“Don’t expect me to take a pro-Israel view. I’m an Arab.”
So declared Gilbert Achcar—professor of development studies and international relations at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies—at the outset of his lecture last month at the University of California, Berkeley. Those in the audience hoping for scholarly objectivity were thus informed that Achcar’s ethnicity trumped intellectual independence and that, despite evidence to the contrary (Nonie Darwish, the founder of Arabs for Israel, comes to mind, as do the majority of Israel’s Arab citizenry), an Arab could not be pro-Israel. One had to give him credit for at least confirming his biases up front.
A Lebanese-born, self-described “academic, writer, socialist, and anti-war activist,” Achcar was on a University of California speaking tour to discuss his 2010 book, The Arabs and the Holocaust: The Arab-Israeli War of Narratives. His UC Berkeley lecture was sponsored by the Center for Middle Eastern Studies (CMES) and was held in its Saudi-largesse-provided Sultan Room, with a glowing introduction from CMES vice chair Emily Gottreich. The audience of around 75 students and adults had to strain at times to discern Achcar’s words, delivered as they were in a heavy accent and low tones, but the crowd appeared politically sympathetic.
Achcar’s book, which according to the lecture description purports to “cover Arab attitudes to Zionism, anti-Semitism, Nazism and the Holocaust from the aftermath of the First World War to our time,” joins a growing body of scholarship that employs Holocaust studies to deny Israel’s legitimacy and downplay contemporary Islamic anti-Semitism. Such work enjoys significant legitimacy in academic circles, as it masks its outlandish conclusions with scholarly apparatus while confirming the biases of the left-leaning, anti-Israel Middle East studies establishment. In their critical review of Achcar’s book, atypical professors Matthias Kuntzel and Colin Meade conclude, “this is a book in which an author from the political left seeks to protect the dogmas of Western anti-Zionism from the reality of Arab anti-Semitism” (click here to access a debate between the reviewers and Achcar).
Achcar wasted no time confirming the review’s thesis and slandering eminent Princeton University historian Bernard Lewis, who has written about the history of Nazism and Arab anti-Semitism, in the process. As Achcar put it:
Mine is a scholarly investigation fixed into a current frame aiming at revising the image in western scholarship. The lies of Bernard Lewis are extremely biased, which produced an image of Arabs being pro-Nazi, the locus of the new anti-Semitism.
The audience chuckled in agreement as Achar extended his attack on Lewis. He claimed that a close reading of Arab newspapers of the 1930s and 40s found an overwhelming rejection of Nazism in the name of liberal values. He identified four predominant positions: liberal Westernizers, communists, nationalists, and fundamentalists. Only among the latter, he alleged, were there serious numbers of anti-Semites—the result of the Arab-Israeli conflict. This tired argument of blaming anti-Semitism in the region on the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 is trotted out by apologists for Arab anti-Semitism despite ample historical evidence of its previous existence.
He continued in the same vein, claiming that, “At the time of the Dreyfus trial [in late nineteenth century France], there was philo-Semitism, but the Zionist project ruined that.” Later, he proposed that, “If Israel would shift, we could decrease the tension,” without elaborating on the extent of the “shift” he envisioned.
Achcar was determined to assign anti-Semitism’s origins to the West:
The discourse of conspiracy theories about Jews is very Western. The shift was with increasing tensions in Palestine; the discourse was imported from the West.
He briefly acknowledged a Koranic basis for anti-Semitism, but then pivoted to blame Christianity:
Yes, there is an anti-Judaic element in Islam, but it’s part of the three monotheistic religions, and certainly there’s more enmity to Jews in Christianity than Islam.
[The Mufti as Nazi] is all blown out of proportion . . . it’s presented that he inspired the Final Solution. This is [the kind of] propaganda against Arabs that’s popular in English. . . . Thousands had a much greater role in the Holocaust than the Mufti. The Mufti was turned into central Zionist propaganda after 1945; [he] was aimed at the United Nations [for the purpose of] presenting Arabs as a continuation of the Nazis and the creation of a Jewish state as a moral duty. 1948 becomes the final battle of WWII; useful in saying the only other choice was genocide. [Based on this logic], the fate of Palestine would be decided by the world powers.
He addressed anti-Semitism in the modern-day Middle East, but, as with his treatment of Bernard Lewis, blamed the messenger by alluding to the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), a website that provides translations of regional media:
Today in Israel there’s a huge amount of literature which monitors anti-Semitic expression. There are websites devoted to this search and funded by the [U.S.] State Department; biased websites such as the one founded by a high ranking person in Israeli intel. Anti-Arab attitudes in Israel are not monitored.
The latter comparison is a red herring. Achcar didn’t acknowledge that, unlike its anti-Semitic counterpart, “anti-Arab attitudes in Israel” are neither widespread, promulgated through state-provided education and other official means, nor the primary reason for the continuation of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
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