Setting the Record Straight: The Arabs, Zionism, and the Holocaust

by Gilbert Achcar
Metropolitan Books, 2010

Book CoverIt is not at all clear why there should be a book about the Arabs and the Holocaust. After all, the program to exterminate Europe’s Jews occurred in Germany and Nazi-occupied Europe. Arabs were neither participants nor victims. Racial anti-Semitism, moreover, was a product of European history, not of Arab or Islamic history. There is, on the face of it, no more need for a book on the Arabs and the Holocaust than for a book on the Africans or the Australians and the Holocaust.

But Israel was created in the Arab world, and Israelis and Arabs have long been fighting a bitter war about both the nature of Israel and that of Arab opposition to Zionism. In this war, the shadow of the Holocaust looms large. Although Zionist colonization of Palestine predated the Holocaust by decades, Western powers legitimated their support for the creation of Israel in the wake of Nazi mass murder. These powers also rationalized their embrace of a Jewish state as atonement for a long history of Western anti-Semitism culminating in the Holocaust. Although the indigenous Arab inhabitants of Palestine were uprooted and dispossessed to make way for a Jewish state, in the United States today, partisans of Israel routinely equate anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism. Critics of Israeli policies have often been denounced as being “anti-Israel” and anti-Semitic, as if support for denied Palestinian human and national rights in the face of Israeli occupation necessarily means antipathy to Jews tout court.

Such has been the prevalence of this association of anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism that in his Semites and Anti-Semites (1986), Bernard Lewis suggested that “classical” anti-Semitism had become an “essential part of Arab intellectual life at the present time—almost as much as happened in Nazi Germany,” and “considerably more” than fin-de-siècle France. The Israeli historian Benny Morris goes further. He pathologizes Arab opposition to Israel, which he sees as an indication of Islam’s age-old hatred of Jews. In his 1948: A History of the First Arab-Israeli War (2008), Morris misattributed an anti-Jewish statement to the Qur’an and then directly transposed it to explain modern Ottoman and Arab opposition to Zionism. In an interview in 2004 in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Morris also declared that “[Palestinian] society is in the state of being a serial killer. It is a very sick society. It should be treated the way we treat individuals who are serial killers.” A slew of other books have sought to tie Arabs to Nazism at one level or another and have thus reinforced the notion that Arab opposition to Israel is not primarily opposition to injustice and colonialism. Rather, it is seen as a reflection of a pervasive Jew-hatred among Arabs that is akin, if not directly related, to European anti-Semitism.

Hajj Amin’s Oversized Shadow

The case of the Palestinian Hajj Amin al-Husseini, the mufti of Jerusalem during the British Mandate in Palestine, is habitually cited as hard evidence of this alleged Arab pathology. In the mufti’s case, the line between opposition to the Zionist claim to Palestine and a generalized antipathy for Jews was indeed blurred beyond recognition. The mufti, who had initially been elevated by the British before fleeing from them following the failed Palestinian anticolonial revolt of 1936, met with Adolf Hitler in November 1941. The mufti presented himself to Germany as a viable anti-British Muslim Arab leader who could destabilize British control of the Middle East. He hoped that any anti-British alliance would also dismantle the Zionist project in Palestine that had flourished under British protection.{{{subscriber|2.00}}}

Hajj Amin’s association with the Nazis was sordid. But his collaboration with the Germans, which ultimately came to naught, has invariably been evoked not in order to discuss the pitfalls of religious, national, and anticolonial consciousness in the modern world. Instead, Hajj Amin’s Nazi association is evoked mostly to deny the Nakba, to tarnish the Palestinians as a people, to suggest a general Arab infatuation with Nazism, and to enable Western audiences—including many people acutely aware of the horrors of the Nazi genocide but generally indifferent to the cruelty and bitter legacies of Western colonialism—to discredit Arab opposition to Zionism. In The Holocaust in American Life (1999), historian Peter Novick points out that the Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, published in association with the Israeli Holocaust memorial museum Yad Vashem, has a biographical entry on Hajj Amin that is longer than that of Adolf Eichmann or Heinrich Himmler. Hajj Amin’s picture with Hitler taken in their meeting in 1941 has been so often reproduced, and Hajj Amin so demonized, that the question about the actual influence of Nazi ideology on major Arab intellectual currents and political figures has been lost in fable and propaganda.

