Next week, the Institute for Holocaust, Genocide, and Memory Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, is hosting a Webinar, “in conversation with Prof. Raef Zreik,” the co-director of the Minerva Center for the Humanities at Tel Aviv University, an associate Professor at Ono Academic College, and a senior researcher at the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem. Zreik will talk about the Arab intellectuals’ letter condemning antisemitism and rejecting the IHRA working definition of antisemitism. The Webinar organizer is Prof. Alon Confino of the University of Massachusetts Amherst and Ben Gurion University. Confino is a political activist who pushes for the equivalence of the Holocaust to the Palestinian self-inflicted Nakba.
In November 2020, a group of 122 Arab scholars, journalists and intellectuals published an open letter “unconditionally condemning antisemitism while at the same time vehemently rejecting the IHRA working definition of antisemitism.” Admittedly, Zreik was among the initiators and drafters of the letter. The group stated that, “In recent years, the fight against antisemitism has been increasingly instrumentalized by the Israeli government and its supporters in an effort to delegitimize the Palestinian cause and silence defenders of Palestinian rights. Diverting the necessary struggle against antisemitism to serve such an agenda threatens to debase this struggle and hence to discredit and weaken it,” as the invitation to the Webinar reads. During the Webinar Zreik will “elaborate on his views about antisemitism, the fight against it and it’s political instrumentalization within the context of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.”
Worth noting, the full text by the group condemns antisemitism on the one hand yet allows antisemitism to flourish on the other.
The letter states that “Antisemitism must be debunked and combated. Regardless of pretext, no expression of hatred for Jews as Jews should be tolerated anywhere in the world. Antisemitism manifests itself in sweeping generalizations and stereotypes about the Jews, regarding power and money in particular, along with conspiracy theories and Holocaust denial. We regard as legitimate and necessary the fight against such attitudes. We also believe that the lessons of the Holocaust as well as those of other genocides of modern times must be part of the education of new generations against all forms of racial prejudice and hatred.”
But according to the authors, the IHRA definition “discards as antisemitic all non-Zionist visions” and “conflates Judaism with Zionism in assuming that all Jews are Zionists,” and that “the State of Israel in its current reality embodies the self-determination of all Jews.” The authors argue, “We profoundly disagree with this.” They also claim “The fight against antisemitism should not be turned into a stratagem to delegitimize the fight against the oppression of the Palestinians, the denial of their rights, and the continued occupation of their land.” The fight against antisemitism should be as part of “the fight against all forms of racism and xenophobia, including Islamophobia, anti-Arab, and anti-Palestinian racism.” And that “We believe that human values and rights are indivisible and that the fight against antisemitism should go hand in hand with the struggle on behalf of all oppressed peoples and groups for dignity, equality, and emancipation.”
The authors believe that Israel created “a Jewish majority by way of ethnic cleansing… the self-determination of a Jewish population in Palestine/Israel has been implemented in the form of an ethnic exclusivist and territorially expansionist state… the State of Israel is based on uprooting the vast majority of the natives – what Palestinians and Arabs refer to as the Nakba – and on subjugating those natives who still live on the territory of historical Palestine as either second-class citizens or people under occupation, denying them their right to self-determination.”
They argue that “The IHRA definition of antisemitism and the related legal measures adopted in several countries have been deployed mostly against leftwing and human rights groups supporting Palestinian rights and the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign… a legitimate non-violent means of struggle for Palestinian rights.”
Specifically, the IHRA definition example of antisemitism, “Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor,” according to the authors, is “quite odd. It does not bother to recognize that under international law the current State of Israel has been an occupying power for over half a century, as recognized by the governments of countries where the IHRA definition is being upheld.”
The authors argue that “The demand by Palestinians for their right of return to the land from which they themselves, their parents and grandparents were expelled cannot be construed as antisemitic… To level the charge of antisemitism against anyone who regards the existing State of Israel as racist, notwithstanding the actual institutional and constitutional discrimination upon which it is based, amounts to granting Israel absolute impunity… The IHRA definition and the way it has been deployed prohibit any discussion of the Israeli state as based on ethno-religious discrimination.”
The authors claim that “The suppression of Palestinian rights in the IHRA definition betrays an attitude upholding Jewish privilege in Palestine instead of Jewish rights, and Jewish supremacy over Palestinians instead of Jewish safety.”
However, the authors of the public letter are wrong; the IHRA definition does not conflate Judaism with Zionism nor claims that all Jews are Zionists. It doesn’t even claim that Israel embodies the self-determination of all Jews. Of course, there are Jews who are anti-Zionists. The IHRA definition does not discuss them, and this is not what the IHRA definition speaks of, rather, according to the IHRA definition, negating the right of Jews to self-determination is antisemitic.
