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Rising Holocaust Denial and the Islamist Mind by László Bernát Veszprémy

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Essay

Rising Holocaust Denial and the Islamist Mind

On March 31, 1998, a strange visitor stepped into the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam. The elderly Arab man watched a film about the persecution of Jews in World War II at the museum, the one-time hiding place of the most famous victim of the Holocaust in the Netherlands. The visit was not particularly noticed by the Dutch newspapers, but it was on the front pages of the newspapers in Israel. After all, it’ s not every day that Yasser Arafat, the leader of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO), to make such a gesture toward Jewish history.

Arafat was “deeply moved” by the exhibition, calling the Holocaust a “very sad story,” according to a brief statement issued. However, the visit was dubbed an empty show by the Israeli government while an Israeli MK joked that if Arafat had indeed visited the museum, he probably did it only to learn more about killing Jews. As it is known, the PLO is a Palestinian political and military organisation, responsible for countless terror attacks against Israeli civilians. The Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, while appreciating the gesture, recalled that PLO publications still called the Holocaust a “myth” in the early ’90s. The PLO, however, does not represent all of their countrymen; that very year the Palestinian national poet Mahmud Darwish argued that Palestinians have a “moral duty” to remember the Holocaust. 

But, as Lebanese researcher Gilbert Achcar explains in his monograph on the Arab world’s attitude to the Holocaust, Palestinian political approaches to history were then in a period of transition. According to Achcar, the prevalence of Holocaust denial in the Islamic world increased after 2005, when Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made Holocaust denial allegations shortly after his inauguration. These were later taken over by Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, then later by Hamas in Gaza and the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt. This, of course, does not mean that Holocaust denial appeared in Arab countries out of nowhere, but Ahmadinejad’s claims represent a turning of the tide; a visit like Arafat’s in 1998 could not happen in 2022. Today, the Holocaust is widely seen as the legitimisation of Israel (while, in fact, Theodore Herzl’s Judenstaat was written in 1896, many decades before Auschwitz). For an Arab leader, commemorating the Holocaust necessarily implies acceptance of the existence of the Jewish state, something they are loathe to do.

The Western European elite today has no trouble posting messages of remembrance of the Holocaust on social media, but they struggle to recognize that the very immigration policies they tend to favor actually contribute to anti-Semitism in Europe. Honestly discussing the controversial topic of Islamic anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial is unfortunately taboo. 

The problem of Western Islamic Holocaust denial was not caused by the 2015 Migrant crisis, as according to a 2009 study by the Civitas Social Research Institute in London, a few years earlier only 34% of British Muslims explicitly agreed with the claim that the Holocaust had indeed happened. Let me re-frame the point: this means that 66%, two-thirds, of British Muslims were unwilling to admit to pollsters that the Holocaust had occurred. Mehdi Hasan, editor of the left-wing British Huffington Post, wrote an article in 2012 entitled “I am Shamed by Muslim Attitudes to the Holocaust.” According to his article, denial of and disinterest in the Holocaust was “rampant” in Muslim communities, from the Iranian president through Cairo taxi drivers to “British Muslims.”

Hasan knew what he was speaking about. According to a 2017 survey by the British Institute for Jewish Policy Research, the idea that “the Holocaust is just a myth” was five times more popular among religious Muslims (10%) than among the general population (2%). In January 2019, an exhibition in England showcasing the history of Albanian Muslims rescuing Jews during the Holocaust had to be shown in a secret location due to attacks and threats from British Muslims. The case was described by British writer Douglas Murray, who is strongly critical of mass immigration, as “alarm bells” that should call our attention to the darker aspects of immigration.

Some Jewish leaders, while recognising this problem, believe in the power of education to alleviate it. In fact, during my interviews with Dutch Jewish leaders between 2016-2019, one rabbi highlighted the importance of spreading “Dutch values” of tolerance among immigrants. However, education is not a panacea: it, too, is precarious terrain. 

As early as 1990, London-based scholar Esra Özyürek raised concerns in Germany about how students of Turkish and Arab descent relate to the history of the Holocaust. Since the early 2000s, articles have appeared in the Western press that emphasise this phenomenon even more intensely. The gravity of the problem is also indicated by the fact that in Germany, France, the Netherlands, Austria and Switzerland, governmental and non-governmental organisations are funding dozens of programs to make the Muslim minority aware of the sins of National Socialism— an effort probably prompted by the fact that Islamic youth are by-and-large not aware of these sins. 

The international press has picked up allegations that several British schools have stopped teaching Holocaust history altogether to spare the nerves of Muslim students and avoid the possibility of contentious discussions. While a 2007 report by the British Historical Association clarified that only one school in the UK had indeed decided to act this way, even one such case is alarming. 

