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Abbas and the Trouble with Holocaust Commemoration

Today Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas did as many peace process proponents, both Jewish and non-Jewish, have been imploring him to do. He condemned the Holocaust in terms that are entirely appropriate, saying the Shoah was “the most heinous crime to have occurred against humanity in the modern era” and expressing sympathy for the victims. If, as we are informed by the New York Times, this statement is published in the Palestinian media in Arabic in the same phrasing as in the English version for Israelis and the international media, that is progress of a sort, especially coming as it does from the lips of a man who wrote a doctoral thesis centered on the theme that the Holocaust was a “Zionist fantasy, the fantastic lie that six million Jews were killed.”

The timing of the statement was meant to coincide with the beginning tonight of Yom HaShoah—the day set by the State of Israel and the international Jewish community for Holocaust remembrance. Yet coming as it did only days after Abbas signed a unity agreement with the Hamas terrorist movement that is committed in its charter to not only the destruction of Israel but to the slaughter of its Jewish population, it is hard to view this statement as purely an expression of the evolution of Abbas’s views about the Holocaust. The man who only one day earlier restated his pledge to “never” recognize Israel as a Jewish state—a pledge that would signal that the Palestinians were truly prepared to end their century long war on Zionism—it is easy to understand the less than enthusiastic reaction to Abbas’s words from Israel’s government. But far from being greeted with the cynicism that Abbas might have expected, it was instead Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu who appears to have come out the loser in the exchange with pundits. Abbas’s apologists are lauding the Palestinian for his “outreach” campaign—the Holocaust statement was procured by celebrity interfaith proponent Rabbi Marc Schneir—and blasting Netanyahu for a petty rejection of the Palestinian gesture. Abbas’s words, welcome as they might be, were a clever tactical move and in the viewpoint of much of the international press seemed to outweigh any negative feedback about the Hamas deal.

But this contretemps illustrates something more significant than the success of the Palestinians in distracting the world from what was, in effect, their fourth rejection of an Israeli peace offer, including independence and statehood, in the last 15 years. If the world thinks Abbas’s nice words about the Holocaust are more important than his pact with Hamas or even his personal embrace of the terrorist murderers who shed Jewish blood, then perhaps it is time to start worrying about a trend that appears to elevate Holocaust commemoration over and above any concern for Jews currently alive.

Remembering the Holocaust is a sacred obligation and it is especially important to keep alive the memory of the six million who perished at the hands of the Nazis and their collaborators at a time when the ranks of the survivors grow fewer with each passing year. But the point of these memorials is not merely to shed tears over the Jews who died seven decades ago. The Holocaust was the culmination of two millennia of anti-Semitism. The Nazi crime was unique in terms of its scale and the embrace by one of the world’s most civilized and powerful nations of a racist eliminationist creed. But it was neither the first nor the last attack on the existence of the Jewish people. Anti-Semitism has outlived the Nazis just as it did other host organisms to which this vile virus attached itself. Today, the major source of anti-Semitic invective and hate speech is the Arab and Muslim world. This contemporary incarnation uses resentment against the existence of one lone Jewish state on this planet to mobilize not only Arab anger against Israel but to reawaken traditional Jew-hatred in Europe.

The trend toward universalizing the Holocaust so as to have its commemoration become a surrogate for every expression of intolerance or ill-feeling on any subject has done nothing to wipe out hate while diluting the specific historic lesson of this event. Yet to also condemn that attack on Jewish existence and the silence and inaction of the rest of the world outside of the context of contemporary anti-Semitism is similarly unhelpful. At a time when there’s a vicious anti-Semitic regime in Iran whose leaders have promoted Holocaust denial while at the same time plotting to achieve the means to achieve a second such slaughter, the tears shed for the six million are meaningless if they are not also accompanied by a determination to thwart rather than to appease Tehran.

The sad truth is that the popularity of Holocaust commemoration—even on the part of many who are hostile to contemporary Jewish life—as well as the proliferation of Holocaust museums and memorials seems to reflect a preference for dead Jews over live ones. The irony is that the movement to promote Holocaust remembrance was largely born out of an effort to teach both Jews and non-Jews the perils of silence about anti-Semitism. The boom in Holocaust memorials started in the 1960s as the movements to promote freedom for Soviet Jewry and to protect the embattled State of Israel gained greater traction in the West. It was widely understood that the clichéd refrain of Holocaust memorial—“never again”—was not merely an expression of ex post facto outrage about the conduct of the Nazis but a pledge to fight for the freedom and the lives of the descendants of the survivors.

Yet as the dustup about Abbas’s words illustrates, Holocaust commemoration has now taken on a life of its own that is utterly disconnected from any actual concern about defending Jewish lives, let alone history. It is a good thing that Palestinian Arabs understand and respect Jewish history rather than deny it, as their media routinely does with respect to Jerusalem and other issues. A degree of honesty from Abbas about the way the Palestinian Arab leadership embraced Hitler might also be in order. But courtesies about the events of the 1940s do not outweigh efforts to deny legitimacy to Jewish rights let alone justify the embrace of those who shed Jewish blood in our own time. If Holocaust commemoration has evolved to a point where these factors are unimportant, then perhaps it is time for those of us who have worked so hard to make it part of the fabric of Western culture to rethink the impact of what we have accomplished. 


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