A broadcast last month on BBC 2 (“Confronting Holocaust Denial with David Baddiel’) included one extremely telling exchange we want to highlight. Baddiel is a British Jewish comedian and writer, who recently published a book on antisemitism.
At 33 minutes into the broadcast, Baddiel notes that, based on global polling, Holocaust denial (those who believe the Holocaust has been exaggerated or is entirely a myth) is extremely low in Europe, including the UK, with the percentage of people subscribing to such beliefs in the low single digits. The highest rate of denial is found, according to the data, in the Palestinian territories, where 82% of the population denies, to varying extents, the Holocaust.
Baddiel seeks to get answers for the extraordinary high rates of Holocaust denial amongst Palestinians, and visits SOAS professor Gilbert Achcar, who published a book titled ‘Arabs and the Holocaust’.
Here’s the exchange between Achcar and Baddeil:
Achcar: I don’t think you can generally, without some degree of… ..pathology, to be frank with you, be a Holocaust denier in Europe. But you can be perfectly sane, mentally, and be a Holocaust denier in the Middle East because of ignorance on the topic and therefore adherence to a view that says, well, the Israelis, the Zionists, have inflated the figures and all that, in order to blackmail Western governments. Whereas, imagine yourself in Gaza, if you are a Palestinian, and being pounded and having had all these wars waged by the Israeli state, killing thousands of people, destroying and all that. When you live there, Holocaust denial is an attitude. It’s not something that… It’s not a belief of people, it’s more a kind of provocative attitude. You are oppressing me every day, how can I hurt you? By denying..
Baddiel: A central part of your identity?
Baddiel: What you’re saying is it’s a political cry. It’s a political and social cry. It’s to say ‘fuck you’ and your sacred thing?
Achcar: Exactly…That’s exactly how it functions. And that’s very different from Holocaust denial in Western countries.
(To clarify: Baddiel was merely trying to accurately characterise what Achcar was saying. He wasn’t in any way agreeing with it.)
Let’s break the SOAS professor’s analysis down:
Whereas, Holocaust denial is a pathology when this view is held by someone in Europe, that’s not the case when the same view is held by a Palestinian. Palestinians can be perfectly sane whilst espousing Holocaust denial. Such Palestinian views, which would normally be characterised as irrational and antisemitic, should be seen instead as merely a “provocative attitude”, and a “political cry” in response to the violence inflicted on them by Israel.
Essentially, Achcar is giving Palestinians – and only Palestinians – a moral pass for Holocaust denial on the grounds that they are oppressed by Israeli Jews today. So, regardless of whether they actually believe in the denial they’re espousing, the sentiment is arguably justified by the fact that its, in effect, a rhetorical act of ‘resistance’. When Palestinians express Holocaust denial, they’re not engaged in real anti-Jewish racism, but, rather, a kind of performative antisemitism – virtue signalling minus the virtue.
However, even if we were to buy into this absurd rationalisation, how then to explain other antisemitic attitudes that are (according to polling) endemic in Palestinian society? Did the 88% of Palestinians who agreed that “Jews have too much control over the global media”, the 89% who agreed that “Jews have too much control over international financial markets” and the 78% who agreed that “Jews are responsible for most of the world’s wars” not really mean it?
Did Palestinians who told pollsters that they believe in a series of classic antisemitic conspiracy theories similarly just engage in a collective trolling of their Israeli ‘oppressors’?
Efforts by Western academics, intellectuals, journalists and diplomats to erase or, as in the case of Achcar, depathologize Palestinian antisemitism, and irrational thinking about cause and effect, are engaged in what former Israeli MK Einat Wilf characterised as “westplaining“. This refers to the tendency to dismiss what Palestinians actually say when it contradicts a desired narrative, and offering, instead, an alternative explanation not based on any real evidence, but which sounds better to Western ears.
Here’s a far more likely explanation: When Palestinians, in overwhelming numbers, say that they subscribe to racist conspiracy theories about Jews, including Holocaust denial, they know exactly what they’re saying, and they mean every word.