Since the Nazi Holocaust there has been a war of narratives about its anti-racist ‘implications. According to the prevalent Zionist narrative, the Arab world has been driven by a racist, neo-Nazi hatred of all Jews and even collaborated with the Nazis against the Jews living there. In this narrative, Arab leaders seen as an enemy of Israel – from Egypt’s Gamal Abdel-Nasser to the PLO’s Yasser Arafat to Iraq’s Saddam Hussein – have been labelled as Nazis seeking to murder Jews.
The dominant narrative was critically analysed by the 2010 book, The Arabs and the Holocaust: The Arab-Israeli War of Narratives, by Gilbert Achcar, Professor of International Relations at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). As his book demonstrated, antisemitism in the Arab world has been historically weaker than analogous racist agendas in the West and has been imported from there. Nevertheless continuous Zionist colonisation has pleaded self-defence against a Nazi-like Arab threat of extermination, thus Nazifying the Arabs. Such claims have provoked a ‘war of narratives’ about the role of antisemitism in anti-Zionism and Zionism alike.
This war of narratives was discussed at a 24 April SOAS event, co-sponsored by its Palestine Society and the Jewish Network for Palestine (JNP). Rather than give a lecture, the author was interviewed by Professor Haim Bresheeth, author of Introducing the Holocaust .
He stressed today’s relevance of a book discussing issues that have become hotter than at the time of publication: it reads ‘as if it had come out yesterday’, said Bresheeth.
As Professor Achcar explained, Jews historically have seen relatively greater safety in Muslim lands, given their experience of Christian persecution in Europe. In the 15thcentury the Christian reconquest of Portugal and Spain led to forced conversion. After the 1492 expulsion of Jews and Muslims, tens of thousands of Jews fled to Muslim North Africa and the Ottoman Empire; they were welcomed, finding refuge there for centuries.
Serious tensions between Jewish and Muslim communities arose only after the First World War, when the Balfour Declaration offered the Zionist Federation a Jewish homeland in Palestine. During the Second World War, nationalist groups in various places saw Hitler as an ally against British imperialism; such nationalists included the Indian National Alliance, the (Revisionist Zionist) Stern Gang and some Palestinian leaders. This misguided strategy was supporting ‘the enemy of my enemy’, rather than coming from antisemitic motives. And during the Nazi Occupation of North Africa, Muslims protected Jews from persecution, while also opposing the Zionist colonization project.
Since the Holocaust, the accusation of ‘Arab antisemitism’ (alongside the Holocaust itself) has been deployed as an extra means to justify establishment of a Jewish state and then further colonisation. This deployment led some Arabs to espouse Holocaust denial, an ideology which they adopted from Western antisemites.
Far more salient than antisemitism among Arabs during the Nazi period, they provided hospitality and protection for Jews against antisemitism. Examples include Iraqi Arabs protecting Jews during the only significant pogrom in the Arab world, the ‘Farhud’ in 1941. More Arab Muslims were killed by the British forces suppressing the attacks than the number of Jews who died.
Despite the 1941 Farhud, the new Israeli state initially failed to attract immigration from Iraqi Jews; they were the oldest Jewish community anywhere, lasting almost 3000 years. Israel’s Mossad resorted to plant ing bombs in Baghdad synagogues with fake messages that these were the acts of Muslim antisemites (codenamed Operation Babylon). The bombings finally pushed the Iraqi Jews to emigrate to Israel.
Nevertheless Israel has demanded ‘ reparations ‘ for the supposed persecution which led Jews to leave Arab countries. This demand has served to neutralise Palestinian demands for the return of the refugees. And Israel instrumentalised the 1962 Adolf Eichmann trial for a political agenda labelling the Arabs as Nazis, especially President Gamal Abd-Al Nasser.
By contrast, long-time Zionist collusion with antisemites has strong evidence, as Professor Achcar pointed out. In 1933 the German Zionist Federation signed the Transfer Agreement with Nazi Germany, allowing Jews to emigrate to Palestine with their wealth, in return for sabotaging the global boycott of the Nazi regime. More recently, antisemitic views have been most apparent amongst Arab leaders with whom the Israelis have chosen to partner, e.g. the late Anwar Sadat of Egypt and Abu Mazen, current leader of the PLO.
Today the strongest support for Israel’s colonisation project comes from antisemitic politicians in Europe. Zionist organisations welcome such support, and Israel hosts their visits to its Holocaust museum (Yad Vashem), thus sanitising their antisemitic politics. For more examples of Zionist-antisemitic partnerships, see this briefing document.
Despite such collusion with antisemitism, the Zionist narrative has found popular resonance by exploiting Western guilt around the Holocaust, said Achcar. Perhaps also by projecting their own neocolonial anti-Arab (or Islamophobic) racism onto Arabs, especially the Palestinians and regimes supporting them. While most Arab regimes have been brought to toe Washington’s line, Iran remains the strongest opponent of Israel’s aggression in the Middle East. The Zionist narrative therefore has been Nazifying Iran in particular.
The war of narratives matters for wider anti-racist struggles today. The Zionist agenda monopolises the Holocaust with the slogan, ‘Never Again to us’, while branding pro-Palestinian campaigns as antisemites.
By contrast, the anti-racist agenda proclaims, ‘Never Again to anyone’, as Achcar emphasised.
The JNP-PalSoc lecture series will continue on a regular basis; see our Facebook page Jewish Network for Palestine for future events.
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This post was written by Dr Les Levidow