How do Arabs see the Holocaust - Dialogue with the Islamic World

The Holocaust issue arouses mixed feelings and associations among many Arabs. Because it is - some believe - Zionist propaganda to legitimize the existence of the State of Israel. Others argue that the Holocaust is a historical fact that is a thing of the past; one should rather deal with the injustice in the present and talk about the acts of violence and crimes of Israel.

Others note that the horrors of the past, including those of the Holocaust, should not confer "moral immunity" or "special status" in international law on anyone.

The problem with this line of argument, however, is that there is a tendency to belittle, relativize, or even deny the crimes of the past. Holocaust deniers like Roger Garaudy, David Irving or Ahmadinejad are celebrated as heroes among many Arabs. It becomes even more problematic when you talk about the Holocaust or National Socialism, although you know little, very little about it.

It is precisely this gap that the knowledgeable and well-founded book by Gilbert Achcar, the Lebanese historian at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, aims to fill. His book "The Arabs and the Holocaust - the Arab-Israeli war of narratives" is the first comprehensive study by an Arab historian that illuminates the complex relationship between the Arabs and the Holocaust. A factual and solid investigation of great importance, as also confirmed by Ulrike Freitag, head of the "Center for the Modern Orient" in Berlin.

Are there "the Arabs"?

The "Arabs" do not exist as a political unit and do not have a homogeneous identity - according to Achcar - just as little as one can speak of "the Muslims" or "the Jews".

In his study, Achcar tries to explain the differences between the Arab positions on the Holocaust and Zionism. For the 1940s he finds four standpoints in particular, which he classifies as liberal, Marxist, national and religious-Salafist.

Positions could be found that ranged from express condemnation of National Socialism to clear hostility towards Jews. The liberals and Marxists, according to Achcar, differentiated between Jews and Zionists and unequivocally condemned the Holocaust. The nationalists, however, had taken a liking to the Nazi and fascist "model" and tried to imitate it. The religious-Salafist tendency, in turn, developed a discourse hostile to Jews through a selective interpretation of the Koran suras and interspersed it with content from anti-Semitic writings such as the "Protocols of the Elders of Zion".

However, the attitudes of these various groups do not justify the allegation of direct involvement of the Arabs in the Holocaust. Achcar describes these allegations as a "caricature". Certainly the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Sheikh Amin al-Hussaini, had close ties to Nazi greats like Hitler and Himmler.

But all of this is known and well documented, says Achcar in an interview with "The Mufti played an important role in the propaganda for Nazism and fascism in the Arab and Islamic world. He was involved in the racist Nazi campaign against Jews and the formation of two battalions of Muslim soldiers in Bosnia who fought with the Nazi troops. " Nevertheless, it is not permissible to infer all Arabs from the attitude of the omnipresent Mufti. Because this position was already condemned by many Arabs at that time.

See the mufti in its historical context

The historian Ulrike Freitag shares this assessment, pointing out the historical connection to the time when the Palestinians were confronted with the massive immigration of Jews to their homeland. Friday said only "a minority" of the Arabs represented the pro-Nazi opinion of the mufti.

That is why the role of al-Hussaini is "immeasurably exaggerated", according to Achcar in his book. As an example, he cites that the Holocaust encyclopedia published by the Yad Vashem Memorial dedicates the second largest article after Hitler to the Mufti of Jerusalem as if he had direct responsibility for the Holocaust. "The Holocaust," says Freitag, "is a German crime. It is neither the crime of the Arabs nor of others."

Achcar also points out that the number of Arabs who fought with the Nazis did not exceed 6000 men. However, there were around 9,000 Palestinians who fought with the British and around a quarter of a million Moroccans who fought with the French against the Nazis: "Nevertheless, books appear in all languages ​​that try to convince us that the Arabs were supporters of the Nazis That is slander, "says Achcar.

Anti-Semitism in Europe

There was a long history of anti-Semitism in Europe, but before the Palestine question there was no anti-Semitism in this form in the Arab world.

It is known that the position of the Jews in the Islamic world was generally better than in the Christian world, according to Achcar: "Where did the Jews fled to when they were expelled from Spain? In the Islamic world." Ulrike Freitag confirms this and says that until the 1930s the Jews lived in the Arab world without any problems: "The picture only changed with the increasing Jewish immigration to Palestine."

On the other hand, Achcar criticizes the "philosemitism" that prevails in some European countries. He attributes it to Europeans' guilty feelings, but believes that this form of "emotional and uncritical love" is the other side of the antisemitism coin.

Sympathy for the Nazi ideology

In his book, Achcar also illuminates the motives of those in the Arab region who sympathized with the Nazi regime - according to the motto "the enemy of my enemy is my friend". Although they would have believed that an alliance with the Nazis would help them in the conflict with the British and French, the author sees no widespread dissemination of Nazi ideas in the Arab world.

How then can one explain Hitler's popularity among common Arabs? Why did the demonstrators on the streets of Cairo shout "Go on, Rommel, go on!" During the Battle of El Alamein in 1943? Can this enthusiasm only be explained by the fact that the motto here was "the enemy of my enemy is my friend"? Or was there anti-Semitism rooted in the Arab countries at that time?

Achcar said in an interview with "Yes, part of the public, politically very naive opinion believed that Hitler was a hero". But in other countries that were also under British colonial rule, similar views were held - as in India.

"I think the main reason for the Arab support for Nazi Germany is actually the hostile attitude of the Germans towards the colonial powers," says Ulrike Freitag. And adds: "But one must also say that there were certain groups in the Arab world who adopted parts of the Nazi ideology."

Holocaust denial out of ignorance and a lack of education

For many Arabs, the Holocaust is a "myth" that was used to establish the State of Israel. Achcar explains the reasons for this convincingly in his book. Here, too, he differentiates between the various attitudes over the past decades and emphasizes: "Yes, denial of the Holocaust is increasing, but this attitude must not be portrayed as if all Arabs were Holocaust deniers. Most believe that the Holocaust is something Was terrible and inhuman. "

Incidentally, a diary entry by al-Hussaini after his meeting with Heinrich Himmler in the summer of 1943 shows that there was knowledge of the Holocaust: He noted that Himmler had informed him that around three million Jews had been exterminated by then. The Mufti himself did not deny the Holocaust either.

What moves many today to deny the Holocaust or to question the number of victims has to do with the instrumentalization of it by Israel in the Middle East conflict: The Israelis used the Holocaust to justify their policies, says Achcar. Former Israeli prime minister and foreign minister, Menachem Begin, once said that after the Holocaust the international community lost all right to hold Israel accountable.

It is precisely this attitude that moves many in the Arab world to deny this terrible crime or to relativize the number of victims. But all of this, says Achcar, "ultimately harms the Palestine question".

Perhaps that is why the top Palestinian politicians emphasized in a declaration made by the poet Mahmud Darwish on the 50th anniversary of the founding of Israel:

"If it is our moral responsibility to accept the Jewish version of the Holocaust as it is, without discussing the statistical side of the crime, it is also our right to appeal to the sons of the Holocaust victims, the Palestinian victims and to recognize their right to life and independence. "

"But there is also another reason to deny the Holocaust," remarks Ulrike Freitag: "That is, that in many Arab countries there is not enough information about the Holocaust." It is precisely this glaring information gap that the study by Gilbert Achcar closes. One can therefore only hope that the book will find widespread circulation in all Arab countries.

Samir Grees

© 2010

Gilbert Achcar: "The Arabs and the Holocaust: The Arab-Israeli War of Narratives". Henry Holt Verlag, 2010.

Editor: Nimet Seker /

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