Holocaust denial is no longer solely the province of neo-Nazi cranks. A new, loosely-affiliated movement is making inroads by accepting key facts, but manipulating political contexts in order to implicate Jews, then and now.
After Holocaust survivor and Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel died in July at the age of 87, American leaders mourned the loss of his globally respected advocacy for peace and tolerance. “Elie Wiesel was one of the great moral voices of our time, and in many ways, the conscience of the world,” President Barack Obama wrote.
Some anti-Zionist opportunists, however, leapt to slander Wiesel for his lifelong Zionism and support for Israel. Ali Abunimah, founder of the anti-Israel blog Electronic Intifada, called Wiesel “vile” and tweeted, “Elie Wiesel will be remembered by Palestinians for his racism.” Jewish anti-Israel blogger Max Blumenthal falsely called Wiesel a denier of the Armenian genocide and tweeted, “Elie Wiesel went from a victim of war crimes to a supporter of those who commit them. He did more harm than good and should not be honored.” In an op-ed, Blumenthal called Wiesel Islamophobic for writing about Hamas’s use of human shields.
These vitriolic attacks on Wiesel, which likely would not have surprised him, were only the latest examples of a growing trend in which anti-Zionists use the tragedy of the Holocaust to attack Israel. This tactic is nothing less than a form of soft Holocaust denial. Unlike the “hard” Holocaust denial practiced by neo-Nazis and other openly anti-Semitic groups, soft denial is the pseudo-intellectual hijacking of the meaning of the Holocaust in pursuit of delegitimizing the Jewish state. While hard denial forces us to prove that the Holocaust happened, soft denial forces us to prove that it still matters.
Noted historian Deborah Lipstadt was the first scholar to recognize soft denial as a serious problem. She has only spoken about the concept in speeches and short blog posts, and it has yet to be introduced into the popular lexicon. In a speech at Australia’s Shalom Institute, Lipstadt stated, “Soft-core deniers are people who do not deny the facts of the Holocaust, but who raise questions about it in a more covert fashion.” Lipstadt was intentionally alluding to pornography with her use of the term “soft-core,” as she stated, “Holocaust denial is, at its core, pornographic.”
Lipstadt frequently refers to soft denial as “squishier” and therefore harder to combat than hard denial. In that speech and others like it, Lipstadt cited examples of soft denial, like comparisons between the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and the Nazis, along with hyperbolic uses of the word “Holocaust” to describe unrelated incidents, thus trivializing the Holocaust itself. Describing the entire Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a genocide also fits this mold. “Some may see oppression; some may see discrimination. But to speak of a genocide is to create a situation which is completely untrue,” Lipstadt said.
A small number of other scholars have provided additional examples of soft Holocaust denial. The Oxford Handbook of Holocaust Studies, for instance, lists two: Emphasis on Soviet crimes to specifically undermine any focus on the Nazis, and disregard for the Holocaust among Arab nations in conflict with Israel. The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, an Israeli think tank, used Lipstadt’s concept of soft-core denial in their assessment of what it calls “secondary anti-Semitism”: The rejection of Jewish remembrance of Nazi war crimes, usually done by political activists.
A single, concrete definition for soft denial should be established on the basis of these examples: Soft Holocaust denial is the exploitation of the Holocaust to attack Israel and its supporters, as well as the trivialization of the Holocaust in order to serve political ends. It is expressed most frequently through obstruction of Holocaust memorialization and the false analogy between Nazism and Zionism, both of which normalize anti-Semitic attitudes.
Soft Holocaust denial is widely practiced by radical anti-Israel groups. Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) is one of the largest and most virulent of these groups in the U.S., and often uses soft denial tactics to make its point. For example, SJP chapters have intentionally obstructed Holocaust memorial ceremonies with anti-Israel protests. Such incidents have been reported since 2002, when Jews gathered at the University of California-Berkeley on Yom HaShoah and were surprised to find themselves outnumbered four to one by pro-Palestinian activists.
SJP organizers claimed that they did not realize that their rally fell on the same day as Yom HaShoah, but this is simply not believable, as some of the protest signs directly cited the Holocaust. Berkeley software engineer Bob Krause, for example, held a large sign reading, “Holocaust or not, everyone must be held accountable for their actions.” He told a reporter, “I think Israel hides behind the fact that the Holocaust happened.”
