HISTORY NOVEMBER 1, 2010
by Gilbert Achcar
Metropolitan Books, 386 pp., $30
Partisanship is almost always just beneath the surface of most writing about the Middle East. Gilbert Achcar’s book is no exception. In recent years, scholars have focused on the sensitive issue of the collaboration between some Arab political leaders and the Nazi regime, and on its ideological aftereffects. The scholarly debate became even more charged after September 11, when the issue of the similarities and the differences between Islamism and Nazism became a political matter as well as an academic one. In The Arabs and the Holocaust, Achcar, a professor in the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, has penned a response to that discussion from the perspective of left-wing anti-Zionism.
The book makes three central points. First, Achcar makes the welcome acknowledgment that there were Arab leaders who willingly collaborated with Nazi Germany, and that they were embedded in the Islamist tradition. Second, he draws needed attention to those leftist and liberal Arab political and intellectual figures who opposed Nazism and fascism as well as Zionism. Third, he attacks Zionist leaders and a host of historians for making what he views as erroneous generalizations about the extent of Arab support for Nazism, and for focusing on these issues in order to legitimate Zionism. On the first two points, Achcar succeeds by drawing on—and adding to—the existing work in the field. But his third point undermines his book’s virtues with a series of unfair attacks resting on partisan readings of scholars with whom he disagrees.
Achcar’s intention is “to render the complexity” of the Arab response to the Holocaust. “To be sure,” he writes, “one finds many odious attitudes toward the Holocaust in the Arab world; but one also finds absurdly distorted interpretations of the Arab reception of the Holocaust in Israel and the West.” He especially wishes to draw attention to the Westernizing Arab liberals and leftists who opposed Nazism as well as Zionism on the basis of democratic and humanist values. He wants to distinguish them from the Islamists who willingly threw in their lot with the Third Reich.
Achcar takes aim at the scholars—Martin Cuppers, Elie Kedourie, Matthias Küntzel, Bernard Lewis, Meir Litvak, Klaus-Michael Mallmann, Esther Webman, and Stefan Wild—who have written major works on Nazi policy toward the Middle East in World War II and on the Arab response to those policies. He criticizes these historians of Nazi-Arab collaboration for contributing to a “hegemonic narrative” according to which a majority of Arabs are portrayed by these authors of “anti-Arab propaganda” as having supported Nazism in the 1930s. For anyone who has read the works that he is referring to, The Arabs and the Holocaust is a frustrating book to read. Achcar criticizes texts without fairly presenting their arguments and their evidence. From reading Achcar, the reader would be unaware that in fact none of these scholars engages in generalizations about all Arabs. None of them assumes that opposition to Zionism was, in and of itself, tantamount to sympathy for Nazism, or that it was only the product of anti-Semitism. And much of what they discovered and examined forms the empirical foundation for Achcar’s own study.
The core of Achcar’s argument is in his chapters about four currents of Arab response to Nazism, especially in the 1930s and 1940s, which he usefully describes as composed ofMarxists, liberal modernizers, nationalists, and “reactionary and/or fundamentalist Pan-Islamists.” His discussion of the Arab Communist parties is particularly interesting. He documents their enduring opposition to Zionism—they regarded it, not surprisingly, as a distraction from the class struggle—and to Jewish immigration to Palestine at least until the early 1940s. While Arab Marxists criticized anti-Semitism or anti-Judaism, they distinguished those hatreds from anti-Zionism. Indeed, he writes that Jewish members of the Communist parties were “often more militantly anti-Zionist than their Gentile comrades.” In May 1946, for example, Jewish members of the Iraqi Communist Party, grouped in a “League against Zionism,” wrote to Stalin demanding that he support the Palestinian cause at the United Nations. Arab Communists were so uniformly opposed to the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine that they reacted with dismay to the Soviet support in 1947 for the plan to partition Palestine into a Jewish and a Palestinian state. In the same year, the Iraqi Communist Party called Zionism a “movement that is racist, religious, reactionary, and false to the Jewish masses,” described partition as “an old imperialist project,” and claimed that partition would lead to “subordination of the Arab majority to the Zionist minority in the proposed Jewish state.” Achcar observes that Soviet support for partition left the Arab Communists “isolated in Arab public opinion for some time to come.” He does not point out that from the early 1950s on, the Soviet Union did all it could to overcome that isolation and fan the flames of anti-Zionism, and often anti-Semitism as well.
