Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Does Nazi antisemitism still impact Mideast?

The short answer is yes, but hopefully not as much as some people think.

At YIVO in New York, on March 4, I attended a lecture by Prof. Jeffrey Herf, a historian at the University of Maryland, on his new book, Nazi Propaganda for the Arab World (Yale University Press). It shows how Nazi Germany planted its own brand of antisemitism in the Muslim Middle East. First of all, Nazi officials went to great lengths to explain to the Arab world that its antisemitism was not against all "Semites," that it only targeted Jews.

A US diplomat, Alexander Kirk, documented how consistently and cleverly the Nazis propagandized in the Arab world to create a "meeting of minds" and a "cultural fusion." This involved an identification with Arab anti-Zionism and the notion that Islam and Nazism held common values: i.e., that both Nazism and Islam were in opposition to liberal individualism, prizing unity and family instead. Bringing this up to contemporary times, Prof. Herf noted that the notoriously antisemitic charter of Hamas goes back to the French Revolution, which it blames on the Jews--and not by accident, according to Herf. He indicates that the Nazis also blamed the French Revolution on the Jews, and were dedicated to its reversal, because Nazism associated the ills of modernity with the ideals of liberty, equality and human rights that were born with the French Revolution. Hamas would not have any such conception without having inherited it from Nazi Germany.

I am reminded of a forum I attended a few months ago at Columbia University. On that occasion, I asked the prominent historian and Palestinian-American activist, Prof. Rashid Khalidi, about the role of the Mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini; he downplayed his importance---opposite to Herf's view and I think somewhat contrary to the truth. Herf indicated that the Mufti had escaped Allied imprisonment in France to influence Palestinian politics (from Cairo) by heading the Higher Arab Committee and other leadership bodies in 1946-'48. Herf feels it's a pity that Husseini and others were not prosecuted for war crimes---specifically for incitement to genocide in broadcasting from Nazi Germany in July 1942 that the Egyptian public take up arms and murder the Jews in their midst.

But Herf's notion (voiced briefly by him) that if the conflict between Israel and the Arabs were only about land, it would have been settled already, seems rife for exploitation by voices on the right who will discount all efforts at peacemaking. Unfortunately, the writing of history remains, all too often, a weapon of political conflict.

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