Brian Klug: Ending the ‘War of Narratives’

By Brian Klug, ZNet – 8 July 2010
www.zcommunications.org/ending-the-war-of-narratives-by-brian-klug

[Remarks at an event co-sponsored by The Council for Arab-British Understanding, Arab Media Watch, and Independent Jewish Voices, launching Gilbert Achcar’s book, The Arabs and the Holocaust: The Arab-Israeli War of Narratives, at the Arab-British Chamber of Commerce, London, July 1, 2010.]

This is the fourth time this year, Gilbert, that I have had the pleasure of sharing the platform with you. It’s getting to be a habit — though one that I have no wish to kick. This evening the pleasure is even greater; for on this occasion, unlike previous ones, the focus is on your new book, The Arabs and the Holocaust. Having read the book and having got to know you a little (both on and off the platform) since January I am especially pleased to be here tonight, speaking at your launch. And I know that my colleagues on the Steering Group of Independent Jewish Voices are delighted to be co-sponsoring this event together with Arab Media Watch and the Council for Arab-British Understanding.

The fact that our three groups have come together over your book is a ray of hope in the gloom — the second ray of hope to emanate from a London book event in the last couple of weeks. The first event took place on 16 June, at another Mayfair location, when a prestigious annual literary prize was awarded to the author of My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness, the biography of the contemporary Palestinian poet Taha Muhammad Ali. I was present when the chair of the judging panel announced the prize. Saying that all four judges “fell in love” with the book, she explained that in places it “reads almost like a detective story” as the author “painfully excavates the truth about how all traces of the Palestinian village of Saffuriyya were erased and replaced by the Israeli village of Tzippori.”[1] In her book, the author introduces her subject thus: “Taha was born and grew up in Saffuriyya, a Galilee village that Israel destroyed in the wake of the 1948 war, and most of his poems well up from the hard ground of that setting.”[2] Citing All That Remains, the reference work in which Walid Khalidi and a team of researchers set out “to chronicle the 418 Palestinian villages that Israel effectively erased in 1948”, she describes her own “task” as “similar”.[3] In short, Taha Muhammad Ali, who fled with his family in 1948 and returned to live in Nazareth as one of Israel’s ‘internal refugees’, is a poet of the Nakba, and the book about him a kind of exposé of the Palestinian catastrophe.

Why, you are wondering, do I refer to this prize-giving event as ‘a ray of hope’? It is because the facts about it are counter-intuitive. The author of My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness is Adina Hoffman, an American Jew living in Jerusalem; all the members of the judging panel were Jewish; one of them, the filmmaker Naomi Gryn, is the daughter of Rabbi Hugo Gryn, who survived Auschwitz; the chair, Anne Karpf, whose Polish-born parents also came through the Nazi Holocaust, wrote the family memoir The War After: Living with the Holocaust; and, finally, the prestigious award, the centre-piece of the evening, was the Jewish Quarterly Wingate Literary Prize for 2010.

As I listened to the warm applause that greeted the judges’ announcement, my mind leaped ahead to tonight’s launch and I found myself dwelling, in particular, on the subtitle of Gilbert’s book: The Arab-Israeli War of Narratives. The phrase refers to a brutal war of words that both reflects and reinforces the conflict on the ground. It is a narrative battle that revolves around “the two defining traumas of the conflict: the Holocaust and the Nakba”.[4] It is hard to imagine anything more macabre than this desperate, relentless contest of catastrophes. If tonight’s launch is one ray of hope in the gloom, and the Jewish Quarterly literary prize another, it is because both events — and indeed both books — transcend this ‘war of narratives’.

Now, I doubt that Gilbert will take offence if I do not say that his book “reads almost like a detective story”. On the other hand, Sherlock Holmes would have thoroughly endorsed his methods: meticulous logical reasoning combined with close attention to empirical detail. Moreover, as the author of a number of monographs on abstruse topics, Holmes would have appreciated Gilbert’s erudition. These qualities have led one distinguished academic after another to extol his book for its contribution to historical scholarship. But, without for a moment contradicting this assessment of the book, nor meaning to put scholarship down, I think the importance of the work goes deeper. It is, above all, as a contribution to peace, to bringing the ‘war of narratives’ to an end, that I value Gilbert’s book. Unless I am mistaken, this is also the spirit in which the book is written. It is not a whodunit, more a how-to-do-it: how to break the cycle of verbal violence on both sides. As Gilbert explains in his preface: “My aim is to open up avenues of reflection that make it possible to go beyond the legion of caricatures, founded on mutual incomprehension and sustained by blind hatred …”[5]

Blind hatred is hatred that makes no distinctions and sees no shades of grey. The opposite is analysis, or taking complex things apart at their joints, which is one of the main methods that Gilbert employs in seeking to “open up avenues of reflection”. So, taking a leaf from his book, so to speak, I would like now to turn to the main title, The Arabs and the Holocaust, and briefly consider each of its two constituent parts in turn.