Achcar’s chapter on “liberal modernizers” will introduce readers to some less familiar voices, beginning with his father Joseph, who opposed Nazism but, in his doctorate in 1934 at the University of Lyon wrote that “it is not possible to redress one injustice,” namely Nazi anti-Jewish persecution, “by another, more serious and costly injustice,” that is, Zionist plans to establish a Jewish state in Palestine. He also refers to a “propaganda literature” that has “always projected the Mufti’s [Hajj Amin al-Husseini’s] opinions onto all the Arabs of Palestine, with a view to portraying them as ardent partisans of the Axis powers,” but he does not specify what literature he has in mind. He then acknowledges that “with the exacerbation of tensions” in Palestine, “especially from 1936 on, the radical wing of the national movement led by the Mufti of Jerusalem, Hajj Amin al-Husseni, came to represent the Arab majority view in Palestine.” If Achcar can acknowledge Husseini’s support by a majority of Palestinians, why is the recognition of the same fact by the Zionist leaders or subsequent scholars owed to a sinister effort to project Husseini’s view onto that majority?
In any event, the liberal modernizers could not match the Mufti’s mass appeal. Achcar refers to a “Zionist intelligence claim” of December 7, 1941, which he appears to regard as accurate. The study claimed that about 60 percent of Palestine’s Arab population supported the Nazis. Achcar writes that it was “remarkable that no more than 60 percent of Palestinian Arabs supported the Nazis at that point, when Germany was at the height of its military success.” In other words, Achcar accepts that there was evidence that a majority of the Palestinian population supported Nazi Germany and that Husseini represented majority sentiment in Palestine. So when Zionist intelligence officials in pre-state Palestine drew attention to this disturbing fact, they did not project Husseini’s pro-Nazi views onto all Arabs or Palestinians. On the contrary, they claimed in effect that 40% of Palestinians did not support the Nazis, which is precisely the kind of distinction that Achcar seeks to draw. Facing facts was not, then, an exercise in “propaganda literature.”
Achcar’s discussion of the response to Nazism by Arab nationalists is informative and in certain ways refreshing. He acknowledges that some of them sympathized with fascism and Nazism, and advocated an anti-Zionism infused with Jew-hatred. Yet having recognized these important realities, and having criticized several historians who engage in apologetics about these matters, Achcar criticizes the German historian Stefan Wild’s essay “National Socialism in the Arab Near East between 1933 and 1939,” published in 1985 in the scholarly journal Die Welt des Islams (The World of Islam). Wild, like Elie Kedourie in Arab Political Memoirs and Fouad Ajami in The Arab Predicament, drew on the memoirs of Sami al-Jundi, an early member of the Syrian Baath Party. Al-Jundi recalled pro-Axis sympathy in Damascus intellectual circles in 1939 and 1940.
Whoever had lived during this period in Damascus will appreciate the inclination of the Arab people to Nazism, for Nazism was the power which could serve as its champion, and he who is defeated will by nature love the victor.
We were racialists, admiring Nazism, reading its books and the source of its thought, particularly Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Fichte’s Addresses to the German Nation, and H.S. Chamberlain’s Foundations of the Nineteenth Century, which revolves around race. We were the first to think of translating Mein Kampf.