The authors are claiming that the fight against antisemitism should not delegitimize the fight against the oppression of the Palestinians, the denial of their rights, and the continued occupation of their land. The IHRA definition of antisemitism has not denied such right but insisted that double standards exist when it comes to criticizing Israel while letting off the hook other countries in which Palestinians live and are discriminated against, swuch as Lebanon, is an example. The situation in The Gaza Strip, which is under the violent, authoritarian rule of Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad is even more perilous for the Palestinians. Even in the relatively liberal West Bank, persecutions and even killings of opponents of Mahmoud Abbas are not extraordinary. Supporters of the Palestinians who have never missed an opportunity to bash Israel have kept conspicuously quiet about such cases. Until pro-Palestinian activists sound an alarm about these cases, they should be charged with practicing double standards, which is the epitome of antisemitism per the IHRA definition.
It is hardly surprising that Confino would host Zreik to discuss the alleged bias of IHRA. Confino pushed the equivalency between the Holocaust to the Palestinian Nakba. By equating the Nakba to the Holocaust, Confino reduces the scale of the Holocaust, which is antisemitic. For years, he and other like-minded scholars have, as IAM illustrated, produced a sizable body of literature making the outrageous claim that the Palestinians were subjected to something equivalent to the Nazi genocide that took the lives of six million Jews. Sadly, the current state of academic discourse not only tolerates this type of “scholarship” but makes its authors eligible for positions in Western universities. Confino and Zreik are good examples of this trend.
The University of Massachusetts Amherst
Institute for Holocaust, Genocide, and Memory Studies
Online via ZOOM Webinar
DATE & TIME March 8th 2022 1:00pm – 3:00pm
ZOOM Webinar Registration Link https://umass-amherst.zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_NYJGgn8QSWO9TC_vQAdiLQ“Encounters”: A Conversation with Raef Zreik
March 8, 2022, 1:00PM (EST) / 20:00 (Israel time)
A Conversation with Raef Zreik on the Arab intellectuals’ letter condemning antisemitism and rejecting the IHRA working definition of antisemitism
In November 2020, a group of 122 Arab scholars, journalists and intellectuals published an unprecedented open letter – in English, German, Hebrew, Arabic and French – unconditionally condemning antisemitism while at the same time vehemently rejecting the IHRA working definition of antisemitism. The letter states:
“In recent years, the fight against antisemitism has been increasingly instrumentalized by the Israeli government and its supporters in an effort to delegitimize the Palestinian cause and silence defenders of Palestinian rights. Diverting the necessary struggle against antisemitism to serve such an agenda threatens to debase this struggle and hence to discredit and weaken it.”
Dr. Raef Zreik was among the initiators and drafters of this letter. In this encounter he will elaborate on his views about antisemitism, the fight against it and it’s political instrumentalization within the context of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
Dr. Raef Zreik is co-director of the Minerva Center for the Humanities at Tel Aviv University, an associate Professor at Ono Academic College, and a senior researcher at the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem. His fields of interest include legal and political theory, citizenship and identity, and legal interpretation.
Registration is required to attend this Webinar. Register in advance here:
(2021-2022) “Encounters: Conversations on Racism, Antisemitism, and Islamophobia”
(2021-2022) Five College Working Group: “Race, Indigeneity, Settler Colonialism in Global Perspective”.
(2021-2022) IHGMS Seminar Workshop – Genealogies of Self-Reflection: Writing in the Wake of Trauma
Intellectuals Respond to IHRA Definition of Antisemitism
AUTHOR: IPS Washington PRESS RELEASE – November 30, 2020Prominent Palestinian and Arab intellectuals have responded in a public statement to the growing adoption of the definition of antisemitism by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), and the way it is being deployed to suppress support for Palestinian rights in several European countries and North America. They argue that the fight against antisemitism is being instrumentalized by the Israeli government and its supporters to delegitimize and silence defenders of Palestinian rights. The authors of the open letter recognize antisemitism as a real and growing problem in Europe and North America in conjunction with a general increase of all types of racism and far-right movements. They are fully committed to debunking and combating it, while believing that the struggle against antisemitism properly understood is perfectly compatible with the struggle for justice for Palestinians as an anti-colonial struggle. The deployment of antisemitism in efforts to delegitimize the Palestinian cause perverts and misdirects the fight against persistent and resurgent antisemitism. The statement’s signatories understand the struggle against antisemitism to be as much of a struggle for political and human emancipation as is Palestinian resistance against occupation and statelessness.
Statement on Antisemitism and the Question of Palestine
We, the undersigned, Palestinian and Arab academics, journalists, and intellectuals, are hereby stating our views regarding the definition of antisemitism by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), and the way this definition has been applied, interpreted and deployed in several countries of Europe and North America.
In recent years, the fight against antisemitism has been increasingly instrumentalized by the Israeli government and its supporters in an effort to delegitimize the Palestinian cause and silence defenders of Palestinian rights. Diverting the necessary struggle against antisemitism to serve such an agenda threatens to debase this struggle and hence to discredit and weaken it.
Antisemitism must be debunked and combated. Regardless of pretext, no expression of hatred for Jews as Jews should be tolerated anywhere in the world. Antisemitism manifests itself in sweeping generalizations and stereotypes about the Jews, regarding power and money in particular, along with conspiracy theories and Holocaust denial. We regard as legitimate and necessary the fight against such attitudes. We also believe that the lessons of the Holocaust as well as those of other genocides of modern times must be part of the education of new generations against all forms of racial prejudice and hatred.
