Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
11 - 17 May 2000
Issue No. 481
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

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Debating Holocaust denial

By Nadia Abou El-Magd

Even after a half century of intense scholarship, the Holocaust remains an ideologically laden field of study. In the Middle East, the issue is further complicated by the 50-year long Arab-Israeli conflict. Politics and scholarship, never far apart at the best of times, are in conflict intertwined. Regarding the creation of Israel, there are those who firmly believe that the need to atone for Nazi atrocities necessitated the Jewish return to the Holy Land. Others reject such logic. This is especially true of the Palestinians. Those deprived of their patrimony find it difficult to sympathise with those who have taken their ancestral homes.

In Europe, recently, the issue of the Holocaust was once again in the limelight. Revisionist British writer and historian David Irving is in the midst of legal proceedings against Deborah Lipstadt, an American professor of modern Jewish and Holocaust studies at Emory University. Irving, the author of several books on the Third Reich, has established himself as a leading authority on the period, but his reputation has been dogged by accusations of neo-Nazi sympathies. Much of the criticism is due to his contention that the gas chambers are a myth and that there is no convincing evidence that Hitler directly ordered the annihilation of European Jewry.

In her book, Denying the Holocaust, Deborah Lipstadt wrote that Irving is "one of the most dangerous spokespersons for the Holocaust denial." Irving, conffsidering these words libellous, took legal action. Last month, however, he lost the suit. In the judgement, the magistrate described Irving as an "active Holocaust denier ... racist... and anti-Semitic... an ally of the neo-Nazis." Irving has appealed this decision.

In a recent interview with Al-Jazeera television, Irving dodged a question on whether or not he believed the Holocaust actually took place. Instead of responding directly, he circumvented it by stating, "I don't like this word. The Holocaust has become a commercial trade mark; a subject marketed to the world." Regarding the magnitude of the tragedy, Irving's opinion was much more forthright He rejected the widely accepted figure of six million and suggested that the actual number is, "more than 100,000 and less than 600,000."

When asked about the lack of support he has received from Arab governments in his current legal battle, Irving responded, "Arabs are the enemies of themselves. They can be easily isolated. Their sense of identity is lacking." The implication, of course, is that his cause and the Arab cause share a natural affinity. Prominent Arab journalist Joseph Samaha of the London based Al-Hayat rejects such thinking as absurd. According to Samaha, revisionist historians, such as Irving, admire Hitler's deeds but must deny the horrible reality of the Holocaust in order to remain within the bounds of human decency.

Reda Hilal, deputy editor of Al-Ahram, also finds the scholarship of Irving distasteful. He was one of the first Egyptian journalists and intellectuals who recently wrote against Arabs associating themselves with racist historians, like Irving, "who are looking for Arab money as well as sympathy for their anti-Semitic and Holocaust-denial discourse." Hilal told Al-Ahram Weekly, "It is not in our interest to deny the Holocaust, because we are not responsible for it, and we should not sympathise with those who should be blamed for it."

Regarding the thorny issue of the number who actually died in the Holocaust, Hilal considers the debate to be strictly academic since, "Even if only five people were killed, it is still a crime against humanity." He wishes to remove the issue from serious political dialogue. Far too often this horror of the past has been used to excuse Israeli actions, but "being the victims of the Holocaust, Jews have no right to become the executioners of another victim -- the Palestinians."

Abdel-Moneim Said, head of the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, has also warned against the consequences of the Arab press sympathising with people such as Irving. Said wrote in Al-Ahram Al-Arabi , a weekly magazine, that to embrace such views would allow the Israeli press "to show the West that the Arabs don't want peace, and if they had the chance, they would finish what the Nazis couldn't." Said suggested, "Maybe it would be better for us Arabs, and for the Jews also, to take a joint position, rejecting all types of oppression, regardless of whether it came from Nazi Germany or Israeli occupation."

Ahmed Bahgat, a daily columnist for Al-Ahram, argues however that the scholarship of Irving should not be seen as a threat. According to Bahgat, there is no question that, "horrors were inflicted by Germans on Jews and others, such as gypsies, the handicapped and intellectuals." Yet, Bahgat believes that it is the duty of writers, historians and intellectuals to search for the truth. Bahgat told the Weekly that he personally believes that the six million figure is exaggerated and he believes that "Jews shouldn't be upset if some question the number of Jewish victims of Nazi Germany because, regardless of whether they were 300,000, 600,000 or six million, the Holocaust remains a crime."

The Nasserist weekly, Al-Arabi, has been much less conciliatory regarding the uproar of the Irving trial. In one of its articles, Al-Arabi asked its readership, "Are we supposed to shed tears for what happened to the Jews under the Nazis and curse the historians who deny the Holocaust?" Nabil Omar, of Al-Ahram, has also taken a tough position in the Irving debate. In an article entitled, "Denial of the Holocaust and Swimming with the Sharks," Omar argued that although the Jews suffered greatly at the hands of the Nazis, the events of the historical tragedy fall short of "the myth." According to Omar, oppression is not the issue. "We are definitely against the killing of a single Jew." What is of concern is "the political use of the myth." The mythology of the Holocaust "is the brainchild of those who stand to gain from it." Omar concluded his article by wondering why the questioning of the Holocaust has been deemed taboo. He asks, "What are those facts they don't want to be revealed? Do facts change when questioned? Questioning some of these facts is a just defence of freedom of expression and a declaration of support for the truth, whatever it may be."

Abdel-Wahab El-Messiri, author of the Encyclopedia on Jews, Judaism and Zionism explained to the Weekly that, "as a Muslim Arab intellectual, I don't deny the Holocaust, not out of pragmatism, but because it is a human and ethical issue." Nevertheless, he is angered by "the Zionist theory of rights. Their rights are absolute: Palestine is Israel and the Holocaust and the six million figure are part of sacred Jewish history that you cannot question, or put in a historical or human perspective."

Joseph Samaha considers the "rejection of whatever the enemy says" to be a "childish attitude."

Jihad Al-Khazen, former editor of Al-Hayat, shares similar concerns. If the Israelis and Arabs are to reach a better understanding they must come to terms with each other's history. Consequently, Al-Khazen argues that the Arabs need to point out the terrible irony of the Jews, who after surviving Nazi atrocities have themselves become oppressors forcing the Palestinians, "into the Diaspora, destroying their possessions and stealing their land."

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