Carter as Holocaust Denier?

Watching American Israel advocates pile onto Jimmy Carter in paroxysms of nationalist rage at his impudence for comparing the conditions of West Bank Palestinians to those of black South Africans under apartheid, I’ve been struck — as I’ve written below — by the relentless evasion of any discussion of the reality he’s describing. (I discussed my own views on the appropriateness — and limits — of the apartheid analogy for the Palestinians in a previous post.) In the more recent entry, I quoted from former Israeli education minister Shulamit Aloni’s piece in the Israeli daily Yediot Ahronot affirming that an apartheid system is precisely what has been created on the West Bank — but I was interested in her observation on the roots of the outrage against Carter:

Jewish self-righteousness is taken for granted among ourselves to such an extent that we fail to see what’s right in front of our eyes. It’s simply inconceivable that the ultimate victims, the Jews, can carry out evil deeds. Nevertheless, the state of Israel practises its own, quite violent, form of Apartheid with the native Palestinian population.

To which I added my own observation that

A lot of liberal Jewish Americans seem to find it emotionally impossible to accept that Israel can do terrible things. Or, at least, if they see Israel doing terrible things, then those things are immediately blamed on the victim. The idea of universal, timeless Jewish victimhood seems to give Israel a moral free pass in some people’s minds — although the irony is that many of the Israeli liberal counterparts of those in the U.S. that hold these emotionally adolescent views are horrified by them, because many Israeli liberals pay more heed to the ethical injunction at the heart of Judaism to avoid doing unto others that which is hateful unto ourselves.

But last Saturday’s Washington Post op-ed by Holocaust scholar Debora Lipstadt took the cake. For Lipstadt, by focusing on the suffering of the Palestinians, Carter is minimizing the Holocaust! She writes:

His book, which dwells on the Palestinian refugee experience, makes two fleeting references to the Holocaust. The book contains a detailed chronology of major developments necessary for the reader to understand the current situation in the Middle East. Remarkably, there is nothing listed between 1939 and 1947. Nitpickers might say that the Holocaust did not happen in the region. However, this event sealed in the minds of almost all the world’s people then the need for the Jewish people to have a Jewish state in their ancestral homeland. Carter never discusses the Jewish refugees who were prevented from entering Palestine before and after the war. One of Israel’s first acts upon declaring statehood was to send ships to take those people “home.”

…By almost ignoring the Holocaust, Carter gives inadvertent comfort to those who deny its importance or even its historical reality, in part because it helps them deny Israel’s right to exist.

So, not only is he a crypto-Holocaust denier; he’s actively promoting “anti-Semitic canards” by declaring, for example, that it is “political suicide” for a politician in the U.S. to adopt a “balanced position” on the conflict. Actually, I don’t think that’s anti-Semitic at all; I think it’s a pretty obvious reality — and Lipstadt’s hysterical denunciation of Carter is probably a good example of the reasons why taking a balanced position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict just isn’t a good idea for a politician in the mainstream. Who wants to be called a Holocaust-denier by a famous Holocaust scholar, even if the charge is preposterous…


Carter’s inscription at the Holocaust museum:
His sense of the indivisibility of human rights
may be what has gotten him in trouble

Lipstadt may actually have done a service, however, by revealing the full depth of ultra-nationalist paranoia that animates so much of the Carter-bashing. She’s essentially arguing that the plight of the Palestinians can only be discussed against the backdrop of the Holocaust, as if, somehow, the enduring trauma we have suffered as a result of death camps somehow rationalizes or justifies what has been inflicted on the Palestinians — so much so, in fact, that if you discuss the plight of the Palestinians without devoting equal time to the Holocaust, then, in effect, you are Holocaust denier.

Wow.

I think Lipstadt may be revealing something of the intellectual DNA that explains why so many rational liberal American Jews turn into frothing ultranationalists when it comes to Israel: It’s the narrative of the Holocaust, and the idea that Israel represents deliverance from the Holocaust, and is therefore beyond moral reproach. The Holocaust is the only valid history here; the Palestinian experience is secondary, if that — even though they had nothing to do with the Holocaust, which happened thousands of miles away, they must pay the price. Well, no, Lipstadt — and, I believe, many others who echo this trope — seem to suggest that the Palestinians are the authors of their own misery. This from her own blog in one of numerous references to Jimmy Carter:

“He is automatically on the side of those who appear to be weak. While its good to favor the weak and the oppressed [Jewish tradition stresses that repeatedly], sometimes those who appear weak or oppressed have put themselves in that position. [You can draw whatever analogies you wish.]”