Over the past few years, SJP chapters across the country have increased their use of such tactics. In 2014, SJP at Northeastern University staged a walkout at a Holocaust Remembrance Day event that was strikingly similar to an incident from two years earlier. The second walkout was caught on video and resulted in the chapter’s suspension by the university. That same year, the University of Maryland’s SJP chapter launched “Palestinian Solidarity Week” on Holocaust Memorial Day. Similar incidents occurred at Wesleyan, Temple, and Brown universities during 2014.
This trend of protesting Holocaust commemoration has not slowed. In 2015, the University of Pittsburgh’s SJP went so far as to host its own Holocaust memorial event, titled “SJP Holocaust Remembrance Day: Edith Bell on Palestine.” Bell, the keynote speaker, was both a Holocaust survivor and a noted anti-Zionist speaker. The purpose, clearly, was not to commemorate the Holocaust, but to attack Israel. The university included the event in their Outside the Classroom Curriculum, which gives students academic credit for attending extracurricular events. The student board of The Pitt News released an editorial criticizing the decision to award credit for the event. “As a University, we must not repurpose a historical abomination such as the Holocaust to fit modern tragedies and advocate personal stances,” the editors wrote.
Attempts to block or hijack Holocaust commemorations have gained momentum over the past few years, but there is an even more insidious version of soft denial: false analogy. That is, the claim that Nazism and Zionism are essentially the same. Addressing this conflation, Lipstadt said, “You have to make comparisons; that’s how historians work. But often, they are false comparisons.” And the analogy of Israel and Nazi Germany is more than false; it is a monstrous insult to the Jewish people, effectively claiming they are no different from those who committed the most horrendous crime imaginable against them.
Unfortunately, international political leaders have made this claim as part of their anti-Israel agenda. Foremost among them is Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who wrote a doctoral dissertation that falsely claimed there were close ties between the Zionist movement and Nazi Germany. Entitled “The Other Side: The Secret Relationship Between Nazism and Zionism,” Abbas’ dissertation claims that significantly less than six million Jews were killed in the Holocaust and that Zionist leaders collaborated with the Nazis. “Many scholars have debated the figure of six million and reached stunning conclusions — fixing the number of Jewish victims at only a few hundred thousand,” wrote Abbas. “The Zionist movement led a broad campaign of incitement against the Jews living under Nazi rule to arouse the government’s hatred of them, to fuel vengeance against them, and to expand the mass extermination.”
In 2014, The New York Times published an article about Abbas’s supposed “shift” in regard to the Holocaust. Journalist Jodi Rudoren focused on an official statement released by Abbas in which he called the Holocaust “the ugliest crime known to man in the modern era.” This echoed a 2003 interview with Haaretz, in which Abbas used the phrase “an unforgiveable crime against the Jewish nation.”
On the surface, this would seem to be a drastic shift from his previous denial of the Holocaust. But Abbas refused to admit that he had engaged in denial of any kind. Instead, he told Haaretz, he simply “did not wish to discuss numbers,” as though the amount of victims is negotiable. Whether it is six million deaths being denied or one, it is still a form of denial. It appears, in fact, that Abbas has not repudiated Holocaust denial entirely, but has simply moved from hard denial to soft denial in a quest for political legitimacy.
Indeed, Abbas’s theory about secret ties between Zionists and Nazis is a clear example of soft denial. As Yair Rosenberg wrote for Tablet, “If any reporter really wants to find out if the Palestinian leader has finally jettisoned his conspiracy theories about the Holocaust, they need to ask him not about whether it happened, but who he thinks was responsible.”
Abbas is a particularly blatant example of a soft denier. In Western Europe and North America, however, the phenomenon takes a slightly different and more subtle form. Instead of making obviously false historical claims about Zionism, they compare the IDF to the army of Nazi Germany. Palestinians in the Middle East are depicted as the Jews of Europe in World War II, while Israeli soldiers are, of course, presented as the Nazis.