Achcar, claiming that Wild’s quotations transformed the meaning of the original Arabic, then renders the above quotations as follows:
Whoever had lived during this period in Damascus will appreciate the inclination of the Arab people to Nazism, for Nazism was the power which could serve as its champion, and he who is defeated will by nature love the victor. But our belief was rather different...We were idealists, basing social relationships on love. The Master used to speak about Christ.
Achcar writes that “there is no excuse for Wild’s omission of the passage beginning with the word ‘But.” But what excuse does Achcar have for omitting the far more serious passage that begins with the assertion “we were racialists”, and for eliding it with a passage that puts a much more benign face on things? It would seem that it is Achcar, not Wild, who has doctored the document and omitted the key phrase.
Achcar’s chapter on the Islamists is very fine. He traces this ideological tradition from the Syrian thinker Rashid Rida, who was prominent in the first third of the century, through the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hassan al-Banna, to Hajj Amin al-Husseini and Sayyid Qutb. He has no patience for excuse- making about “Pan-Islamism” and a “fundamentalist counterreformation” in the mid-twentieth century. His criticism of “the mass of reactionary conservatives who defined the new Islamic orthodoxy of the twentieth century” is appropriately harsh. From Rida on, these thinkers, often with financial support from the Wahabi monarchy of Saudi Arabia, fashioned an interpretation of Islamic doctrine that “makes early Islam look like a model of liberalism.” In contrast to the modest wave of apologias surrounding the Muslim Brotherhood that has come out of certain Washington think tanks and departments of Middle East studies in recent years, Achcar describes the Brotherhood as “the spearhead of fundamentalist counterreformation and reactionary Pan-Islamism in the Arab world.”
He rejects the argument put forward by the French leftist Daniel Guérin that “colonial leaders who appeared to be collaborating with the Axis ‘were simply taking advantage of an existing situation in the interests of their movements.’” For Achcar, Guérin’s remark “illustrates the abiding tendency of those who have made the admirable decision to put themselves ‘at the service of the colonized’ to abandon critical thinking when dealing with victims of imperialism–especially those of their own country...the argument that ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’ has all too often served to excuse the worst sort of compromise with, and even acceptance of, infamy.” This is a most welcome criticism of such awful left-wing apologetics.
Achcar rejects the arguments, made by Phillip Mattar, one of Husseini’s biographers, that Husseini turned to the Nazis for opportunistic reasons, just as Churchill and Roosevelt made their pact with Stalin. Achcar writes that “...while it may be necessary to strike an alliance with the devil under certain circumstances, it is never legitimate to become the devil’s advocate, and even less so to present the devil as an angel. Therein lies the difference between an alliance of convenience and full complicity.” In fact, there were Arabs who “unflinchingly threw in their lot with the Axis and took up the cudgels for them. They belonged to either nationalist or Pan-Islamist circles, the latter twisting the principles of Islam with the help of theological lubrications of the sort Rida engaged in. Aside from straightforward emulators of Nazism, such as the Lebanese SSNP and Young Egypt, it was fundamentalist Pan-Islamism that exhibited the greatest affinity with the fascist states, Germany in particular. The affinity’s rationale is plain: the common enemy was not Britain, as is too often believed, but the Jews.” Achcar minces no words about Husseini’s “criminal complicity” with the crimes of the Nazi regime. “In his years in Europe, he entered into the Nazis’ criminal delirium about ‘the Jews,’ as it burgeoned into the greatest of all crimes against humanity. There can be no reducing the monstrousness of that crime by equating Zionists with Nazis unless one makes no distinction between colonialist usurpation of a territory and the racist extermination of whole populations.”
Having made a clear break with all the historiographical and political alibis about Husseini, Achcar then complains that Husseini’s importance has been exaggerated, that his wartime appeals to the Arabs “produced no tangible effects,” and that “a copious literature” has been “demonizing the Mufti.” Yet it is Achcar himself, by reproducing now familiar evidence of Husseini’s wartime propaganda, his work with the Bosnian Muslim SS division, and his pleas to Himmler to prevent any Jewish emigration to Palestine when he knew the Nazis were murdering Jews in Europe, who reinforces the previously published evidence of what he rightly calls Husseini’s “criminal complicity with the Nazis.”