The parentheses are hers, and I’m assuming that she’s trying to tell us that the Palestinians appear weak and oppressed because they “have put themselves in that position.” Frankly, I find that logic monstrous, although quite familiar in the canon of ultranationalism of whatever stripe: You can be sure Slobodan Milosevic said similar things about the Kosovar Albanians or the Bosnian Muslims. In the ultranationalist worldview, “we,” (whoever the “we” is) are always the eternal victim, and whatever it is that “we” do can only be understood in light of that victimization — not only the original trauma, but also the efforts of others to discredit us by making it appear that “we” are inflicting suffering upon them.

The Holocaust has been a major rationalization in the minds of many of Israel’s supporters for the policies of it has adopted (forcing, as I argued elsewhere the Palestinians to pay a very heavy price for a crime against the Jews of Europe in which they had no part). We should, of course, remember that the Zionist project long predated the Holocaust, and the infrastructure of the Jewish State declared in 1948 was, in fact, put in place during the 1930s.

Also, Mark Perry draws attention to the fact that while the Holocaust may be the centerpiece of the Israeli narrative for many Jewish Americans, it is less so for Israelis themselves – he quotes at length from his interview with Benny Begin speaking scornfully of the idea that the State of Israel is somehow there to compensate for the Holocaust.

Of course, what I would imagine, is that support for the State of Israel to the point of denying that it can do wrong or be responsible for the displacement and oppression of the Palestinians may, in fact, be based in a survivors’ guilt, in which those who were powerless to save the 6 million will remedy that through their support for Israel, imagining the Jewish State as an extension of the Warsaw Ghetto, and its critics and enemies, therefore, as an extension of the Nazi Final Solution.

This narrative is profoundly misguided and misleading, but it is also profoundly powerful in the minds of those who embrace it.

Carter has always made clear his belief that human rights are indivisible, and it’s hardly surprising that he’d approach the suffering of the Palestinians — a narrative largely ignored on these shores, where as Edward Said once noted the Palestinians tend to exist only as a threat to Israel — without dwelling on the Holocaust, an epic historic crime, but one in which the Palestinians had no part. After all, he sees the Palestinians suffering, now, as black South Africans did under apartheid, and he believes that there’s no good reason justifying this suffering, since Israel’s leaders already know where their borders are, and they’re not in the West Bank.

Moreover, Israelis are more intimately aware of the Palestinian narrative, and often have a far better understanding of their own role in it, than do their American supporters — as Sandy Tolan has revealed in his excellent book The Lemon Tree, tracking the competing narratives through the interconnected life stories of one Israeli and one Palestinian family. To understand the response Carter has prompted, I’m reminded of the work of my friend the psychiatrist Joel Kovel, on “Zionism’s Bad Conscience.” Joel writes

… God’s chosen people, with their hard-earned identity of high-mindedness, by definition cannot sink into racist violence. “It can’t be us,” says the Zionist, when in fact it is precisely Zionists who are doing these things. The inevitable result becomes a splitting of the psyche that drives responsibility for one’s acts out of the picture. Subjectively this means that the various faculties of conscience, desire, and agency dis-integrate and undergo separate paths of development. As a result, Zionism experiences no internal dialectic, no possibilities of correction, beneath its facade of exceptionalist virtue. The Covenant becomes a license giving the right to dominate instead of an obligation to moral development…

We may sum these effects as the presence of a “bad conscience” within Zionism. Here, badness refers to the effects of hatred, which is the primary affect that grows out of the splitting between the exalted standards of divine promise and the imperatives of tribalism and imperialism. A phenomenally thin skin and denial of responsibility are the inevitable results. The inability to regard Palestinians as full human beings with equivalent human rights pricks the conscience, but the pain is turned on its head and pours out as hatred against those who would remind of betrayal: the Palestinians themselves and those others, especially Jews, who would call attention to Zionism’s contradictions. Unable to tolerate criticism, the bad conscience immediately turns denial into projection. “It can’t be us,” becomes “it must be them,” and this only worsens racism, violence, and the severity of the double standard. Thus the “self-hating Jew” is a mirror-image of a Zionism that cannot recognize itself. It is the screen upon which bad conscience can be projected. It is a guilt that cannot be transcended to become conscientiousness or real atonement, and which returns as persecutory accusation and renewed aggression.

