The Arab-Israeli War of Narratives
By Gilbert Achcar
Metropolitan Books, 386 pp.
THERE IS much to be won and lost on the battlefield of Holocaust memory, not least in the Middle East. Many supporters of Israel seize every opportunity to link the Jews of Europe in the 1940s to the Israelis of today. Meanwhile, victimhood is something most Palestinians are all too familiar with. For them, as for many sympathetic to their cause, the Palestinians are “the Jews of the Israelis,” as Primo Levi once put it.
The stakes in this tug-of-war are the subject of a new book by Gilbert Achcar, a distinguished professor of development studies and international relations at the School of African and Oriental Studies at the University of London. The primary goal of The Arabs and the Holocaust: The Arab-Israeli War of Narratives, the reader is told at the outset, is to offer a corrective to the deeply flawed standard narrative on the topic.
The main bone of contention for Achcar is the abiding tendency among researchers dealing with Arabs and the Holocaust to ignore the particulars of local concerns in the Arab world. He rails against the many books that do not sufficiently take into account the “indispensable contextualization of Arab attitudes toward Jews and the Holocaust.” This shortcoming causes many observers to misread their findings, seeing anti-Semitism where, Achcar contends, other concerns are far more important. Consequently, Achcar guides the reader through an intellectual history of the Arab Middle East in the twentieth century. He identifies four dominant strains of political thought—liberalism, Marxism, nationalism, and pan-Islamism—and explores the connections of each to anti-Semitism and fascism.
The Arabs and the Holocaust is a valuable contribution to the field of Holocaust studies in the Arab world. It challenges the propensity of much of the scholarship to vilify all Arabs by lumping them together and assigning to them a shared, primitive anti-Semitic mindset. Achcar’s book sports dust-jacket endorsements from a very impressive collection of scholars, including the Palestinian-American historian Rashid Khalidi, Peter Novick, whose own book on the role of the Holocaust in the United States has received widespread attention, and the British-Israeli “new historian,” Avi Shlaim.
But the book also suffers from some significant shortcomings. Its treatment of Arab anti-Semitism is incomplete, and the book is weighed down by a strong bias in favor of secular movements and a ferocious anti-Zionism that distracts from the main topic. More important, in his effort to counter the view that all Arabs are anti-Semites, Achcar goes too far in the other direction. He seems stubbornly insistent on contextualizing anti-Semitism out of existence, by a method that brings to mind the famous old dictionary definition of it as “hating Jews too much.”
JUDGING FROM Achcar’s account, two main elements of contextualization are required to correct the picture of Arabs’ relationship to the Holocaust. The first is the particulars of Arab politics. Unlike German National Socialism, Achcar argues, hardly a single political grouping in the Arab world was primarily driven by hatred of the Jews. Rather, anti-Semitism survived in the Middle East primarily as an ancillary to Arab anti-imperialism, which viewed Israel as a western proxy.
Because the Middle East was under colonial domination by the Allied powers, Achcar points out, Arabs were naturally inclined to sympathize with Germany according to the simple logic of “my enemy’s enemy is my friend.” Though many in the Arab world found the Axis morally repugnant, supporting the Allies conflicted with local political interests. Consequently, many distinguished politicians and intellectuals, such as the prominent Syrian nationalist, Nabih al-’Azmeh, refused to side with either camp until they were sure about “the fate they hold in store for my nation.” Arab neutrality, then, should be understood differently from the neutrality of a European country, like Sweden, that was not similarly confronted with such a stark conflict of interests.
As a result, Arabs have been mistakenly branded as anti-Semites, Nazis, or fascists when in fact they were guilty of reluctance to privilege universal moral concerns over immediate self-interest. Achcar insists on the importance of making a distinction between “the German sympathies of…Arab public opinion,” which were relatively widespread, and “adhesion of a very small minority to fascism or Nazism.”
Achcar shows how several political groups in the Middle East were actively opposed to fascism, including liberals and Marxists. Both groups rejected fascism on ideological and moral grounds. Even in Palestine there were several staunchly anti-fascist groups. Indeed, the extent to which Palestinians were not anti-Semitic or pro-Nazi is admirable, Achcar argues, considering the fact that the Germans would have been a prime ally against the Zionists and the British mandatory. “All things considered, the attitude of the Palestinian liberals was one of the most remarkable and commendable forms of opposition to Nazism in the world,” Achcar writes.
Achcar does not give a clear picture of any popular support these anti-fascist groups enjoyed. For Palestine, he cites a Zionist intelligence report from December 1941, which estimated pro-Nazi sympathies among Palestinian Arabs at 60 percent, but claims the number is exaggerated. He does not mention the poll carried out by Sari al-Sakakini, which, in February 1941, put the figure at 88 percent. Achcar also neglects to mention the prominent Palestinian educator and liberal, Khalil al-Sakakini, Sari’s father, who, in his diary, expressed repeated support for the Nazis.