The fight against antisemitism must, however, be approached in a principled manner, lest it defeat its purpose. Through “examples” that it provides, the IHRA definition conflates Judaism with Zionism in assuming that all Jews are Zionists, and that the State of Israel in its current reality embodies the self-determination of all Jews. We profoundly disagree with this. The fight against antisemitism should not be turned into a stratagem to delegitimize the fight against the oppression of the Palestinians, the denial of their rights, and the continued occupation of their land. We regard the following principles as crucial in that regard.
- The fight against antisemitism must be deployed within the frame of international law and human rights. It should be part and parcel of the fight against all forms of racism and xenophobia, including Islamophobia, anti-Arab, and anti-Palestinian racism. The aim of this struggle is to guarantee freedom and emancipation for all oppressed groups. It is deeply distorted when geared towards the defense of an oppressive and predatory state.
- There is a huge difference between a condition where Jews are singled out, oppressed and suppressed as a minority by antisemitic regimes or groups, and a condition where the self-determination of a Jewish population in Palestine/Israel has been implemented in the form of an ethnic exclusivist and territorially expansionist state. As it currently exists, the State of Israel is based on uprooting the vast majority of the natives – what Palestinians and Arabs refer to as the Nakba – and on subjugating those natives who still live on the territory of historical Palestine as either second-class citizens or people under occupation, denying them their right to self-determination.
- The IHRA definition of antisemitism and the related legal measures adopted in several countries have been deployed mostly against leftwing and human rights groups supporting Palestinian rights and the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign, sidelining the very real threat to Jews coming from rightwing white nationalist movements in Europe and the U.S. The portrayal of the BDS campaign as antisemitic is a gross distortion of what is fundamentally a legitimate non-violent means of struggle for Palestinian rights.
- The IHRA definition’s statement that an example of antisemitism is “Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor” is quite odd. It does not bother to recognize that under international law the current State of Israel has been an occupying power for over half a century, as recognized by the governments of countries where the IHRA definition is being upheld. It does not bother to consider whether this right includes the right to create a Jewish majority by way of ethnic cleansing and whether it should be balanced against the rights of the Palestinian people. Furthermore, the IHRA definition potentially discards as antisemitic all non-Zionist visions of the future of the Israeli state, such as the advocacy of a binational state or a secular democratic one that represents all its citizens equally. Genuine support for the principle of a people’s right to self-determination cannot exclude the Palestinian nation, nor any other.
- We believe that no right to self-determination should include the right to uproot another people and prevent it from returning to its land, or any other means of securing a demographic majority within the state. The demand by Palestinians for their right of return to the land from which they themselves, their parents and grandparents were expelled cannot be construed as antisemitic. The fact that such a demand creates anxieties among Israelis does not prove that it is unjust, nor that it is antisemitic. It is a right recognized by international law as represented in UNGA resolution 194 of 1948.
- To level the charge of antisemitism against anyone who regards the existing State of Israel as racist, notwithstanding the actual institutional and constitutional discrimination upon which it is based, amounts to granting Israel absolute impunity. Israel can thus deport its Palestinian citizens, or revoke their citizenship or deny them the right to vote, and still be immune from the accusation of racism. The IHRA definition and the way it has been deployed prohibit any discussion of the Israeli state as based on ethno-religious discrimination. It thus contravenes elementary justice, and basic norms of human rights and international law.
- We believe that justice requires full support of the Palestinians’ right to self-determination, including the demand to end the internationally acknowledged occupation of their territories and the statelessness and deprivation of Palestinian refugees. The suppression of Palestinian rights in the IHRA definition betrays an attitude upholding Jewish privilege in Palestine instead of Jewish rights, and Jewish supremacy over Palestinians instead of Jewish safety. We believe that human values and rights are indivisible and that the fight against antisemitism should go hand in hand with the struggle on behalf of all oppressed peoples and groups for dignity, equality, and emancipation.
