Wednesday, January 18, 2006


By William Fisher

Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, launched a media tsunami when he declared the Holocaust a myth.

But we shouldn’t be all that surprised. The Middle East is chockablock with Holocaust-deniers and Holocaust-minimizers. And it is not only the so-called Arab Street that has been infected. The disease has spread to many members of the Arab intelligentsia and to some of the area’s privileged elite.

I learned just how deeply embedded this attitude is during a conversation I had with members of my staff when I was managing a U.S. aid program in Egypt a few years ago.

Sitting with me in our luxurious offices overlooking the Nile on a steamy, smoggy Cairo afternoon were three of Egypt’s “best and brightest” – all from affluent families, all with master’s degrees from what is arguably the premier international educational institution in the Middle East, the American University in Cairo. These were no ordinary proxies for the Arab Street; they were Egypt’s future leaders.

I’ve long since forgotten what aspect of geopolitics we were talking about, but the subject soon turned to Israel. All three made excellent and accurate points about that country’s deeply myopic policies vis a vis the Palestinians. Then we seemed to segue effortlessly from Israel to the Holocaust.

“The Holocaust is mostly a myth,” declared one. “It’s an idea that’s been pushed by the Jewish lobby in America to keep U.S. support for Israel.”

“How do you know that?” I asked.

“Everyone who studies the truth knows it”, my staffer responded.

”How about all the photos of American GIs liberating the concentration camps,” I asked. “Were they faked?”

Another staff member joined the conversation. “No, they weren’t faked, but the numbers were purposely exaggerated”, she said, adding, “The camps were there, but only a million or so were killed.”

“Have you read Irving’s book about it?” my third colleague chimed in. “He’s a well respected historian and he proves it never happened.” He was referring, of course, to the writing of one of more outrageous Holocaust-deniers, David Irving (whose ‘history’ has been reliably refuted by virtually all reputable historians).

Where did these exceptionally smart, exceptionally competent, thoroughly Western-oriented young people get their information? For more than a generation, their views have been fuelled by a non-stop stream of inaccurate and distorted statements by their leaders, by the “reporting” of mostly-State-owned newspapers, magazines and television channels, by uninformed teachers, and by textbooks from kindergarten through university.

A few years ago, I wrote an article on these textbooks for The Daily Star, a highly respected newspaper based in Beirut.

I found that in Syria, for example, school children from the fourth grade up are taught that Zionism is a form of colonialism similar to Nazism; Zionism endangers the Arab world and prevents its unification; Israel is an aggressive and expansionist enemy and is responsible for the backwardness of the Arab world; and when young readers grow up, they must engage in holy war ­ jihad ­ against Israel and seek martyrdom. The texts also underline that Arab leaders who negotiate with Israel, even in third countries, are spies and traitors and that Jews are a menace. Books containing these passages are published by the Syrian Education Ministry and are part of the official school curriculum.

And in Saudi Arabia, texts for government-financed and private religious schools declare that God’s wisdom mandates continuing the struggle between Muslims and Jews until the Day of Judgment; Jews and Christians, as enemies of Islam, will never be pleased with Muslims, so Muslims must beware of them.

This kind of vitriol was equaled only by the inaccurate, disrespectful and totally scurrilous caricatures used in Israeli textbooks to portray Arabs.

And, while the authors of most Israeli textbooks were ordered to clean up their act in recent years, far too much Arab writing on Israel and the Holocaust remains unchanged. Arab governments continue to use their control of the media and their educational systems to magnify their messages of hate -- while professing solidarity with President Bush’s “Global War on Terror” and happily accepting huge sums in American aid.

For example, Egypt – the Middle East’s most absurd example of “pretend democracy” -- owns an evening newspaper called Al-Masaa. In a recent article titled "Israel's Lies", columnist Hisham Abd Al-Rauf wrote that there were no massacres of the Jews during World War II, and that the gas chambers were intended for disinfecting clothing. Hitler, he wrote, was not against the Jews, and had even permitted Jews to emigrate to Palestine during his first years in power.

This kind of message is repeated on a daily basis throughout the Middle East – in schools, in newspapers, on television, in coffeehouse conversations, and in government-financed textbooks.

So we shouldn’t really be surprised by what Iran’s new president has to say. His voice is only one added to many others. The problem is that he is the president of a proud and important country. When he calls his faithful to an “international conference on the Holocaust”, people will actually attend, speak, and be reported in the world’s press with the straight face of journalistic objectivity.

The profound sadness of all this is that it does nothing to help anyone solve anything. It adds nothing to facilitate understanding or conversation. It is a roadmap to nowhere. It simply provides yet another convenient crutch that democracy-denying authoritarian leaders can keep using to prop themselves up.

It may generate lots of heat, but if you’re looking for light you won’t find it here.