This piece is cross-posted from Eretz Acheret where it was published on 10 March 2011.
Spring is unfolding slowly this March. When I ventured out late last Thursday evening (3 March) to attend a session at the huge annual literary festival that is Jewish Book Week the air was sharp, the temperature close to freezing. For a moment, I hesitated, but the chance to hear Professor Gilbert Achcar in conversation with Tom Segev was too enticing a prospect to miss.
Professor Achcar is the author of The Arabs and the Holocaust: The Arab-Israeli War of Narratives, a scholarly study of Arab attitudes to the Holocaust which argues that they have mainly been determined by the dynamics of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Born in Lebanon, he has been Professor of Development and International Relations at the School of Oriental and African Studies since 2007. Tom Segev’s most recent book is Simon Wiesenthal: Life and Legends, a biography of the famous Austrian-Jewish Nazi-hunter. Segev is seen as one of Israel’s ‘new historians’ whose books have helped radically revise understanding of the history of Israel. Both Achcar and Segev are in the business of demolishing myths.
I doubted whether many people would turn out at 8.30 on such a cold evening for this event. By 8.15 there were about 150 people in a hall that takes up to 600. A respectable number I thought. But by 8.35, the audience had swelled to at least three times that figure and more kept coming in as the discussion got underway. An impressive and surprising turnout certainly, but who were they, I wondered, and given that the topic of Achcar’s book is a very controversial one among Jews—coloured by the well-known popularity of Holocaust denial in the Arab world—were they here to listen with open minds or had they come, minds made up, to verbalise their perception that Achcar is somehow the enemy? In the past, Jewish Book Week audiences, which are mostly made up of Jews, have often contained sizeable segments of people willing to vent their anger at speakers regarded as less than totally loyal to Israel. But whether it was Professor Achcar’s calm, judicious, nuanced and reasoned answers to Segev’s rather provocative line of questioning, or whether the audience came already willing to empathise with Achcar’s thesis—no matter, the result was surprisingly civilized with only a few animus-laden, but rather silly, questions from the floor.
Gilbert Achcar explained that, contrary to popular perceptions in the West and in Israel, there was very little real sympathy for Nazism among Arabs in the 1920s and 1930s. Similarly, during the Second World War, despite the case of the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, whose support for Hitler, while undeniable, has been accorded a historical significance that is not deserved, Arabs did not by any means demonstrate mass support for Hitler’s actions. The left and liberal Arab movements distrusted British colonial aims in the Middle East, but were even more suspicious of the Axis powers, and very critical of the Nazi regime. A very small number of Arabs fought for the Germans while many thousands fought with the Allies. Religious and nationalist Arabs were more ambivalent and Palestinians, who were understandably increasingly concerned with what Zionism was doing to Palestine, became more sympathetic to antisemitism.
Essentially, Achcar’s research debunks the notion that the Arabs are so riddled with Nazi-style antisemitism, they can never be trusted to make genuine peace with Israel; that behind every protestation of support for a two-state solution is the Palestinian aim to annihilate the Jews. Open expressions of antisemitism, like the popularity of Holocaust denial, are a reaction to perceived oppression, not a deeply-rooted exterminationist ideology destined to be implemented. Achcar made it perfectly clear that he believed any use of antisemitism was wrong and misguided. But the message he was trying to convey was that Arab opinion is complex and not monolithic. It can change in response to changing circumstances, and especially if there were fundamental changes in Israeli attitudes. He reminded the audience that there is very deep-rooted denial of Palestinian suffering on the Israeli side: the naqba, the tragedy Palestinians experienced in 1948, is widely dismissed as propaganda. Therefore both sides need to move towards a more realistic understanding of the inner fears and experiences of the other.
Segev seemed to adopt a very sceptical stance throughout, as if Achcar was merely manipulating historical reality to excuse the Arabs of their irredeemable antisemitic outlook. He kept expressing astonishment at Arab Holocaust denial and cited the fact that the Palestinian president, Mahmood Abbas, had written a Holocaust-denying PhD thesis as evidence that the problem was much worse than Achcar had acknowledged. But Achcar patiently and precisely laid out the evidence that proved the opposite, including using the transformation of Abbas into a peacemaker and supporter of a Palestine living side-by-side with Israel to show that Holocaust denial is not a permanent condition.
I heard Gilbert Achcar talk about his book at SOAS a few months ago when he was in conversation with the Palestinian historian Professor Nur Masalha and the Israeli historian Professor Idith Zertal. Then he was subjected to a sustained critique by Masalha for not acknowledging that it was the Palestinians who paid for the Holocaust not the Germans. But Achcar responded effectively and firmly and the resulting discussion, like the one last week at Jewish Book Week, was very enlightening.
It was still bitterly cold when I left the hotel where the event took place, but I felt somewhat warmer inside, and even a little hopeful that, if this very large and overwhelmingly Jewish audience could respond in such a positive way to the revisionist (in the best historical sense) treatment of a sensitive subject by an Arab historian, maybe there is a way forward out of the current Israeli-Palestinian morass after all.