The Holocaust Becomes a Palestinian Issue

Image of a man waving a Palestinian flag.

Image by Ahmed Abu Hameeda.

A commotion (more like a tempest in a teapot) has broken out over a recent Holocaust-related statement by President Mahmoud Abbas. Abbas is head of Fatah, the secular nationalist party that runs the Palestine Authority (PA). It should be noted that Fatah is practically powerless, often functioning as a client of the Israelis and much the same can be said for the PA. As weak and unpopular (with most Palestinians) as Abbas is, he is still a Palestinian with a title and so his utterances, particularly if coarse, will be noted.

Thus it was that in August of this year, while addressing a Fatah meeting, Abbas declared that, “European Jews were persecuted by Hitler because of their ‘social functions’ and ‘predatory lending practices’, rather than their religion or ethnicity.” Abbas has a history of these kinds of statements and so Israelis and their supporters are always on the lookout for them, and ready to exploit their propaganda value. Abbas should know this, but it seems that, periodically, he just can’t help vent his anger and frustration in this counterproductive manner.

Before we get any deeper into this analysis, I ought to explain that Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party, working through the German state, persecuted the Jews because they saw them as an enemy race—a source of corruption and decadence within the purer German ethnicity. Of course, there were plenty of Germans (to say nothing of Poles, Ukrainians, Russians, and other East Europeans) who persecuted Jews due to a prevailing belief that they were “predatory lenders” and alleged “social irritants.” All of these notions were untrue but entrenched in centuries of myth, fabrication and other nonsense. And that was all that was necessary to bring about long-term discrimination, periodic pogroms and finally the Holocaust.

His Palestinian Critics Respond

After Abbas committed this blunder, a large number of other Palestinians, mostly in the diaspora, publicly made known their opposition to his statement. An open letter was released on September 11 by over 100 Palestinian intellectuals condemning Abbas’s comments as ahistorical and “politically reprehensible.” It continues, “We adamantly reject any attempt to diminish, misrepresent, or justify antisemitism, Nazi crimes against humanity or historical revisionism vis-à-vis the Holocaust.” They also noted that Abbas has acted in an “increasingly authoritarian and draconian” fashion over the past 17 years he has held office. His willingness to tactically coordinate with the Israeli army and his unwillingness to hold an overdue free election means that he has “forfeited any claim to represent the Palestinian people.”

Abbas’s critics are correct here. The man is largely an embarrassment to the Palestinian cause. His initial objective was a two-state settlement with Israel, but this proved unachievable, and now he and the PA are stuck—reduced to a client status dependent on their enemy (the Israelis control the money that keeps the PA financially afloat) and with no new objective that Abbas is willing to fight for.

So, frustrated and unwilling to fight the Israelis on the ground, Abbas vents against the Holocaust because it is used as a major raison d’être for the Zionist state. And now, he and his followers rage against those Palestinians who call him to task for his damaging Holocaust revisionism. Fatah’s response to the open letter, released on September 13, was melodramatic and only deepened the factionalism that has overtaken the Palestinian cause. It reads as follows: the open letter “statement is consistent with the Zionist narrative and its signatories give credence to the enemies of the Palestinian people. … It is a statement of shame.” What Abbas and his party are doing here is projecting their own complicity with the occupation back onto their Palestinian critics. It is a tawdry bit of work.

Zionist Racism: Then and Now

Zionists, of course, love it when they get to accuse the Palestinians of alleged antisemitism. But their own behavior has been historically brutal and racist. So their exhibition of schadenfreude is more of an embarrassment for the Jews at large, than any venting on the part of Mahmoud Abbas is for the Palestinians.

