The news emerging out of Israel seems to point, at first blush, toward a stern rebuke to Benjamin Netanyahu’s leadership. Netanyahu has guided Israel to unprecedented international isolation, income disparity, and diplomatic stasis. Indeed, he deserves much of the blame for the current stalemate with the Palestinians, given his recurrent and self-fulfilling refrain that there is no partner for peace. I am a fierce critic of Netanyahu and the immoral and destructive policies of his government (and previous ones). But it is necessary and sobering to recall that his presumptive partners for peace are hardly without blemish.
I was reminded of this upon hearing the statement attributed on Monday to Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, suggesting that one would be foolhardy “to deny the relationship between Zionism and Nazism before World War II.”
This is a terse formulation that leaves much unsaid. And yet, Abbas’s own history fills in some of the blanks. Before gaining renown as a Palestinian politician—indeed, as a mild-mannered and moderate politician—he wrote a dissertation at a Russian university in 1982 that was published two years later in Arabic as “The Other Side: The Secret Relationship between Nazism and Zionism.” In it, Abbas asserts that the number of Jews murdered by Nazis was less than one million. The oft-quoted figure of six million dead, he maintains, was but a myth, foisted on the world by the singularly demonic Zionists. It is they, Abbas further claimed, who collaborated with the Nazis during the War to incite hatred of European Jews in order to validate their own ideology. And it was they who then sought after the War to exploit the death of Jews to their own advantage.
Now it must be said that scholars of the Holocaust are not unanimous in agreeing on the figure of six million. Rather, they offer a range of numbers that moves between five and six million. But these estimates are far from Abbas’s figure, which no credible scholar would deign to propose.
It also must be noted there were periodic contacts between Zionists and Nazis before and during the War. For example, in August 1933, the Zionist Federation of Germany signed an agreement with the German government (and the Anglo-Palestine Bank) known as the “Haavara” (Transfer) which allowed for the transfer of Jewish property from Germany to Palestine as a means of encouraging Jewish emigration there. And during the War, Zionist officials in Palestine and elsewhere pursued a number of ransom plans whose goal was the liberation of European Jews. Perhaps the most well-known of these plans was the “Merchandise for Blood” proposal of 1944 according to which one million Jews would be exchanged for 10,000 trucks. The negotiations were conducted between Adolf Eichmann, the SS officer for Jewish Affairs, and the Hungarian Zionists Joel Brand and Rudolf Kasztner. The end result of these contacts was the release of no more and no less than 1685 Jews, which helps explain why the legacies of Brand and especially Kasztner remain bitterly contested among Jews to this day.
To extrapolate from these few episodes an ongoing collaboration between Nazis and Jews is an historiographical sin of commission that rests on a faulty grasp of context and a distorted reading of the sources at hand—at best. It must be noted that Abbas conducted an interview in May 2003 with Israeli jouralist Akiva Eldar in which he appeared to renounce his earlier "research," insisting that "I have no desire to argue with these (conventional) figures" (that is, the number of Jewish dead in the Holocaust). But this week's interview seems to represent a retreat. More disturbingly, it reflects a conspiratorial cast that often afflicts Palestinian renderings of the Jewish past. The aim of these renderings, truth be told, is to invalidate the historical experience of Jews. Yasir Arafat and other Palestinian officials frequently called into question the historicity of the Western Wall as a way of undermining the claim of ancient Jewish settlement in Jerusalem. And while the clause (#18) in the original Palestine National Charter that informed Jews that they were members of a religion, but not a nation, was excised in the heady days of Oslo, it continues to inform the thinking of many Palestinians and supporters of their cause, far too many for anyone’s good.
These heavy-handed and distorted historical views are not the chief cause of the ill will between Palestinians and Zionists. Indeed, I raise them not in order to wipe clean the historical record of Zionism toward the Palestinians. Both Zionism and Israel have much to answer for in this regard. But the perpetuation of such historical narishkayt—to which we must add the vile anti-Semitism in Egyptian President Morsi’s recent description of Zionists as descendants of “apes and monkeys”—should be called out for what it is.
Peace, it can be safely assumed, will not be delivered by nuanced historical analysis alone. But neither can its path be paved by the kind of historical distortions that Mahmoud Abbas recently—and recurrently—has pedaled.