Saturday, October 03, 2009

The Meaning of Haj Amin al Husseini

Daniel Schwammenthal has an interesting column up about a German exhibition that was to note Nazi sympathy in the Arab and Palestinian community (expressed notably, but not uniquely, by Haj Amin al Husseini), as part of a broader exploration of "The Third World in the Second World War". The exhibit was canceled, the column indicates, because the curator of the center did not like the indication of potential Arab complicity in the Holocaust.

Norm Geras takes issue with the opening of the piece, which reads as follows:
One widespread myth about the Mideast conflict is that the Arabs are paying the price for Germany's sins. The notion that the Palestinians are the "second victims" of the Holocaust contains two falsehoods: It suggests that without Auschwitz, there would be no justification for Israel, ignoring 3,000 years of Jewish history in the land. It also suggests Arab innocence in German crimes, ignoring especially the fascist past of Palestinian leader Haj Amin al Husseini, who was not only Grand Mufti of Jerusalem but also Waffen SS recruiter and Nazi propagandist in Berlin.

Geras responds:
It is true that Israel's existence has a justification that is independent of the Holocaust (though it is not inconsistent with the justification due to the Holocaust). But Arab and Palestinian collaboration with Nazism has no bearing on what the Palestinians lost or what they have suffered because of Israel's creation. To maintain the contrary is to make every Palestinian responsible for Haj Amin al Husseini. It is also to treat the existence of Israel as a form of punishment - punishment on account of Husseini and other Arabs who were complicit with Nazism.

I think Geras is mistaking what's going on here. It is quite true that whatever role the Palestinian political community did or didn't play in the Holocaust has nothing to do with what the Palestinians have lost in this conflict. But Geras is wrong to say that noting the vibrant enactment of Arab anti-Semitism in that time period is to treat Israel like a punishment. It is true that anti-Israel zealots like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad try to promote that framing as a turn against the Holocaust-justification, so they can then say that Israel should have been established in Germany. But they miss the point because, as usual, they categorically refuse to center the focus on Jews as moral beings of worth and dignity. It makes the center of the story the Germans, (one of) the perpetrators, rather than the Jews, the victims.

When people cite the Holocaust as a reason for creating Israel, they're not saying Israel was a punishment against perpetrators. They're saying Israel was protection for a victimized group, with the Holocaust being a particularly dramatic instantiation of that victimization. Noting the eager willingness of many Arab leaders to partake and promote in that atrocity demonstrates that the need for this shelter did not exist merely in Europe, that essentially where ever Jews lived -- be it Europe, North Africa, or the Middle East -- the prevailing powers could not be trusted to protect Jewish lives. Israel was established, fundamentally, because the rest of the world had proven itself impossible to trust. Haj Amin al Husseini is a demonstration that this was as true of the local Arab political class as it was of the contemporary European political class.

As I've written before, when dealing with sustained and ingrained systems of discrimination, like racism or anti-Semitism, I'm less interested in "getting the bad guys" than I am in making sure that the disadvantaged group has access to what they need in order to live fulfilling lives in an egalitarian social sphere. Sometimes, that means retribution against discrete perpetrators -- I don't want to minimize that -- but it is a severe misunderstanding of justice to think that's all that it means. It is only when we have these blinders on that restrict "justice" to "punishment" that we view the justice of establishing Israel as making sense only within a frame of punishment, rather than in a frame of securing equality and equal global citizenship.

It doesn't have to be about punishment. Indeed, it shouldn't be about punishment. It's about giving Jews what they need in order to be equals in global society.


1 comment:

schalomlibertad said...

By the way, the exhibition was not about Arab collaboration. It did have a small section on the topic, but the main thrust of the exhibit was to broaden the picture of Second World War, to show how the war played out and effected the non-european world. It focused on colonial soldiers in Asia and Africa and elsewhere, as well as the mobilization of resources from these continents, and it focused on the victims of the "third world".
After the host demanded (at the last minute) that the section on arab collaboration be censored, the people in charge of the exhibition refused to censor it, and it was moved to another location.
The section on arab collaboration should have been no surprise, as the exhibition is made from the book which was published years before.
More info is available on the website The Third World in the Second World War (also available in english).