The Arabs and the Holocaust

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Gilbert Achcar, Saqi Books, £25

For far too long the left ignored this subject. Now we have a standard reference for years to come. Scrupulous in its scholarship, firm in political principle, ruthless in exposure, it sometimes makes uncomfortable reading. Only an Arab intellectual confident enough to reunite Marxism with the humanist values of the Enlightenment, combined with a thorough grasp of modern Arab and Jewish history, could drive this argument, line after line, page after page.

The entire Arab leadership is called to account on two questions which cannot be separated. Their failure to liberate Palestine is linked to their failure to understand anti-Semitism.

A fascinating equation emerges which will make the reading for Zionists even more uncomfortable. The most effective anti-Zionist is the one free of any taint of anti-Semitism. The converse is also true. Hence the British-appointed Palestinian "leader" Amin al-Husayni, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, failed the Palestinian uprising just before the Second World War, supported Hitler and the Nazis during that war, then failed his people again when Israel triggered the Nakba, the expulsion of Palestinians, in 1948.

By contrast, the effectiveness of Hamas and Hezbollah as mass-based anti-Zionist movements has in part depended on the degree to which they have dumped their anti-Semitic baggage.

A case study is Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah. He has abandoned "the anti-Semitic and Holocaust-denying bluster" of earlier years. Especially since Hezbollah's victorious stand in Lebanon against Israel in the summer of 2006, Nasrallah has adopted the politics championed by Egypt's and Arab nationalism's most important 20th century leader, Nasser. A distinction is drawn between Jews and Israel, and Israel is attacked as a "compliant tool" of the US.

To be sure, there may be some disagreements with Gilbert Achcar, but he raises questions not just about Arab anti-Semitism but also about Arab strategy, which is rarely considered. Did the Palestinian national movement commit a major historical error when it rejected the British White Paper of May 1939? This followed the three-year Palestinian revolt against both British rule and Zionist colonisation. The document rejected partition and a separate Jewish state, and called for an independent Palestinian state to be jointly governed on a proportional basis by Arabs and Jews. Furious, the Zionists rejected it completely.

True, hindsight is easy, but Achcar makes a powerful case against the similar Palestinian rejection.