How then to interpret fairly the enormously complex relationship between the Holocaust as a European genocide and the consequences of this genocide on the contemporary Arab-Israeli conflict? How must a scholar try to understand the fact that Jews were not singled out as the antithesis of an emerging Arab nationalism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but were often indeed singled out in Europe? Perhaps the most obvious and yet stunningly underappreciated fact remains that Zionism initially arose not from the turmoil of the late Ottoman empire—as did Arab, Turkish, and Armenian nationalisms—but from that of nineteenth-century Europe. And yet Zionism as ideology, as political practice, and finally as a set of existential anxieties about maintaining a Jewish identity in inhospitable and often anti-Semitic European environments, was displaced to the Arab world.

Setting the Historical Record Straight

Given the centrality of the Holocaust for post-1948 Zionist politics and culture, and the centrality of the Nakba (or catastrophe) for the modern Palestinian experience, how should a scholar go about analyzing Arab reactions to the Holocaust in the context of the Zionist colonization of Palestine?

Gilbert Achcar’s The Arabs and the Holocaust provides some fundamental answers to these questions. At its most basic, it represents a long-overdue setting straight of the historical record. Here is an Arab author who examines primary sources from the Arab world. A professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, Achcar is aware that the historiography of the Arab-Israeli conflict is a minefield. And yet he walks openly into it. He refutes the oft-peddled notion that Arabs were in any general sense sympathetic to Nazism in the 1930s and 1940s. He demonstrates, instead, how little traction Nazi ideology had in the major intellectual currents of the Arab world (which Achcar identifies as liberal, nationalist, communist, and Islamist). A significant part of Achcar’s book, then, is to show how a number of orientalist scholars (including Stefan Wild, Elie Kedourie, Yehoshafat Harkabi, and Bernard Lewis) have advanced tendentious interpretations of the allegedly fascist leanings or anti-Semitic attributes of the Arab world. He demolishes, for example, the assertion made by Wild (a German Islamicist) that one of the Baath party founders, Michel Aflaq, was fascinated by Nazism.

But beyond picking apart the misleading work of the likes of Wild and Lewis, Achcar understands the clear need to separate an indictment of “the Arabs” from individual Arabs and some strains of Islamic thought from Islam itself. Refreshingly, he does not excuse or justify the bigoted utterances and actions of Arab individuals such as Hajj Amin or the king of Saudi Arabia Ibn Saud. Of the major currents of modern Arab thought, he singles out what he describes as the “reactionary and/or fundamentalist pan-Islamists” as being the most prone to a religiously inspired anti-Jewish prejudice and racism. Achcar deplores the anti-Jewish prejudice of the late Rashid Rida, the influential Cairo-based Muslim scholar who died in 1935, and, of course, of Hajj Amin, even if his repeated condemnations of Hajj Amin ultimately come across rather like beating a very dead horse.

What is most valuable in Achcar’s discussion of Hajj Amin’s collaboration with the Nazis is his insistence on what he calls the “indispensible contextualization” to make sense of such collaboration and to explore how Hajj Amin’s sense of victimhood degenerated into outright bigotry and racism in the name of self-preservation. For Hajj Amin, as for the first prime minister of Israel, David Ben-Gurion, the struggle over Palestine was a zero-sum game: either “the Arabs” or “the Jews” were going to triumph there. The conclusion that Achcar draws from Hajj Amin’s experience is inescapable: there can be no substantial discussion, let alone judgment, of Arab attitudes toward the Holocaust without a frank discussion of Zionism’s violence toward Arabs. The one is impossible to understand without the other.