First, the phrase ‘the Arabs’. Gilbert opens Part 1 of his book with this remark: “It ought to be a truism that ‘the Arabs’ do not exist …”[6] This is doubly paradoxical. For if anything is obviously true here then surely it is the opposite; not even Golda Meir would have cast doubt on the existence of the Arabs! Furthermore, the book is about ‘The Arabs’, and so the author seems to subvert his own work with his opening gambit. It is certainly an arresting beginning for a text that includes ‘The Arabs’ in its title. But I have cheated a bit, for Gilbert goes on to qualify or clarify his remark. Here is the sentence in full: “It ought to be a truism that ‘the Arabs’ do not exist — at least not as a homogenous political or ideological subject”. In this sense, neither do ‘the Jews’ exist, nor, for that matter, ‘the Muslims’ — as Gilbert goes on to state. It is a fundamental logical point, about as fundamental as any other point that he makes; which is why he makes it at the outset of Part 1.

But the point is not merely logical. Much of the substance of this book consists in the different conclusions that the author reaches when he examines the record of different groups and individuals — all of whom come under the broad heading ‘the Arabs’. In other words, and in case anyone might be misled by the title, Gilbert’s work demonstrates that there is no single relationship between ‘the Arabs’ and the Holocaust; far from it. This is one of the principal findings of the work.

Turning now to the second part of the book’s title, there is not even a scintilla of a jest that the Holocaust did not exist or did not occur. Nor could there be; for the reality of the Holocaust is something that Gilbert treats, from start to finish, with the utmost seriousness and respect. There are two reasons for this. In the first place, he is immensely sensitive to the scale of the suffering and the destruction involved in the Nazi genocide of the Jews. In the introduction, ‘Words Laden With Pain’, he asks, “What name should be given a calamity that, from the standpoint of a humanist ethics, will remain forever ‘unnameable’?”[7] The careful attention he pays to this question is worth the price of admission alone. But suffice to say that he uses the phrase ‘the Holocaust’ broadly to refer not only to the so-called ‘Final Solution’, the systematic extermination of two-thirds of the Jewish population of Europe from 1942 to 1945, but to the whole period of the Nazi persecution of the Jews, from Hitler’s accession to power in 1933 to his defeat by the Allies.[8]

In the second place, at the heart of his analysis lies the thesis that, in the words of Edward Said, “the Jewish tragedy led directly to the Palestinian catastrophe”.[9] For this reason, Gilbert is scathing on the subject of Holocaust denial, which he describes as an “ignoble, perverse and stupid game” — and that is when he is being kind.[10] Gilbert does not mince words when he uncovers either antisemitism or Holocaust denial in the Arab world: he exposes it and he condemns it. At the same time, he also excoriates those people who play the game in reverse: who seize upon such cases and use them to tar all Arabs or all Muslims with the same vile brush, implying that deep down ‘the Arabs’ are Nazis.

The structure of the book reflects Gilbert’s project of, as it were, deconstructing ‘the Arabs’ and showing that they had multiple relationships to the Holocaust and that these relationships have changed over time. Part 1, which deals with the period from 1933 to 1947, provides, as he puts it in the preface, “an ideological mapping of the Arab world”.[11] Separate chapters examine in turn four different ideological groups: the liberal Westernizers, the Marxists, the Nationalists, and finally the reactionary or fundamentalist pan-Islamists. With each group he sifts carefully the evidence concerning reactions to Nazism and to antisemitism, and what he paints is a picture in which there is light and dark and shades of grey. He carries this ‘map’ forward into Part 2, where a series of three chapters takes us chronologically from 1948 to the present. The argument of the book is brought to bear on the current state of affairs, both the conflict on the ground and the war of words that hovers above it, in a vigorous and outspoken Conclusion that does not spare the rod — not for any of the parties on either side.

