Gilbert Achcar’s book is convincing in its deconstruction and refutation of many aspects of the dominant Zionist narrative, argues Joseph Daher.

The Arabs and the Holocaust: The Arab-Israeli War of Narratives

Gilbert Achcar, The Arabs and the Holocaust: The Arab-Israeli War of Narratives, trans. G. M. Goshgarian (Saqi Books 2010), 208pp.

The legitimacy of Israel in the eyes of many people has in recent years become ever more bound up with issues of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, in ways encouraged by leading voices in Israel itself. Gilbert Achcar, a Lebanese socialist, is therefore an important voice in the attempt to clear away the myths of pro-Israeli propaganda about Arab anti-Semitism, as well as to clarify for an Arabic audience the real importance of the Holocaust. This book’s task is therefore partly to critique the current mainstream Zionist narrative, but also to lay out the real facts of the historically diverse attitudes of Arab peoples to the Nazis, the British, and to anti-Semitism.

Historical narratives play a very important role in the Arab-Israeli conflict, particularly in relation to European and North American audiences, but each side in the conflict relates two separate events: the Holocaust and the Nakba. The Nakba, the expulsion of Palestinians from their lands by the emerging Israeli state, is described by the Arab mainstream as the result of a Zionist colonial enterprise. For the Arab mainstream, as also for many Israeli and Jewish critics of Israel, the Nakba was ethnic cleansing pure and simple. The Nakba thus remains the defining moment for the Arab narrative, and in many ways it is more of a process than a single event, and it has been going on ever since 1948. Palestinians, among others, have been living in a state of continual oppression by Israel, suffering from occupation, marginalisation and continued expulsion from their own homes.

On the other hand, the Israeli mainstream narrative asserts that Zionism was the only consistent response to anti-Semitism. The only escape from anti-Semitism was through the creation of Israel, as a form of redemption after the Holocaust. In the Zionist narrative, Arabs are represented flatly as pro-Nazi and anti-Semitic. The creation of Israel therefore follows as a continuation of the Second World War, with the Jewish people actually continuing the fight to save their existence against the ‘Pro Nazi and anti-Semitic Arab population’.

That the Mufti of Jerusalem, Mohamed Amin Al Husseini, collaborated with the Nazis during his exile in Germany is essential ballast to this discourse. Yet he had very little influence on the Palestinians at this time. It is far from accurate to portray him as reflecting the mainstream opinion of the Palestinians, or the Arabs in general, as some Israeli rhetoric seeks to do. Only through such historically illegitimate moves can the Zionist narrative that Achcar describes, portray the 1948 war as a defensive war against genocidal Arabs.

This book is convincing in its deconstruction and refutation of many aspects of the dominant Zionist narrative. Achcar rejects the overt and covert claims that present Arab discourse as essentially ‘anti-Semitic’. The actual history of the Arabs during World War II refutes this interpretation of the past entirely. Arab opinion diverged in a number of different directions, and episodes that can be used to argue for the popularity of Hitler in the Arab street need to be seen in the context of British Imperialism. Arab societies were not the only part of the empire where understandable detestation of the British fed shallow pro-German views. In addition, the British and Jews together were experienced by the Palestinians as occupiers and colonizers at that time, so the insignificant level of real support for Nazi Germany is in fact remarkable. Indeed a significant number of Arabs actually fought in Allied armies.

There is an urgent need to deconstruct these false narratives to reverse the demonisation of the Other, which sustains support for the Israeli colonial project. Unhappily, on the other side of the divide in the Arab world, there can be found in more recent years rising ‘anti-Semitic’ discourses coming from certain specific and small groups. Achcar is warning against these clearly retrograde developments, which in fact enable the mainstream Israeli narrative to find some factual purchase that it was otherwise lacking. The emergence of this minority racist discourse is nevertheless the direct result of Israel’s escalation of violence and aggression against the Palestinians and others, alongside the rise of virulent new forms of right-wing racism in Israel.

It can be argued then that the war of narratives forestalls the possibility of constructive communication between the Israeli and Arab sides. Achcar highlights the need for the pro-Israeli camp to acknowledge, and condemn, the criminal actions of Israel during and subsequent to the Nakba. In addition however, he asks that the Arabs should acknowledge the role and importance of the Holocaust in Jewish minds, despite the political use made of it by Israeli authorities. It is of course the case that leading Palestinian figures have made efforts along these lines, but Achcar warns against overly glib dismissals of the issue.

To potential critics who would point out that there was no link whatsoever between the Arabs and the Holocaust, and that this book is therefore redundant, Achcar answers by pointing out that the Holocaust has nonetheless become intertwined with the subsequent history of Arab peoples. Achcar agrees entirely that there was no real historical connection between the Arabs and the Holocaust, as some pro-Israeli sources would like to imply through discussion of the Mufti of Jerusalem for example. However, the Palestinians are the victims of the victims and the Nakba was in many ways set in motion by the Holocaust. Achcar might be said in this book to be exploring the relationship between this paradoxical ‘non-responsibility’ for the Holocaust of Arab peoples who are nonetheless victims of its historical impact.

The politics of the Holocaust in the Middle East in both an Israeli and Arab context is analysed expertly here, making this book an invaluable tool. The continued use by pro-Israeli forces of narratives that link the Holocaust to Arab culture makes the debunking here crucial reading for Palestinian solidarity activists.

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