Karl Pfeifer, a veteran anti-fascist and journalist and a longstanding contributor to Z Word, interviewed Esther Webman, research fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies and the Stephen Roth Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism and Racism, Tel Aviv University, about her new book on Arab responses to the Holocaust.
Karl Pfeifer: In your book From Empathy to Denial / Arab Responses to the Holocaust (Co-author Meir Litvak) you emphasize discussing “as Jews and Israelis” this subject matter, to have “tried to maintain, as much as possible, a dispassionate approach”. Why did you qualify your ethnic origin as “our shortcoming”?
Esther Webman: Unfortunately, when it comes to the Arab-Israeli conflict there is a widespread belief that an Israeli is biased when he deals with Arab issues. And we do understand that as historians, we always have our own subjective position which might be reflected in our writing.
As historians who are aware of this limit which is a limit for all historians in any field. You come with your own experiences, own cultural baggage, cultural and political belief and you have to try as a historian to be emphatic and get into the skin of the object of your research. And somehow try to neutralize as much as you can your own views. This is exactly the point we wanted to clarify. We are aware that as Israelis and Jews we are involved in this conflict and we are supposed to come with a certain baggage which might be in the view of others biased or unbalanced and despite that, I think we tried to present as far as we can an objective and comprehensive picture of what went on with a sincere attempt to understand why this or another position was adopted either in the public discourse or by leaders.
So nobody can question your objectivity as a historian?
Definitely and that is because of the approach we adopt in any research we consider ourselves – if I may say so – as serious historians. And I am glad that all the reviews I saw so far refer to the fact that it is a deep and well presented and well balanced research. We didn’t ignore views for instance which contradicted in a way what we call traditional Arab Antisemitism or Arab perceptions of the Holocaust. We never said that this or other claim is the only one that exists. We tried to show that the claims are diversified especially since the 1990s.
You differentiated in your book according to subject matters and to periods. Let’s see the first period 1945-1948.
We found it the most interesting period. Because it was then that the foundations of the whole approach to the Holocaust were made. We noticed that there is an internal conflict between the information which flowed into the Middle East about what happened in Germany and the Camps against the Jews, and here they face immediately a dilemma, when they realized that the issue of the displaced persons is going to be settled in Palestine. They face a dilemma, when they started to hear that the Zionist push more and more towards the establishment of a state. But they knew that the Jews were persecuted in a horrible way and they had to find how to deal with this issue, how to find a kind of compromise and they had to face it because they understood because they knew those displaced persons who are supposed to come to Palestine and they did not want to lose Palestine.
This conflict didn’t exist later on because they really pushed aside this knowledge and they did not only push aside this kind of knowledge but they also prohibited knowledge from coming in to Arab countries, not only knowledge but also films, books, anything that concerns the Holocaust.
Because they were afraid, that this kind of information will harm their war effort against Israel, against Zionists. They understood it is a very touchy issue. Anyone can identify with the suffering with the horrible things that they heard what went on in the camps. At the beginning this information was coming in with the reports of Al-Ahram for instance and the war went to an end. So those people who read the newspapers, who took decisions knew what happened. So when they had to confront it, they had to find a kind of solution how you not ignore your sympathy towards what happened to the Jews and on the other hand to fight the issue of Palestine.
When did they start with victim competition?
From the very beginning…
With the “Nakba” discourse?
You are right the Nakba was only in 1948, but I was very surprised that even the word Nakba was used already in 1945. Looking ahead if this and this will happen, it will be a horrible Nakba. Exactly, even the word was the same. And that the Arabs of Palestine will even suffer more than the Jews. It will be a kind of scar on the forehead of Humanity. It will be the worse disaster of the 20th century. All this things already were said before the establishment of the state of Israel.
At what time did they start with their accusation that the Zionists are exploiting the Holocaust?
