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Holocaust Scholars Join to Condemn Syrian Editorial That Denied the Shoah

February 8, 2000
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Some unlikely allies have united to support a statement condemning a Holocaust-denying editorial in an official Syrian newspaper.

Eleven Holocaust scholars have joined leaders of the Zionist Organization of America in the statement, which accuses Israel of exaggerating the Holocaust.

Despite widespread agreement that the editorial contains “outrageous and offensive statements,” signers to the statement split on whether such an action should disqualify Syria from participation in the peace process.

Among the signers are Elie Wiesel and Rabbi Irving Greenberg, who is expected to be named chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum Council.

Not all the scholars share ZOA’s contention, absent from the statement but articulated in a phone interview by the group’s national president, Morton Klein, that until the Syrians “begin to preach peace, conciliation and the truth about the Holocaust” there should be “no consideration of giving this terroristic dictator any land or U.S. aid.”

“I part company with the ZOA, whose policies I abhor,” said Michael Berenbaum, a professor of Holocaust studies and the former director of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum Research Institute. “But I also abhor Holocaust denial.”

All the scholars say the Syrian editorial of Jan. 31 — which called the Holocaust “a myth” and said that “Israeli policies are worse than Nazi policies” — merits strong condemnation and does not create a good atmosphere for discussing peace.

Berenbaum, who described himself as an “ardent supporter” of Israel’s efforts to achieve peace with Syria, said he does not think a Syrian condemnation of the editorial should be a precondition for continued negotiations, but it is “an issue that indicates there has not yet been a full change of heart” among Syria’s leadership.

The ZOA statement, which is scheduled to appear as a full-page advertisement in The New York Times and 15 Jewish newspapers around the country this week, as well as some Israeli papers, calls on Syrian President Hafez Assad to publicly denounce the editorial and take steps “to ensure that Syrian government publications in the future refrain from denying or distorting the Holocaust.”

Some of the scholars, like Hebrew University Professor Emil Fackenheim, share ZOA’s wariness of Middle East peace efforts and believe Israel should be careful in negotiating with a country that foments hate against it.

Others said they were not usually comfortable with the organization or were worried that their participation in the statement could appear to be political.

“It doesn’t say anything about the peace process, does it?” Alvin Rosenfeld, director of the Jewish studies program at Indiana University, asked when contacted by JTA.

Rosenfeld said he had agreed to put his name on the statement only after being reassured that it did not mention the peace talks.

“I did not sign it as a political statement, but in my capacity as a scholar of the Holocaust and as one of the many people who object to the defamation of the Holocaust,” he continued. “The political dimensions don’t figure into it. That could be naive, but that’s my position.”

The statement condemning the Syrian editorial is also signed by the leaders of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and the Anti-Defamation League.

Also this week, a Lebanese newspaper defended the Syrian paper’s charged that Israel exaggerated the extent of the Holocaust for its own benefit.

“The American and European political milieu and public opinion are drugged by Zionist lies and terrified of being accused of anti-Semitism,” Lebanon’s Al- Diyar newspaper said Monday.

Mark Regev, a spokesman for the Israeli Embassy in Washington, condemned the Syrian editorial but declined to comment on whether it would stand in the way of talks resuming between Israel and Syria

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