I shall leave it to Gilbert to go into details about his findings. I prefer, in the short time remaining to me, to dwell on something that I mentioned earlier. I said that the chief value of this excellent book is that it makes a contribution to peace, to bringing the ‘war of narratives’ to an end. I have already touched on some of the ways in which it does this: breaking down collective subjects, such as ‘the Arabs’ and ‘the Jews’, so as to reveal the variety and complexity of views within each of these populations; taking both sides to task when they are guilty either of bigotry or playing the propaganda game without regard to the truth; and asserting the tragic link between “the two defining traumas of the conflict: the Holocaust and the Nakba”. There remain two other virtues of his work that I wish to identify — and to identify with: contextualizing and humanizing

First, contextualizing. Time and again, Gilbert takes evidence and puts it into its proper context, without which it is impossible to weigh it fairly. The same facts can mean something quite different according to differences in time, place and circumstances. Sometimes this calls for courage on the part of the author. Thus, in the Conclusion he asks, “Are all forms of Holocaust denial the same?”[12] It is a dangerous but necessary question. It is dangerous because it could open the door to a response that would make certain forms of Holocaust denial legitimate. But, as I have said, Gilbert is unwavering in his total denunciation of Holocaust denial. No reader can be in doubt about this if they have read through to the Conclusion. And yet the risk of misunderstanding exists. It is a risk he has to run in order to get the record straight concerning those Arab citizens of Israel who deny — or who say they deny — that the Holocaust happened. According to a poll carried out in 2006 by Professor Sami Samuha, dean of social sciences at Haifa University, 28 percent of Israeli Palestinians said the Holocaust never occurred. Three years later, the figure shot up to 40 percent.[13] What does this mean? In a European or Western context, it could mean only one thing: rampant antisemitism on the rise. But in the Israeli Palestinian context, it is more likely to mean something else: perhaps a way of hitting back at Israel. Events on the ground, in Lebanon, Gaza and within Israel itself, might well have exacerbated this motive — which appears to be the view that Professor Samuha himself took.[14] This does not make the act of denial one iota more legitimate. But, if this interpretation of the data is correct, it suggests that, in the particular context of the Israeli Palestinian population, the best way to bring Holocaust denial to an end is to bring the conflict to an end.

This book does not put forward solutions to the conflict; that is not its business. But it does conduce towards a climate of debate in which solutions can be sought. It is impossible to talk peace when the ‘war of narratives’ is raging. Somehow, the antagonists, without altogether surrendering their particular point of view, must be able to recognize what they share: their common humanity. In closing, I would like one more time to make a connection with the book that I mentioned at the outset, the one that won the Jewish Quarterly literary prize for 2010. The jacket cover, describing the contents, says as follows: “The story that emerges is, like Taha Muhammad Ali’s own poetry, at once profoundly local and utterly universal. In an era when talk of the ‘clash of civilizations’ dominates, My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness offers something else entirely: a view of the people and culture of the Middle East that is rich, nuanced, and above all, deeply human.” Getting to know you, Gilbert, as I happily am, I know that you share a deep commitment to these selfsame qualities and values. They shine through in your book. It is why both books, yours and Adina’s, are rays of hope in the gloom.


Notes

1. Anne Karpf, quoted on the Jewish Quarterly website at http://jewishquarterly.org/events/wingate-prize-2010/.

2. Adina Hoffman, My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness: A Poets Life in the Palestinian Century, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009, p. 4.

3. Ibid., p. 13.

4. Gilbert Achcar, The Arabs and the Holocaust: The Arab-Israeli War of Narratives, London: SAQI, 2010, jacket cover.

5. Ibid., p. 11.

6. Ibid., p. 39.

7. Ibid., p. 13.

8. Ibid., p. 10.

9. Ibid., quoted on p. 24.

10. Ibid., p. 146.

11. Ibid., p. 10.

12. Ibid., p. 161.

13. Ibid., p. 257.

14. Fadi Eyadat, ‘Poll: 40% of Israeli Arabs believe Holocaust never happened’, Haaretz,17 May 2009. www.haaretz.com/news/poll-40-of-israeli-arabs-believe-holocaust-never-happened-1.276190.

Brian Klugis Senior Research Fellow and Tutor in Philosophy at St. Benet’s Hall, Oxford

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