The Arab Position on the Holocaust

An untold number of Jews did not reach Mandatory Palestine because of the position taken by the Arabs.

Shlomo Avineri
Shlomo Avineri
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Shlomo Avineri
Shlomo Avineri

One sometimes encounters the Palestinian argument that there is a basic injustice in the fact that they appear to have to pay the price for Europe's crimes during the Holocaust. It's true, of course, that Nazi Germany and its allies, and not the Palestinians, are those guilty of perpetrating the Holocaust. Nonetheless, any argument that links the establishment of the State of Israel exclusively to the Holocaust ignores the fact that modern Zionism preceded the annihilation of the Jews in World War II, even if the Holocaust clearly strengthened the claim for Jewish sovereignty.

Yet the Arab argument that places all responsibility on Europe is not completely correct. When the Arab revolt against British rule in Palestine broke out in 1936, its aim was to change the British position, which had supported Jewish immigration to Palestine since the Balfour Declaration. The revolt was also meant to hurt the Jewish community and discourage Jews who were planning to immigrate. The British, in time-honored colonial tradition, cruelly suppressed the revolt, assisted by the Jewish community and helped by the British Mandatory government.

But in the winter of 1938-39, the British changed their policy after the government of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain realized that its appeasement of Hitler had failed. Britain began to prepare for a war against the Nazis, and as part of this it changed its Middle East policy. Britain reintroduced the draft, started massive production of tanks and aircraft, and developed the radar. In light of the need to insure the Empire's critical link to India via the Suez Canal, Britain feared that continued violent suppression of the Arab revolt in Palestine would push all Arabs in the region closer to Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. It consequently decided to move closer to the Arabs and away from the Jews and Zionism. As Colonial Secretary Malcolm MacDonald explained to the Zionist leadership, the change was prompted not by a British conviction that Arab claims were justified, but rather by realpolitik: There were more Arabs than Jews; the Jews would support Britain against the Nazis in any case, but the Arabs have the option of joining Nazi Germany.

The cruel paradox lies in the fact that appeasement of the Arabs started just as Britain relinquished its appeasement policy vis-a-vis Hitler and was preparing for war against Germany. This was the reason for the 1939 White Paper, which drastically limited the right of Jews to buy land in Mandatory Palestine and placed a ceiling of 75,000 on Jewish immigration. The message to the Arabs was clear: The Jews would remain a minority in Palestine.

This policy did not completely achieve its goal; the Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, found his way to Berlin anyway. An anti-British and pro-Nazi rebellion erupted in Iraq, led by Rashid Ali. But as far as the Jews were concerned, the British continued to consistently apply the principles of the White Paper during the war. The gates were shut to legal Jewish immigration, the British navy fought illegal immigration and ships seeking to save Jews from the Nazi occupation (such as the Struma) were returned to their port of origin; some of their passengers died at sea, others in the gas chambers.

Guilt for the Holocaust lies with Nazi Germany and its allies. But an untold number of Jews, perhaps as many as hundreds of thousands - including my grandparents from the Polish town of Makow Podhalanski - were not saved and did not reach Mandatory Palestine because of the position taken by the Arabs: They succeeded in shutting the country's gates during the darkest hour of the Jewish people. Anyone seeking reconciliation between us and the Palestinians must insist that both sides be attentive to the suffering of the other side, and that goes for the Palestinians as well as for us.



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