Tel Aviv — For decades, the topic of the Holocaust has been taboo in Palestinian society and throughout the Arab world. The most common reactions have been Holocaust denial, equating the Shoah with Palestinian injustices or simply ignoring the Nazi killing machine all together.
But now it seems there may be seeds of change afoot among Palestinians: On the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day on Sunday, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas published a declaration — unprecedented for an Arab head of state — calling the Holocaust against the Jews the most “heinous crime” against humanity in modern history.
The statement followed a trip to Auschwitz in March by a prominent Palestinian professor and a group of students. But that gesture received a rocky response. The academic, Mohammed Adjani of Al Quds University in Jerusalem, was inundated with criticism for “normalizing” ties with Israel and branded a collaborator.
Abbas’ statement was immediately dismissed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as “damage control” for an earlier reconciliation deal with Hamas.
“What President Abbas is trying to do is to placate Western public opinion that understands that he delivered a terrible blow to the peace process by embracing these Hamas terrorists,” he told CNN, referring to the formation of a Palestinian unity government. “And I think he’s trying to wiggle his way out of it.”
But, in an interview with The Jewish Week, the New York rabbi who convinced Abbas to publicize the remarks suggested that Netanyahu’s criticism was off base.
Rabbi Marc Schneier, spiritual leader of The Hampton Synagogue and a president of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, which tries to forge stronger Jewish-Muslim ties, said Abbas’ original remarks were made in private to him when he visited the Palestinian president in Ramallah several days before the Palestinian unity deal. Rabbi Schneier added that Abbas published the remarks at the rabbi’s request. He praised the Palestinian president for being “clear and unequivocal in describing the magnitude of the Holocaust.”
“I found his words to be genuine and heartfelt,” Rabbi Schneier said. “It takes a certain degree of courage and fortitude to make a statement about the Holocaust in his world, where many people deny that the Holocaust ever took place.
“We should embrace these sentiments as planting seeds for peace and understanding. I’m not going to sit here and say we have reached the Promised Land of Muslim-Jewish reconciliation, but it’s an important milestone along the way.”
For Palestinians, acknowledging the Jewish genocide in the Holocaust was tantamount to a political affirmation of Israel’s national narrative, so people either avoided it, denied its existence, or equated the Jewish genocide with the Naqba, or “disaster,” of Israel’s birth. Indeed, the Palestinian president has an infamous reputation with Israelis in part because of a 1983 doctoral thesis, “The Secret Relationship Between Zionism and Nazism” in which he suggested the two conspired against European Jewry. The dissertation also suggested that the number of Jewish victims could be less than 1 million.
That probably contributed to the somewhat cool response that Abbas got elsewhere in Israel. A statement from Israel’s Holocaust Memorial, Yad Vashem, said that the remarks “might signal a change… we expect it will be reflected in PA websites, curricula and discourse.”
Yossi Klein Halevi, an Israeli author who has focused on inter-religious dialogue, said that in addition to Holocaust denial throughout the Arab world, there’s also a tendency to draw comparisons with Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. Halevi portrayed it as a missed opportunity.
“I would celebrate Abbas’ statement as a crucial contribution to Muslim-Jewish relations if it hadn’t come immediately after signing a deal with Hamas, which is one of the Arab world’s leading purveyors of Holocaust denial. … Abbas lost his moral authority by making a deal with Hamas.”
Several years ago, the Hamas government in Gaza blocked a plan to teach about the Holocaust in United Nations schools. In 2003, Hamas leader Abdel Azziz Rantisi wrote in the organization’s newspaper about the “false Holocaust” propagated by “Zionist” supporters.
The bad blood between Jews and Palestinians over the Holocaust reaches back to Haj Amin al Husaini, the Mufti of Jerusalem and the top Palestinian leader during World War II; he reached out to Hitler to oppose establishing a Jewish homeland in Palestine and to make common cause against a common enemy, the English, the Jews and the Communists.
Ben-Gurion University historian Hana Yablonka said there’s a “complete politicization of the Holocaust” in Israel, potentially dooming Abbas’ comments from the start. “Yesterday, something [meaningful] occurred,” she said. “The story with Abu Mazen [Abbas’ nom du guerre], on the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day, saying what he said … that’s something that should have made waves. It should have received some sort of outreach from our side.”
The politicization reaches to both sides. If the Palestinian leader’s Holocaust remarks prompted barbs from Israelis, the comments “are likely to be seen by Palestinians as bending over backwards to speak to Israeli sensibilities,” said Khaled Elgindy, a former staffer of the Palestinian Negotiations Affairs Department and a fellow at the Brookings Institute. “There’s going to naturally be resistance from his own constituents when it’s the Palestinians who are dispossessed and occupied. That’s the Palestinian mindset: ‘It’s they who should be allaying our concerns.’”
Adjani, the political science professor from Al Quds University who visited Auschwitz, concurred. “It’s because of the Arab-Israeli conflict, politics dominate, and it takes over regarding humanitarian issues. Because of the occupation Israel practices every day, Arab leaders will not make such a statement to antagonize people who are suffering under the Israeli occupation.”
Adjani said that Abbas’ remarks should be viewed as “groundbreaking” and courageous, despite the potential criticism. Adjani knows personally about that criticism after having recently led a group of Palestinian students to Auschwitz. One participant named Jameel told the Israeli news agency The Media Line that the group was accused of being spies. Al Quds University refused to endorse the trip.
Adjani, who tried to establish a movement of moderate Islamists, explained that most Palestinians don’t understand that embracing the Holocaust can be done for purely humanitarian motivations, as a show of compassion for the victims and their families.
The same conclusions have trickled down to his students on the trip. Jameel said that without seeing the concentration camps in person, it’s impossible to understand the scope of the disaster.
“I told my brother to tell everyone he knows that we visited the Auschwitz camp and we saw the tremendous suffering of what happened during the Holocaust,” he told The Media Line. “And we, as Palestinians, know the meaning of what it means to suffer.”