In late April, I met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at his office in Ramallah. Responding to my suggestion that he address the Jewish people on Yom HaShoah, he stated emphatically that he considers the Holocaust to be “the most tragic event in the modern era” and that he would issue an official statement affirming that.
In the Middle East, such promises have a way of getting sidetracked — or lost in translation. But a week later, on the eve of Holocaust Memorial Day, April 27, the Palestinian President released his eagerly awaited statement through WAFA, the Palestinian news agency, not only in English, but in Arabic, too, for his own people and the Arab world, affirming, “What happened to the Jews in the Holocaust is the most heinous crime to have been committed against humanity in the modern era.”
Expressing his “sympathy for the families of the victims and the many other innocent people killed during the Holocaust,” Abbas added, “The Holocaust is a reflection of the concept of ethnic discrimination and racism which the Palestinians strongly reject and act against.” For Abbas to have elevated the Holocaust over all other crimes against humanity is a remarkable development. For others to dismiss this statement as nothing but theater is truly a shame.
Mohammed Dajani, a professor of political science at Al-Quds University, in East Jerusalem, recently led a group of Palestinian students on a first-of-its-kind visit to Auschwitz. He stated that Abbas’s comments represent “a groundbreaking statement in the Arab world” and that Abbas was “courageous” for having issued a statement likely to evoke negative reactions in his own camp. Remarkably, there has been little criticism of Abbas’s historic statement in the Palestinian and Arab media, even from groups like Hamas, which has long indulged in blatant Holocaust denial.
I have been heartened by the outpouring of phone calls and e-mails from both Jews and Muslims around the world expressing support for the results of this outreach to Abbas. I was especially pleased by the reaction to Abbas’s statement by Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial, which said his words “might signal a change” in long-standing Palestinian denial of the Holocaust with the hope that there will be a change reflected in the Palestinian government’s official materials, school curricula and public discourse.
But there was one important exception. During media appearances, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu suggested that Abbas’s statement was little more than a ploy to placate the West. He talked about Abbas’s continued relationship with groups that deny the Holocaust, in particular Hamas. I certainly understand the prime minister’s concern and anxiety, which, I imagine, are reflective, at least in part, of the long-standing stalemate in the peace process.
The State of Israel must continue to be strong in ensuring that those who would do it harm are held in check. But I, as a rabbi concerned with Muslim-Jewish relations, firmly believe it critically important to try to put Holocaust denial behind us. It has been a troubling issue not just for Israel, but also for Jews worldwide and particularly to families victimized in the Holocaust. Abbas’s statement is a significant step in accomplishing that objective, and if it helps heal old and troubling wounds, the statement will have been an important act to help turn the corner for all of us.
Frankly, it will be very difficult for Israelis and Palestinians to move forward unless we can engage in a concurrent “spiritual” peace focused on building ties — on communication and cooperation among Jews and Muslims around the world. In that context, having this critical Palestinian leader unequivocally condemn the Holocaust will, one hopes, give considerable impetus to prospects for reconciling Jews and Muslims.
To those in the Jewish community who have been dismissive of Abbas’s comments, would you prefer that he had not said that the Holocaust was the most heinous crime in modern history? Would you rather that Palestinian leaders continue to claim either that the Holocaust never happened or that it is greatly exaggerated?
The statement by Abbas may not be easily reconciled with the actions or beliefs of many Palestinian groups, but his words may offer hope that the virulent fever of Holocaust denial in the Muslim world is beginning to break. Indeed, Abbas’s statement of sympathy for the victims of the Holocaust and their descendants is a challenge to Muslims everywhere to reassess how they understand the Holocaust.
This is why we must redouble efforts to give Muslims and Jews worldwide the opportunity to connect with each other. In that ongoing spiritual process, Abbas’s courageous statement acknowledging the Holocaust as the most heinous crime of the modern era represents an important step forward. Can we afford to miss this opportunity?
Marc Schneier is president of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding.