A blind eye to history

Robert Fisk looks into a wave of Holocaust denial that has seized the Arab world
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The Independent Online
A new Arabic imprint of Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf has been thundering off the presses of a publishing company high in the hills above Beirut. With its cover adorned with a swastika and a photograph of a young, earnest- looking Hitler, 2,500 copies have already been distributed to Lebanese bookshops.

In his windowless printing offices in Kesrouan - a bunker-like building whose walls of pre-stressed concrete would have appealed to the author of the book- Selim Sader agrees that Hitler was "not a very nice man". But, he adds, "If you ask the Nazis, they would have told you something different."

The preface to the edition - originally printed in 1963 and also distributed in Iraq - would certainly not have offended the Nazis. Louis al-Haj, the former editor-in-chief of the Beirut newspaper An Nahar, who died two years ago, tells readers that Hitler's theories of nationalism, government and race are "eternal" issues, that Hitler - "one of the few great men who almost stopped the passage of history" - left behind him an "intellectual heritage". Only towards the end does Mr al-Haj acknowledge that the Nazis set up "a single-party dictatorship ... of force and violence and Machiavellianism". At no point does he mention the most abiding and dangerous theme of Hitler's only book: his hatred of the Jews.

Not so Issa Ahwej, the Beirut publisher of Mein Kampf who - like the Lebanese printers and the late Louis al-Haj - is a Christian. Hitler, he agreed in his tiny bookstore off Hamra Street, was an evil man who would ultimately have placed Arabs on the same level as Jews - as non- Aryans to be destroyed.

But then Mr Ahwej set off into an argument that is today heard ever more frequently and disturbingly throughout the Middle East. "It is not true that six million Jews were killed in the Second World War," he said. When I told him he was wrong - that documentation and historical research had conclusively proven this figure to be true - he brusquely changed his argument.

"If Hitler did kill six million Jews, then I am against the killing of these six million. But I am against the killing of even one citizen of any country. The Israelis say that the Jewish suffering entitles them to take Palestinian land and make a state. So do millions of Palestinians have to be killed for them to be afforded human rights?"

The Holocaust - and the attempt to deny its reality - has always proven an intractable problem for Arabs. Over the years, I have listened to Lebanese and Syrians and Egyptians and Saudis insisting that Hitler's destruction of Europe's Jews was a "myth" invented by the Israelis to justify their seizure of Palestinian Arab land.

And I recall one Sunday lunchtime, sitting over drinks in a Beirut garden, when the host, a silver-haired, Western-educated Lebanese - and, again, a Christian - suddenly remarked: "It's a pity Hitler did not finish the job." This terrible remark brought an immediate silence to our table. When I explained that I had visited many of Hitler's extermination camps, that the piles of human hair and ash at Birkenau were all real, that the figure of six million was accurate, that these were the remains of innocent human beings, that nothing could justify such a comment, he shrugged his shoulders. Did he not realise, I asked, that Hitler would have treated all semitic people with the same viciousness once he had used the Arabs for his own purposes - that Arabs and Jews would both ultimately have been slaughtered if Rommel had reached Palestine? He waved a hand beside his face. "Maybe," he said.

The acknowledgement of another people's suffering has always been difficult for those who regard the suffering people as enemies. And Israel's own use of the Holocaust to justify its ruthless policy towards the Arabs critically damaged any Arab ability there might have been to accept the facts of history. Menachem Begin repeatedly referred to the destruction of Europe's Jews during Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon - in which more than 17,000 Arabs, mostly civilians, were killed - and fantasised in a letter to President Reagan that Yassir Arafat, under siege in Beirut, was comparable to Hitler in his last days of encirclement in Berlin.

But the new wave of historical denial in the Middle East appears to have sprung from the growing - if tardy - realisation that Israel, supported by the most pliant of all US administrations, would win whatever peace was made with the Arabs, and that the "peace process", heavily in Israel's favour (since it guarantees no military withdrawals, no Palestinian capital in Jerusalem and no Palestinian state), would be imposed on the Middle East whether or not the Arabs liked it.

If that "process" is now regarded here as already buried - and Israel's determination to build yet more Jewish homes on Arab land as part of the funeral service - this has of course not staunched the growing refusal to understand and to concede the facts of the Holocaust.

Roger Garaudy, the French philosopher whose book Les mythes fondateurs de la politique israelienne calls into question the very nature of the Holocaust, has now been honoured with an Arabic edition of his work, published by the El Ghad el Arabi press in Cairo. Last month Mr Garaudy undertook a tour of Arab capitals, received by Vice President Abdul Halim Khaddam in Damascus, by Lebanese intellectuals - both Christian and Muslim - in Beirut and by the Jordanian Association of Writers in Amman. He was feted in all three cities and given prominent - and almost exclusively favourable - coverage in the Arab press.

