From the Israelis’ point of view—and most Jews would probably agree—Holocaust denial is the worst of all possible affronts. Not only was the Holocaust an unspeakable tragedy for its victims, a catastrophic event whose memory remains fresh in our collective consciousness. For many, both in Israel and abroad, the Holocaust is perceived as the ultima ratio of the State of Israel—even if, from a historical standpoint, Zionist activism preceded it by several decades.
This reductive cause-and-effect may explain the prevalence of Holocaust denial in Muslim countries. After all, recognition of the Jewish people’s darkest hour of suffering would make the sweeping rejection of Zionism somewhat difficult. Clearly, it’s much easier to dismiss the entire matter as a monstrous sham. And there’s no need to go all the way to Tehran to come across this kind of thinking: In May 2009, sociologist Sammi Smooha of the University of Haifa published a survey showing that 40 percent of Israeli Arabs believe—or at least claim to believe—that the Holocaust never took place. In this case, at least, it’s hard to attribute the findings to ignorance or indoctrination: The respondents all studied in Israeli schools, and were well acquainted with the subject. The only plausible explanation for their position, then, is a deep-seated animosity toward the Jewish state and its founding narrative.
The powerful emotions evoked by the Holocaust make the raging “war of narratives” between Israelis and Arabs particularly explosive, and a challenge to scholars attempting to confront the topic in depth. Gilbert Achcar, a scholar of Lebanese descent and a lecturer at the School for Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, has nonetheless decided to take on the formidable task. Given his previous publications and radical political activism, Achcar is clearly unafraid to tackle controversial issues. In 2006, together with Noam Chomsky, he wrote Perilous Power, a harsh indictment of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, and in 2007, in collaboration with Israeli activist Michel Warschawski (Mikado) of the now-defunct Marxist Revolutionary Communist League, he published a book on the last IDF campaign in Lebanon, titled The 33-Day War. His most recent work, The Arabs and the Holocaust, deals with an even more explosive topic, and seeks to refute certain views that consistently crop up in the heated debate surrounding it. This is certainly a worthy endeavor, but Achcar’s arguments are bound to infuriate readers expecting a fair—or, at the very least, honest—discussion of such a sensitive issue.