Achcar is firmly within the mainstream of scholarly opinion when he writes that “Husseini exploited his religious authority as Grand Mufti to underscore the ostensible identity between Islamic and National Socialist approaches to the Jewish question.” He did so with a “tendentious and highly selective use of the Islamic corpus.” He made no distinction between Jews and Zionists, and his views were “perfectly consistent with Nazi anti-Semitism.” Moreover, in citing Husseini’s speech on the Balfour Declaration in 1943 in Berlin, Achcar notes a “startling harmony between the Mufti’s vision and the Islamophobic interpretation of Islam as an intrinsically racist religion.”
It is surprising, after all this, to find Achcar making the implausible claim that after the war Hajj Amin al-Husseini was unimportant. His reputation had “reached a low ebb in Arab and Palestinian political circles with the defeat of the Axis.” Achcar acknowledges that “the Palestinian population nevertheless continued to regard the Mufti as its leader since no alternative had emerged.” Yet it was precisely members of some of the same “political circles” who, in 1946, unanimously elected Husseini as President of the Arab Higher Committee, the central organization of the Palestinian national movement. His reputation was clearly quite untarnished in this environment. Moreover, Achcar does not explain why “no alternative” had emerged, or why the alternatives that existed among the secular liberal forces were defeated by Husseini and his associates. In fact, Husseini emerged preeminent in post-1945 Palestine despite, and in some cases because of, his wartime propaganda declarations from Berlin against the Allies and the Jews and because (as Edward Said noted) his election rested on a consensus in Palestinian political circles.
Achcar cites the Israeli historian Zvi Elpeleg’s comment that “the memory of Hajj Amin disappeared from the Palestinian public consciousness almost without trace.” He takes Elpeleg’s quotation out of context. In the same work from which Achcar is quoting, Elpeleg concluded that though Husseini was “denigrated and forgotten” at the end of his life, it was the Mufti who laid the foundations for the national movement. Elpeleg concluded that “there is almost nothing in the PLO doctrine, or in the national charters of the Palestine National Council, which had not already been conceived and given expression by Hajj Amin, but the PLO does not even take the trouble to pay lip service to Hajj Amin for this. This is a sad fate for a man who, during his lifetime, embodied more than any other, the appearance of the Palestinian national movement and its decades of struggle.” Elpeleg’s point, in other words, is just the opposite of the impression left by Achcar’s selective quoting.
Achcar delivers equally unfair attacks on the work of the Israeli historians Yehoshafat Harkabi, Meir Litvak and Esther Webman and the German political scientist, Matthias Küntzel, all of whom have written works that are crucial for understanding the extent and the nature of Arab collaboration with Nazi Germany, and its aftereffects. He subjects Litvak’s and Webman’s very important study, Empathy and Denial: Arab Responses to the Holocaust, to particularly unfair criticism. These historians examined major Arab newspapers and journals, as well as books and essays by prominent scholars and journalists, to describe what they regard as the dominant published opinion in the Arab societies about the Holocaust. They presented abundant evidence regarding Holocaust denial and, in the wake of Islamization, Holocaust justification. Their pages are filled with quotations from eminent authors in the decades since the Holocaust who equate Zionism with Nazism, and the Palestinian refugee crisis with the Holocaust.
Litvak and Webman report, for example, that in 1998, after Roger Garaudy, the French Holocaust denier and anti-Zionist, spoke of “the myth of the Holocaust,” “Arab intellectuals, writers, journalists, politicians and clergy embraced the man and his book.” Publishers brought out an Arabic edition. The book conveyed by then familiar themes: Zionism is a danger to the world; Jews and Zionists dominate international affairs; Israel is a racist state; Zionists collaborated with the Nazi regime and then fabricated the myth of the Holocaust to extort money from guilt-ridden Germany. Any criticism of these views was seen as part of “the West’s attack on Islam.” To Litvak and Webman, the enthusiastic Arab reception of Garaudy was evidence of the importance of the Arab “Holocaust discourse” that had been developing for decades.
