The Arabs and the Holocaust: The Arab- Israeli War of Narratives, By Gilbert Achcar

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As so often, the subtitle here indicates what the book is really about rather more clearly than does the top line – but in a slightly paradoxical way. We don't often think of academic literary criticism as having a profound impact on the real world, but maybe it has done so with an ever-expanding idea of narrative. Almost a generation ago, literary theorists started using the term in increasingly capacious ways. First every imaginable kind of writing, then all forms of representation, then absolutely everything became a "narrative".

Elections, wars, football matches... They were no longer affairs of clashing parties, guns, bombs or boots, but rival narratives. More surprisingly, politicians, pundits and even bureaucrats started following the same line. The War on Terror is routinely described as about challenging the Islamist "single narrative". Britain's General Election was held to hinge on whose narrative about society would hold sway (the answer: nobody's).

Actually, the idea makes more sense for the Arab-Israeli conflict than for many other cases. The notion of politics and war as affairs of rival narratives, with each movement or state trying to validate its picture of the world by telling tales, especially about its own origin, captures an important truth there.

For Palestinians, perhaps, especially, it long seemed that presenting their case meant having to keep retelling the story, insisting that there is a national story to be told. More broadly, "conflicts about the conflict" have helped shape the Middle Eastern struggle since its genesis. Even if we must insist that these discursive battles are secondary to more bloody, material battles, still the clash between rival visions of history has been crucial for both participants and outsiders. Among the more troubling questions raised is whether there is any possibility, even in some benign vision of a distant future, of arriving at a shared "neutral" or "objective" Arab- Israeli narrative of the past.

Central to the war of narratives, in its turn, has been the question of which bits of history, key moments or even symbolic dates, are important. The most obvious contenders are the year of Israeli independence and Palestinian dispossession, 1948, and that of Arab state failure and Israeli expansion, 1967. But which of those one stresses, let alone how, has huge political entailments.

Meanwhile another set of dates – 1933, when Hitler came to power, 1939, with the outbreak of world war, 1942-3, and the peak of Nazi mass murder; and of places, this time central European rather than Middle Eastern ones – is vital to pro-Israeli visions of history, and seemingly marginal to Arab ones.

For the former, the Holocaust is crucial both to explaining Israel's establishment and to legitimating its very existence. For the latter – well, what? Should Palestinian, or wider Arab grand narratives simply assert (or assume) its irrelevance to their quarrel with Israel, except insofar as its memory has been exploited against them? That has been the dominant response.

Others, too few, have argued that the way forward lies in a mutual recognition of past suffering, with Israeli admission of responsibility for Palestinian dispossession matched by greater Arab sensitivity to the legacies of the Nazi Shoah. Simply teaching that history in Arab schools and universities, or translating some key works into Arabic, would be a good start.

There have been other, far less creditable Arab reactions to Nazism and the Holocaust, from the 1930s to the present. These are at the heart of much bitter polemic and of Gilbert Achcar's book. They are the rhetorics of Shoah denial and/or celebration in which some Arab or pro-Arab politicians, publicists and intellectuals have indulged. The obviously nonsensical but somehow compelling assertion that "It never happened, and it's a good thing that it did" keeps popping up.

There is long, acrid contestation over how how central to Arab political culture these have been. A full-scale academic and propaganda industry, in Israel and beyond, has devoted itself to uncovering and publicising such utterances. Central to this is the 1930s Palestinian leader, and wartime Nazi collaborator, Hajj Amin al-Husseini. His vehement anti-Semitism is repeatedly highlighted, often with wild exaggeration of his sordid but utterly marginal role in the Nazi project.

Husseini's successors have less often been Palestinians than outside sympathisers with Arab causes – or people posing as such. They include European neo-fascists, and nasty mavericks like the French ex-Communist, Muslim convert and Holocaust denier Roger Garaudy. The highest-profile current exponent of this trend is Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad.

That pattern might suggest that, far from being unusually imbued with anti-Semitism, Palestinians, or Arabs more generally, have just been often unfortunate in their leaders or unwise in their choice of friends. Arab and Muslim anti-Semitism might be merely a weak, derivative offshoot of that which flourished in Christian Europe, or a horrible by-product of conflict with Israel. Repeated, even obsessive focus on Arab Judaeophobia, including its toxic but happily rare manifestations in Holocaust denial, might seem unfair, overstated or a malicious campaign of misinformation.

So Achcar wants to argue. There lies one of two basic problems with this admirably intentioned and in some aspects very learned book. His tone and aim oscillate between a cool, detailed analysis of anti-Semitism in the Arab world, and a counter-polemic against the overheated or unjust charges from many pro-Zionist writers on the subject. The first part is, after all the polemic and prejudice, still much needed, and Achcar gives some of it: though, as he acknowledges, his coverage is more detailed for "the time of the Shoah" than for subsequent eras.

The second, too, is a quite legitimate and perhaps necessary task. But mingling them as Achcar does makes for a rather uneasy hybrid work. He is especially concerned to exonerate those Arab political traditions to which he is clearly sympathetic - leftists, universalists, democrats, secular nationalists – and to argue that hatred of Jews is most often encountered among Islamists and authoritarians of various stripes. Fair enough and, in the main, true enough: but on this front also, the book sometimes slips towards a tone of special pleading.

The other main shortcoming is an unclear or over-ambitious analytical focus. Achcar's coverage forms a series of concentric circles, with Arab ideas about the Shoah, including denial, forming the innermost, but widening to take in Arab attitudes to Israel, to Jews in general, Nazism and fascism, and much more. At the outer circle, he offers a general ideological "mapping" of the Arab world and its intellectual traditions: lucid and penetrating, but surely the basis for a quite separate book? Commenting, often shrewdly and always humanely, on a war of narratives, Achcar is also a combatant, and even a victim, in such a war within his own pages.

Stephen Howe is professor of history at Bristol University