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Issue Date:  April 4, 2008

The whys of Holocaust denial

Both Palestinians and Israelis disallow the other side's painful past


Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been widely condemned in the West as a Holocaust denier, someone who has declared that the story that 6 million Jews were killed by the Nazis during the Second World War is a “myth.” What horrified Westerners condemning this denial fail to explore, however, is why there is sympathy for this denial in the Middle East.

In my view, the reason is that the Middle East has experienced the story of the Holocaust as a claim to a unique entitlement of the Jewish people to a state built on Arab land. It is this use of the Holocaust as entitlement that makes people of the Middle East suspect that the story has been made up by the West. As Mr. Ahmadinejad put it, “Our question is, if you have committed this huge crime, why should the innocent nation of Palestine pay for it?”

-- UPI Photo/Ismael Mohamad

A Palestinian man shows his key while participating in a demonstration marking the 57th anniversary of Nakba, the "day of catastrophe," on May 15, 2005. On the same day, Israel celebrated the 57th anniversary of its creation.

This use of Holocaust history as entitlement to land was made evident to me in an incident I experienced in the Gaza Strip about 10 years ago. I was present in Gaza with a study delegation I was helping to lead when some Palestinians from a Gazan village contacted us and told us that their last piece of agricultural land had just been confiscated by Israeli settlers. They had built greenhouses to expand the productivity of this land and were about to harvest the crops when the Israelis from a nearby settlement destroyed the greenhouses, bulldozed the land and claimed it as theirs.

We followed the villagers in our bus and looked at the bulldozed field. Two settlers arrived in a car, carrying the ubiquitous Uzis. Two women of our delegation asked, “Why did you do this to these villagers?” The settlers shouted back, “It’s because of what happened to us in the war.” “But these Palestinians had nothing to do with what happened to you,” the women protested. “It makes no difference,” the settlers replied. “Everyone must pay. The whole world must pay.”

It is in the context of such experiences of land confiscation in the name of “payment” for the Holocaust that Palestinians and others in the Middle East are tempted to retort, “But that never really happened. You just made it up to justify what you are doing to us.”

Resistance to honoring the Holocaust is aggravated, for Palestinians particularly, by the fact that they have suffered since 1948 from what might be called “Nakba denial” by the Israelis. Just before and during the 1948-49 Israeli war of independence, some 800,000 Palestinians fled or were forcibly expelled from their towns and villages. The state of Israel grew from the 54 percent of Palestine originally granted for a Jewish state by the United Nations to 73 percent. Those driven out became refugees in Jordan, Lebanon or Egypt, while the remnant of Palestinians within Israel lost most of their land to become internal refugees.

It is this massive “ethnic cleansing” of Palestinians during the 1948-49 war that Palestinians refer to as al Nakba (the catastrophe). The official Israeli version of the history denies that these Palestinians were ever forcibly expelled. It claims that the Palestinians left voluntarily, having been called to leave by the Arab nations, hoping to return triumphantly after the victory of their armies.

Careful studies of the broadcasts that took place during the war have proved that no such call from the Arab states took place. Those who fled did so as a temporary measure to avoid being killed like those massacred by Israeli forces in the village of Deir Yassin. Many others, such as the people of the Arab towns of Ramle and Lydda, were forcibly marched over the border to Ramallah, many dying along the way.

More recently, revisionist Israeli historians have confirmed the Palestinian account of these events and have shown that the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians from land claimed by Israel was an intentional plan by Israeli leaders such as Ben-Gurion. Unfortunately one of the most prominent of these Israel revisionist historians, Benny Morris, while still confirming that the Palestinians were intentionally expelled, has turned to justifying this, saying it was necessary to create a Jewish majority in Israel. He has suggested that it should have been done more thoroughly.

-- Getty Images/AFP/Yoav Lemmer

Khaled Mahameed at his small Holocaust museum in Nazareth.

For Palestinians, the Nakba is not simply about past history. The Nakba continues in new instances of expropriation of land and in efforts, such as the wall built around the Palestinian areas in the West Bank, to make life for Palestinians so intolerable that they will leave. Thus Palestinians experience themselves as living an ongoing catastrophe that continues to today, but whose reality is denied by Israel.

Does Nakba denial by Israelis justify Holocaust denial by Arabs? Obviously not. But what is illegitimate is using the Holocaust to justify catastrophic destruction of Palestinian life and confiscation of their land. A more insightful approach would be to link the two positively. One should say, “The Holocaust was a terrible crime against the Jews by the West, and now Israel uses it to justify another crime against the Palestinians.”

This is the approach of Khaled Mahameed, a Muslim Palestinian in Nazareth, who has put up a small museum of pictures of European Jewish suffering during the Nazi era to instruct his fellow Palestinians about the reality of the Holocaust. He added a few pictures of Palestinian refugees from the 1948 war, thus condemning both crimes. While the Anti-Defamation League has applauded Mr. Mahameed’s effort to educate fellow Palestinians about the Holocaust, it has condemned any link with the Palestinian Nakba as inappropriate.

Clearly what is needed is a breakthrough to a compassionate sense of co-humanity in which Israelis and Palestinians can mourn each other’s disasters and refuse to use one disaster to justify another.

Rosemary Ruether is the Carpenter Professor of Feminist Theology at the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, Calif.

National Catholic Reporter, April 4, 2008

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