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The Holocaust perpetrated by the Nazis against the Jews has always been a phenomenon that scorched people's minds and memories, permeating the very fabric of their lives, but it has never achieved such a heightened degree of presence as it has today in most countries of the West. Instead of fading and then vanishing, it is as if the passage of half a century since the end of the Second World War has but deepened and intensified the memory of the Holocaust, both for the heirs of the victims and the descendants of the executioners. It is as if the end of the Cold War, which did away with legacies, concepts, feelings and, indeed, countries and entities, did not touch an iota of this memory. This is what attracts the attention and makes one pause to think and re-examine matters.
The memory of the Holocaust then is one of the few values untouched by the Cold War. It did not end with it; it has, on the contrary, gathered momentum as if the Second World War had taken place a few days ago, or as if the concentration camps had just been discovered.
We thus see France admitting through its president its responsibility for what befell the Jews on its soil during the war while, throughout five decades, it had placed the blame for the sin - all the sin - on the shoulders of the German occupier. Moreover, it translated words into action when it took Maurice Papon (who was an official in the Vichy government) to trial for crimes committed against humanity. This trend of self-accountability has not spared even the spiritual authorities in the country. The French Catholic Church issued a document and occasioned a forum for a public admission of guilt and a demand for forgiveness for the silence it kept while atrocities were being committed against the Jews, notwithstanding that this silence was often broken by the many cardinals who, at the time, wrote the Vichy government, denouncing its discriminatory and criminal behavior towards the Jews.
In Germany, talk of the Holocaust is more topical than ever and was given a boost by the publication of Daniel Goldhagen' book entitled Hitler's Willing Executioners. In his book, the American Goldhagen argues that German responsibility for what happened is collective and comprehensive and cannot be confined to Hitler, his administration or his National-Socialist party. This provoked discussions in Germany itself, as well as in the United States and other Western countries.
Accountability - by self or by others - has spread to countries that kept neutral during the war. Formerly the object of praise for the way they used their neutrality to save Jews or grant them asylum, they now have their image tarnished. Switzerland, it turns out, agreed to store Nazi gold, including that which was stolen from Jewish victims. And Sweden, it transpires, often colluded with the Nazis behind the screen of its official neutrality. Its security apparatus, it would seem, used to collaborate with its German counterpart, supplying it with information on escapees or dissenters or, in some cases, handing them over to the enemy. Even Portugal was among those countries that profited from deposits of Nazi gold.
The West does not seem willing to turn over a new leaf, nor to absolve from responsibility those who were involved in the Holocaust, irrespective of the degree of their involvement. It is, on the contrary, intent on affirming this responsibility, on unearthing that which has escaped it so far, and on disclosing that which has been hidden. Why is this so?

No Simple Answer

To many, a ready answer exists: it is Zionism and its tentacular extensions, controlling the West, its decision-makers and its media. It is Zionism that imposes the remembrance of the Holocaust on everybody, in order to cover up the crimes Israel has perpetrated in the Middle East against the Palestinians and the Arabs.
Matters, however, are not that simplistic. The French president who has taken a dramatic and unprecedented initiative in admitting the responsibility of the French state for what befell the Jews during the war, by so doing, demolished a consensus long established by General De Gaulle. The president is himself a Gaullist, with no love lost between him and the Jews. He is what we generally pigeon-hole here as a loyal friend of the Arabs. Furthermore, when he took this step, he was not under any election pressure that might have led him to court one side or the other. It is noteworthy that Jacques Chirac's decision had been strongly resisted by his predecessor François Mitterrand, in spite of the fact that the latter was known for his great sympathy for the Jews and Israel. In short, it is difficult to conceive that France or any other nation in the West would revise its history so radically and dramatically because some Jewish circles, enjoying real or imaginary influence, had wished it, or that they had maneuvered and woven conspiracies towards that end. As for the issue of Holocaust victims' gold in Swiss banks, it is part of an awakening that is taking root now, stretching into the past, to collective memories, deeds and values, lumping together the "treason" of European conscience in Bosnia with a revision of the history of wars with the Red Indians.
It would be a mistake to believe that this insistent, obstinate desire to keep the memory of the Holocaust alight is a partial expression of a wounded cultural narcissism. It is as if the West, which sees itself as the creator of the highest civilizations, cannot forgive itself or each other for having programmed a crime of the magnitude of the Holocaust, or for having condoned it, or for having connived with it through a gloating or cowardly silence, or for the fact that this crime could have been committed within its own deep recesses and not in some remote colony.
This concern of the West to perpetuate the memory of the Holocaust is also probably a manifestation of the deepening of the values of its democracies, for these are still facing the challenges of racism, bigotry and xenophobia. Papon's trial disclosed, inter alia, the fact that the butcher of the Jews is also the butcher of Algerians. The General-Secretary of the Gironde Department during the Second World War used his position to hand the Jews of his district over to the Nazi occupation authorities. As Chief of Police in Paris in the early sixties, Papon machinated the ugliest butchery the French capital saw against peaceful Algerian demonstrators during the Liberation War. In one night, he had around 300 Algerians shot or drowned in the River Seine. Papon's trial has disinterred this heinous deed as an incidental means to confirming his racism and the acts he had committed against the Jews.
Actually, the link between the two racisms, or between their victims, Papon was not its founder, nor was he the last to give it expression. From that other Frenchman, Jean-Marie le Pen, whose venomous utterances against North African immigrants mitigate the importance of the Holocaust, to the Russian Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the animosity toward the Arabs and Muslims and to the Jews goes hand in hand. The conduct in our age that has acquired the label anti-Semitic, in all likelihood has its roots in European history, dating back to the Crusades or to the expulsion from Andalusia, which touched Muslims and Jews equally. But presently, the predicament of the two sides is that, even though they face the same racism in Europe, in the Middle East they are confronting each other with mutual annihilation. Talk about a united racism and the call for a united front in facing it are not sufficient to surmount the many complex and tenacious issues that separate talk from reality.

