Palestinian leader Abbas draws sharp rebuke for “reprehensible” Holocaust remarks, but colleagues back him

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Ramallah, West Bank — Palestinian political factions on Wednesday raged against dozens of Palestinian academics who had criticized President Mahmoud Abbas’ recent remarks on the Holocaust, which have drawn widespread accusations of antisemitism.

Politicians lambasted an open letter signed earlier this week by more than 100 Palestinian academics, activists and artists based around the world as a “statement of shame.”

“Their statement is consistent with the Zionist narrative and its signatories [and] gives credence to the enemies of the Palestinian people,” said the secular nationalist Fatah party that runs the Palestinian Authority. Fatah officials called the signatories “mouthpieces for the occupation” and “extremely dangerous.”

The well-respected writers and thinkers released the letter after video surfaced showing Abbas asserting that European Jews had been persecuted by Adolf Hitler because of what he described as their “social functions” and predatory lending practices, rather than their religion.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan Greets Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is seen during an official visit to Turkey, July 25, 2023 in Ankara.

Rıza Ozel/dia images/Getty

In the open letter, the Palestinian academics, mostly living in the United States and Europe, condemned Abbas’ comments as “morally and politically reprehensible.”

“We adamantly reject any attempt to diminish, misrepresent, or justify antisemitism, Nazi crimes against humanity or historical revisionism vis-à-vis the Holocaust,” the letter added. A few of the signatories are based in east Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank.

The chorus of indignation among Palestinian leaders over the letter highlights a controversy that has plagued the Palestinian relationship with the Holocaust for decades. The Nazi genocide, which killed nearly six million Jews and millions of others, sent European Jews pouring into the Holy Land.

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holJewish suffering during the Holocaust became central to Israel’s creation narrative after 1948, when the war over Israel’s establishment — which Palestinians describe as the “nakba,” or “catastrophe” — displaced hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their homes. As a result, many Palestinians are loathe to a focus on the atrocities of the Holocaust for fear of undercutting their own national cause.

“It doesn’t serve our political interest to keep bringing up the Holocaust,” said Mkhaimer Abusaada, a political scientist at Al-Azhar University in Gaza City. “We are suffering from occupation and settlement expansion and fascist Israeli polices. That is what we should be stressing.”

But frequent Holocaust distortion and denial by Palestinians authority figures has only heaped further scrutiny on their relationship with the Holocaust. That unease began, perhaps, with Amin Al-Husseini, the World War II-era Grand Mufti of Jerusalem. The Palestinian Arab nationalist’s antisemitism was well-documented, and he even helped recruit Bosnian Muslims to back the Nazis.

While he has in the past acknowledged the Holocaust as “the most heinous crime” of modern history, more recently, Abbas has incited various international uproars with speeches denounced as antisemitic Holocaust denial. In 2018, he repeated a claim about usury and Ashkenazi Jews similar to the one he made in his speech to Fatah members last month. Last year he accused Israel of committing “50 Holocausts” against the Palestinian people.

Abbas’ record has fueled accusations from Israel that he is not to be trusted as a partner in peace negotiations to end the decades-long conflict. Through decades of failed peace talks, Abbas has led the Palestinian Authority, the semiautonomous body that began administering parts of the occupied West Bank after the Oslo peace process of the 1990s.

Abbas has kept a tight grip on power for the last 17 years and his security forces have been accused of harshly cracking down on dissent. Under him, the Palestinian Authority has become deeply unpopular over its reviled security alliance with Israel and its failure to hold democratic elections.

The open letter signed by Palestinian academics this week also touched on what it described as the authority’s “increasingly authoritarian and draconian rule,” and said Abbas had “forfeited any claim to represent the Palestinian people.”

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