Right Idea, Wrong Holocaust
A visit by Abbas to Jerusalem's
Yad Vashem, not D.C. institution, would be strong symbol instead of PR
By Walter Reich
August 18, 2003
U.S. officials want Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas to visit
a Holocaust museum. They have the right idea but the wrong museum. The
museum they have in mind is in Washington. The one to which he should
go is in Jerusalem.
Abbas wrote a book that distorted, denied or minimized core facts of Holocaust
history. Were he to visit a Holocaust museum, he would have the opportunity
to correct his assault on history and at least quell some of the Holocaust
denial that's rampant in the Arab world.
But he would be able to accomplish that with seriousness and credibility
not in Washington — where any such act would be seen as having been
engineered by the American government to enhance Abbas' image —
but at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, where it would truly be a courageous and
galvanizing act of humanity and education.
The central argument of Abbas' 1984 book, "The Other Face: the Secret
Connection Between the Nazis and the Zionist Movement," was that the Zionist
movement was a partner in crime with the Nazis against the Jewish people.
After the war, Abbas wrote, the Zionist movement inflated the number of
Jews killed by the Germans to 6 million in order to arouse sympathy. The
actual number, he suggested, might have been fewer than 1 million.
And regarding the gas chambers — which, Abbas wrote, "were supposedly
designed for murdering Jews" — he refers his readers to "a scientific
study" by the French Holocaust denier Robert Faurisson. Faurisson, Abbas
points out, believes they were used "only for incinerating bodies, out
of concern for the spread of disease and infection in the region."
Last April, after Abbas was designated as the prime minister of the Palestinian
Authority, Tom Lantos, the highest-ranking Democrat on the House International
Relations Committee and the only Holocaust survivor in Congress, knowing
of Abbas' writings on the Holocaust, offered to guide him through the
U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.
According to the congressman, Abbas accepted the offer. But in a letter
to Lantos written just before his visit to Washington in July, the Palestinian
prime minister said that his schedule would be too tight for a museum
visit, adding that he looked forward to seeing it on his next trip to
Lantos should breathe a sigh of relief that Abbas didn't go through with
the museum visit in Washington, which would have been hijacked in the
service of political agendas. He should try, instead, to convince Abbas
to drive a few miles from his home to Jerusalem's Yad Vashem.
The unsuitability of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum for this kind
of visit was made evident in 1998, while I was its director, when the
State Department initiated an invitation for a visit by Yasser Arafat
— a visit I opposed.
At the time, the State Department was encountering bumps in the path of
the Oslo peace effort. The hope was that prominent press coverage of Arafat
surveying exhibits on the Holocaust would induce American Jews —
many of whom opposed the administration's policy of pressuring Israel
for concessions because they distrusted Arafat — to see the Palestinian
leader as a man who could feel their pain and therefore could be entrusted
to protect the security of the Jewish state.
On the day of the planned visit, Arafat himself demonstrated its political
essence. He called it off as soon as he learned there would be no press
coverage. The Monica Lewinsky story had just broken, and the Washington
press corps had decamped to the White House to cover it.
And now the administration is again focused on Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking
and wants to convince skeptical Jews, in both the United States and Israel,
that Abbas is not Arafat.
Were Abbas to visit the Holocaust museum in Washington, many Jews would
see the visit as a diplomatic gimmick set up by the administration to
manipulate their opinions and as an exploitation of the memory of their
dead for political purposes. And Arabs would see it as a humiliating concession
extorted from a weak Palestinian leader by a powerful America. The visit's
potential to advance Holocaust education would be smothered by the reality
and appearance of politics.
On the other hand, a visit by Abbas to Israel's own Holocaust museum would
separate the gesture from diplomatic maneuverings by Washington. In the
Arab world it would raise doubts about Holocaust denial; in Israel it
would be seen as a genuine acknowledgment of the history and fears of
Like Anwar Sadat's breakthrough trip to Jerusalem, such a visit would
be a great act of statesmanship, courage and imagination. It would be
a journey to the heart of the darkness that is central to Israel's nightmares.
It would establish Abbas as a leader independent of Palestinian politics
and taboos and independent of Arafat, and it would reveal the bravery
of a man willing to risk attack at home and to do what few of us are ever
willing to do: acknowledge that he was wrong. Most important, it could
galvanize and reset the dynamics of the Israeli-Palestinian confrontation.
Walter Reich, a professor of international affairs, ethics and human
behavior at George Washington University, was director of the U.S. Holocaust
Memorial Museum from 1995 to 1998.
Los Angeles Times