List of Signatories (in alphabetical order):
Samir Abdallah Filmmaker, Paris, France Soleman Abu-Bader Professor and Director of Doctoral Program, Howard University, Washington, DC, USA Nadia Abu El-Haj Ann Olin Whitney Professor of Anthropology, Columbia University, USA Lila Abu-Lughod Joseph L. Buttenwieser Professor of Social Science, Columbia University, USA Bashir Abu-Manneh Reader in Postcolonial Literature, University of Kent, UK Gilbert Achcar Professor of Development Studies, SOAS, University of London, UK Nadia Leila Aissaoui Sociologist and Writer on Feminist Issues, Paris, France Mamdouh Aker Board of Trustees, Birzeit University, Palestine Samer Alatout Associate Professor, University of Wisconsin, Madison Khalil Alanani Associate Professor at the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies and Senior Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC, USA Mohammad Almasri Executive Director, Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, Doha, Qatar Mohamed Alyahyai Writer and Novelist, Oman Suad Amiry Writer and Architect, Ramallah, Palestine Sinan Antoon Associate Professor, New York University, Iraq-US Talal Asad Emeritus Professor of Anthropology, Graduate Center, CUNY, USA Hanan Ashrawi Former Professor of Comparative Literature at Birzeit University, Palestine Aziz Al-Azmeh University Professor Emeritus, Central European University, Vienna, Austria Zeina Azzam Poet, writer and Publications Editor at Arab Center Washington DC, USA Abdullah Baabood Academic and Researcher in Gulf Studies, Oman Nadia Al-Bagdadi Professor of History, Central European University, Vienna, Austria Sam Bahour Writer, Al-Bireh/Ramallah, Palestine Zainab Bahrani Edith Porada Professor of Art History and Archaeology, Columbia University, USA Rana Barakat Assistant Professor of History, Birzeit University, Palestine Bashir Bashir Associate Professor of Political Theory, Open University of Israel, Raanana, State of Israel Taysir Batniji Artist-Painter, Gaza, Palestine and Paris, France Tahar Benjelloun Writer, Paris, France Mohammed Bennis Poet, Mohammedia, Morocco Mohammed Berrada Writer and Literary Critic, Rabat, Morocco Omar Berrada Writer and Curator, New York, USA Amahl Bishara Associate Professor and Chair, Department of Anthropology, Tufts University, USA Anouar Brahem Musician and Composer, Tunisia Salem Brahimi Filmmaker, Algeria-France Aboubakr Chraïbi Professor, Arabic Studies Department, INALCO, Paris, France Selma Dabbagh Writer, London, UK Izzat Darwazeh Professor of Communications Engineering, University College London, UK Marwan Darweish Associate Professor, Coventry University, UK Beshara Doumani Mahmoud Darwish Professor of Palestinian Studies and of History, Brown University, USA Haidar Eid Associate Professor of English Literature, Al-Aqsa University, Gaza, Palestine Ziad Elmarsafy Professor of Comparative Literature, King’s College London, UK Noura Erakat Assistant Professor, Africana Studies and Criminal Justice, Rutgers University, USA Samera Esmeir Associate Professor of Rhetoric, University of California, Berkeley, USA Khaled Fahmy FBA, Professor of Modern Arabic Studies, University of Cambridge, UK Ali Fakhrou Academic and Writer, Bahrain Randa Farah Associate Professor, Department of Anthropology, Western University, Canada Khaled Farraj Palestinian researcher Leila Farsakh Associate Professor of Political Science, University of Massachusetts Boston, USA Khaled Furani Associate Professor of Sociology & Anthropology, Tel-Aviv University, State of Israel Burhan Ghalioun Emeritus Professor of Sociology, Sorbonne 3, Paris, France Asad Ghanem Professor of Political Science, Haifa University, State of Israel Honaida Ghanim General Director of the Palestinian Forum for Israeli Studies Madar, Ramallah, Palestine George Giacaman Professor of Philosophy and Cultural Studies, Birzeit University, Palestine Rita Giacaman Professor, Institute of Community and Public Health, Birzeit University, Palestine Amel Grami Professor of Gender Studies, Tunisian University, Tunis Subhi Hadidi Literary Critic, Syria-France Ghassan Hage Professor of Anthropology and Social Theory, University of Melbourne, Australia Samira Haj Emeritus Professor of History, CSI/Graduate Center, CUNY, USA Yassin Al-Haj Saleh Writer, Syria Rema Hammami Associate Professor of Anthropology, Birzeit University, Palestine Dyala Hamzah Associate Professor of Arab History, Université de Montréal, Canada Sari Hanafi Professor of Sociology, American University of Beirut, Lebanon Adam Hanieh Reader in Development Studies, SOAS, University of London, UK Kadhim Jihad Hassan, Writer and translator, Professor at INALCO-Sorbonne, Paris, France Nadia Hijab Author and Human Rights Activist, London, UK Jamil Hilal Writer, Ramallah, Palestine Bensalim Himmich Academic, Novelist and Writer, Morocco Serene Hleihleh Cultural Activist, Jordan-Palestine Imad Harb Director of Research and Analysis at Arab Center Washington DC, USA Khaled Hroub Professor in Residence of Middle Eastern Studies, Northwestern University, Qatar Mahmoud Hussein Writer, Paris, France Lakhdar Ibrahimi Paris School of International Affairs, Institut d’Etudes Politiques, France Annemarie Jacir Filmmaker, Palestine Islah Jad Associate Professor of Political Science, Birzeit University, Palestine Khalil Jahshan Executive Director, Arab Center Washington DC, USA Lamia Joreige Visual Artist and Filmmaker, Beirut, Lebanon Amal Al-Jubouri Writer, Iraq Mudar Kassis Associate Professor of Philosophy, Birzeit University, Palestine Nabeel Kassis Former Professor of Physics and Former President, Birzeit University, Palestine Salam Kawakibi Director of Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, Paris, France Ahmad Samih Khalidi Senior Associate Member at