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Arabs and the Holocaust: A Response

“Partisanship is almost always just beneath the surface of most writing about the Middle East.” So begins Jeffrey Herf’s review of my book The Arabs and the Holocaust, which seeks to correct the misrepresentation of Arab attitudes toward the Jews and the Jewish genocide. Over 4000 words later, Herf blames me for having undermined the “virtues” of my own book with “superficial, unfair, and unreliable readings” that are “neither a contribution to scholarship nor a contribution to moderation.” His review is itself, however, an instance of partisanship, riddled with glaring errors that perpetuate stereotypes and do nothing to advance the mutual understanding between Arabs and Israelis to which my book is dedicated. Since space here is restricted, I will address elsewhere Herf’s many errors of detail, which stem from his ignorance of Middle East and Islamic issues. Here, I will discuss just two of his key statements.

Herf summarizes what he sees as the main virtue of my book as follows: “It is a salutary development that someone with Achcar’s political views acknowledges the realities of the Nazi-Islamist wartime collaboration.” This summary is doubly flawed: firstly, it is no new “development” at all that people holding my political views (“left-wing anti-Zionism,” says Herf) “acknowledge” the collaboration between Amin al-Husseini and the Naziseven if we consider only Arab left-wing anti-Zionists. I showed in my book how the Arab left denounced the Mufti very early on. The same is true of liberal Westernizers among whom, as I stressed, were many Muslim thinkers (whereas the only Muslims in Herf’s account are “Islamists”). Secondly, I never spoke of “Nazi-Islamist wartime collaboration” for the simple reason that this is a figment of Herf’s and his co-thinkers’ imagination. I examined the Mufti’s collaboration with the Nazis. No other “Islamist” leadernot even the Muslim Brotherhoodfollowed suit.

Herf attributes to me the “assumption that Zionism and anti-Semitism are equally repugnant forms of racism.” I explicitly criticized the equation Zionism=racism (p. 290), distinguishing between varieties of Zionism and asserting that it is “indisputable that eastern European Zionism emerged in reaction to an unbearable form of racist oppression that, ultimately, defined the Jews as a race and culminated in the Nazi genocide.” Of statist Zionism, I wrote that it has a twofold nature: “On the one hand, it is a form of [anti-Gentile] racism born of a defensive reaction... as morally excusable as the reactive racism of blacks to white racism. On the other hand, statist Zionism, once it created a Judenstaat in Palestine as ‘a portion of the rampart of Europe against Asia, an outpost of civilisation as opposed to barbarism’in the words of its founder, Theodor Herzlbecame, ipso facto, a fundamentally racist colonial movement comparable to the European forms of colonialism with which it had identified.”

For a model of partisanship, absence of moderation, and a “superficial, unfair, and unreliable” reading we need look no further than Jeffrey Herf’s own distorting review.

—Gilbert Achcar

To read Jeffrey Herf's original review, click here.

To read Jeffrey Herf's response to Gilbert Achcar's letter, click here.