IF, IN Achcar’s view, political self-interest makes up one of the missing pieces of contextualization of Arab pro-Nazi leanings, then the other is ignorance. Achcar repeatedly invokes pervasive “ideological poverty and confusion” and “sharply diverging levels of political education” in the Arab world. He laments “the alarmingly high proportion of ignorance and mindlessness among those who make public statements in the Arab world—a world governed, to its detriment, by regimes that generate just such ignorance and mindlessness.”
This repeated use of ignorance as an explanatory—and exculpatory—factor is the book’s greatest flaw. Whenever Achcar encounters anti-Semitism alongside contradictory words or deeds, the former is automatically discounted. The presence of such contradictions, he assumes, proves that it is a matter of ignorance, and not of real anti-Semitism.
In a telling section, Achcar recounts an incident that took place in 1936 during the Arab Revolt in Palestine. During a street demonstration in Tulkarm, a passing car was stopped, and one of its passengers, wearing a western-style hat, was assaulted. The man got out of the situation unscathed, however, by making the Nazi salute and shouting “Heil Hitler!” Having hoisted a Nazi flag over his car, the man drove off while the crowd cheered. Achcar does not deny that it was the man’s Nazi credentials that saved him. Nor would he deny, presumably, that had the man been Jewish, he would have been killed on the spot (as happened on numerous other occasions). Nevertheless, this does not qualify as anti-Semitism, according to Achcar. “The Arab population of Palestine would doubtless have detested Hitler had it known the real content of his doctrine,” he writes. The people acted out of simple “stupidity.”
But Achcar’s argument fails to account for how anti-Semitism operates. By definition, anti-Semitism is ignorant. It is the mistaken view that Jews qua Jews possess certain characteristics. To reserve the label of anti-Semitism, a manifestly irrational idea, for those who profess it with intellectual consistency amounts to a circular reasoning by which hardly anyone qualifies.
As Achcar’s own book makes evident, a fully fledged anti-Semitic ideology is by no means a prerequisite for violence directed specifically against Jews. One might also consult historian Christopher Browning’s book Ordinary Men about a German Ordnungspolizei Reserve Unit during the Second World War. Consisting mostly of middle-aged men of working-class background, the unit’s wartime charge was to round up Jews for transport to concentration camps in Poland. The Jews who did not fit onto the trains were to be shot. Despite having been given the option of transferring to other, less gruesome duties, most of the policemen performed their task diligently and without complaint. Browning’s point is that the Holocaust did not require personnel steeped in “eliminationist anti-Semitism,” but rather was made possible by the ready willingness of “ordinary men” without strong ideological proclivities one way or the other to commit atrocities. “If the men of Reserve Police Battalion 101 could become killers under such circumstances, what group of men cannot?” Browning concluded. Evil, it seems, remains as banal as when Hannah Arendt reported on it from Jerusalem in 1962.
Achcar’s tendency to explain anti-Semitic incidents as the result of ignorance is present throughout the book, as are the problems that arise as a result. His discussion of the Farhud, the 1941 Baghdad pogrom, in which some 180 Jews were murdered, provides another example. Based on the highly questionable assumption that it is possible to extrapolate from that isolated incident, the Farhud has often been invoked as proof of a general pattern of anti-Semitic thought across the region. Achcar is right to reject this view, but here as elsewhere, his eagerness to counter the dominant narrative’s essentializing and reductionist tendencies causes him to present an equally reductionist mirror image.
Achcar takes the prominent Middle East historian Bernard Lewis to task for inflating the numbers killed and for calling the Farhud “the first Axis-style attack on a Jewish community in an Arab land.” According to Achcar, this ignores the fact that a majority of Iraqis were opposed to the violence (a claim for which he offers no proof); that most of those who did participate were not motivated by anti-Semitism, but by the prospect of easy gain; and that many “unhesitatingly went to the Jews’ defense or provided them with aid, protection, and shelter.” Furthermore, he points out, the mob was violently suppressed (after two days) by the Iraqi Army, and many of the afflicted Jewish families subsequently received compensation from the Iraqi government.
This is all well and good. But how does Achcar imagine this to be different from any of the European pogroms, whose anti-Semitic character is undisputed? Does he believe that they, in contrast to the Farhud, were all motivated by that curious brand of rational-irrational hatred of Jews for which Achcar insists on reserving the label “anti-Semitism”? If so, then his view differs sharply from most scholarship on the topic. This is perfectly legitimate, of course, but then he would do well to mount a case for why such scholarship is mistaken, rather than just assuming it to be so, and risk the reader’s mistaking his omission for ignorance.