St. Antony’s College, Oxford Muhammad Ali Khalidi Presidential Professor of Philosophy, CUNY Graduate Center, USA Rashid Khalidi Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies, Columbia University, USA Michel Khleifi Filmmaker, Palestine-Belgium Elias Khoury Writer, Beirut, Lebanon Nadim Khoury Associate Professor of International Studies, Lillehammer University College, Norway Rachid Koreichi Artist-Painter, Paris, France Jonathan Kuttab Human Rights Attorney, author and Nonresident Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC, USA Adila Laïdi-Hanieh Director General, The Palestinian Museum, Palestine Rabah Loucini Professor of History, Oran University, Algeria Mehdi Mabrouk Professor of Sociology, Ex-Minister of Culture, Director of Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, Tunis, Tunisia Rabab El-Mahdi Associate Professor of Political Science, The American University in Cairo, Egypt Ziad Majed Associate Professor of Middle East Studies and IR, American University of Paris, France Jumana Manna Artist, Berlin, Germany Camille Mansour Researcher and author Farouk Mardam Bey Publisher, Paris, France Mai Masri Palestinian Filmmaker, Lebanon Mazen Masri Senior Lecturer in Law, City University of London, UK Dina Matar Reader in Political Communication and Arab Media, SOAS, University of London, UK Hisham Matar Writer, Professor at Barnard College, Columbia University, USA Khaled Mattawa Poet, William Wilhartz Professor of English Literature, University of Michigan, USA Yousef Munayyer Nonresident Senior Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC, USA Karma Nabulsi Professor of Politics and IR, University of Oxford, UK Hassan Nafaa Emeritus Professor of Political Science, Cairo University, Egypt Nadine Naber Professor, Dept of Gender and Women’s Studies, University of Illinois at Chicago, USA Issam Nassar Professor, Illinois State University, USA Maha Nassar Associate Professor, School of Middle Eastern and North African Studies, University of Arizona, USA Sari Nusseibeh Emeritus Professor of Philosophy, Al-Quds University, Palestine Najwa Al-Qattan Emeritus Professor of History, Loyola Marymount University, USA Omar Al-Qattan Filmmaker, Chair of The Palestinian Museum and the A.M. Qattan Foundation, UK Nadim N. Rouhana Professor of International Affairs, The Fletcher School, Tufts University, USA Ahmad Sa’adi Professor, Haifa, State of Israel Haider Saeed Research and Head of Research Department, Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, Doha, Qatar Rasha Salti Independent Curator, Writer, Researcher of Art and Film, Germany-Lebanon Elias Sanbar Writer, Paris, France Farès Sassine Professor of Philosophy and Literary Critic, Beirut, Lebanon Sherene Seikaly Associate Professor of History, University of California, Santa Barbara, USA Samah Selim Associate Professor, A, ME & SA Languages & Literatures, Rutgers University, USA Leila Shahid Writer, Beirut, Lebanon Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian Lawrence D Biele Chair in Law, Hebrew University, State of Israel Anton Shammas Professor of Comparative Literature, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, USA Yara Sharif Senior Lecturer, Architecture and Cities, University of Westminster, UK Hanan Al-Shaykh Writer, London, UK Raja Shehadeh Lawyer and Writer, Ramallah, Palestine Gilbert Sinoué Writer, Paris, France Ahdaf Soueif Writer, Egypt-UK Mayssoun Sukarieh Senior Lecturer in Development Studies, King’s College London, UK Elia Suleiman Filmmaker, Palestine-France Nimer Sultany Reader in Public Law, SOAS, University of London, UK Jad Tabet Architect and writer, Beirut, Lebanon Jihan El-Tahri Filmmaker, Egypt Salim Tamari Emeritus Professor of Sociology, Birzeit University, Palestine Wassyla Tamzali Writer, Contemporary Art Producer, Algeria Fawwaz Traboulsi Writer, Beirut Lebanon Dominique Vidal Historian and Journalist, Palestine-France Haytham El-Wardany Writer, Egypt-Germany Said Zeedani Emeritus Associate Professor of Philosophy, Al-Quds University, Palestine Rafeef Ziadah Lecturer in Comparative Politics of the Middle East, SOAS, University of London, UK Khaled Ziade Author, historian, former diplomat and Director of Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, Beirut, Lebanon Radwan Ziadeh Syrian Activist and Senior Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC, USA Raef Zreik Minerva Humanities Centre, Tel-Aviv University, State of Israel Elia Zureik Professor Emeritus, Queen’s University, Canada
A preliminary version of this list was published by The Guardian here.
This statement can also be found on the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies’ website here.
The Holocaust and the Nakba: Memory, National Identity and Jewish-Arab Partnership
By Alon Confino
Vol. 24 No. 3 2019
By Alon Confino
Professor Alon Confino is Director of the Institute for Holocaust, Genocide, and Memory Studies at University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
The link between the Holocaust and the Nakba is probably the most charged for both Jews and Palestinians. To Jews, the Holocaust is a foundational past, and some would say a unique one, and thus to discuss it in conjunction with any other event may appear to banalize the extermination of the Jews and even to present a moral and political threat. To Palestinians, the Nakba is a foundational past, and since the Jews invoke the Holocaust to justify Zionism and Israel’s actions, to many Palestinians recognition of the Holocaust is tantamount to legitimizing the injustices of the Nakba and the iniquities that Israel continues to wreak upon them. To Germans as well, the juxtaposition of these two events is a sensitive matter, since they feel particularly responsible for the memory of the Holocaust.
