As peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinians continue to unravel, Yom HaShoah [Israel’s Holocaust Memorial Day], of all dark days, suddenly emerged as a revitalizing light for the stalled negotiations. And Holocaust memory itself, improbably, found a new devotee in the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, a man who once had a shaky command of the Shoah. In both English and Arabic, President Abbas acknowledged the Holocaust as “the most heinous crime against humanity in modern history.”
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Justified cynicism aside, this is no small matter. There has been pathetically far too much denial in the Arab Muslim world over Jewish historical suffering and Israel’s very existence. Arab leaders have openly engaged in Holocaust denial (Abbas’s own doctoral dissertation once contributed to this odious thinking), and Israel, regionally and elsewhere, is the one state whose right to exist is still a matter of debate—70 years after its creation.
The corrosive effects of denial have only deepened Israeli ambivalence about a final settlement on Palestine. This was equally true with its other neighbors. It is asking a lot of Israel to take any nation seriously as a negotiating partner if it is unwilling to acknowledge the cardinal truths of the Jewish people—the existence of Israel as a nation, and the grotesque reality of the Holocaust, which made a homeland for the Jewish people a moral necessity.
Imagine if Canada or Mexico boldly denied the existence of the United States, or if Turkey denied its genocide of the Armenian people (woops, sorry, that one is not so unimaginable)? Relations among bordering nations require the mutual respect that comes with embracing and internalizing each other’s historical truths and corresponding tragedies.
For this reason, any step taken by Arab or Muslim countries toward acknowledging these two immutable Jewish truths—and renouncing the pernicious denials—is something Israel cannot afford to ignore.
Abbas’s embrace of the Shoah as a genuine and unique atrocity, despite his previous disavowals to the contrary, is the first step towards a final settlement, should there ever be one, that will include the wholesale acceptance of Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state. The Palestinians will then join many around the world who link the moral legitimacy of Israel’s statehood with the annihilation of the Six Million, without which the partition of Palestine would never have achieved a global consensus or have become a concrete reality.
In the aftermath of the Holocaust, in a world shaken by moral failure and barbarism, the only conceivable answer to the Nazis was the creation of a Jewish state.
And yet by invoking the Holocaust, is Abbas taking a free ride on the greatest tragedy of the Jewish people—and engaging in the worst form of moral equivalence—by creating a parallel universe between the Shoah and Palestinian suffering? He concluded his announcement by rejecting all injustice that arises from ethnic discrimination and called upon the Israeli government to seize this moment and finalize a comprehensive and just peace.
Perhaps Abbas realizes that he cannot very well seek justice on behalf of his own people if he is unwilling to acknowledge that Jews endured the worst atrocity in recorded memory. The only justice available to world Jewry was to create a homeland for what remained of the Jewish people. To acknowledge the Holocaust is tantamount to accepting Israel’s existence as a Jewish state—regardless of Abbas’s present hesitations in doing so.
Sure, there is cause for cynicism given the timing of Abbas’s announcement, what with the breakdown of the peace talks, the withholding of Palestinian prisoners, and the further flirtations of the Palestinian Authority with the United Nations. There have not been nearly enough reciprocal gestures for mutual trust, of any kind, to have meaningfully taken hold. The mere fact that Fatah and Hamas have now, miraculously, patched up their sibling rivalry does not by itself bode well for two peoples living side by side.
Perhaps, as Prime Minister Netanyahu fears, acknowledging the Holocaust is nothing but a cheap PR stunt, a bait and switch to deflect the focus away from the PA’s rapprochement with Hamas, a smokescreen to make the stalled peace talks appear to be still viable—an insincere gesture from someone with no true interest in reviving negotiations.
He may be right. But truth matters, in life and in global politics. To finally acknowledge the Holocaust might seem like a terribly late arrival on the scene of historical truth, but Abbas’s words are now on the record. He was not equivocal. He did not trivialize the magnitude of Jewish loss. And in making this declaration, he unmistakably renounced the false if not vaguely anti-Semitic statements of his prior life.
To prove that his words were not mere recitals, the Holocaust must be internalized among his people in much the same way as Israel is beginning to acknowledge its role in the expulsion of the Palestinians from what are now the disputed territories, the dehumanization of curfews and checkpoints, and the symbolic significance of olive trees that can never be replanted.
For now, Abbas should be taken at his word. Hopefully it will lead to further words, from both sides, which plainly address each other’s reciprocal losses and historical hardships.
Thane Rosenbaum, a novelist, essayist and law professor at Fordham University, is the director of the Forum on Law, Culture & Society and the author, most recently, of “Payback: The Case for Revenge.”