In another section with which one might take issue for similar reasons, Achcar reviews Nasser’s record of anti-Jewish statements. They too fail to meet the criteria of anti-Semitism, Achcar contends. Rather, Nasser was simply ignorant of the facts. In support of this view, Achcar points out that, for the most part, Nasser only uttered each claim once. Thus, only once did Nasser endorse the anti-Semitic canard The Protocols of the Elders of Zion (in 1958), only once did he refer to “the lie of the six million murdered Jews” (1964), only once did he make the claim that David Ben-Gurion had “killed as many Arabs as Hitler killed Jews” (1965), or that Israel “practiced forms of torture against the Palestinian Arab people worse than those Hitler practiced against the German Jews in the Second World War” (1970), and so on.
Achcar goes on to speculate—“it is quite possible”—that Nasser’s advisors, each time, informed him of the factual inaccuracy of what he had said. Nasser, so informed, refrained from repeating the claim. This is certainly not beyond the realm of the possible. Other historians, however, might be forgiven for perceiving, where Achcar sees ignorance, a consistent pattern of anti-Semitic utterances running through the whole of Nasser’s presidency from 1954 to 1970.
Achcar calls for paying greater attention to the distinction between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism. For instance, the Protocols, which have gained widespread currency in the Arab world, need not necessarily be understood as an indication of anti-Semitism. Though an unequivocally anti-Semitic text on its continent of origin, in the Arab world, Achcar claims, the Protocols are understood to refer only to Zionists.
Be that as it may, the claim raises another, more difficult question, which Achcar does not address. If, in the Arabic language, it is common practice to use “Jews” and “Israelis” interchangeably, and if the anti-Zionist rhetoric in the Middle East is itself based on anti-Semitic calumnies, such as the Protocols, and patently anti-Semitic Holocaust deniers, like Roger Garaudy, are celebrated across the region, how then are we to determine where anti-Zionism ends and anti-Semitism begins? Even if we accept that anti-Jewish stereotypes in the Arab world are understood to apply only to Israelis, does it stand to reason that people will be able to maintain the distinction? The increase in Europe of anti-Semitic violence committed by Muslims outraged by the Israeli occupation suggests otherwise.
Achcar’s approach begs the question of what one hopes to accomplish by studying anti-Semitism. If it is to tease out various nuances in anti-Jewish thought, as an exercise of categorization and gradation, then Achcar’s approach makes perfect sense. But if the goal, rather, is to assess the presence and function of anti-Semitic modes of thought in the Arab world, then anti-Semitism of the indeterminate, inconsistent sort is crucially important. Indeed, to merely dismiss it as ignorance is to miss the point.
ACHCAR’S BOOK offers a striking internal contradiction on a different score. In contrast to the great lengths to which Achcar is willing to go to attenuate the facts surrounding secular Arab anti-Semitism, he seems to have no qualms about laying into the Islamists.
He does not mince words in his discussion of one of the founding fathers of contemporary Islamic fundamentalism, Rashid Rida, branding his late thought as “shameless borrowings from the most hackneyed commonplaces of the European anti-Semitism of the day.” In his treatment of Shakib Arslan, a prominent Islamist, Achcar offers abundant evidence of his anti-Semitism, calling scholars who have overlooked or downplayed it “indulgent.”
Achcar even goes so far as to argue that the explanation for the link between Nazism and Islamism was a fundamental ideological affinity in their shared hatred of the Jews. This affinity and the cooperation it engendered prefigured all practical concerns. Writes Achcar, “The explanation [for Islamo-Nazi cooperation] lies in the hatred for the Jews that obsessed these two distinct worldviews, one religious and the other racial, both of which essentialized the enemy.” Achcar’s account thus amounts to a damning indictment of the entire Islamist movement that far outdoes most of the literature on the subject.
Furthermore, the previous invocation of the logic of “my enemy’s enemy is my friend” as an extenuating circumstance cuts no ice with Achcar when the subject turns to Islamists. Talking about secular Arabs, Achcar writes, “while it may be necessary to strike an alliance with the devil under certain circumstances, it is never legitimate to become the devil’s advocate, and even less so to present the devil as an angel. Therein lies the difference between an alliance of convenience and full complicity.” But only a few pages on, this time in the context of discussing Islamists, Achcar asserts, “When ‘my enemy’s enemy’ is much worse than ‘my enemy’ from the standpoint of humanity as a whole, there can be no striking a pact, no matter what the pretext.”
The latter view fits poorly with Achcar’s earlier praise of Palestinian liberals’ rejection of Nazism. If there can be no moral justification for supporting Nazism, even on pragmatic grounds, then the rejection of that ideology is hardly praiseworthy; it is merely upholding a baseline morality, like refraining from rape or murder.
