Even reliable supporters condemned Mahmoud Abbas when he blamed the Holocaust on the Jews’ own behaviour.
That claim and others made during the Palestinian leader’s 90-minute address Monday in Ramallah triggered the harshest wave of censures ever directed at him in the West.
Israel, the United States and a United Nations official used some of the strongest terms in the diplomatic vocabulary to denounce Abbas. The New York Times editorial board called for him to step down, and even the main Palestinian rights advocacy group in Germany criticised the speech and labeled it anti-Semitic.
Faced with a tsunami of condemnations, Abbas apologised in a statement Friday in which he called the genocide against the Jews “the most heinous crime in history.” It was a familiar pattern for someone who for decades has alternated between recognition and denial of the Holocaust.
But if the reaction to Abbas’ speech was unusual, his discredited theories about the Holocaust are not — not among Palestinians, who used them as an ideological weapon against Israel, and not in Europe, where they are proliferating for different reasons.
European Jews, Abbas said in Ramallah, have been “subjected to a massacre every 10 to 15 years, since the 11th century and until the Holocaust in Germany.” The Palestinian Authority president went on to say that the Soviet despot Joseph Stalin, who was not Jewish, was in fact a Jew and that Stalin and other Jews had said that “this anti-Jewish [sentiment] was not because of their religion, but because of their function in society, which had to do with usury, banks and so on.”
Abbas, 82, then corrected himself and said he had meant to quote Karl Marx, not Stalin.
This trope that Jews brought genocide on themselves by controlling the levers of financial power is rooted in European classical anti-Semitism as expressed in the Russian forgery “Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” according to Esther Webman, a senior scholar at the Moshe Dayan Centre for Middle Eastern and African Studies in Tel Aviv. Her field of expertise is Arab anti-Semitism and perceptions of the Holocaust.
“In Arab discourse, these anti-Semitic teachings are weaponization to foment hatred of Israel,” she said.
For various reasons, such theories are particularly prevalent in Eastern European countries whose populations were widely complicit in the Holocaust, according to Holocaust historian Efraim Zuroff, the Eastern Europe director for the Simon Wiesenthal Centre.
“A very strong element of Holocaust distortion in the region is to justify complicity in the Holocaust by framing it as a payback for the actions of Jews,” he said, referencing the outsize support by Jews for communism, which Russia imposed on the region with ruthless oppression.
Zsolt Bayer, a co-founder of Hungary’s ruling Fidesz party, wrote an op-ed in 2016 in which he justified Eastern European Holocaust collaboration as payback for the actions of communists.
“Why do we find it shocking that 20 years later he watched without pity as the gendarmes dragged the Jews away from his village?” Bayer said of the average villager in Hungary.
But in Abbas’ case, his Ramallah speech was merely the latest of a series of statements that he has made since the 1980s that have been widely considered anti-Semitic.
In the introduction to his 1984 book titled “The Other Aspect: The Secret Ties Between the Nazis and the Leadership of the Zionist Movement,” Abbas wrote about the figure of 6 million Jews killed in the Holocaust: “In truth, no one can refute or confirm this number. In other words, the number of Jewish victims could be six million and could be much smaller — even less than one million.”
In the book, he also quoted the French-British Holocaust denier Robert Faurisson’s discredited claim that the Nazis used gas chambers only for disease control rather than to murder Jews.
But since climbing up the ranks of the PLO, Abbas has largely stayed off the topic of the Holocaust, according to Webman.
“This is an unusual return for him,” she said of Monday’s speech.
Abbas’ journey from denial to justification represents an evolution in how Palestinian society as a whole has treated the Holocaust since the 1990s, according to Itamar Marcus, founder of Palestinian Media Watch in Jerusalem, which monitors Arab outlets.
From outright denial in 1991, the press in the West Bank and Gaza have shifted to blaming Zionist activists for alleged complicity in the Holocaust, citing and exaggerating agreements made by Zionist activists with Nazi officials in the early 1930s that facilitated German Jewish immigration to prestate Israel.
Abbas repeated that claim in his remarks, depicting what Zionists viewed as a desperate rescue mission as proof that Zionism was a Nazi-backed enterprise.
Amid international pressure over this distortion, Marcus said, the state-controlled Palestinian media in the 2000s began showing signs of recognition for the Holocaust. But that gradually gave way to drawing comparisons between Israel and Nazi Germany, including by Abbas.
“In recent years, we’re seeing a fifth stage: justification for the Holocaust becoming a main narrative,” Marcus said.
He cited an article from 2011 in the Zayzafuna youth magazine of Abbas’ PLO, whose author, a 10th-grader, imagined having a conversation with Adolf Hitler. She asks the Fuehrer if he’s the “one who killed the Jews.” Hitler replies: “Yes. I killed them so you would all know that they are a nation which spreads destruction all over the world.”
Denial, distortion and justification of the Holocaust serve a clear political purpose in the Arab world, according to Webman.
“In the Arab view, the State of Israel was created because of the Holocaust. So to undermine the Holocaust is to undermine the moral grounds for Israel’s creation,” she said.
If the Jews brought the Holocaust on themselves, the reasoning goes, then there is no moral grounds for compensating them with a national home in what the PLO considers Palestine.
This ignores not just a Nazi obsession with Jews that did not discriminate by occupation, nationality, age or gender, but also the legitimacy of a Jewish project of self-rule in their historic homeland that predated and was well underway before the Holocaust.
“But this is not accepted in the Arab worldview,” she said.
Claiming that Zionists were complicit in the Holocaust – a trope that is gaining traction among supporters of the far left in Britain – also feeds the notion that the West is to blame for giving Palestine to the Jews, Webman said.
In the Arab world, Holocaust distortion is part of a broader effort to deny ties between the Jewish people and Israel, Webman said. And on that front, she added, “Abbas is a prominent voice, it’s a big part of his legacy.”
This effort by Abbas included promoting at UNESCO several resolutions since 2015 that deny or ignore Jewish historical ties to Jerusalem. And it also featured prominently in his Ramallah speech, although this element was eclipsed by his apparent justification of the Holocaust.
On Monday, quoting a widely discredited theory about the mass conversion to Judaism of the Turkic nation of the Khazars in the ninth century, Abbas said about Ashkenazi Jews, “They are not Semites and have no connection to Semites, neither to Abraham nor to Jacob.”