The book “The Holocaust and Nakba: Memory, National Identity and Jewish-Arab Partnership,” edited by Bashir Bashir and Amos Goldberg, published by The Van Leer Jerusalem Institute and Hakibbutz Hameuchad Publishing House in 2015 which evolved out of a conference that was held at the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem held in 2008, seeks to explore the link between these two events. It contains 14 articles written by Palestinian and Jewish scholars, writers, and literati, all of them citizens of Israel. This is an important book since it does not seek to persuade the reader to adopt a particular position, but presents a variety of opinions on the topic, including articles that cast doubt on the project or reject it altogether. Particularly worthy of note is the excellent introduction, with its restrained tone and its sensitivity to history and memory.
No Comparison between the Holocaust and the Nakba
What, then, does this book argue? Let us begin by what it does not do – Bashir and Goldberg do not draw comparisons between the Holocaust and the Nakba: “These are very different events that cannot be compared as far as the scope of violence and murder committed during their course are concerned […] the intention [of this book] is not to blur the tremendous differences between them.” They do invite discussion on two levels. The first addresses the memory of the Holocaust and the Nakba as traumatic events.
They are both foundational pasts that constitute an ethical and historical turning point for each people. The editors propose to bundle together the memories of these two events in order to generate “empathic unsettlement” on the part of each side toward the other. This shared empathy does not imply immediate recognition of the other’s truths or the erasure of one’s own identity, nor does it necessarily and immediately lead to practical results. It does, however, propose an alternative to the self-contained, zerosum narrative of history and memory, and to the rejection of the other and their suffering. It requires the Palestinian people “to recognize that which is most inconceivable to it – the legitimacy of the Jewish-Israeli identity that evolved in the Land of Israel / Palestine,” and requires the Jews “to recognize the catastrophe that they brought upon the Palestinians.”
The second discussion concerns our historical understanding of the two events. Bashir and Goldberg maintain that “given the potential for radical violence found in ethnic nationalism and in the modern nation-state […] both the Holocaust and the Nakba are characterized by a purifying national violence.” Relying on extensive scholarly literature, they assert that two major characteristics of the nation-state are the desire to associate citizenship with ethnic-national ascription, and the aspiration toward homogenization of society. The Jews of Europe suffered from this urge toward national homogenization. While this in itself fails to explain the Holocaust, once the Jews were marked as another that did not belong, they immediately became an object of discrimination, and frequently suffered expulsion or murder.
“This type of nationalism,” note Bashir and Goldberg, “constantly engages in defining the ethnic identity of the nation-state and its efforts at ethnic homogenization.” In this respect, the new Jewish nationalism in Palestine regarded the Palestinians as a threat to Jewish sovereignty and an ethnic other (although there were of course other imaginations of the relations between Jews and Arabs). Once the Palestinians were marked as such, they were driven out during the 1948 war on behalf of the creation of a homogenous Jewish nation-state. Bashir and Goldberg emphasize here once again that the Holocaust and the Nakba were events of a different
magnitude and of a completely different historical character, and cannot be compared. Yet they are also events that “in certain senses share the same type of political logic.”
This methodological framework contributes to our understanding of the events’ memory and history without divesting them of their particularity. Bashir and Goldberg do not seek to show that the two events are identical, but rather endeavor to understand them within a broader panoply of traumatic pasts and homogenous nation-states. This approach does not detract from the particularity of either event, on the contrary. Take the Holocaust for example. This approach is compatible with insightful approaches to the study
of the Holocaust, which comprehend the extermination of the Jews within the broad context of modern comparative genocide. This scholarly approach examines the similarities as well as the differences between the Holocaust and other instances of genocide. The notion of exterminating racial groups thus appeared some hundred years prior to the Third Reich. And yet, the persecution and annihilation of the Jews was clearly pursued with greater urgency by the Nazis and was of greater historical significance than other
acts of genocide that they perpetrated. It is precisely this approach that underscores the particularity of the Holocaust within its historical context. Similarly, the particularity of the Holocaust and of the Nakba is in no way compromised when one thinks about the two events in tandem. In terms of historical method and interpretation, it is appropriate to discuss these two events together, as well as other events which exist on a spectrum of modern mass violence. The aversion on the part of Jews and Palestinians to do so stems from concerns over the identity and political implications of such a move.
Why are the two linked together?
And still, we are entitled to ask, why should we link these events? Is this book perhaps merely the outcome of a transitory fashionable moment at which the Nakba became a catchword within Israeli culture, or is the debate on the relations between the Holocaust and the Nakba rooted in a longer tradition? Our historical imagination connects at times very different events because by joining them they tell us something important about who we are, where we came from, how we got here, and where we are going. This, to my mind, is true of the linkage between the Holocaust and the Nakba in Israeli culture from 1948 to the present. In his tale “Hirbet Hizah,” which appeared in 1949 when the echoes of battle had hardly subsided, S. Yizhar depicted the expelled Palestinians as “a frightened and compliant and silent and groaning flock,” alluding to the metaphor that served to describe the Jews who, during the Holocaust, were led as “a flock to slaughter.” Shortly thereafter, in 1952, Avot Yeshurun’s jolting poem “Passover on Caves”
appeared in Ha’aretz newspaper. He subsequently described it in the following words: “The Holocaust of European Jewry and the Holocaust of Palestinian Arabs, a single Holocaust of the Jewish People. The two gaze directly into one another’s face.” Closer to our time, in his film “Waltz With Bashir” Ari Fulman placed the Palestinian refugees alongside the victims of the Holocaust. And the list can go on and on.
