Why Holocaust Denial Hurts the Palestinian Cause

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By bringing together a macabre assortment of neo-Nazis, Klansmen and other right-wing cranks — many of whom would be just as keen to rid Europe of Muslims as the Nazis were to empty the continent of its Jewish population — in Tehran this week, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad seeks to deny or diminish the reality of the Holocaust. And while that may seem like just another slap in the face of the West, to the extent that anyone in the Arab world takes him seriously, the Iranian president is also doing them a profound disservice.

As a Jew, of course, I am sickened by Holocaust denial. But it causes the same revulsion for me as a person who believes in justice for the Palestinians, for whom Israel's emergence meant displacement and dispossession. Those who deny or diminish the Holocaust aren't only callously negating the lived experience of the Jews of Europe; they are also negating what has been — despite the distance at which it occurred — a defining episode of 20th century Arab history. Trying to negate the Holocaust stokes blind hatred on both sides of the divide, and reinforces the most hard-line positions. That may suit Ahmadinejad's own domestic power game, but it does nothing to help the Palestinians and Israelis find a way out of their endless conflict.

Zionism, the political movement advocating the creation of a Jewish State in Palestine, had been around for a half century before the Holocaust, but it had always been a minority movement among the Jews of Europe. The Holocaust changed that, creating a new sense of dire necessity in which a Jewish State had to fight its way into being. In the war that accompanied Israel's emergence, the Palestinian Arabs who had been two-thirds of the population of Palestine found themselves confined to 22% of its territory (the West Bank and Gaza), and prevented by new Israeli laws from reclaiming the homes and land from which hundreds of thousands had fled.

Thus the events celebrated by many Jews as a moment of deliverance from the evil of the Holocaust is commemorated in the Palestinian national narrative as al-Nakbah, the catastrophe, in which hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were turned into refugees. It is these entirely separate narratives that have made the conflict so intractable over the past half century. The importance of the Palestinians' understanding and acknowledging the Holocaust would have been underlined at the Tehran conference had Iran granted the visa applied for by Khaleed Mahameed, a Palestinian lawyer from Nazareth, who runs a small Holocaust museum there. He has dedicated himself to impressing on Palestinians the need to understand the trauma at the heart of the Israeli psyche, in order to make progress in their own national struggle.

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