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Lessons from the Holocaust

Ways of Denial

by AZMI BISHARA

The Nazi Holocaust aimed to rid Europe of its "Jewish taint". By this was meant banking capital as opposed to industrial capital and the moral degeneracy, lack of patriotism, scorn for national values, heritage and other such ills caused by the "worm" that ate away at all that was noble and pure in the Germanic people. That worm was the racial strain that never belonged, that was intrinsically alien and that nevertheless insisted on remaining in order to wreak its pollution; it was European Jewry and its various manifestations including capitalism, communism and liberalism, and its mere presence, according to this diabolical system of thought, that were a scourge to racial purity.

Late capitalism, as forcefully imposed by the centralised bureaucratic state, converged with a fanatical and rabidly xenophobic and very ideological late nationalism of the "vesrspaeteten Nationen" with a history of religious anti-Semitism dating back to the Middle Ages and the crusader expeditions that attacked Jewish villages in central Europe en route to Palestine, a religious exclusionism that targeted both Muslims and Jews in Andalusian Spain and that shaped part of European identity in terms of both an external determinant — the Muslims — and an internal determinant — the Jews.

But the Nazis’ obsession with the annihilation of the Jews was also fired by an ideology that incorporated totalitarian social engineering, founded upon social Darwinism and assorted recent biological discoveries that were applied to human beings, together with a populist romantic socialism that was hostile to communism, democratic socialism and liberalism, all regarded as alien to the "Volksgeist", "the spirit of the people".

This form of pseudo-scientifically justified and coldly carried out mass extermination would not have been possible without a strong ability to compartmentalise between the bureaucratic functionary and the duty to obey orders, on the one hand, and the individual and his private moral sphere on the other, a phenomenon that is one of the characteristics of the modern state apparatus. Nor would it have been possible without all the business of documentation, recording and archiving, which is also a characteristic of the modern state.

The irony of all this pseudo-scientific human taxonomy and the obsessive documentation of the names, addresses, confiscated possessions and physical details of the people who were rounded up and freighted to the concentration camps and from there to the gas chambers is that this paperwork has become the most important primary historical source for the Holocaust and the most important instrument with which to refute the claims of those who deny it occurred or belittle its magnitude.

It is not so much the sheer numbers of victims that distinguishes the Holocaust. As unique as it was in the 20th century, millions of native inhabitants were exterminated en masse in the Americas over the course of previous centuries. Nor is it just a question of scale: many more millions died in the course of World War II, alone, than in the Nazi gas chambers and these included Russians, Germans, Poles, French, Italians and many other nationalities. The true horror of the Holocaust resides not only in the deliberate singling out of entire peoples — Jews and Gypsies — for extermination and in the scale of this crime, but also in the totality of the target and the "rational" way in which it was carried out.

Jews were snatched from their homes amid the general silence of their neighbours, a silence interspersed by hatemongering by anti-Semitic groups and by the active complicity of informers. Most of the Jews who died in the concentration camps were not Zionists; in fact, many may not have even heard of Zionism. Moreover, the role of the Zionist movement in saving Jews, or in conspiring with the Nazis, was very marginal, regardless of the number of studies that have been produced on both cases and regardless of the fact that most of their findings have been corroborated. Zionism did, indeed, have two faces; it was the perspectives and aims of the researchers that were and remain at odds.

The Zionist movement began, and had set its sights on Palestine, long before the Holocaust. Zionists only used the Holocaust to justify their national project in hindsight, even if that justification is what drove some Arabs to deny the existence of the Holocaust. Yet, while there are people who have felt that by minimising or even refuting the Holocaust they undermine Jewish claims to a state in Palestine, the majority of educated and informed Arab opinion has never denied the Holocaust or the existence of anti-Semitism in Europe. Rather, they have argued — correctly — that since this horror took place in Europe the Palestinians should not have to pay the price.

Although it vaguely existed as a blend between the residue of a religious culture and extremist nationalist ideas imported from Europe even in early stages, anti-Semitism in the sense of hostility towards the Jews only began to spread significantly in the Arab world in the form of cultural and intellectual output after 1967. Clearly, the rise of this phenomenon coincided with the rise of a metaphysical attitude that sought to explain the overwhelming Arab defeat of that year in terms of the confrontation with an absolute evil bent on a global conspiracy of the nature of the "Protocols of the Elders of Zion", which has been proven to be an invention of the Russian secret service at the end of the 19th century but which nevertheless found many gullible ears in the Arab world in the wake of the 1967 defeat. Holocaust denial similarly emerged during this period and in the same spirit of a fantastic conspiracy theory that ascribed to an international Jewish cabal the power to invent and dupe the entire world into believing a stupendous set of lies.

I would like to suggest that there are two types of Holocaust denial. One, espoused by elements of the European traditional right and neo-ultra right, is to deny it happened. This form has not acquired sufficient roots to become a determinant of the behaviour of nations and societies. The other form of denial is to ignore that the Holocaust occurred within a particular historic context and, hence, to deal with it as some fiendish aberration that somehow occurred outside the bounds of time and place. One major consequence of this approach is that it inhibits the study of the Holocaust as a historical phenomenon and as a sobering primer on the dangers of racism, extremist nationalist chauvinism and totalitarian social engineering in modern mass societies.

But Holocaust denial can assume another face, which is to reduce it to an instrument for realising political ends. The Zionist movement has excelled in this, its rituals and rhetoric in commemoration of Holocaust victims far outstripping its concern for the victims and its activities to combat the phenomenon when it occurred. In fact, the subject was not even on the agenda of the Jewish organised community, the "Yeshov", in mandate Palestine during the war years and many Zionists at the time found it embarrassing to hear of Jews being dragged off to be slaughtered without putting up a resistance; it conflicted with the nationalist fighting spirit and the image of the new man they were trying to inculcate. It was not until the Eichmann trial that the embarrassed silence was broken and emotions suddenly gushed out.