Achcar agrees that the Arab reception of Garaudy was “a calamity,” and was evidence of “the intellectual regression that has been under way in the Arab countries for several decades now.” Yet rather than applauding Litvak and Webman for documenting and interpreting a key element of this regression, Achcar expresses astonishment at the “ethnocentric complacency” that supposedly prompted their criticism of Edward Said for seeking mutual recognition of the Holocaust and the Palestinian fate after 1948. This, despite Litvak’s and Webman’s acknowledgment of Said’s plea that Arabs speak frankly and honestly about the Holocaust, and Achcar’s own acknowledgment that the mass murder of Europe’s Jews ought not be equated with the Palestinian refugee crisis. If Achcar can criticize this equation, these Israeli historians should be able to do so too, and without being accused of “ethnocentric complacency,” which is a euphemism for saying they are guilty of “anti-Arab racism.” The charge is baseless.
Achcar’s treatment of Matthias Küntzel’s Jihad and Jew-Hatred: Islamism, Nazism and the Roots of 9/11 is equally regrettable. He calls it a “fantasy-based narrative pasted together out of secondary sources and thirdhand reports” that points to a “direct line of descent from Amin al-Hussein and Hassan al-Banna through Gamal Abdel-Nasser to Osama bin Laden.” In fact, the rather embarrassing fact is that Küntzel’s analysis of al-Banna, Husseini, the Muslim Brotherhood, Sayyid Qutb and Islamism in general runs along the same main lines as Achcar’s own account of the Pan-Islamist reactionaries from Rashid Rida onward. (The major difference is that Küntzel draws on biographies of Yassir Arafat to examine his connection to Husseini and with that, to draw attention on the impact of the Islamist tradition on the history of comparatively secular Al Fatah and the Palestine Liberation Organization.) Should we therefore dismiss Achcar’s own account as a “fantasy-based narrative,” or should we recognize that scholars with different political opinions can agree on a common set of facts? Given Küntzel’s eloquent defense of Israel, Achcar may be embarrassed by the similarity of his view of Islamist Jew-hatred with Küntzel’s view. But such discomfort does not excuse his intemperate attack on a scholar who shares his roots in Enlightenment values.
In a chapter on “stigmas and stigmatization,” Achcar underscores his rejection of Zionism. He presents himself as one of “the humanists of the two communities” of Israelis and Palestinians caught between “neo-Zionism and xenophobia on the one hand, ultranationalism and Islamic fundamentalism on the other.” “The bigoted notion,” he adds, “that all Jews are Zionists has its pendant in the bigoted notion that all Arabs are anti-Semites.” The pairing in the sentence repeats Achcar’s assumption that Zionism and anti-Semitism are equally repugnant forms of racism. He then dismisses the arguments of Harkabi, Lewis, Robert Wistrich, Yehuda Bauer, and others regarding a “new anti-Semitism” in recent years in the Arab and Islamic world and among Muslim immigrants to Europe. He spends five pages on “the new anti-Semitism” without presenting a shred of evidence that its advocates have put forward to document its existence. He gives Bernard Lewis a rhetorical pat on the back for not indulging in “the excesses of anti-Arab propaganda” which presumably flow from the pens of others, yet he never presents an example of a serious scholar who has suggested that all Arabs or all Muslims are anti-Semites.