Back on 19 January 1943, Chaim Weizmann, then president of the World Zionist Congress, met with the staff of the Near Eastern Affairs division of the U.S. State Department. He told them categorically that, “Palestine could never be an Arab land again.” That attitude already had a history starting from the time of the Balfour Declaration (November 1917), and has never abated amongst the hard-core Zionists. For them, the goal of transforming an Arab land into a “Jewish state” (please note that a growing number of Jews no longer support this goal) is more important than democracy, human rights, international law, or just plain human decency. These Zionists are driven by a strange mixture of biblical mythology and a history of antisemitic racism culminating in the Holocaust, but quite frankly, the way they play the race card, should all but eliminate its use as a Zionist excuse.

The Zionist use of the notion of racism is in a class by itself. That is, racism is notable as an anti-human act only when directed at Jews. Thus, while decrying antisemitism and the undeniable horrors of the Holocaust, many Zionists can support or actively participate in the dispossession of the Palestinians, the ever more frequent pogroms carried out against them, and otherwise treat them like dirt on both sides of the Green Line. They can do all of this and sleep soundly at night because they are morally blind to the contradictions.

The Zionist Context Created Mahmoud Abbas

With this context in mind, let’s go back to Mahmoud Abbas. Abbas was not born antisemitic. To the extent that he is one today, he learned to be so as he grew up—doing so in a Palestine faced with unremitting Zionist aggression. Consequently, his present point of view should not be seen as surprising. What would be surprising is if he felt no animosity toward Jews and Zionists in particular—and not be angry that the Holocaust was used as an excuse to justify the dispossession of his people. Under these circumstances, historical accuracy about the Holocaust means about as much to Abbas as an accurate take on Palestinian rights meant to Chaim Weizmann and those who now follow his lead.

Abbas’s Palestinian critics have been trying to get away from the Holocaust issue and for good reason. If allowed to dominate the narrative between the contesting parties, Jewish past suffering drowns out (at least in the West) contemporary Palestinian suffering. Thus, as Mkhaimer Abusaada, a political scientist at Al-Azhar University in Gaza City notes, “It doesn’t serve our political interest to keep bringing up the Holocaust. We are suffering from occupation and settlement expansion and fascist Israeli policies. That is what we should be stressing.” He is right and Mahmoud Abbas and his cronies just make things worse by traveling down a distracting dead-end path.

A better approach is to acknowledge, as do the signatories to the September 11 open letter, the horrors of the Holocaust wherein the Jews of Europe were the major, but not sole victims. And then ask, what is the logic of visiting mass suffering upon another people (Palestinians) to create a “safe haven” for a previously suffering group (Jews)? If anything, to do so defames the memory and devalues the traumas of the Jewish victims of the Holocaust. Given this line of reasoning, the Zionists should be ashamed of using the Holocaust as an excuse for the creation of what is now recognized as an apartheid state.


The Israelis, even the hard-core Zionists among them, are not Nazis. However, one might seriously worry about what they would do to the Palestinians if the world was not watching. Then again, they do not have to be Nazis to do things that shock us and perhaps cause, as the saying goes, their ancestors to turn over in their graves. Consider the following: several years ago, I gave a talk on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at Franklin and Marshall College in Pennsylvania. Someone in the audience asked if the Israelis weren’t acting in the same way as their own recent persecutors, like the Nazis. My answer was that Nazi behavior was the wrong analogy. A more accurate one would be the actions of Russians who organized and carried out pogroms. That answer set off a near riot on the part of the Zionist contingent in the back of the auditorium. Nonetheless, now with the Settler rampages on the West Bank, backed as they are by the government, it is much easier to see that this comparison is correct.

There is no question about it, the entire Israeli project is a disaster that has turned out to be “bad for the Jews.” But it is worse for the Palestinians and the Nakba (catastrophe) is not over yet. Perhaps, as many liberal Jews hope, there will eventually be one democratic Israeli state where Jews and Palestinians live as equals. If so, that will be a very long time coming. In the meantime, U.S. Jews should keep in mind that they once stood shoulder to shoulder with African Americans in their fight for racial equality and stood aghast at the policies of apartheid South Africa. It is time to return to that humanistic standard and apply it to Israel.

Lawrence Davidson is a retired professor of history at West Chester University in West Chester, PA.