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Barack Obama's presidency

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From free trade to the Kosovo crisis.

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The Dual Realities of Israel/Palestine

By Lawrence Davidson
August 10, 2010

Editor’s Note: One of the most difficult challenges for peace is when both sides in a conflict see themselves as innocent victims of a grave injustice and thus believe almost any act of “self-defense” is justified, the predicament that exists today between Israelis and Palestinians, complicated further by the passionate supporters of the two sides.

And, as the bitterness grows, each side begins to disparage the severity – or even the reality – of the others’ grievance, which, in turn, makes the parties more dug in and more willing to see the worst of the other, a dilemma addressed in this guest essay by Professor Lawrence Davidson:

On Aug. 5, 2010 Israel’s Haaretz newspaper, citing a Fars (Iran) news service story, reported that a non-governmental organization in Iran had "launched a Website with cartoons on the Holocaust aimed at undermining the historic dimensions of the mass murder of Jews."

Israelis and Zionists reacted angrily to this announcement. Spokesmen at Yad Vashem, Israel’s national Holocaust museum stated that the Web site was "yet the latest salvo emanating from Iran that denies the facts of the Holocaust and attempts to influence those who are ignorant of history."

The Haaretz report also noted, somewhat resentfully, that "since the 1979 Islamic revolution , Iran has not acknowledged Israel as a sovereign state and even refrained from using the name Israel, instead referring to the Jewish state as the Zionist regime."
This is obviously a hot button issue and so I will begin my examination of this report by stating that the Holocaust is a proven factual event and the number of six million Jewish victims killed is roughly accurate.

Histories based on detailed research on this subject include the early classic study by Raul Hilberg, The Destruction of the European Jews, first published in 1961 and followed later by his Sources of Holocaust Research (2001).

Other recent works include David Engel’s The Holocaust: The Third Reich and the Jews (1999) and S. Hochstadt, Sources of the Holocaus t– Documents in History (2004). There are many other works as well.
Iran’s academics are no fools. Many of them have been trained in Western universities, but even those who have been trained elsewhere or locally are well read, multilingual, and every bit as intelligent as scholars you will find in the West.

Thus, my feeling is that most Iranian historians and others familiar with the research on the Holocaust know the truth of the matter. Indeed, when I was in Iran in 2005 I did not find any academics raising questions about the reality and extent of the Holocaust.

However, five years later we are witness to regular attacks coming from Iran on the traditional interpretation of the Holocaust. So what is going on here?
Is it just that the present Iranian leaders are a bunch of anti-Semites as the Zionists would have us believe? Or is there something else behind this questioning of a seminal tragedy?
The Holocaust as a Western Event
For the West, the most disastrous event of the last century was the Holocaust. Yet, as horrible as the Holocaust was, it also was mainly a Western affair.

With some justification one might argue that the lessons to be learned from the Holocaust are universal, but that does not negate the fact that Westerners did this to themselves. Thus, there is no reason why the West’s tragedy has to be the tragedy of all other peoples.

This is an important fact and it helps explain why, if one goes to the Arab world today and asks people what is the greatest disaster of the 20th century, you are not going to get the Holocaust as the most common answer.

Rather, from a good number of Arabs the answer will be the Nakba – the massive dispossession of the Palestinian people by Zionist invaders.

Unfortunately, since 1948 an added complication has crept into this equation. Because of the attitude taken by the leaders of Israel and their Zionist supporters, the two disasters, the Holocaust and the Nakba, have become inextricably intertwined.
Despite the fact that modern Zionism predates the Holocaust by half a century, that disaster has been consistently used by the Zionists to justify the need for the Israeli state. Therefore, the notion that Israel stands as a defense against a new Holocaust is present in much of the propaganda that makes the West’s Zionist lobbies so powerful.

In this storyline, the Palestinians who resist Israeli aggression are simply reduced to latter-day Nazis. This claim was most recently made explicit by Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, in his Sept. 25, 2009, speech before the United Nations General Assembly.

In that speech Netanyahu compared Hamas to the Nazis and the firing of Qassam rockets with the London Blitz during World War II. As a corollary to this stance, any criticism of Israeli behavior is said to weaken the defenses against a new genocide of the Jews and is therefore, ipso facto, an expression of anti-Semitism.
Unfortunately, even if you believe that Israel is a necessary retreat for threatened Jewry, the use of the Holocaust as a justification for Israel and its policies is a grave strategic mistake. For by underpinning its continued existence on preventing a second Holocaust, the defenders of Israel invite some of their adversaries to call into doubt the first Holocaust.

As we have seen, these opponents, now led by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran, assert that the Zionists have, at best, exaggerated the victimhood of the Jews during World War II, or that they might be just making it all up to justify stealing Palestine.

Thus, the Web site that has caused all the uproar is, according to Haaretz, "dedicated to those [Palestinians] who have been killed under the pretext of the Holocaust." In short, if you can establish doubt about your enemy’s core argument you have struck that enemy a serious blow.
Who is the Target Audience?

In this effort it is unlikely that the Iranian president or those behind the recent Web site are simply poking their fingers into the proverbial Western eye. The populations to whom they are really talking do not live in the West. They live in the non-Western world and more specifically the Muslim lands.

Most of this audience has no more knowledge of modern European history than their Western counterparts have of Arab or Muslim history. Except, of course, that educated non-Westerners can readily identify the West with the history of modern imperialism.

For many of them that is local history – the kind that stays in the collective memory for generations. So while the average citizen of the Muslim lands probably knows little about the reality of the Holocaust, they are likely to know a lot about Israel as a surviving symbol of their immediate ancestors imperialist experience.

Under the circumstances, convincing them that the Holocaust is a Western ploy to justify an imperialist crime is not such a difficult task. And, that is just what Iran’s anti-Holocaust rhetoric is all about.
An End Result
Before righteous indignation sets in over this deception, keep in mind that the Zionist movement has just as easily convinced most Israeli and Zionist Jews of the correctness of Nakba denial. That is, that the Nakba never really happened and that the history of the founding of Israel was nothing other than the heroic struggle of a people to survive.
The Web site in question seems to have been discontinued, perhaps because it was unauthorized by the government. But its brief existence should teach us a lesson. The West as well as the East is indeed full of "those who are ignorant of history."

This does not mean, however, that they have no sense of any history at all. Rather, it means that the history they believe in is often contrived and distorted. This points the way to the lesson to be learned – what motivates us, and this includes our leaders, is not what is true, but rather what we think is true.

Sometimes the two might be close enough that when we act we do so in a relatively effective way. But more often than not the two exist at some distance from each other, and it is then that we often walk off a cliff.
I am not sure how one can correct this situation. But it is an enormous problem in a world where there are no longer any sanctuaries. Where, for us Americans, the oceans no longer protect us.

Lawrence Davidson is a history professor at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. He is the author of Foreign Policy Inc.: Privatizing America's National Interest; America's Palestine: Popular and Offical Perceptions from Balfour to Israeli Statehood; and Islamic Fundamentalism.

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