Saturday, December 30, 2006

It didn't happen, and they're here to finish the job

UPDATE: And then there's stuff like this ....
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Wasn't it surreal, that Holocaust denial conference in Tehran? It had all the air of a malevolent witch-doctors' convention, and I don't mean to insult witch doctors :) What is it about this subject that brings out all the kooks? Anti-semitism is a kind of mental disorder; when it becomes widespread in a society, especially among its elites, it signals a societal or civilizational crisis. Anti-semitism is usually not about Jews, but typically about something else, and that "something else" is the real clue to the crisis.

The world's most important Holocaust-denier/minimizer is David Irving, the British historian who wrote a semi-respectable book in the 70s on World War II from the German point of view, but even then drifting over to the dark side; then in later decades showing up at neo-Nazi konklaves and the like. He claimed that Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt libeled him, sued her in the UK, and lost his case. Irving was just released from jail in Austria and served in absentia as the star of the Tehran conference.

Several countries in Europe have criminal or civil laws on the books banning Holocaust denial. These sorts of laws, from an American point of view, seem like an out-of-bounds infringement on free speech, even offensive or ridiculous speech. However, Americans aren't used to having large fascist/racist parties in their political culture. Anti-semitism in American society has declined dramatically since 1945 and is now a fringe phenomenon - plus America has never had a movement of political anti-semitism. Not so in Europe: certain European countries, like Austria, Germany, and France, do have such parties - and had them far worse in the recent past - and so Europeans might be excused for having such laws. Nevertheless, such laws are a misguided approach to the problem. Malevolent misinformation needs to be answered with more and better speech, not a ban.

The conference also marked the emergence of a new and frightening alliance: neo-Nazis and radical Islamists, along with a handful of anti-Zionist Jews and fringe radical left kooks (requires subscription). (I wonder if you can "present" a paper at such "conferences," then put it on your CV.) The burgeoning alliance of these groups has been unfolding for almost a decade. People are known by the company they keep, and we must avoid the false but common liberal assumption that better-educated people are immune to such thinking. In the Islamic world, the elites are especially saturated with it. (Ahmadinejad is an engineer.) They believe in it as an all-purpose pseudo-explanation of what their sorry excuse for a civilization suffers - here is today's relevant clue. The analogy with the German-speaking world, especially after 1918, is obvious: there too the core of the anti-semitic movements were made up of a large number of educated people, and Germany more generally was the best-educated society in the Western world. Evidently, it isn't just quantity that counts, but the quality and content of education. And of course, Germany was saturated at that time with its own kind of baneful "identity politics."

Unlike the European/Western world, where reminding people of the basic facts of the Holocaust and the immense evil it represented is largely preaching to the choir, the problem in the Muslim world is a combination of self-interested denial and simple ignorance. Ignorance is the natural state of humanity, while the denial stems from that mixture (again!) of the post-modern and the medieval: bogus claims of victimhood (unless we count collective self-victimization) and religious intolerance. Muslims, especially but not solely in Arab countries, live in, not so much a civilization, but the collapsed ruin of one; in those ruins, they are subject to a flood of official and semi-official anti-semitic propaganda that the Western world has not seen since the 1930s. There is no generally accepted background of historical knowledge to counter this flood, and its effect, especially on Muslims born since about 1970, has been profoundly pernicious.

That needs to change. The agencies best positioned to fight the flood (such as the Anti-Defamation League and the US Holocaust Memorial Museum) have been misguided and myopic in this area, obsessed with relatively marginal threats in the Western world, and only slowly turning their attention to the center of contemporary anti-semitism, the Muslim world. (A future posting will expand on these failures of Jewish institutions and leadership.) The Holocaust Museum did recently start an overdue program directed at the "new" anti-semitism, engaging the help of one of the most important Muslim critics of the Islamic world, the Somali-born Ayaan Hirsi Ali. She discusses anti-semitism in the Muslim world here (requires registration).

Another striking development is Robert Satloff's new book on the Holocaust in North Africa and Arabs and Muslims who helped to rescue Jews under German or Vichy French rule. Satloff is interviewed here; his book is reviewed here (requires subscription). One of the astonishing conclusions of Satloff's research is that the descendants of these Muslim rescuers in question do not want their ancestors recognized as righteous gentiles or listed at Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust memorial. Modern anti-semitism has a long history in the modern Middle East, stretching back to the 1920s or before, but its virulence and spread have jumped in recent decades. That makes developments like this (PDF) all the more understandable and necessary. There are Middle Eastern voices speaking out against these trends, but they are few in number, marginal, and under constant threat.

And while we're at it, we should also keep in mind the persecution and (sometimes) genocide of Christians and non-Arabs in the greater Middle East, from the late 19th century on, from the Kurdish mountains to the Sudan. The Armenian case of 1915-17 is merely the best known; the Darfur situation, just the latest.

The general thrust of these efforts has to include overcoming the deeply ingrained liberal prejudices of white guilt, cultural relativism, and "noble savagery" in connection with the Muslim world. More generally, we should ultimately expect the Muslim world to observe basic decencies that we take for granted in the civilized world. The Islamic world, especially in the Middle East, is a long way from that, but there's no better place to start than with Holocaust-denial, anti-semitism, and genocide-incitement.

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1 Comments:

At 9:54 AM, Blogger Ryan said...

A lot of insightful stuff.

My only comment would be that racism, genocide, and the denial of atrocities are sins which the West is just as guilty of committing. After all, the Nazi's weren't Muslim. The Conquistadores that wiped out the native Central American population weren't Muslims. The evils of European colonialism, found in Africa, India, Australia, the whole Western Hemisphere--ok, everywhere--were not committed by Muslims. While the Muslims have much to answer for, so do those who claimed Christianity or Judaism or many other religions. The real problem is that humanity (all of it) is wicked.

 

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