From Empa­thy to Denial: Arab Respons­es to the Holocaust

Meir Lit­vak and Esther Webman
  • Review
By – September 13, 2011
The Mid­dle East and North Africa were not the major fronts dur­ing World War II, and for­tu­nate­ly, Jews there did not suf­fer to the extent that their Euro­pean brethren did. Yet the region was impor­tant for the war devel­op­ment for the Allies and the Axis pow­ers, whose pro­pa­gan­da tar­get­ed the Arabs in var­i­ous ways. The stud­ies by Herf, Lit­vak, and Web­man exam­ine sev­er­al ide­o­log­i­cal impli­ca­tions of the war on the Arabs, both dur­ing the war and lat­er on.

Herf’s study is based pri­mar­i­ly on Nazi radio pro­pa­gan­da broad­casts in Ara­bic, which were trans­lat­ed into Eng­lish at the US embassy in Cairo and sent reg­u­lar­ly to the U.S. Herf shows in great detail how these broad­casts were strong­ly con­nect­ed to Ger­man war aims and devel­op­ments, try­ing to build full-fledged anti-Semi­tism upon exist­ing anti-Zion­ist feel­ings among Arabs result­ing from the con­flict over Pales­tine. More­over, the Ger­mans tried to build on this hatred and on the anti-British feel­ings in oppo­si­tion to the Allies, stat­ing that both Britain and the U.S. are con­trolled by Jews, and the war against the Allies is in fact against Jews and Zion­ism. Nazi pro­pa­gan­da was great­ly facil­i­tat­ed by sev­er­al Arab exiles, promi­nent among them Hajj Amin al-Husayni and Rashid Ali al-Kay­lani, who were not tried after­World­War II due to British con­cerns for their posi­tion in the Arab world in the post-war peri­od. This is a very impor­tant study on Nazi pro­pa­gan­da aimed at the Arab world dur­ing the war. It is to be hoped that it will be fol­lowed by an exam­i­na­tion of how this pro­pa­gan­da influ­enced the Arab world at the time and in the future. 

The study by Lit­vak and Web­man is a thor­ough exam­i­na­tion of Arab respons­es to the Holo­caust from the mid-1940’s on, based on archival and pub­lished sources, many of them in Ara­bic. It includes his­tor­i­cal case stud­ies as well as spe­cif­ic themes, some of which are in com­plete con­trast to Nazi pro­pa­gan­da (e.g., equat­ing Zion­ism to Nazism and the alleged Nazi-Zion­ist coop­er­a­tion; oth­er themes include Holo­caust denial; jus­ti­fi­ca­tion of the Holo­caust, and the Pales­tin­ian Cat­a­stro­phe [Nakbah] ver­sus the Holo­caust). The analy­sis is pro­vid­ed with­in the broad­er his­tor­i­cal con­text, with spe­cial ref­er­ence to the Arab-Israeli con­flict and West­ern involve­ment in Mid­dle East­ern affairs. This impor­tant study shows how Arab atti­tudes to the Holo­caust are con­nect­ed to glob­al and region­al affairs and in par­tic­u­lar to devel­op­ments in the Arab-Israeli con­flict. Both stud­ies include bib­li­og­ra­phy, index, and notes.

Addi­tion­al books fea­tured in this review

Rachel Simon, a librar­i­an at Prince­ton Uni­ver­si­ty, does research on Jews in the mod­ern Mid­dle East and North Africa, with spe­cial ref­er­ence to Libya, Ottoman Empire, women, and education.

Discussion Questions