The linkage between the two events in society, literature, and politics has created a cultural tradition with its own language and images that enables Israelis to think about the two events separately and in tandem. This tradition is shared by those who connect the events and those who utterly reject this connection. For the mention of the two events in the same breath has always aroused fierce opposition and profound resentment. And yet this opposition is part of the cultural tradition that by connecting the events confront their memory and give them meaning.
Insights to be gained
The significance of the link between the two events has altered over the years with the transformations undergone by Israeli society. What insights can we gain from the book’s “Introduction” with regard to the connection between the Holocaust and the Nakba these days? While the Holocaust is a foundational event in modern history, it nevertheless, as a historical event, lies in the past. Of course, Holocaust victims bear the trauma throughout their life, but the Jews as a collectivity live in a completely different historical and political time, both by virtue of the existence of the state of Israel and because Germans and Jews harbor no political or territorial claims on each other. The enduring struggle is that over memory. One remembers the Holocaust with such intensity precisely because it has passed from the domain of history into the domain of memory.
Yet while the Holocaust has become part of history, not so the Nakba, which is in some way a continuous present. Its outcome impacts almost every Palestinian wherever he or she may be, and the Palestinians’ ongoing collective weakness is linked to the uprooting of the texture of their life in 1948. Although the Nakba – the uprooting of the Palestinians in the 1948 war – was an event specific in time and place, its results – the deprivation of the Palestinians’ national rights – continue to this day. The fact that the
Holocaust belongs to the past and the Nakba to the present explains why Jews and Germans find it easier to be reconciled with regard to the memory of the Holocaust than it is for Jews and Palestinians to be reconciled with regard to the memory of the Nakba.
A Dual Asymmetry
A further point should be noted. Jews are right to assert that one cannot compare the genocide committed during the Holocaust to the Nakba. But there is another aspect of asymmetry between the two events, and Jews should do well to take note thereof: the Palestinians are in no way responsible for the Holocaust of European Jewry, whereas Israel is closely linked to the Nakba. Israel had a hand in the expulsion of the Palestinians, in the confiscation of their property, and in obstructing the return of the refugees. The question here is not who is right and who is wrong. Whether one accepts Israel’s justifications of what occurred in 1948 and continues to occur to this day or not, the state of Israel is not a neutral party with regard to the suffering of the Palestinians, in contrast to the Palestinians who had no role in the Holocaust. There is no symmetry, write correctly Bashir and Goldberg: “there is a conqueror and there are the conquered; there is a sovereign and there are subjects; there are those who drove others out and there are those who were dispossessed; there is a people that established its homeland and that caused another people to lose its homeland.” In this sense it is not sufficient for Israeli Jews to recognize the Palestinian trauma only at the level of memory; a change must come about also at the political level.
The problem of both Holocaust and Nakba Denial
Several of the articles in the book object to discuss the Holocaust and the Nakba in the same breath. Palestinian resistance to this linkage has nothing to do with Holocaust denial. Salman Natour writes of “the incomparability of the Holocaust and the Nakba” because using the Holocaust “to legitimize the occupation of Palestine and the expulsion of the Palestinian people is an immoral act.” From a Zionist perspective, Elhanan Yakira denounces the project altogether because using “the word ‘Nakba’ as if it were equivalent to the word ‘Holocaust,’ or as if the events that these two words denote belong to the same family of historical events, is completely unfounded.” I do not accept his position, but this is a legitimate opinion. Yet Yakira proceeds to claim that “what they now call the catastrophe is nothing but their defeat in war […] it is not even altogether clear who sought to drive them out and to what extent.” These are notions that derive from the Jews’ collective memory of what they wish to believe to have happened in 1948, not from the history of what actually happened during the war. The Nakba is the expulsion and uprooting of the Palestinians in the war of 1948, the confiscation of their property, and the prevention of their return; it is linked to the war, but its meaning cannot be confined to the war itself. In this sense it resembles the Holocaust. The annihilation of the Jews between 1941 and 1945 was a part of the Nazi war in Europe, but its significance cannot be restricted to the war itself. As far as the 1948 expulsion goes, scholarly studies have made it quite clear who drove out whom and to what extent.
Precisely because the Holocaust and the Nakba are foundational events, it is essential to study their history. The purpose of the national narratives of both peoples is to explain and to justify their identity in the present, and less to become familiar with and to understand the complexity of past events. We must therefore be prepared to learn the past and face it unflinchingly. This requires willingness on the part of the Palestinians to learn about the Holocaust. If one adheres to the assumption that the Zionists were no more than European settler colonialists, as many Palestinians believe, one fails to understand that Zionism was also a movement of national liberation that grew out of the persecution of the Jews in Europe prior to the Holocaust. And it requires willingness on the part of the Jews to learn about the Nakba. One of the explanations for the uprooting of the Palestinians, which appeared immediately after the 1948 war and over the years became a part of the Israeli narrative, is that the Palestinians’ leaders ordered them to leave in order to facilitate the Arabs’ military campaigns, and assured them that they would return to their homes in the wake of the armies’ victory. This is a fable; even Zionist historians no longer believe it.
