Michael Berenbaum: Holocaust Denial: Iranian Style

Roundup: Talking About History

[Michael Berenbaum is a leading expert on the Holocaust. He is the former director of the United States Holocaust Museum Research Institute and President of the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation.]

In honor of Holocaust Remembrance Day this week, it’s worthy to wonder: What’s the difference between Holocaust denial in the West and Holocaust denial as practiced by the President of Iran and his followers?

In the West, Holocaust denial challenges the fundamental history of the Holocaust — gas chamber, crematoria, systematic killing of Jews, the personal participation of Hitler in imposing what the Nazis called “The Final Solution to the Jewish Problem.”
Holocaust denial in the Muslim world is part of the migration of discredited myths – including the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion and the conspiracy of world domination, the blood libel, and even the charge of deicide — which have been rejected in the post-Holocaust world by Western Christendom (where perhaps they made cultural, theological, and historical sense) but imported to the Middle East, where they are alien but peculiarly potent. Western deniers deny the Holocaust as a strategic weapon to rehabilitate the standing of fascism, to re-establish the reputation of Germany and restore the good name of its people, and to cleanse Hitler, his all-too-willing colleagues, and the German nation of their crimes.

This is of little interest to Islamic deniers, who are infuriated by the attention on Jewish victimization and by what they see as the consequences of the Holocaust. They believe they have been made to pay the price for Europe’s iniquities to the Jews. They have a three-point agenda in denying the Holocaust:

1. They seek to delegitimize Europe, which perceives itself as the antithesis of the Nazis: pluralistic and tolerant, welcoming of the outsider, and deeply committed to human rights and human dignity.

2. They seek to delegitimize the existence of Israel, which sees itself (and is perceived by others) as the legacy of the Nazis’ victims and the antidote to another Holocaust. (Holocaust denial, in this sense, is a verbal act of aggression against Israel and against Jews.)

3. They want to attack the United States, where the Holocaust has come to occupy a prominent place in the moral discourse of the American people.

This three-point attack is clear evidence of the importance of the Holocaust in the West, for were it not so central to Europe, the United States, and Israel, there would be no point in denying it. Holocaust denial is also critical to certain extremists in the Islamic world, for had there been no Holocaust, then there would be no need for Israel to exist other than as a result and a sign of Western racism.

Yet, there are forces within the Islamic world that do not deny the Holocaust, many out of respect for truth and history and others for much less laudatory reasons. Members of the latter camp include those who see the important propaganda victory of linking Israelis with the Nazis and thus joining in common cause with some Europeans, mainly on the left, who seek to rid themselves of guilt for the Holocaust by equating contemporary Israelis – and even other Jews – with the Nazis of World War II.
If the Islamic deniers confined themselves to a debate over the uses and abuses of Holocaust memory, the debate would have been legitimate, and the support for such a debate would have attracted a better crowd than the David Dukes and the outer fringe of the Jewish groups, such as the six colorful Neturei Karta representatives who shamed themselves, their cause, and the Jewish people by meeting with the President of Iran at a Holocaust denial conference in Tehran last December. They have been rightfully scorned even by their own political allies.
Holocaust denial has brought the Iranian president much attention – perhaps even more attention than his nuclear aspiration. But with that attention has come derision in the West and even some criticism from the Muslim world and within Iran. The divisions he and his party created in Iran should not be overlooked. One should be grateful for such foolishness – grateful and scornful. And every effort must be made in response to the Iranian president not to broaden his support among his people by making him a martyr, so that even those who oppose him would be forced to embrace him....

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