Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas tried to shake the Palestinian reputation for Holocaust denial this week, acknowledging the tragedy of the Holocaust.
Abbas said that “what happened to the Jews in the Holocaust is the most heinous crime to have occurred against humanity in the modern era,” his office stated.
Many Israelis consider Abbas himself to have teetered on the edge of Holocaust denial in the past, as his 1982 doctoral thesis, later published as a book, he claimed that the number of Jews killed is inflated and that Zionists have manipulated the Shoah to their own ends.
Abbas’ declaration appears to be a historic one, in context, timing and wording.
It comes at a time when Holocaust denial is a growing phenomenon in the Arab world, and sadly an outlet of anger towards Jews for modern grievances.
For example, a shocking one in three Israeli Arabs surveyed last year denied that the Holocaust happened. It is believed that many of them made this claim even though they knew it is factually incorrect as a statement of frustration towards Israel.
This, of course, is lamentable. When it comes to the Holocaust, most would say that history should be history – kept separate from contemporary political tensions.
Some Israeli Arabs have managed to keep this separation. Ahmad Tibi, who heads the Israeli Arab party Ra’am-Ta’al, is one of the Knesset’s angriest members; regularly furious about Israeli actions and Zionist ideology. Yet he won widespread praise in 2010 when he gave a moving Holocaust Memorial Day speech.
He declared that Palestinians should reject Holocaust denial. “There is nothing more foolish or amoral than Holocaust denial,” Tibi said. “For what purpose? What end is served exactly by those who do so? We are here in the era of realising rights for self-determination and freedom, not dismantling states or peoples.”
But in the Palestinian sector, there was silence. The upper echelons of the Palestinian Authority failed to speak out on the Holocaust, and its President failed to properly shake the reputation that stuck to him as a result of his thesis.
Just last month, a well-known Palestinian academic, Mohammed Dajani, was roundly criticised in Palestinian circles for leading a group of students to visit Auschwitz.
The Palestinian awkwardness with the Holocaust stems from a reluctance to admit that Jews suffered more in the 20th century than Palestinians did; to acknowledge that Jews have been victims and, whatever the accusations raised against Israel, this victimhood is historical fact.
Abbas’ declaration addresses this head-on. He didn’t invent some tame formula to acknowledge undefined Jewish suffering, leaving the door open for equivalence between Jewish and Palestinian suffering. His “most heinous crime” formulation was unequivocal.
Abbas’ standing, and his past record on the Holocaust, make this declaration highly significant for Palestinian society.
Also notable is the fact that the declaration came just ahead of Yom Hashoah, the Jewish world’s Holocaust Memorial Day. This is a day established by Israeli leaders which emphasises the link between the Holocaust and the State of Israel. The fact that Abbas tied his declaration to this day makes it more laden with significance than if it came at another point in the year, including just before the international Holocaust Memorial Day in January. He was tacitly recognising the link between the Jewish tragedy and the Jewish state.
But for all the importance of Abbas’ declaration, one can understand the uneasiness with which some people – among them Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who suggested that it was “designed to placate global public opinion” following the peace process crisis – receive it. Strangely, it is actually the beginnings of Abbas’ reform on the Holocaust issue that flag a cause for concern.
Years after publishing his controversial thesis, Abbas spoke to an Israeli newspaper and when asked about his work said that it was written when the Palestinians and Israel were warring. As times had changed, he said, this would no longer be his position.
In other words, he was saying that his past statement of historical fact was determined by the political flavour of the day.
Applying the same logic, this week’s declaration could be another politically convenient move for a different era – an era where such a statement helps the cause of “lawfare” and diplomatic battles against the Jewish State by presenting the Palestinian Authority as moderate.
Hopefully, Abbas has realised by now that the Holocaust isn’t to be used as a political football, and means what he says this time around.