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Op-Ed: Holocaust denial in Israel needs urgent attention

NEW YORK (JTA) — The last place one might expect to find Holocaust deniers is in Israel. Yet a new University of Haifa survey shows that an astonishing 40.5 percent of Israeli Arabs say the Holocaust did not happen.

The finding is in the latest index of Arab-Jewish Relations in Israel, an annual survey conducted by Professor Sammy Smooha since 2003. When he first posed the Holocaust question in 2006, 28 percent of Arab citizens doubted its authenticity.

Holocaust denial is prevalent across the Arab and Muslim worlds. Iran’s regime, especially President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has made questioning the Holocaust a centerpiece of its ideology, rarely missing an opportunity to proclaim falsehoods about one of the most thoroughly documented periods in history.

In Gaza and West Bank schools administered by the Palestinian Authority, the Nazi campaign to murder 6 million Jews still is not taught. Here, as with the Iranian regime, truth is debunked to advance political goals.

Israeli Arabs, comprising 20 percent of the population, do learn about the Holocaust in school. They live in a country where the premier Holocaust memorial and remembrance institution, Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, is frequented by school groups and dignitaries visiting from around the world. And in Israel, anyone is likely to encounter in the public space older Jews with numbers on their arms. So how can a significant percentage of Israeli Arabs be so unaware?

“It is important that Arab students visit Yad Vashem to be exposed to the scale of the tragedy,” Ali Haider, co-director of Sikkuy, a leading nonprofit advocating for greater equality between Israel’s Jewish and Arab citizens, told me.

With all the resources readily available in Israel, why even three years ago did more than a quarter of the country’s Arab citizens doubt the Holocaust? What underlies the surge of 12 percent reflected in the new survey? Further, according to Smooha, 37 percent of Arabs with higher education are among the deniers.

Do they honestly believe the Holocaust is a fraud, or is the reaction politically motivated?

“It can be seen that some of the frustration experienced by the Arab citizens from the failure to achieve equality engenders a resistance to recognizing the Holocaust,” said Haider.

The observation has validity for Smooha, who says, "When they say ‘there was no Holocaust,’ they are protesting. They are saying ‘I am not giving legitimacy to the Jewish state.’ "

The survey also found a significant drop in the percentage of Israeli Arabs who recognize Israel’s right to exist as an independent state, from 81.1 percent in 2003 to 53.7 percent in 2009.

Jewish-Arab relations in Israel have long been complicated. Arab citizens enjoy the fruits of Israeli democracy, including the right to vote and serve in the Knesset. But longstanding economic and social inequities, notably unequal budgets allocated to Jewish and Arab communities, have dampened their aspirations of becoming full participants in Israeli society.

Frustrations are deepened by political developments, including the impasse in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, the 2006 Lebanon War, the government’s failure to implement recommendations of the Orr Commission — created in the wake of the police shootings of a dozen Arab citizens in 2000 — and, most recently, Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party’s efforts to introduce legislation aimed at the Arab minority.

Israeli Arabs understandably are unlikely to embrace "Hatikvah" and other symbols as the Jewish majority does, but disputing a historical foundation of the state is troubling.

Refuting Israel’s legitimacy by denying the Holocaust must be emphatically countered. Israel’s Arab citizens presumably could help. After all, Israeli Arabs, especially the younger generations who grew up in Israel and are fluent in Hebrew, are best positioned of any Arabs to understand the Jewish psyche.

On the other hand, Israeli Arabs know which emotional buttons to press if some choose to hurt the Jewish majority without using violence. Responding to a survey questioner is one tactic and, in this instance, led to headlines emphasizing the hurtful result on the Holocaust.

None of this can fully explain or excuse the evidence of Holocaust denial in Israel’s Arab community. Can it be dismissed as a form of protest by a minority seeking to improve its lot in Israeli society? Or is it more ominous, a worrisome trend aimed at allying with forces seeking to deligitimize — and ultimately eliminate — Israel?

The kernel of doubt, if nurtured, can grow into a mighty myth and expand. What Smooha’s survey has revealed needs urgent attention by Arabs and Jews, working in their own communities as well as together.

(Kenneth Bandler is director of communications for the American Jewish Committee.)

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