This twinning of discussions is what sets this book apart from virtually all others on the subject of Arabs and anti-Semitism. While there can and ought to be a discussion of Arab prejudice and racism, it is debatable whether there can be a meaningful one on anti-Jewish racism in the modern Arab world that purposefully ignores Zionist settler-colonialism, which Achcar characterizes as a “fundamentally racist colonial movement.” Anti-Arab and anti-Muslim racism in Israel, the Arab experience of Zionism, and Israel’s claim to speak on behalf of all Jews everywhere (as much as this claim has been contested by some inside and many outside of Israel) burden any discussion of contemporary Arab anti-Jewish prejudice. The dual tragedy that Achcar notes was not only the loss of Palestine and the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians, but also the demise of Jewish communities in many parts of the Arab world. For far too long, in fact, the study of the collapse of Jewish-Muslim coexistence in places like Iraq has been held hostage either to an Arab nationalist gloss or to a Zionist ex post facto contention that the mass expulsion of Palestinians was acceptable because Arabic-speaking Jews were scapegoated in places like Iraq, as if these tragedies were not all part of a single, complex history of the rise of nationalism and the transplantation of a European Zionist movement into the Arab world. Thankfully, Achcar does not indulge either of these apologetics.

Arab Attitudes Post-1948

In the second half of the book, Achcar explores Arab attitudes toward Jews after 1948. He dismisses the notion that opposition to Israel in these years is reducible to anti-Semitism (particularly in his discussion of Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser and what he describes as the PLO years from 1967 to 1988). Taking on the recent work of Israeli authors Meir Litvak and Ester Webman, From Empathy to Denial (2009), which also traced Arab attitudes toward the Holocaust, Achcar continuously brings to the fore the crucial dialectic between these attitudes and Zionist and Israeli colonialism. Like Litvak and Webman, Achcar delineates several Arab attitudes toward the Holocaust, including indifference and denial, but he insists that the most prevalent attitude has been a comparison of Israelis to Nazis.

Achcar, to be sure, deplores such comparison as wrong-headed and deeply flawed. He rejects any equivalence between colonial usurpation and racist extermination of whole populations. This point can easily be conceded in the abstract, but is this the real historical question at hand, or even the essential dichotomy that has ever impressed itself as such on the Palestinians and Arabs? As Achcar concedes throughout his book, the Arab experience of Zionism is a colonial experience, one that has been compounded by an ongoing system of Israeli Jewish discrimination and violence directed at both non-Jewish Palestinian citizens of Israel and Palestinians living under occupation in East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza.

That Gamal Abdel Nasser and Yasser Arafat compared Israelis to Nazis may thus be historically inaccurate, but such comparisons also reflect an Arab awareness and an appropriation of the power of a categorical post-Holocaust moral vocabulary that had been often used against them. Achcar insists, after all—and here he is building on the insights of Tom Segev, Peter Novick, and Norman Finkelstein among others—that Israel and its supporters in the West have exploited the horrors of Nazi genocide to justify Zionism at the expense of Arabs. An Arab engagement with this vocabulary, whether describing Israelis as Nazi-like oppressors or Palestinians as victims like the Jews, was perhaps an inevitable, if ineffectual, turning of the tables. The appropriate question is not so much the invidious nature of such comparisons, but the degree to which they have been articulated within projects of ostensible liberation or domination—this is where Achchar’s book would have benefited from less of a sweeping survey and more attention to contextual analysis.