Finally, Achcar wades into the issues of postwar German history and the memory of the Holocaust, a subject about which a large body of scholarship exists. Not surprisingly, he calls the West German support for the state of Israel from Adenauer onward a form of “philosemitism,” that is, a mix of cynicism and sentimentality that was the price West Germany paid for integration into the West during the Cold War. If Achcar had bothered to read more works in German history, he would have learned that financial restitution for Jewish survivors and for the state of Israel found its strongest support among Social Democrats and moderate conservatives around Konrad Adenauer, while it was denounced most vociferously as a cynical ploy by the East German Communists and only reluctantly accepted by the right wing of Adenauer’s Christian Democratic Party.
His misunderstanding of postwar German history and policy, and yes, his hatred of the state of Israel come to the fore in Achcar’s criticism of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s speech to the Knesset on March 18, 2008. The core of her argument was a reaffirmation of the existence of the state of Israel and of Germany’s solidarity with it in the face of Iran’s threats to wipe it out. Achcar omits Iran’s threats to implement what would amount to a second Holocaust from his discussion of Merkel’s speech, and then changes the subject to that of Islamophobia. He informs us, again without evidence, that there has “of course...been a huge increase in Islamophobia, notably after the September 11, 2001 attacks.” Achcar’s definition of this unfortunate addition to political language is, to put it mildly, elastic. “Islamophobia,” he writes has found a means of large scale ‘sublimation’ in hostility to what has come to be called ‘Islamism’ or even ‘Islamofascism.’” Again, without presenting the arguments and the evidence of writers on the subject such as Paul Berman, Laurent Murawiec, Bassam Tibi, among others (including myself), he writes that “if the word ‘Islam’ were replaced by ‘Judaism,” [such statements] would provoke an uproar and, in Europe, lead to legal prosecution.”
The term “Islamophobia” suggests that there is an irrational fear, a “phobia,” that is widespread in Western society about the religion of Islam. The term is too often deployed to deflect criticism which is not aimed at the religion of Islam or at Muslims, as such but at those ideological currents that terrorists adopt. The discussion and criticism of Qutb, bin Laden, Ahmadinejad, or the Hamas Charter do not rest on a “phobia” about the religion of Islam. They stem from a fully rational fear of terrorism, and by a lucid and empirical grasp of the reality of Islamist fanaticism.
Those of us who have written about Islamism and its connection to the terrorist attacks of the past decade have always gone to great effort to define this tradition as an extremist interpretation of the traditions of Islam. We have distinguished between Islam and Islamism, but we have also insisted that it is naïve to assume that when terrorists say they act in the name of Islam that their actions have nothing at all to do with their interpretation of the religion. To criticize Islamism is not a sublimation of hostility to Islam. It is the result of an interpretation of widely known facts about one extremist interpretation of that religion.
Achcar is a man at war with what he has written in his own book. It is Achcar, not us supposed Islamophobes and anti-Arab racists, who documents the tradition of Pan-Islamism and the fusion of Nazism and Islamic fundamentalism that was a key chapter in its history. The same author who traced this tradition from Rida to Husseini now writes as if the terms “Islamism” and “Islamofascism” are the product of anti-Islamic bigotry. Isn’t it possible, and even likely, that those he denounces for criticizing Islamism in recent years have arrived at conclusions similar to his own regarding the Islamists of the 1930s and 1940s because they, like him, concluded that there was good evidence in both cases to do so?
The Arabs and the Holocaust has elements of candor and courage. It is a salutary development that someone with Achcar’s political views acknowledges the realities of the Nazi-Islamist wartime collaboration. It is important to be reminded of the history of a secular Arab leftism and liberalism that opposed fascism, Nazism, as well as Zionism. Yet Achcar undermines these virtues of his book with superficial, unfair, and unreliable readings of those with whom he disagrees, above all those who fought fascism and Nazism on the basis of secular, liberal, and even leftist values yet still support Zionism. His attack on these scholars is neither a contribution to scholarship nor a contribution to moderation.
Jeffrey Herf is Professor of Modern European History at the University of Maryland., College Park. His most recent book, Nazi Propaganda for the Arab World (Yale University Press, 2009) was awarded the 2010 Bronze Prize from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.