; and its policies in Gaza since the Hamas takeover of 2007.

Another factor which makes denial popular is that it counters what many Arabs perceive as the Jews’ use of the Holocaust to present themselves as victims with a moral and political justification for establishing a state.

The fear is that this undermines the Arab narrative of the events of 1948 as the “naqba”, or catastrophe. The Holocaust, says Smooha, “is a kind of symbol of being the victim. And they want themselves, not the Jews, to be seen as victims”.

Arab experts echo this analysis. Khaled Kasab Mahameed, a resident of the Arab city of Umm al-Fahm and founder of a Holocaust museum in Nazareth, feels that most Arabs in the Middle East view knowledge of the Holocaust as a poisoned chalice, fearing that knowledge of persecution of the Jews will result in sympathy towards them.

“I tell Arabs: ‘you don’t want to know about the Holocaust because you are afraid of your enemy’s narrative.’”

Mr Mahameed proposes the counter-intuitive theory that a growth in denial of the Holocaust may actually be a sign of increasing knowledge about it.

He agrees that many Israeli Arabs are keen to discredit the Holocaust in case it humanises Israeli Jews or grants legitimacy to the Zionist narrative.

But he travels around Israeli Arab towns and Palestinian villages and refugee camps telling residents that learning about the Holocaust will not undermine their opposition to Zionism.

On the contrary, he argues that those who deny the Holocaust “are not doing their Palestinian national duty”.

“If you want to fight your enemy you need to confront their weapons, not deny they exist,” he said.

The survey of Holocaust denial among Israeli Arabs comes just two months after the uneasy attitude of Palestinians towards the Holocaust came into the spotlight.

After Strings of Freedom, a Palestinian youth orchestra from Jenin, gave a concert for Israeli Holocaust survivors on March 22, its instruments were confiscated, rehearsal space sealed, and the director barred from the West Bank refugee camp.

These measures were imposed by a PLO committee, a member of which told the New York Times that the leader of the orchestra had dragged the musicians into a political situation that “served enemy interests” and aimed to “destroy the Palestinian national spirit in the camp”.

    Last updated: 2:26pm, November 8 2010