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  • From Empathy to Denial: Arab Responses to the Holocaust
  • Hilal Khashan
From Empathy to Denial: Arab Responses to the Holocaust, by Meir Litvak and Esther Webman. New York: Columbia University Press, 2009. 435 pp. $30.00.

Meir Litvak and Esther Webman have written an excellently documented and exceptionally objective book chronicling the evolution of Arab perceptions of the Holocaust since its horrors became public knowledge in 1945 until the present. This 12-chapter book is organized into two parts; the first deals with several cases studies and, notably, emphasizes Arab responses to the German-Israeli reparations agreement and the Eichmann affair. The second part analyzes themes such as Holocaust denial, equating Zionism with Nazism, allegations of Nazi-Zionist cooperation, drawing parallels between the status of displaced Palestinians and the Holocaust, and changing Arab perspectives [End Page 157] since the launching of the peace process in the aftermath of the 1991 Madrid peace conference.

The authors recognize that Arab cognition and evaluation of the Holocaust have been shaped, at least in part, by anti-Zionist Western perspectives. After the creation of the Jewish state in Palestine in 1948, Arabs drew heavily on pseudo-Western scholarship to transform the victims of the Holocaust into culprits. Whereas those in the West and Eastern Europe who deny the Holocaust may be driven by chauvinism and racism, Arabs' denial is essentially a defensive reaction to the "imposition" of the state of Israel in their midst, and their inability to defeat it on the battlefield.

The authors incorrectly assert that during the 1945-48 period "Egypt was deeply involved in all issues pertaining to the Arab lands, including the Palestine question" (p. 23). In reality, interest in the Palestine question was articulated by the Muslim Brethren as part of their universalistic pan-Islamic orientation. King Faruq sought to immerse Egypt in pan-Arab politics because he toyed with the thought of reviving the Islamic caliphate and aspired to become a caliph. Apart from the ideological orientation of the Brethren and the exigencies of King Faruq's personal aggrandizement, Egyptian society and politicians expressed only lukewarm interest in Arab issues.

The authors unnecessarily inflate inconsequential things such as the Arab media's reference to the extermination (ibada) of Jews during the 1945-48 "Bystanders" period as mere persecution (idtihad). I am not entirely sure that the vast majority of Arabs understood back then the seriousness and magnitude of what was happening to Jews in Nazi-controlled parts of Europe. Terms such as "extermination" ('ibada) and "genocide" (tathir 'Irqi) are relatively new to the Arab political discourse. In fact, the Arab media first referred to the term "technology" in the aftermath of the 1967 Six Day War. Egyptian media tried to justify the Arabs' staggering military defeat by emphasizing the great technological gap between Israel and its Arab neighbors. They also lament Arab reference to Holocaust survivors who chose to immigrate to Palestine as "Jews," thus "ignoring the reasons and circumstances behind their situation." This is a burning emotional matter. On the one hand, the plight of the Jews was indescribably horrifying and merited the display of genuine and unconditional empathy. Nevertheless, it would have been unrealistic to expect the Arab media that was witnessing the existential dilemma of the beleaguered Palestinians in their homeland, to come forward and publicly extend a warm welcome to the Jewish survivors to come to Palestine. In view of the situation, the use of the Arab media of the neutral term "Jews" would have been realistic, albeit curt. One finds little comfort, however, in Israelis' denial of Palestinian displacement and uncharacteristically describing it as population transfer. [End Page 158]

The book is riddled with incorrect translations. The authors translate "muhkaman" (p. 28) as "harsh," whereas in the context it is used it means "complete." On page 173 they equate the English word "news" with the Arabic "Khabar," instead of the more appropriate word "akhbar." On the same page, they translate "actual experience" into "khibar," instead of "Khibra" or "Khibrat." On page 321, "nidal," which means "struggle," is translated as "resistance." On page 322, they translate "ghurba" as "life in exile," whereas it means "estrangement." The list of translation errors goes...


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pp. 157-160
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