In the course of Zionism’s attempts to portray the history of the entire Jewish people as one uninterrupted stream of oppression and persecution that culminated inevitably in the Holocaust, Holocaust history has been transformed into an exclusively Israeli property. Victims of the Nazi gas chambers have been nationalised and converted, in spite of themselves, either into an episode in the Zionist struggle to create a state or into an instrument for blackmailing others into supporting Zionist aims or for justifying the crimes the Zionist state perpetrates against others. It is as though the magnitude of the crime entitles Israel to play the victim par excellence or the victims’ sole proxy, placing it beyond accusations of wrongdoing because it is the victim by definition.

The Zionist casting of all Jews as victims of Nazi atrocities has given rise to two curious phenomena. The first is that any Israeli can speak and act as the victim even if he has more in common ideologically and psychologically with the offender or the "Capo" — the Jews who cooperated with the Nazis in the concentration camps. In other words, the mere fact of being born to a Jewish mother somehow gives licence to represent all victims, including in front of those who actually are more victims than he is and those who are more hostile to Nazism, racism and its offshoots. The second phenomenon is the monopoly claimed by the Israeli ruling establishment to speak on behalf of Jews and Jewish history in general, which largely translates into soliciting, and pressuring for, political and financial support for Israel.

In the first instance, the challenge of truly understanding and learning lessons from the Nazi phenomenon is reduced to something akin to a therapy session in which those in the role of victim help those in the role of perpetrator purge their guilt by satisfying the psychological and material demands of the former. There is something morally repugnant in this passing of the sins, or innocence, of the fathers to the sons, as opposed to engaging in an objective process of historical investigation with the aim of combating racism in all forms and in all societies. After all, the main victims of European racism today are not Jews, and in Palestine Zionism is not the victim but the perpetrator. Unfortunately, the Israeli- German therapy sessions ignore such stark realities and, in so doing, offer both the Israelis and the Germans carte blanche to vent their racism on others, as though the Holocaust were a purely German-Israeli concern and the greater phenomenon of racism something else entirely. It is as if through their mutual catharsis with regard to the former they exonerate themselves from responsibility for the latter.

Meanwhile, Zionism’s unwarranted, illogical and historically unsubstantiated monopoly on the role of Holocaust victims’ spokesperson sits well with Europe. Most of Zionism’s aims and demands do not require Europe to engage in a serious process of introspection in order to uproot the deeper causes that gave rise to the Holocaust. Contrary to what one may logically expect, this suits Zionism’s purposes because it keeps the monolithic discreteness of the Holocaust intact and diminishes, in comparison, the significance of Europe’s other crimes. The upshot is to toss the entire Jewish question outside Europe and dump it in the Middle East. It may come as a relief to European officials to be able to exonerate themselves for the Holocaust by placating Israel with anti-Palestinian, anti- Arab and even anti-Muslim sympathies. If anything, however, this form of behaviour confirms the continuation of the underlying syndrome, a syndrome that is nevertheless glossed over with a fresh bill of moral health, authorised and stamped by Israel after every visit of atonement a European leader makes to the "Yad Vashim" Museum in Jerusalem.

It is for this reason that all victims of racism across the world should campaign to break the Zionist hold over the role of spokesman for victims of the Holocaust. Conversely, the Arabs and Palestinians who deny the Holocaust offer European and Zionist racism no greater gift than this denial of the occurrence of the Holocaust. What possible Arab or Islamic interest can it serve to even offer to exonerate Europe of one of the blackest pages in its history? To do so is not only to absolve Europe of a crime that was, in fact, committed, but also to earn its contempt and to wake up one day to find Europe and Israel joining forces against Arab or Muslim Holocaust deniers with such venom that one might imagine that the Holocaust had occurred in Egypt or Iran and that Holocaust denial is a far graver crime than the perpetration of the Holocaust itself. Holocaust denial is just plain stupid, also as a political argument. But Israel will be no less expedient in turning the provocation against its regional adversaries who had nothing to do with the Holocaust.

On the other hand, the Holocaust is a phenomenon that merits proper scholastic study, the purpose of which is to sort fact from fiction, and myth form reality. No incident in history lies beyond the realm of historical research. This said, Tehran can hardly be said to have a tradition of Holocaust studies; the subject does not rate very high in Iranian academic priorities. And a conference in Tehran that was proceeded by a political speech denying the Holocaust cannot be said to be an academic conference; it was a political demonstration, one that harms the Arabs and Muslims and serves only the ultra-right and neo-Nazi forces in Europe and the Zionist movement.

During World War II, when some Arabs and other Third World peoples were rooting for Germany because it was fighting the colonial powers France and Britain, the Arab and Third World left, which had allied with the Soviet Union, argued that it was wrong for the victims of racism to side with the racist Nazi regime. Their position was correct. Today, there is not even a pragmatic immoral justification whatsoever for siding with European racism. Holocaust denial does not undermine the moral justifications for the existence of the state of Israel, as some imagine. What it does, however, is hand the European right and Israel a convenient enemy upon which to unload their problems. This enemy comprises Palestinians and Arabs, specifically fundamentalist Muslims, those Bush is fond of calling "Islamic fascists".

The initial Arab reaction to the Holocaust was simple and straightforward and much more rational. The Holocaust occurred, but it was a tragedy for which the Europeans, not the Arabs, should assume responsibility. This is the opinion that prevailed throughout the 1940s and 1950s, the sense of normalcy that survived in all of us continues to hold it.

AZMI BISHARA writes for Al-Ahram, where this essay originally appeared.