Hezbollah, Hamas, and Contemporary Politics

In the final section of his book, Achcar illustrates how the demise of the PLO and secular Arab nationalism gave way to the rise of “Islamized Anti-Semitism” embodied by Hezbollah and Hamas. Israeli politics in this same period, Achcar is quick to note, have been dominated by an ever more virulent anti-Arab racism. As with the case of Hajj Amin, Achcar sharply rebukes the xenophobia, dogmatism, and parochialism prevalent in what are known as “resistance” organizations and also within facets of contemporary Arab culture. Yet even here, Achcar notes how Hamas, whose charter is filled with absurd ideas about the Jews, has sought to transform and portray itself as a major Palestinian political, social, and above all national movement rather than a parochial Islamist organization. His point, of course, is not to exculpate Hamas. Rather, his point is to distinguish between racialized European anti-Semitism that targeted European Jews, on the one hand, and, on the other, the development of reactionary anti-Jewish thought in its different forms in the Arab world that has drawn sustenance from Israel’s oppression of Palestinians and Arabs and its insistence that it speaks and acts on behalf of the Jews everywhere. But as much as Achcar is scathing about the hollowness of much of contemporary Arab political discourse (the book was written before the wave of uprisings that are now sweeping the region), including the declarations of solidarity with the Palestinian cause that are routinely accompanied by the dismal treatment of Palestinian people in Arab countries, he is also careful to point out that Arab culture, like all cultures, is multifaceted and in constant contestation. Achcar, in other words, affirms a timely point that is often forgotten in Western mass media discussions of the Arab world—namely, that Arabs themselves have always counted among the sharpest critics of religious and cultural chauvinism and state orthodoxies in their countries.

Where, then, lies any hope for reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians? For Achcar, what faint hope there is lies in the ability of both Arabs and Israelis to acknowledge the importance of history without becoming trapped by it—to not cherry-pick historical experiences in order to affirm an exclusionary sense of victimization. Achcar therefore celebrates the figure of the late Edward Said precisely because he recognized the intertwined and tragic fate of both peoples and understood how Palestinians had become, in a sense, the new Jews, the so-called victims of the victims. For Achcar, Said is important because he affirms Palestinian rights without recourse to racist language to describe Israelis or Jews (at a time, it should be recalled, when even the use of the word “Palestinian” was considered controversial on American college campuses). On the Israeli side, Achcar applauds the disillusioned Avraham Burg, former president of the Jewish Agency, the World Zionist movement and Israel’s Knesset because he has condemned Israel’s instrumentalization of the Holocaust and has recoiled at Israeli state and society’s increasing virulence toward Palestinians.

Through the juxtaposition of Said and Burg, Achcar sets out his vision of a historically informed dialogue that takes as its point of departure the full recognition of the Holocaust and the Nakba, not a conflation of these two experiences. What is most important about his book is the interconnectedness of the problems he puts on the table. A commitment to Palestinian rights must not overlook the failings of Arab societies. And a frank criticism of Arab failings cannot ignore Israeli and Western colonialism. Achcar thus recognizes both Arab and Israeli racism, and Muslim, Christian, and Jewish fanaticism without drawing facile equivalences between them. Each has its own peculiarities, and each constitutes its own affront to the idea of secular equality and dignity. But they have also become interlaced together and thus pose a major challenge to the viability of truly secular citizenship throughout the modern Middle East, not just the Arab world.

Ultimately, Achcar depathologizes Arab reactions to the Holocaust and to Israel. In the face of a perverse and persistent narrative about an Arab “hatred” of Jews that has been consistently asserted by Zionist authors from Leon Uris to Benny Morris as a way of not grappling with, or rather denying, Zionism as a settler-colonial project imposed upon Palestinians, Achcar’s account constitutes a crucial corrective. This book, therefore, is not for those who are used to seeing the world with one eye or to speaking with one tongue, as the Sudanese novelist Tayyib Salih put it so memorably in his classic 1966 novel Season of Migration to the North. It is not for those who want to represent “the Arabs” rather than study the Arab world. It is not for those who need to demonize Arabs in order to relate to Israel. Nor is it for those who are unable to deal critically or historically with the Arab past or with Arab or Islamic nationalism. Finally, this is a book that will not sit comfortably with those who have become accustomed to considering the legacy of the Holocaust as the exclusive preserve of any one people or state. But for those who are interested in learning about the tragic dialectic that has bound Jewish and Arab suffering in the modern world, this thought-provoking book is an important place to begin.

(To return to the Spring 2012 Table of Contents, click here.)


Ussama Makdisi is a professor of history at Rice University and is the author of Faith Misplaced: The Broken Promise of U.S.-Arab Relations, 1820-2001 (Public Affairs, 2010).

Source Citation

Makdisi, Ussama. 2012. "Setting the Record Straight: The Arabs, Zionism, and the Holocaust." Tikkun. 27(2): 56.

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