As a scholar of Germany and the Holocaust, as well as of 1948 in Palestine, I find it helpful to think in association about Holocaust and Nakba memory in order to learn and apply useful methods and approaches. The term “Holocaust” came to stand for the extermination of the Jews in Europe only in the late 1950s and the beginning of 1960s, although references to “Shoah” were already made during the Second World War. The term Nakba was coined to represent the dispossession of the Palestinians by the historian
Constantine Zurayk in his small, influential book “The Meaning of Disaster” written in mid-1948. But the term did not catch on among Israeli Jews, and, as far as I could attest, was not used regularly in public space by Palestinians citizens of Israel until the 1990s. In both historical cases the term that came to stand for the event was attached to it years after it actually happened. Also of interest is that while the Holocaust and the Nakba are foundational pasts that elicit strong emotional response, the history of denying they ever
happened is part of the history of their memory. Finally, Israeli Jews can look at how Germans remembered the Holocaust–at the road they traveled from years of denial and half-hearted recognition to assuming historical responsibility–and draw important lessons for the way they should assume historical responsibility for aspects of their 1948 past.
We can think about the Nakba by telling a story of 1948 that does not seek to lay blame, score points, and divide the world into clear-cut perpetrators and victims, but that recognizes the complexity of human affairs and accepts that perpetrator and victim may coexist in the same person. Since the topic is so charged, it is insightful to begin understanding it from a broader historical perspective. Something happened in Palestine in 1948. 750,000 Palestinians were uprooted. They did not just leave of their own accord. What happened in Palestine in 1948 was part of a history of forced migrations whereby nation-states sought to create homogenous
populations by violently removing thousands and even millions of people. The 1940s were a key decade in this respect that witnessed forced migrations in Europe, in India/Pakistan, and in Palestine/Israel. In Europe, among others, eleven million Germans were uprooted from Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary in a wave that began in 1944 as millions fled the advancing Red Army. In India, in 1947–1948, twelve million people were expelled from their homes in the new India and in the two parts of the new Pakistan.
Thousands of Hindis in Lahore and Muslims in Delhi left before the mass expulsions began for fear of their safety. Millions were driven out thereafter.
Two Possible Conclusions
Jews can draw two conclusions from their role in the forced migration of the Palestinians. They can emit a sigh of relief, “Well, everyone expelled people in the 1940s, that’s life, what can we do about it, let us be.” And some may even add, “it’s a pity we didn’t finish the job.” Of course, such an arrogant and disparaging attitude is inconceivable when discussing the atrocities visited upon the Jews in the 1940s, including the Holocaust. A second conclusion would be to view Zionism in general and 1948 in particular from a wider perspective; not as a unique story, but as a story of human beings acting within specific historical time, place, and circumstances. From this perspective, forced migrations took place in various locations during the first half of the twentieth century, and in particular during the 1940s. They had general causes, while they were acted out in specific historical contexts. But they did happen; they constitute a human tragedy that has to be acknowledged by those who are fully or partly responsible for them.
1948 is the year of the Nakba and is also the year in which the Jews founded a state of their own, with its own language, culture and vitality. The Nakba and Israel’s independence also “gaze directly into one another’s face.” Just as one cannot understand the rich history of the United States only through the prism of the genocide of the Native-Americans, so one cannot understand the rich history of the state of Israel only through the expulsion of the Palestinians. Yet it behooves the Jews to recognize the role played by their people in the Nakba, for a very simple reason. The Nakba is part of their history, and an important part: they remember the Nakba whether they deny it or relate it in prose or in poetry. The very attempt to erase the memory of the Nakba is the outcome of an immense mobilization of political, economic, and cultural effort. The erasure of memory is the outcome of an extraordinarily lively awareness. The Jews are condemned, in some sense, to remember and remember and remember the Palestinians who lost their homes and their homeland, and to tell this story in various ways because it is inextricably bound up with the way in which they themselves won their homes and their homeland. And this is one of the reasons that the defining past events of both peoples have continued to eye each other ever since 1948.
Why is this book important? Its power lies not in a quest for agreement or in an attempt to persuade, but in the act of Jews and Palestinians speaking, writing, and reading together about the Holocaust and the Nakba; this is the real event and the significant effort. This act in itself generates a jolt, without which there is no prospect of national rights and human rights for all the inhabitants of the land.
Alon Confino, review of the book: Bashir, Bashir; Goldberg, Amos (eds): The Holocaust and the Nakba. Memory, National Identity and Jewish-Arab Partnership. Jerusalem 2015. ISBN – was originally published in: H-Soz-Kult, 22.04.2016, <www.hsozkult. de/publicationreview/id/reb-24083>. [Alexander Korb]