The Hands of Others
The Arabs and the Holocaust: The Arab-Israeli War of Narratives
by Gilbert Achcar
Metropolitan, 386 pp., $30
How much of the blame for the Holocaust can be placed upon the Arabs? And why is there so much Holocaust denial in the Arab world today? According to Gilbert Achcar, only a small minority of Arabs were committed Nazi sympathizers, while hardly any actively abetted the Holocaust. ‘The Arabs' as a people, he argues, were not co-conspirators of the Nazis and therefore should not have had to pay the price in Palestine for the genocide perpetrated against the Jews in Europe. That "price," the loss of their homeland in 1948, is in turn the source of Arab Holocaust denial: "The further that Israel goes in its political and practical denial of the nakba, and the longer Israel continues to exacerbate its consequences, the more Palestinians and Arabs will be tempted to riposte by denying the Holocaust."
Readers made uneasy by these ideas may be even more ill disposed to give them a hearing when they learn the identity of the author of The Arabs and the Holocaust. Gilbert Achcar is a Lebanese-born socialist, a harsh critic of American foreign policy and of Israel, and the co-author (with Noam Chomsky) of a 2007 volume entitled Perilous Power: The Middle East and U.S. Foreign Policy. Dialogues on Terror, Democracy, War, and Justice. Nevertheless, his newest book is an important work, even—perhaps especially—for those who will not agree with it. Its exploration of Arab sensibilities is thoughtful and illuminating, its condemnation of Holocaust denial humane and principled. Yet no less principled is the author's steadfast anti-Zionism. The book, although meant to overcome what the subtitle calls "the Arab-Israeli war of narratives," in fact demonstrates the chasm that divides the leftist Arab intelligentsia from its Israeli counterpart.
Achcar begins his book with a comprehensive overview of the different ideological camps in the Arab world during the era of the Holocaust. He endeavors to show that Arabs responded to Nazism in many different ways, with few apart from radical religious figures like the notorious Palestinian leader Muhammad Amin al-Husseini demonstrating deep anti-Semitism. There was a solidly anti-Nazi liberal intelligentsia, which during the 1930s filled the Arabic press in Egypt and Palestine with criticism of Hitler's regime on ethical and religious grounds, but also expressed fears that Nazi persecution of the Jews would serve to strengthen the Zionist enterprise. Marxist Arab intellectuals became sworn enemies of Hitler, at least after his June 1941 invasion of the Soviet Union. Some secular Arab nationalists sympathized with Germany because it was the enemy of the British Empire, which stood between them and their countries' full independence. But only a few thousand Muslims from the entire Middle East and Africa served in Axis forces, while nine thousand Palestinian Arabs served in the British Army, and hundreds of thousands of Maghrebis fought for the Free French. Iraqi Prime Minister Rashid Ali al-Gaylani was, Achcar argues, acting as a nationalist and anti-imperialist, not a Nazi collaborator, when, after being forced from office in January 1941, he called on Axis military support for a short-lived coup d'état.