Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.
--Daniel Patrick Moynihan

October 22, 2015

Cheapening the Holocaust

By David K. Shipler

            As if the Palestinians hadn’t done enough to Israelis, Prime Minister Netanyahu now blames them for the Holocaust by fabricating a tale that Hitler had not planned to exterminate the Jews of Europe until the grand mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, suggested it in 1941. Netanyahu thus lends his office to the sordid practice of manipulating and distorting the Holocaust, a timeworn occupation in the Middle East.
            When Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin signed a peace treaty with Egypt in 1979, posters appeared in Jerusalem depicting the Egyptian president, Anwar Sadat, wearing a tie covered with swastikas, doctored from the backwards swastika pattern on the tie he inexplicably wore when he addressed Israel’s parliament in 1977. Begin was shown as the obsequious Jew with a yellow Star of David on his lapel, the label the Nazis had required. Pedestrians walked past the posters unfazed, accustomed as they were to such smears.
            If Begin ever saw those caricatures, he must have been stung. He himself had survived the Holocaust by fleeing Warsaw for Lithuania, where he was arrested by the Russians, spent a year in Soviet prisons, and was released to join the Polish army. In 1982, I happened to interview him in his office soon after he had been called by President Ronald Reagan, who had likened the carnage during Israeli’s bombardment of West Beirut during the war in Lebanon to “a holocaust.”
            “He hurt me very deeply,” Begin told me, “and I said to him, ‘Mr. President, I know what is a holocaust.’”
Begin turned to his press secretary, Uri Porat, and asked, “Will you please bring me the picture?” Porat knew which one. He took it from the Prime Minister’s desk, and Begin held it in front of him. It was the famous photograph of Jews being rounded up in the Warsaw Ghetto. “This is holocaust,” Begin declared. “Look at this child. Look at the fear in his eyes, how he tries to raise his hands, and look at his mother, looking at the other Nazi soldier lest he open fire at the child. Such children were killed—one and a half million for six years, brought to Auschwitz, Treblinka, Majdanek, etc. This is holocaust. And I later wrote to the president that he hurt me deeply and personally by using that word.”
            But Begin also used it to capture the magnitude of Israel’s fight for survival. In 1981, when he ordered the air strike to destroy Iraq’s nuclear reactor, he cited the Arabs’ attempt to annihilate the Jews and summoned up the vow, “Never again.” His invasion of Lebanon was driven in part by his conviction that the Palestine Liberation Organization was bent on exterminating the Jews, and the Christians of Lebanon as well.
            The mufti, a Nazi collaborator, was mentioned in testimony at the Nuremberg trials as advocating the extermination of the Jews over their expulsion to Palestine, although he was never prosecuted. “He flew to Berlin,” Netanyahu told the 37th Zionist Congress on October 20. “Hitler didn’t want to exterminate the Jews at the time, he wanted to expel the Jews. And Haj Amin al-Husseini went to Hitler and said, ‘If you expel them, they'll all come here.’ ‘So what should I do with them?’ he asked. He said, ‘Burn them.’”
No such quotes appear in the record of the conversation, and historians immediately denounced Netanyahu for distorting history and inflaming tensions. Two years earlier, Hitler had spoken of annihilating the Jews, and one million had already been killed before the visit. Decades later, the mufti’s cousin and highly regarded Palestinian leader, the late Faisal al-Husseini, gradually became a moderate supporter of Israeli-Palestinian coexistence. Contrary to Netanyahu’s assumption, the sins of the fathers are not always passed to the sons.
If Israel’s prime minister blames the Holocaust on the Palestinians, many Palestinians blame Israel on the Holocaust, so to speak—that is, they wonder why they had to suffer the loss of their lands because of the Germans, whose systematic genocide accelerated the flight of Jews to Palestine.
Yet Palestinians are taught practically nothing about the Holocaust. A professor at al-Quds University in Jerusalem—Muhammad S. Dajani Daoudi, a former Fatah leader—used to include the Holocaust in a course on genocide, and took some of his students to the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem. He did so for years without major incident, but after he led a group to Auschwitz in March 2014, he was excoriated by follow Palestinians, sanctioned by the faculty, and felt compelled to resign from the university.
In Palestinian secondary schools, the Holocaust is largely ignored. Textbooks don’t discuss it, and high-school students I’ve interviewed seem to know little about it. So they grow up in an historical vacuum, lacking any compassion or insight into the trauma that is central to understanding their neighbors, their adversaries.
  Yet some Palestinians delight in expropriating the Holocaust as a propaganda weapon, turning it around to describe their own suffering at Israeli hands. In 1982, as a colleague and I visited Ansar, an Israeli prison camp built to house Palestinian combatants during the Lebanon war, prisoners lined up inside the fence and chanted in heavily accented English, “Ansar is Auschwitz! Ansar is Auschwitz! You are Nazis!”
I looked at my colleague, Cordelia Edvardson, a Swedish correspondent who had a tattoo on her arm, covered by her sleeve. At age 15, she had been transferred to Auschwitz from Theresienstadt, six months before the German retreat. Now she stared through the barbed wire, into the mass of chanting men clothed in brown. She seemed in pain but said nothing.
Later, sitting across a table with the prisoners’ spokesman, Salah Tamari, she asked whether he agreed with the chants. “I can’t agree and I can’t disagree,” he answered smoothly. Then he polished the analogy. “To someone whose family got killed, the whole world is a holocaust,” he said. “We have a headmaster of a school who lost 82 members of his family in one air strike. For him, that was a holocaust. Should anything be special because you are Jewish?”

I was bursting to tell him who was sitting in front of him, but that was Cordelia’s prerogative, and she never used it. She did say, “Auschwitz was an extermination camp. Children and elderly people did not come out alive.” But she never said that she had been there and never rolled up her sleeve to show him her tattoo. On the drive home I asked her why. “It would have been unfair,” she said. “He was behind bars, and I was free.”

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