Again, it is amazing right from the beginning. We started as researches to deal with this issue from the present situation, from current references to the Holocaust. And we knew that this is a theme “the exploitation of Holocaust by Zionists” and even the “cooperation of Zionists with the extermination of Jews”.
Before the state of Israel was established?
Yes, there were those who pointed to this already in 1944, 1947 and early 1948. Before Israel was established they compared Zionism to Nazism and then we come to the material of 1945 – 1948 and we already there find the same themes as today, they were not so developed as they are today. But we find already the comparison Nazism to Zionism. In April 1948 we have the Dir Yassin event and we find at once the comparison between the crimes of the Nazis and the actions taken by Jews against Palestinians. But unlike what happened later, you had all kind of claims: an attempt to separate Jewish suffering from the Palestine problem; minimization of the scope and historical significance of the Holocaust; and blaming the Jews for what had befallen them. “We are not supposed to be the one to pay the price for crimes committed by others in another place” that argument started right after the war.
Nakba was a self-inflicted tragedy and Palestinians did not have to pay a price they could have had their own Arab state.
Fine, but try to look on it from their point of view. From their point of view it is sharing something what is mine. At the time they rejected compromise before and they rejected it after the establishment of Israel, unfortunately for all of us. It was not just a Zionist decision to create a Jewish state they knew the international community accepted the decision.
There were 600.000 Jews in the Holy Land and they had the right to self-determination.
Exactly, but they were in their eyes newcomers.
What do you think about historians or journalists, who say we have to exclude
certain subject matters because they could harm the possibility of a Palestinian-Israeli peace? Let’s not speak about Antisemitism and Holocaust denial in the Arab world. You hear that?
Of course I hear that, it should not be excluded. Because one of the problems with the peace process – and I was a great believer of Oslo, despite the fact that it was a kind of leadership agreement and it came from above – the problem is that despite that agreement the incitement against Israel, the writing about Israel, the writing about Jews, sermons of all kind of Imams in the Arab world and in the PA were not conducive to peace and in many cases just tried to inculcate a hostile feeling against Israel and the Jews. You cannot want peace and on the other hand continue with the defamation of a people that you are trying to make peace with. In the PA the situation is slightly different and more and more this kind of Antisemitism is confined to Islamists. But unfortunately Antisemitism or certain beliefs which typify the classical Antisemitism infiltrated and permeated into the Arab public, in general and that did not exist before. It is the same with Egypt, we have already a peace agreement since 1979 but it did not bring any change in the perception of especially the elite.
The Trade Unions exclude members who visit Israel…
Of course and the same approach to bringing certain films even on the Holocaust, even today…
Anne Frank was not shown.
No way, even the last film of Roberto Benigni, “Life is Beautiful,” was not shown in the Arab world. They consider this as “Zionist propaganda”. There is a fear of a cultural Israeli or western domination. But this has to be done, exactly as the indoctrination that was done in Egypt during the sixties should be countered by an opposite indoctrination in order to make people to reconcile and accept the idea Israel is going to stay. Unfortunately it is not done.
How about the translation of your book? I will recommend translating it into German, the subject matter of Holocaust and the Arab world interests many readers in the German speaking countries.
It is being translated into Hebrew. Project Aladin** might translate it into in Arabic and I am trying to interest a French publishing house.
Thank you for this interview.
* Esther Webman is a research fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies and the Stephen Roth Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism and Racism, Tel Aviv University
* *Project Aladin is a multilingual website in Arabic, Persian, French, English, and soon in Turkish, which provides information in a simple fashion on the Holocaust, on the Jews and on the relationship between Jews and Muslims throughout history. It also tries to provide concise and accurate answers to frequently asked questions on these issues. Accompanying the website is an online library, still under construction, where members would be able to download freely reference books on the Holocaust translated into Arabic and Persian. They include such classics as Anne Frank’s “Diary”, “If This Is a Man” by Primo Levi, “Hitler and the Jews “by the Swiss historian Philippe Burrin, and” Sonderkommando “by Shlomo Venezia.