Achcar devotes a considerable portion of the book to the leader of the Palestinian national movement, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Hajj Amin al-Husseini. Spending the war years in Berlin, in close proximity to the Nazi top brass, Hajj Amin remained his “hosts’ Arab/Muslim collaborator par excellence.”
While in Berlin, the Mufti did more than merely oppose Jewish immigration to Palestine. Hajj Amin actively participated in the war effort on behalf of the Nazis, including setting up an SS force of Bosnian Muslims. In a letter to the Hungarian minister, in June 1943, Hajj Amin urged him to prevent Jews from leaving for Palestine and went on to suggest that “it would be indispensable and infinitely preferable to send them to other countries where they would find themselves under active control, for example, in Poland, in order thereby to protect oneself from their menace and avoid the consequent damage.” He mentioned Poland, as Achcar points out, knowing full well about the concentration camps in operation there. Even after the war, Hajj Amin remained steadfast on the matter of his wartime support for the Germans. Had they won, he once lamented after the war, “no trace of the Zionists would have remained in Palestine and the Arab countries.”
Achcar notes, correctly, that the Mufti has been used to tarnish the entire Palestinian national movement and its claim to Palestine. The Israeli “new historian” Tom Segev has shown how Yad Vashem, the Holocaust remembrance authority in Israel, endeavored to create the impression that “there is much in common between the Nazis’ plan to destroy the Jews and the Arabs’ enmity to Israel.” Peter Novick, a prominent chronicler of American Holocaust remembrance, notes that the Encyclopedia of the Holocaust contains an article on the Mufti that is more than twice as long as the combined length of the ones on Goebbels and Göring. In fact, the only article that exceeds the Mufti’s in length is Hitler’s.
IN THE final chapter of the book, Achcar discusses contemporary expressions of anti-Semitism in the Arab world. Like in previous chapters, Achcar points out that “the most important question” is the “real weight of anti-Semitism in today’s Arab world.” He poses the question, “Is the fantasy-based hatred of the Jews that was and still is typical of European racists…the equivalent of the hatred felt by Arabs enraged by the occupation and/or destruction of Arab lands?”
Achcar, of course, thinks not. But saying that European anti-Semitism does not fully exhaust the meaning of its Middle Eastern analog is a truism. It does little but reiterate the obvious point that spatial and temporal contingencies shape all ideas as they manifest themselves in different historical contexts. Tracing an idea across space and time requires paying attention to the ways in which ideas adapt to and are transformed by different contexts. The challenge of any intellectual history is to determine what should be understood as a difference of degree and what of kind, and to decide when the operating assumption is continuity and when it is change. Achcar skirts this discussion. He often stresses in-kind differences and histories of change to acquit secular politicians and intellectuals, while identifying gradual differences and historical continuities in order to pass stern judgment on Islamic thinkers and movements.
Achcar’s topic is self-evidently important. As the Holocaust recedes into the past, soon out of reach of living memory, its primary significance is increasingly tied to its didactical function. The malevolence manifest in the extermination of a particular group, carried out on the strength of irrational delusions, is a uniquely pernicious kind of evil. We ignore the distinctive characteristics of such hate at our peril, since awareness of its existence reduces the risk of its recurrence.
But the Holocaust can also serve less noble goals. This is especially true in the context of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Winning sympathies for one’s cause is much more difficult if it is tainted, in the public’s mind, with the legacy of Nazism. Conversely, successfully claiming the role of successor to the Holocaust’s victims is sure to strengthen one’s case.
Considering the symbolic force of the Holocaust, it is crucial to maintain the distinction between a neo-Nazi shouting “Death to the Jews!” and a Palestinian shouting likewise, but who by “Jews” means “Israelis.” Context—political, cultural, or linguistic—matters. And while Palestinians have a legitimate gripe with Israel, the notion that they have one with world Jewry has to be rejected in the strongest possible terms. This requires an evenhanded approach to the issue. Mistakenly labeling something anti-Semitism that is not is as grave an error as failing to properly identify the real thing.
Achcar’s book does not fully succeed in dealing with this problem. In addition to its unhelpfully narrow understanding of anti-Semitism, it suffers from a strident anti-Zionism that sits uneasily atop the book’s primary topic. As a result, one is left with the impression that Achcar succumbs to the very malady he purports to write against. And we continue playing politics with the Holocaust.
Fredrik Meiton is a Ph.D. student at the department of history and the Taub Center for Israel Studies at New York University.
Homepage photo: The Grand Mufti of Jerusalem with Waffen-SS volunteers (German Federal Archive/Wikimedia Commons/1943)