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Israel Studies 8.3 (2003) 123-140

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Perceptions of the Holocaust in Palestinian Public Discourse

Meir Litvak and Esther Webman

In a controversial article, published in Tel-Aviv University's periodical Zmanim, under the title "The Arabs and the Holocaust. The Analysis of a Problematic Conjunctive Letter," 'Azmi Bishara, a Palestinian intellectual and currently member of the Israeli Knesset wrote the following:

The connection of the Arabs to the history of the Holocaust is indirect. The scene of the disaster was Europe, and the perpetrators of the extermination acts were European, but the Palestinians paid the reparations first and foremost in the Middle East. This is probably the reason that the discussion of the Holocaust in the Arab context always evolves around its political implications, and circumvents the event itself. The basic Arab anti-Zionist stance determined their attitude toward the Holocaust, as towards anti-Semitism in general. This stance is not the cause of the Arab-Israeli conflict, but its outcome. Anti-Jewish texts were engaged in the justification of the Holocaust and with its denial as a Zionist hoax—a rhetoric which, among other things, was an attempt to deal with the Zionist instrumentalization of the Holocaust. 1

This abstract successfully epitomizes the essence and the spirit of Palestinian attitudes towards the Holocaust since the immediate post-1945 period. The Palestinians view the Holocaust within the context of the general Arab struggle with Zionism and of their particular tragedy and sense of victimhood. The preoccupation with the Holocaust in the Palestinian public discourse began in the 1940s, and seems to have intensified over the years. Frequent references to the Holocaust were and are made by all political and ideological movements, yet there is no one coherent Palestinian narrative. Despite its great similarity to the general Arab discourse on the Holocaust, the Palestinian discourse developed some unique traits due, first and foremost, to the prominence of the Palestinian issue in the Arab-Israeli [End Page 123] conflict. In view of the extent of the period under review and the paucity of research on this important issue, 2 this paper seeks to examine these traits and identify some broad characteristics of Palestinian representations of the Holocaust.

Towards Denial: 1945-1948

The origins of the Palestinian discourse could be discerned in the period before the end of the war. The growing realization of the extent of the Jewish tragedy brought about mounting pressure by the Zionist movement to hasten the rescue of Jewish survivors and refugees and to allow increased Jewish immigration to Palestine. Understanding the repercussions of the possible success of this Zionist effort on the struggle over Palestine, Palestinian public figures and the press had to address, willingly or unwillingly, the issue of the Holocaust in their response to the evolving political conditions. Two approaches seem to have emerged simultaneously since these very early days.

One, which was shared by other Arab leaders, acknowledged the Jewish tragedy in Europe but rejected any linkage between it and the situation in Palestine. It argued that the entire world should participate in solving the problem of the Jewish refugees, rather than turning it into an aggression against the Arabs. It also accused the Zionists of exploiting the suffering of European Jews for their own political purposes. 3 The second, sought to understate or minimize the meaning of the Holocaust by using ambiguous terms or depicting it as a problem of civil discrimination. Responding to a statement on the Palestine question made by British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin on 13 November 1945, the Arab Higher Committee rejected any link between the problem of European Jews and Palestine. It stated that the Arabs had recognized the gravity of the Jewish problem and expressed their compassion for the persecution suffered by the Jews and other people in Europe, but there was no reason why they should be responsible for its outcome. 4 In other words, the Jewish problem was that of persecution not of extermination, and on a par with other groups' sufferings. Therefore, once the Nazis were gone, the problem was solved and...


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