Only in Beirut was he challenged - in a brave and powerful article by the Christian writer Elias Khoury. "Arab culture ... has not seriously dealt with the terrifying significance of the idea of the 'Final Solution'," Mr Khoury complained. "Like fools, we rush to ignore the whole issue and to praise anyone who makes light of - and minimises the importance of - the Nazi extermination camps. Doesn't the plan to exterminate the Jews ... carry within it the seeds of the extermination of every other race or people?" Arabs should consider the Holocaust objectively, Mr Khoury continued, "as the incarnation of the most blatant kind of European racism ... from which we continue to suffer".

In the Saudi-owned daily El-Hayat, Abdul Wahab Badrakhane suggested that the Arabs were being duped by their own refusal to accept the existence of the Holocaust. They stupidly feared, he said, that acknowledgement of Hitler's crimes against the Jews would serve to minimise Israel's brutality against the Arabs. But it was ridiculous "to deny a crime against humanity of which the victims were Jews and others who had fallen into the hands of the Nazis, for the sole purpose of proving another crime against humanity (the expulsion of Palestinians from their homes in 1948) whose victims were Arabs suffering at the hands of Israeli Jews."

Inevitably, Holocaust-denial has become institutionalised in some Arab countries. Most refused to show Stephen Spielberg's film Schindler's List, citing a variety of specious reasons for their decision. In Egypt, the government banned the film on the grounds that it contained "too many murders".

When I worked on a series of three films in 1993 for Britain's Channel 4 and the American Discovery channel, under the title From Beirut to Bosnia, part of the second film recorded the fate of a Jewish family during the Holocaust, a family whose survivors now lived in the home of an exiled Palestinian in present-day Israel. But when the Beirut New TV channel bought the rights to the film to show in Lebanon, they abruptly ended the second film as I approached the door of the Holocaust survivors in Acre, cutting off the elderly Israeli's description of his family's murder, pictures of his original home in Poland and scenes of the railway station and memorial ground at Treblinka extermination camp.

When I protested to one of the station's officials, he replied that "Lebanese security people don't like film about the Holocaust." In fairness, it should be added that - after I had protested vigorously to the Lebanese chairman - the Beirut television company did re-show the film in its entirety three months later, the first time that a Lebanese audience was able to see a film which dealt with the Holocaust.

There is, of course, no exclusivity in historical denial. When the same film series was shown in the United States, an Israeli lobby group brought commercial pressure on Discovery not to re-show the series. They complained, among other things, that I should never have referred to the West Bank as "occupied" - it was at the time occupied by thousands of Israeli troops as most of it still is - and claimed that a pregnant Palestinian girl whom the Israeli army refused to assist to hospital during a curfew was not in fact expecting a child. She later gave birth to her supposedly non-existent baby, but Discovery caved in and refused a second showing to the series - thus ironically ensuring that the Holocaust sequence also disappeared.

This is only one small example of the problem encountered by anyone trying to report the facts of Israeli history. Reporters, for example, who regularly refer to the expulsion of Palestinians by Israelis in 1948 - at least 750,000 were driven from their homes - regularly receive letters from supporters of Israel who accuse them of anti-semitism, adding, untruthfully, that the Palestinians left under the orders of their own political leadership. Pioneering work by Israeli historians, such as Benny Morris, have helped to document the deliberate expulsion of the Palestinians; but the myths live on.

Similarly with Haj Amin al-Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, who spent part of the Second World War in Berlin urging the Germans on to greater military victories in the Middle East. Haj Amin is a dark and frightening figure for most Israelis but a hero to tens of thousands of Palestinians - Arafat attended his funeral in Beirut in the 1970s - because he refused to accept Jewish immigration into pre-war Palestine and never agreed to the kind of humiliating peace Arafat eventually signed.

Israelis claim that Haj Amin urged Palestinians to massacre Jews in the 1930s - which is untrue. Equally, however, Arabs refuse to believe that Haj Amin specifically asked the Nazis to send Europe's Jews into exile - which he did. Haj Amin also spent some weeks in Bosnia, recruiting Muslims to fight for Hitler against Russia and against Tito's partisan army in Yugoslavia itself - a deed which Serbs still remember with frightening venom but which Arabs have forgotten. Again, it is an Israeli researcher, Zvi Elpeleg, who has written the fairest account of Haj Amin's life.

Yet myth and historical denial persist. Perhaps that is the nature of war - that until a conflict ends, its history cannot be corrected. But the wickedness of the Holocaust - its uniqueness and genocidal intent - have set a test which Arabs have repeatedly failed, and failed for political reasons.

No Muslim in the Middle East has any problem in accepting the fact of the Turkish genocide of the Armenians in 1915, even though these atrocities were committed by fellow Muslims. But the Holocaust requires an empathy which a humiliated Arab world cannot find within itself.

This refusal is as much a danger to Arabs as it is to Jews, for the evil that was done in Europe could effortlessly have been committed against Muslims, Christians and Jews in the Middle East. And the seeds of racism - as Elias Khoury so boldly pointed out - still lie in the soil of Europe, against Arabs as well as Jews.