December 28, 2006
Shoah Denial Conference: Damage Assessment
While world Jewry recovers from the shock of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's Holocaust conference in Tehran, emotions are slowly giving way to analysis.
Why is Ahmadinejad pursuing this foolish crusade against the Holocaust? After all, even he must know that the Holocaust is one of the most documented events in human history and, hence, that denying its reality or even questioning its magnitude and significance is likely to end up in embarrassment. Why then is he so insistent?
The three main reasons analysts cite for Ahmadinejad's obsession with the Holocaust are themselves questionable. We understand, of course, that by questioning the Holocaust, Ahmadinejad hopes to undermine what he believes was the main justification for the creation of the State of Israel in 1948.
We also accept Newsweek's Fareed Zakaria's explanation that "Iran is seeking leadership in the Middle East, and what better way to do so than by appropriating the core grievance of the Sunni Arabs: Israel."
Finally, Ahmadinejad clearly enjoys ridiculing what he sees as a European double-standard -- criminalizing Holocaust deniers on the one hand and advocating free speech on the other.
But these reasons, if they are the real reasons, entail heavy risks for Ahmadinejad. First, a serious risk exists that driven by all the media attention, curious, bright youngsters in Iran and Arab countries will venture to dig into the vast evidence for the Holocaust and upon realizing its magnitude and veracity, begin to ask what other parts of history were purged from their state-controlled education.
Second, promoting the Palestinian cause through Holocaust denial tarnishes the former with all the absurdities of the latter, in much the same way that post-Sept. 11 conspiracy theories have discredited Muslims and weakened their claims.
Lastly, using Holocaust denial as an instrument for delegitimizing Israel may actually backfire. Columbia professor Joseph Massad argued (Al Ahram, 2004) that Arabs' preoccupation with Holocaust denial creates the impression that the Holocaust, if it were true, suffices to justify the establishment of Israel. This, according to Massad, serves the Zionist agenda, hence, "All those in the Arab world who deny the Jewish Holocaust are in my opinion Zionists."
My concerns lie elsewhere. I fear that as the buzz winds down and the dust settles, there will be only one thing remembered from the Holocaust Conference in Tehran: Israel and the Holocaust are one. That is, Israel owes its existence to one and only one factor: European guilt over the crime of the Holocaust. Once this is established, the next obvious question is: Why should the Palestinians pay for Europe's crime?
We, of course, do not see things that way. For us, the State of Israel is the culmination of a long historical process of collective homecoming, not a rescue boat from the claws of Germany. While the Nazi genocide definitely accelerated that process, it did not initiate or redirect it.
The concepts of "Holy Land," "Shivat Zion," "Kibbutz Galuyot" -- the ingathering of the exiles -- three vital engines of Jewish history, are as old as Judaism itself. The majority of the 600,000 Jews who immigrated to Palestine prior to 1940 did not flee the Holocaust nor did the 580,000 Jews who came to Israel from Arab countries in the early 1950s.
Jews are generally aware of the immutable connection between Eretz Israel and Jewishness. We know deep down that Shimon Peres is not less indigenous to the Land of Canaan than, say, Mahmoud Abbas. Yet, we seem unwilling to openly assert it.
Take the movie, "Munich," for example, written and produced by two educated Jewish artists. While a Palestinian terrorist in the movie is shown yearning for his father's orchard, you will be wasting your time combing the script for a hint that Israeli society has any clue why they are in Israel and not, say, in Uganda. Tony Kushner knows why; he also knows that every Israeli knows why, yet he apparently did not feel comfortable enough to articulate it anywhere in his script.
I see a similar pattern in the criticism of the Holocaust Conference in Tehran. I hear tons of well-deserved condemnations of Ahmadinejad for orchestrating such an offensive conference but not one voice saying: Hey man! What a waste of time. We don't need a Shoah to justify a Jewish state on that sliver of land. Our history was born there, and our collective consciousness has remained there.
The main danger that I see emerging from Ahmadinejad's conference is that the international community, busy to rectify his misconceptions about the Holocaust, would ignore, and in fact mimic, his wanton disregard of the historical, national and religious ties that bind the Jewish people to their ancient land.
They ought to be reminded, and Ahmadinejad has given us a stage to do so.
Judea Pearl is a professor at UCLA and president of the Daniel Pearl Foundation www.danielpearl.org. He is a co-author of "I am Jewish: Personal Reflections Inspired by the Last Words of Daniel Pearl (Jewish Lights, 2004). Beginning this week, he starts a monthly column in The Jewish Journal