Recently, members of the UK’s Labour Party have revealed themselves as soft deniers along these lines. Tony Greenstein, a self-described anti-Zionist, has tweeted that Israel uses “the same logic that the Nazis applied—the Palestinians are the Jews of the Middle East, the new untermenschen.” Labour MEP Afzal Khan joined in, tweeting, “The Israeli Government are acting like Nazis in Gaza.” Another Labour politician, Jawad Khan, also wrote about “similarities between Israel and Nazis.”
This kind of denialism is becoming more and more popular in Europe. In an interview with the self-proclaimed “Fearless Voice of the American Left,” CounterPunch Magazine, former Pink Floyd front man Roger Waters compared Israel to Nazi-occupied Europe. “For an artist to go and play in a country that occupies other people’s land and oppresses them the way Israel does, is plain wrong. They should say no. I would not have played for the Vichy government in occupied France in the Second World War,” Waters said. “The parallels with what went on in the ‘30s in Germany are so crushingly obvious.”
Predictably, Blumenthal has endorsed the comparison as well. With chapter titles like “The Concentration Camp” and “The Night of Broken Glass,” Blumenthal’s 2014 book, Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel, is marinated in the ideology of soft denial. Waters, unsurprisingly, has cited that book as a major source of information on the conflict, calling it “chilling” and “extremely well written.” Alternet, an anti-Zionist online magazine that Blumenthal founded, once published an article entitled “Israel in 2014 Is Like Germany in 1933—Can the Madness Be Stopped?” Everything Blumenthal touches, it seems, turns to Holocaust denial.
Like the obstruction of Holocaust memorialization, the Israel-Nazi analogy has been met with substantial criticism, mostly from Jewish voices. The Anti-Defamation League published a response to the deniers, saying,
Those that make the comparison between the Jewish state and the Nazis and Hitler—who perpetrated the greatest and largest act of anti-Semitism in world history—have not chosen this comparison innocently or dispassionately. It is a charge that is purposefully directed at Jews in an effort to associate the victims of Nazi crimes with the Nazi perpetrators, and serves to diminish the significance and uniqueness of the Holocaust.
In an article for the Algemeiner, Seth Frantzman wrote that proponents of this false analogy fall into three groups: Those who use it for shock value, those who are ignorant and intellectually lazy, and those driven by anti-Semitism. “Jewish communities should confront those who make this comparison and remind them of the real history,” wrote Frantzman. “We say, ‘Never again,’ but if we meant it, then we would combine it with an attempt to view the Holocaust as unique and not abuse its memory.”
Hard and soft Holocaust denial are currently thriving as a unified force. While anti-Zionist activists create a negative perception of Israel, anti-Semitic politicians continue to publicly reject the facts of the Holocaust. While soft deniers compare the IDF to the Nazis and obstruct our remembrance of the Shoah, hard deniers continue their campaign to erase history.
Soft denial is more than just a flawed practice that distracts from the Holocaust; it actually enables the hard denial of those who wish for the destruction of Israel. The most blatant international proponents of hard denial are Iran’s political leaders. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khomeini has called the Holocaust a myth. The supposedly “moderate” President Hassan Rouhani has avoided fully addressing the subject, but never directly admitted the Holocaust occurred. This year marked the second state-sponsored International Holocaust Cartoon Contest. These desecrations of the memory of the Holocaust are appalling and obvious, but soft denial is equally dismissive of the facts.
Public debate rarely takes place in an arena of accuracy. In the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, shock drives the conversation more often than truth. Soft deniers use that to their advantage, replacing facts with feelings. Israel-Nazi analogies are alarming. Holocaust memorials are perfect for hostile protesters to cultivate angry, emotionally charged dissent. By directly connecting the negative actions of Israel with a genocide committed against Jews, soft deniers simultaneously justify Nazism, delegitimize the Jewish people’s right to self-determination, and seek to wound their Jewish targets in the most emotionally brutal manner possible.
“The challenge facing us is how to fight the deniers without giving them gravitas, without adding to their sense of importance. They really are nothing but liars and anti-Semites,” said Lipstadt in her speech at the Shalom Institute. “We must never give them the credit of saying because of deniers, we write about the Holocaust, we research the Holocaust, we teach our children about the Holocaust. The importance of this event stands on its own.”
Banner Photo: The Q Speaks / flickr