The establishment of the State of Israel seven decades ago is remembered as the return to its ancestral home by one people but bemoaned as the dispossession of its land by another. Yet, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has always been about more than just land. Interdependent national narratives-some true to history and some not-have served both sides as engines for mobilisation and weapons of denigration, thus crucially shaping their perception of one another and of themselves. One particularly controversial example, aiming at the very heart of contemporary Jewish identity, is the belief among a part of the Palestinian population that the crimes of the Holocaust are either amplified or an invention altogether, but in any case a tool utilized to attract sympathy for the Zionist cause.
The Holocaust and denial thereof have been divisive issues within Arab societies for seven decades. And latest since the refugee crisis of 2015, these tendencies towards historical distortions have been exploited by the European political right to warn against further immigration from Islamic countries on the pretext of the fight against anti-Semitism. The consequences, which Holocaust denial has had for the Palestinian quest for statehood, however, have mostly remained unaddressed. Due to the asymmetrical dynamic of their conflict with Israel as well as most of the world’s resentment in regard to statements denying the Holocaust, a renunciation of that narrative is long overdue. It would remove one political target from the backs of Palestinian officials and would allow Western governments who are sympathetic to the Palestinian cause to take a clearer stand against Israel; ultimately it would simply be the just and right thing to do.
The first cases of Holocaust minimisation from Arab representatives emerged even before World War II had ended. Regardless of their incoherence, the seeds of that narrative eventually grew to the point that in 2009 in a poll conducted by the University of Haifa, 40 percent of Israeli Palestinians-Palestinians living and being schooled in Israel-declared that they believe that the Holocaust never happened. Given that Palestinian Authority textbooks make no mention of the Holocaust, it can be suggested that the number among residents of the West Bank, but also Gaza, is even higher.
But this narrative is not only popular amid the less educated. Only last year, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas claimed that the Holocaust was provoked by the social behaviour of the Jews, referring to their roles as bankers and moneylenders. He later apologized, but the statement caused an international backlash and was widely criticized as anti-Semitic.
Given the power imbalance in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with the latter being hopelessly outgunned-both literally and metaphorically-such a reputational dent should not be underestimated. It is neither the Palestinian political nor their economic power that can be relied upon for generating international support. Their fate as victims under an illegal occupation, however, has rallied a good number of sympathisers around the Palestinian flag and triggered criticism against the Israeli state for their treatment of the Palestinians.
Such support would be especially important coming from the United States or Europe, potential mediators that would be able to exert enough pressure on Israel for it to make concessions. But recurring anti-Semitic slurs have a damaging effect by providing groups and individuals opposed to the Palestinian cause with opportunities to discredit its image. Opposition towards Israel could be undermined by the attempt to equate support for Palestine to anti-Semitism. Because of prevalent sensitivity in Western countries, such lobbying there would encounter fertile ground. This kind of exploitation makes it much easier for the U.S. to close ranks with Israel, and curb the growing yet mostly symbolic support the European Union has shown the Palestinians, for example through the EU Parliament’s “in principle recognition of Palestinian statehood” in 2014.
Denying the Holocaust does not diminish the justice of the Palestinian demand for statehood or make all its supporters anti-Semites. But Palestinian representatives need to ask themselves what is to be gained from engaging in such rhetoric. It may result in some domestic applause but otherwise only causes resentment, thus feeding ammunition to its opponents and throwing a shadow on the Palestinian cause. At the very least, out of sheer diplomatic pragmatism, Palestinian leaders should refrain from making similar statements again. At best, they would include the Holocaust in Palestinian education, thereby opening a window into the mind of their adversary and sending an appealing signal to the world by going beyond nationality and acknowledging the loss of human life.