A Destructive Impact

The Holocaust is the most complex and intractable knot in the Middle East, which can be described in short as follows: If the Arab side has failed, with a few exceptions, to comprehend the reality of the Holocaust, and to appreciate its impact on modern human conscience, the Jewish side, specifically the Israeli one, has also failed because of its extreme involvement in its own painful experience to conceive of any other injustice besides it, and specifically that to which it has subjected, and is still subjecting, the Palestinians.
The Arabs and Palestinians have adopted the widespread belief that the admission of the Holocaust constitutes a recognition of Israel's right to exist. So they chose to doubt or question it, or even to meet with a measure of glee the denial of its existence in some Western circles. At best, they saw it as an issue that did not concern them. Why should the Palestinians pay for a crime they did not commit? The problem with this logic, irrespective of any ethical consideration, is that it unconsciously embraces Israel's ratiocination which prompts it to draw a link between the Holocaust and the existence of the state.
The inability of the Arabs to assimilate the Holocaust is understandable, without excusing them. The Arabs and notably the Palestinians have been victimized by history - a history that is not theirs - and it was their lot to bear the consequences of this exceptional and horrific crime. The burden is onerous, and as in Greek tragedies, it threatens the person swaying under it with annihilation. How can the paradigmatic victim produce, in its turn, another victim?
It is, however, not impossible for the victim to transcend its own tragedy and to comprehend one that is not its own. This can be the measure of a great enlightenment and a sign of moral stature, without being a relinquishment of one's rights. In the Middle Eastern context, this is necessary so that Palestinian rights and their demand to realize them do not conflict with values that have become universal. The evocation and commemoration of the Holocaust will not yield unending benefits for Israel and will not help justify all its actions. If this period is witnessing a revival of the memory of the Nazi crime, it is also seeing criticism and protests of unprecedented severity being levelled against Israel as a result of its government's policy and what it is doing to the Palestinians and peace.

The Exclusivist Approach

The dissociation between the acknowledgment of the Holocaust and what Israel is doing should be the starting point for the development of a discourse which says that the Holocaust does not free the Jewish state or the Jews of accountability. On the contrary, the Nazi crime compounds their moral responsibility and exposes them to greater answerability. They are the ones who have escaped the ugliest crime in history, and now they are perpetrating reprehensible deeds against another people.
Modern Jewish consciousness can no longer look at the world from the exclusive perspective of the Holocaust, in spite of the magnitude of the event and its enormity. Within these parameters, it becomes pressing to (re)present the event as a trial for human suffering more than a purely and exclusively Jewish one, especially since the Jews in recent decades have started losing their long-standing "monopoly"over the tragic. The Turk in Germany, the Algerian in France, and always the black in every place, head the columns of victims of racism in the world and in them, albeit in different proportions and degrees, is the continuation of the suffering of the Jews of which the Holocaust was the culmination.
One must then move from vindictiveness to the crystallization of a lesson which ensures that such monstrous acts against any nation or ethnic group do not recur. It is not important, at the end of the day, that Maurice Papon spends his last years in prison; what matters is to exhaust all means, cultural and educational as well as political, to ensure that the Vichy experience is not repeated.
To be rid of the burden of this dark heritage, is above all to the advantage of the Jews themselves. In the political sense, it means that fundamentalism and extremism cannot take advantage of the collective symbols of the suffering of nations. This is true of Jews as well as of any other people. In another sense, Jews will be able to get on with their lives, relieved to a great extent from the past and its sufferings.
And if the memory of the Holocaust comes between the Jews and their ability to live in and to cope with this world, in particular, their capacity to coexist with that other people at whose expense the "Jewish question" was solved, it will be a victory for Hitlerism after its defeat. In other words, Hitlerism will triumph in the perpetuation of vengefulness and exclusivism, fired by a response to Wagner's music or to the works of Carl Schmidt, Céline, Pirandello and others.
This is a trap to be avoided by all. If the memory of the Holocaust remains exclusivist and indifferent to the injustices heaped upon others because of it, a moral impasse is reached where the shrewdest and most skilled arguments and publicity will be futile. Bridging the gap here is the only assurance that the Holocaust will be moved from its place in European history and exclusive European centrality, to the universalistic dimension it deserves. This bridging, however, will not be complete without a reconciliation with the non-European region that has reaped the consequence of the Nazi act.

