Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt on Thursday branded a speech by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas a day earlier as “classic anti-Semitism” and a “rewriting of history” aimed at framing Jews as Nazi collaborators.
Leading scholars and activists came down on Abbas after the aging PA leader appeared to attribute the Nazi genocide of European Jewry to Jewish behavior and money-lending.
“Here’s a man who started his career denying the Holocaust and now, at the latter stages of his career, seems to be engaging in rewriting the history of the Holocaust and classic anti-Semitism,” charged Lipstadt in a phone interview.
In a long-winded speech in Ramallah in front of hundreds at a rare session of the Palestinian National Council, the 82-year-old PA leader alleged that the Holocaust was not caused by anti-Semitism, but rather by the Jews’ “social behavior, [charging] interest, and financial matters.”
In his speech, Abbas also referred to the 1933 “haavara” agreement between the early Zionist leadership, the Anglo-Palestine Bank (today Bank Leumi), German Zionist leaders, and Nazi Germany to permit German Jews to emigrate to the British Mandate of Palestine with some of their assets. With the deal, claimed Abbas, Adolf Hitler, whose Nazi regime was responsible for the murder of six million Jews in the Holocaust, facilitated the immigration of Jews to Israel.
The PA leader further cited Arthur Koestler’s highly contested “The Thirteenth Tribe,” which asserts Ashkenazi Jews are descended from Khazars, to argue that Jews have no historical ties to Israel, and reiterated his claim the Jewish state was founded as a European colonial project and “those who sought a Jewish state weren’t Jews.”
Said Abbas: “Their narrative about coming to this country because of their longing for Zion, or whatever — we’re tired of hearing this. The truth is that this is a colonialist enterprise, aimed at planting a foreign body in this region.”
“It’s classic anti-Semitism,” and “classic blame the victim,” said Lipstadt, a prominent American scholar and Holocaust denial expert whose triumph in a libel suit over British Holocaust denier David Irving was adapted into a 2016 film, “Denial.”
“This brings one back directly to his dissertation, to his distortion of history,” she added, referring to the PA leader’s 1982 writings. Penned in Moscow under Soviet rule, “The Other Side: the Secret Relationship Between Nazism and Zionism,” alleges that the six million figure of Holocaust victims was exaggerated and that Zionist leaders cooperated with the Nazis.
The Palestinian Authority leader’s tirade was also condemned by US Jewish groups on Thursday.
“Laden with ahistorical and pseudo-academic assertions, the Palestinian president’s latest diatribe reflects once again the depth and persistency of the anti-Semitic attitudes he harbors,” said CEO Jonathan A. Greenblatt.
“With public speeches like these, it is not surprising that under Abbas’s leadership, the Palestinian Authority has failed to renounce and combat Palestinian anti-Semitic incitement, including narratives that Jews are to blame for the Holocaust and other anti-Semitic persecution, and which deny or diminish the millennial Jewish presence in and connection to the Land of Israel.”
J Street also condemned the remarks that it said “featured absurd anti-Semitic tropes and deeply offensive comments on the history of the Jewish people and Israel.”
The haavara agreement
Negotiated by German Zionists, the haavara deal allowing for the transfer of some funds from German to Palestine trusts was inked with Nazi Germany and the Anglo-Palestine Bank in August 1933.
The deal was deeply controversial among the Zionists in the British Mandate of Palestine, pitting David Ben Gurion’s Jewish Agency against Vladimir Jabotinsky’s Revisionist movement. Led by Ben Gurion, the agreement’s proponents underlined the pragmatism in allowing German Jews fleeing Nazis to retain some of their capital in a deal that could also encourage Jewish emigration. Critics rejected any dealings with Nazi Germany as tantamount to dealing with the devil.
“The haavara system continued to function in one form or another until the middle of World War II,” writes Israeli historian Tom Segev in “The Seventh Million.”
“Some 20,000 people were assisted by it, and about $30 million was transferred from Germany to Palestine. Not an earthshaking sum even then, but it gave a certain impetus to the country’s economy and to the Zionist enterprise. The immigrants themselves were forced to wait a long time for their money, sometimes as much as two or three years. They lost up to 35 percent of their capital, but according to calculations by proponents of the haavara, they would have lost more had they tried to transfer their capital in any other legal way.”
According to Dr. Yehuda Bauer, 92, one of Israel’s most eminent scholars of the Nazi genocide of European Jewry, just 8 million pounds were transferred through the haavara trusts and German Jews represented only one-quarter of Jewish immigrants at the time.
The issue of haavara “is used by anti-Semites and pro-Nazis, including [Abbas], in a way that is unreasonable,” he told The Times of Israel.
“There was no shared idea or anything of the kind between Zionism and Nazi Germany. What there was was the desire of the Germans to rid themselves of the Jews, and the desire of the Jews to save themselves,” Bauer said.
Similar claims of early Nazi-Zionist rapport were recently raised by former London mayor Ken Livingstone, who in 2016 said Hitler initially supported Zionism in the 1930s ““before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews.”
While describing the deal as ultimately being a “pact with the devil,” Lipstadt said it marked an early and “desperate attempt on the part of German Zionists to help Jews get out of Germany.”
Abbas’s presentation of the deal, in the context of alleging a European economic conspiracy to populate the territory with Jews, is highly misleading, she said. It’s “part of trying to frame the Zionists of Israel as part of a collaborative effort with the Nazis.
“The whole thing is appalling,” she said.
Confronted with questions on thesis, Abbas ‘stammered’
Like Lipstadt, Bauer characterized Abbas’s recent remarks as anti-Semitism and tied it to his doctoral thesis and early influences as a student in the Soviet Union.
Over a decade ago, Bauer recalled, he held a meeting with Abbas. Israeli Arab Knesset member Ahmad Tibi served as translator. And then the Jewish historian raised the issue of Abbas’s thesis.
“He started to stammer, Abu Mazen [Abbas]. ‘It was in the past, and I don’t really remember,’ et cetera, things like that,” said Bauer.
“I am among those who certainly support the establishment of a Palestinian state, but they [the Palestinians] chose a most problematic leadership. Not just [Abbas], but several others around him,” said the historian.
Abbas is “super intelligent,” if less than well-versed in Islamic history, opined Bauer, but he is truly “a disciple of the anti-Zionist, anti-Israeli, anti-Jewish Communism.”
Times of Israel staff and JTA contributed to this report.