The Dutch situation seems to be even more dire. A 2011 study by the late Dutch-Israeli scholar of anti-Semitism Manfred Gerstenfeld cites particularly controversial things regarding the relationship between immigrant communities and Holocaust education. In 2002, two Dutch journalists, Margalith Kleijwegt and Max van Weezel, revealed that pictures of Osama bin Laden and swastikas had been raised by immigrant students at an Amsterdam school. In 2003, the Dutch-Jewish anti-Semitism watchdog group CIDI published an analysis quoting the then Amsterdam alderman in charge of education, Rob Oudkerk, who told a newspaper that “several teachers had informed him that the subject of the Holocaust had become almost impossible to teach”, not only because it creates a hostile atmosphere, but also since teachers have been threatened because of attempting to foster discussion of the issue.

In the same year, CIDI issued another report, which quoted a history teacher that immigrant students had drawn a swastika on the board in the classroom. “Jews we have to kill” sang a Moroccan youngster subsequently. Ten minutes later a Turkish boy in the same class sang “Jews are to be killed.”

In 2003, the Amsterdam municipality wrote to seventy high schools in the city asking them to report on problems of anti-Semitism, hatred of homosexuals, or other forms of discrimination – writes Gerstenfeld. One high school teacher recalled that students of Moroccan descent did not want to visit the Anne Frank House, saying, “I will not put my foot in a place where Jews lived.” That same year, the Anne Frank House organised programs for Holocaust survivors who visited several schools to share their memories with students. One survivor recalled that Moroccan students at one of the schools asked him if he thought “[Ariel] Sharon [the Israeli prime minister] was worse than Hitler.” 

In 2004, CIDI quoted similar stories from a school in Dordrecht: a girl said the Holocaust had not happened and that she would love to blow herself up near Jews because she “understood ” Hitler’s intentions. In the same year, news came from Utrecht schools that Jewish youth had been threatened with gassing by students of North African descent. There, a student answered a question about his plans after school with his intention to “gas Jews.” 

The next year, Fenny Brinkman published a book about her experiences while teaching at a Muslim school in Amsterdam. In her book Haram (Unclean), she pointed out that when a colleague taught about the Holocaust, she received several complaints from Muslim fathers. As a result, the school shifted its focus to teaching students about the Nazi persecution of Gypsies instead.

In 2010, Elsevier Weekblad magazine asked 339 Dutch high school history teachers if they were having difficulty educating their Muslim students about the Holocaust. Nearly 70 teachers answered yes. In the Netherlands, the Jewish umbrella organisation CJO (Centraal Joods Overleg) complained in the same year that Holocaust education was becoming virtually impossible in some educational institutions. Holocaust education for Muslim students even provoked a parliamentary debate in the Netherlands in 2010, during which Moroccan-born Tofik Dibi, a Green Left politician, rejected the idea that Arab students should also be required to learn about the Shoah.

Perhaps teaching students even more about the Holocaust could be the answer? Data shows otherwise. According to a 2006 Israeli survey, 28% of Israeli Arabs said the Holocaust had not occurred, and 33% of Israeli Arab university graduates share this view. The survey was repeated two years later, this time showing that 40% of Israeli Arabs had denied the Holocaust. This is particularly shocking because the history of the Holocaust is one of the cornerstones of Israeli history education, with many prominent Holocaust survivors living in the country, and regular Holocaust commemorations and an official annual Holocaust Remembrance Day. 

The above stories and data are even more striking because this phenomenon is being ignored by all the European political and media elite. While Holocaust denial is rightly being condemned when it comes from Eastern and Central Europe, a deafening silence envelops Brussels and Berlin when Muslim Holocaust denial is decried by the Jewish community. Not long ago, I interviewed a left-wing Hungarian sociologist who conducted extensive research into the attitudes of Hungarian teachers and students to the Holocaust. While some problems certainly did surface during his research, even he had to agree that “nothing” like the things that we can hear from Western Europe were happening in Hungary, a nation that has discouraged Islamic immigration. 

The double standard is not only offensive to Hungarians and Poles, who suffered greatly at the hands of the Nazis, but it is also dangerous for the Jewish community. What hope can Western Europe have of educating the future generations about the virtues of religious tolerance and democracy if teachers can’t even utter the word “Auschwitz” in their classrooms? The European elite will have to face this issue one day, and until then, Holocaust relativisation and denial will only fester under the guise of blissful open societies.

László Bernát Veszprémy, is a Holocaust historian and editor-in-chief of Corvinak.hu, the popular science journal of Mathias Corvinus Collegium.

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