History, myths, and all the news that’s fit to print
Ever since the election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Iran, relations between Iran and the West have grown increasingly strained. There is no one simple reason for this, and responsibility lies with the Americans, the British, the Israelis, and the Iranians themselves. There are big issues at play, and a lot at stake, from Iran’s nuclear programme to the miserable occupation of Iraq, from Israel’s desire for regional hegemony to Iranian domestic politics.
Out of these complex factors, the theme that has often dominated in the media has been the various comments made by President Ahmadinejad regarding Israel. Spread over several months, there have been three particularly high-profile remarks made by the Iranian head of state that have drawn strong condemnation from statesmen and commentators alike, and contributed to the deterioration of EU-Iranian relations.
At the end of last October, Ahmadinejad was addressing an anti-Zionist conference, during which he reiterated his support for Ayatollah Khomeini’s position that Israel “must be wiped off the map”. Despite the fact that anti-Zionism has been a core element of Iranian policy since the 1979 revolution, these reported remarks touched off a media frenzy and diplomatic firestorm.
Even though these views were nothing ‘new’, there were other incongruities about the incident. Ahmadinejad had not necessarily, as many assumed, called for an apocalyptic battle to wipe out the Jews. Moreover, Israel’s presence on the map has a corollary in Palestine’s cartographic absence, and an anti-Zionist position might well be expressed by the desire to see the Israeli ethnocratic, apartheid infrastructures dismantled – and in that sense remove Israel from the map.
But in what becomes a consistent theme, whatever the actual meaning of Ahmadinejad’s comments – and there is at least more ambiguity than most allowed – a head of state was being threatened with diplomatic sanction at the highest level, not for his nation’s behaviour, but for his beliefs. Meanwhile, Israel, highly successful until now in keeping Palestine very much off the map, points the finger and says, ‘We told you so’.
The second, highly publicised, remarks came in mid-December, when Ahmadinejad was reported as denying the Holocaust. The President’s remarks, as detailed on the official Iranian news agency website, did not actually denote a disbelief in the genocide perpetrated against the Jews during World War II. Rather, they sought to highlight the hypocrisy of European guilt over the Holocaust contrasted with their support for the colonisation of Palestine:
“If the Europeans are telling the truth in their claim that they have killed six million Jews in the Holocaust during the World War II – which seems they are right in their claim because they insist on it and arrest and imprison those who oppose it, why the Palestinian nation should pay for the crime. Why have they come to the very heart of the Islamic world and are committing crimes against the dear Palestine using their bombs, rockets, missiles and sanctions.”
This is not a particularly controversial argument – the Jews were persecuted in Europe, but the guilt of the Western powers was salved at the expense of the Palestinians. The news agency goes on though to report that the President described how “some have created a myth on holocaust and hold it even higher than the very belief in religion and prophets because when a person expresses disbelief in God, religion and prophets they do not object to him but they will protest to anyone who would reject the Holocaust”. Again, Ahmadinejad is drawing attention to the extent to which European nations prosecute Holocaust deniers, yet are by and large post-Christian societies with little regard for religion. For a devout believer like the Iranian President, this must seem like a strange situation.
Note also that the President said that “some have created a myth on holocaust”. While most people immediately equate a ‘myth’ with a fabricated fairy-tale, this is not necessarily the case. A quick consultation of dictionary definitions confirms that “many historians consider that myths can also be accounts of actual events that have become highly imbued with symbolic meaning” [my italics], this from Wikipedia. The entry continues, “This process occurs in part because the events described become detached from their original context and new context is substituted, often through analogy with current or recent events”.
Even more relevantly, given the use of the Holocaust and anti-Semitism as a propaganda tool of Zionist apologists, historian Richard Slotkin has described the process whereby historical events become ‘myth’ thus:
stories drawn from a society’s history that have acquired through persistent usage the power of symbolizing that society’s ideology and of dramatizing its moral consciousness–with all the complexities and contradictions that consciousness may contain.
This is extremely pertinent to the use of the Holocaust, not only in terms of the Western consciousness and relations with Israel, but also in relation to Israel’s national identity. The Holocaust comes to symbolize the intrinsic anti-Jewish racism of ‘Gentile’ societies, and therefore proving the need for a Jewish state. More disturbingly perhaps, the Holocaust acts as a standard for human depravity set so high, that any treatment of the Palestinians is justifiable, as long as it falls short of what was experienced by the Jews in Nazi Europe.
The third of Ahmadinejad’s reported comments made early in the New Year, created far fewer headlines, which when the content is examined, proves instructive. Associated Press carried the comments, but the BBC, keen to cover the previous remarks in detail, deemed the story not newsworthy. On the official Iranian news agency, Ahmadinejad again asked why Europe didn’t pay the cost of a Jewish state itself, but then went further. Affirming that “Iran makes a distinction between Judaism and Zionism”, Ahmadinejad suggested that the original European support for Zionism was itself anti-Semitic in motivation, by ensuring that the Jews were “expelled” from Europe.
This phenomenon, of anti-Semitic support for Zionism, was acknowledged and taken advantage of by early Zionist proponents. There was overlap in the rhetoric of Zionism’s advocates and that of the anti-Semites, since both gained from the idea that the Jew would never ‘belong’ in a ‘Gentile’ society. Theodor Herzl recognized that the anti-Semites would be their “best friends” in galvanizing support for a Zionist state. Ahmadinejad was simply drawing attention to how anti-Semites in Britain and the US supported the Zionist project since it would mean less Jews in their own societies.
It could be argued, therefore, that the comments made by Ahmadinejad in recent months are not anti-Semitic, and instead, throw rhetorical barbs at a subject that is taboo in Western nations, namely, the complex relationship between the Holocaust, anti-Semitism in Europe, Zionism’s beginnings, and continued support for Israel. The reaction to the Iranian President’s thoughts on Israel is even stranger considering the genuine grounds for criticism that exist. The Iranian regime has closed numerous newspapers, and severe restrictions remain on freedom of expression. Internet use is monitored and limited, and homosexuals are executed. Most in the West would want to oppose the very ‘theocratic’ nature of the government itself.
Despite all that, what casts doubt over negotiations with Iran over its nuclear policy, is not its human rights abuses, but the President’s views on Zionism. A country was threatened with censorship and sanction, not because of its actions but on account of the political opinions of its leader (even assuming they were not misinterpreted). In exactly the same week as the furore over Ahmadinejad’s Holocaust remarks, a UK inquest delivered its unanimous verdict that British UN worker Iain Hook had been killed by the Israeli army in Jenin in a “deliberate” act. Another crime in a long list, yet that week, it was Iran being condemned by the international community – on account of a speech.
This very week, there was a small story in the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz about a conference taking place in Acre about “finding ways to achieve a permanent Jewish majority” in the city. One of the organisers for the conference is described as believing that “Acre has the right to exist as a mixed city only if it has a permanent Jewish majority”. For Arabs to be labelled a ‘demographic threat’ is par for the course in the Israeli political establishment. But don’t expect Israel’s open support for, and implementation of, occupation, colonisation, and racial discrimination, to come under the same scrutiny as Ahmadinejad’s remarks on European history. Because that would be anti-Semitic, right?
Published in Palestine Chronicle.