A Shared History

Once again, the importance of a radical re-examination becomes pressing. This re-examination presents to the Jews a mental and moral challenge which they will not be able to defer indefinitely. This is because the pretext which Israel and the Jews use in linking what they have been exposed to in Europe and the state they have established in Palestine, suffers from a basic defect. If the recollection of the Holocaust constitutes a strong justification for the establishment of the State of Israel, it falters in the case of the injustices inflicted as a result on the local indigenous people, the Palestinians.
The reality is that the establishment of the Jewish state and what has ensued as conflict and struggle created a strong historical connection between Jews and Palestinians, making them conversant in a shared history. It did not only concentrate both of them on the same land over which they are fighting and where they will, eventually, end up coexisting one way or the other. It made of the two peoples, irrespective of their discrepant degrees of inherited suffering, partners in the recollection of the Holocaust. The latter has turned into a common heritage between those who have been exposed to extermination, though innocent of any crime save their belonging to a specific religion or ethnicity, and those who were fated to pay the price for the act, without their being guilty of anything other than being, during an unfavorable moment in history, in a land where their forefathers had lived for hundreds of years. On the one hand, there is a people faced with unequaled persecution which cost it six million victims, and on the other, a people threatened with the loss of its very historical existence.
Coexistence on the land of Palestine between the two peoples is unlikely as long as each side is living its own history, alongside the other or in isolation from the other. To have coexistence, each side will have to assimilate the history of the other, even to make it its own, based on what the Holocaust has entailed for both of them separately or together.
Security, political or purely territorial matters are relatively easy to solve and can be dealt with by authorities and committees of experts. The basic challenge that should be addressed is the manner Arabs and Palestinians relate to the Holocaust and how the Jews relate to the Palestinian victim.
It is possible to go further and say that one of the most important conditions governing the worthiness of the Jews to maintain the heritage of the Holocaust is in their dealing with the Palestinians. Any injustice perpetrated by Israel against them or any denial of their rights will be tantamount to an infringement of the sanctity of the Holocaust, which has become a yardstick for universalistic values.

Transcending the Past

Clearly, and this is what many Arabs fail to consider, asking the Jews to put the big event behind them or to re-exmine it as we have suggested, is to a great extent contingent on the conduct of others and their readiness to take hold of the Holocaust and to add it to the heritage of collective human suffering. This surpasses by far the self-evident call to transcend anti-Semitic obscenities, or to make sure anti-Semitism does not occur, or to minimize the number of Holocaust victims.
Lack of trust in the other by the Jews, for which the Arabs are paying the price and which Binyamin Netanyahu has exploited to blackmail the whole region, has a lot to justify it. In European history one saw a retreat from the promises of the French Revolution, as shown by the Dreyfus Affair, and a retreat from the promises of the Russian Revolution, as seen in Stalinism. Even the Allies in the Second World War did not come to the rescue of Holocaust survivors until it was too late, and Western democracies turned a blind eye to Nazi criminals when their exploitation in the Cold War was thought possible. Add the disclosure of what the Swiss banks did with the knowledge of the Allies (as it turned out), to the disclosure of the Gaullist cover-up of French history ("We are all, with the exception of collaborators, resistance fighters"), and fatuous statements and declarations, such as those made by Mahatir Mohammad, it is not difficult to find reasons for anxiety and suspicion of others.
Such lack of faith in the other is what makes Israel into a "reserve homeland" for the majority of Jews in the world, whose many trials taught them that anti-Semitism can fall upon them unawares wherever they are. All these factors are what keep the memory of the Holocaust alight and underscore its uniqueness as a Jewish occurrence and not a human one. Within the context of the Arab-Israeli conflict, it magnifies and perpetuates security-related anxieties. Actually, the transcendence by Jews of this enormous event remains a condition for the melting away of the huge security fears and for the achievement of peace. By the same token, this will not happen without the comprehension by Arabs of this memory and its inclusion in their narrative.
If the event of the early forties in Europe becomes a Palestinian preoccupation, and the Jews allow that, and if the event of the end of the forties in the Middle East becomes a Jewish preoccupation, and the Arabs allow that, then the renewed universal awareness of the Holocaust will herald the disengagement between the occurrence and its Jewishness. Do we join our voices with the rest of the world? And will Israel permit us to do that, given that this entails internalizating the Palestinian moment into Israel's consciousness?

This is a translation from the Arabic of an article that appeared in Al-Hayat newspaper, London, December 18, 1997. Printed by permission.

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