The bad conscience of Zionism cannot distinguish between authentic criticism and the mirrored delusions of anti-Semitism lying ready-made in the swamps of our civilization and awakened by the current crisis. Both are threats, though the progressive critique is more telling, as it contests the concrete reality of Israel and points toward self-transformation by differentiating Jewishness from Zionism; while anti-Semitism regards the Jew abstractly and in a demonic form, as “Jewish money” or “Jewish conspiracies,” and misses the real mark. Indeed, Zionism makes instrumental use of anti-Semitism, as a garbage pail into which all opposition can be thrown, and a germinator of fearfulness around which to rally Jews. This is not to discount the menace posed by anti-Semitism nor the need to struggle vigorously against it. But the greater need is to develop a genuinely critical perspective, and not be bullied into confusing critique of Israel with anti-Semitism.


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15 Responses to Carter as Holocaust Denier?

  1. Bernard Chazelle says:

    What’s sad is that Lipstadt may well have done more than anyone to combat Holocaust denial; especially in her heroic defense in the libel suit brought on by the despicable David Irving.

    Any Holocaust analogy is silly, of course (indeed, it was unique and when Bibi talks about Iran he should know better), but for Lipstadt to suggest that the Palestinians “appear weak and oppressed” is downright Irvingesque.

  2. blowback says:

    “While its good to favor the weak and the oppressed [Jewish tradition stresses that repeatedly], sometimes those who appear weak or oppressed have put themselves in that position. [You can draw whatever analogies you wish.]“

    The analogy I think she was alluding to is with the victims of the Holocaust. If the Palestinians are responsible for their oppression at the hands of the Israelis then, by implication, the Jews, Roma and homosexuals were responsible for their oppression at the hands of the Germans and their associates.

    BTW, how is the Holocaust unique when compared to the Turkish massacre of Armenians or the Hutu genocide of the Tutsis. The “industrial” nature of the Holocaust was an unique characteristic but that doesn’t make the Holocaust unique.

  3. h. kim says:

    While I hate to appear in defense of wrongdoers, this is probably one important reason why Holocaust denial winds up getting airtime among the Palestinians: Holocaust is what justifies their misery, therefore, the entire memory of it must be resisted, even if the effort is utterly quixotic. Of course, the superior rhetorical strategy (and the superior moral position also) for the Palestinian spokespeople would be to emphasize (and to empathize) with the memory of the Holocaust, as per Tony K.’s suggestion some months ago… but the natural human tendency, I suspect, is to try to stick it to their oppressors somehow rather than to think over what the right thing is…

  4. Gracie_fr says:

    …I am so glad there is a sound analytical voice, an example of sanity in the midst of sheer hysteria…and a South African voice to boot. The reams of critical voices taking former president Carter to task simply are not focusing clearly on the basis of his comparison, but getting carried away in their own noise.The issue in Israel/Palestine is population(demography), space, and the essence of a Jewish and pseudo-democratic state as opposed to a true democratic state for “All its citizens”. Avi Primor couldn’t have put it better when he wrote in Ha’aretz ( Sept 2002), “ ….Many in the top echelons of the security establishment in the 1970s and 1980s had a warm spot in their hearts for the white apartheid regime in South Africa that was derived not only from utilitarian interests, but also from sympathy for the white minority rulers in that country. One of the elements of the old South African regime that stirred much interest in Israel remains current to this day: To seemingly solve the demographic problem that troubled the white South Africans ….established small enclaves throughout the country and called them “independent states.” These helpless, unsustainable enclaves were surrounded by South African territory and run by collaborators totally subservient to the authority of the larger “neighbor,” South Africa. All the blacks outside these fictitious “states” were arbitrarily assigned citizenship in those states. In other words, they became foreign residents in their own land……. For those who desire to keep the West Bank and Gaza, to expand the settlements without annexing the Palestinian population, and who understand that transfer is impractical, the original South African model is particularly tempting.

  5. bob k says:

    The Joel Kovel quote begins…God’s chosen people. This Covenant is tribal, imperial and racist. Websters Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary defines race as a family, tribe, people or nation belonging to the same stock. It defines racism as a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce and inherent superiority of a particular race. Is this why the Holocaust is unique? Sixty five million human beings died in WWII. Does Zionism makes instrumental use of the Holocaust as well as anti-semitism? I applaud Tony’s analysis of the pathology of denial and mass hypnosis as a root of man’s inhumanity to man. The psychological mechanism of splitting and projection operates in the minds of all true believers. Evil is always someone other as the other is systematically demonized in preparation for more murder. Karen Armstrong speaks of this in the Battle for God. The Christian Zionists and Islamic fundamentalists exhibit the same projection of their own darkness onto other innocent people of other nations, faiths and races. This is an important subject as Iran appears in the gunsights of Israel and the USA. I admire the courage and compassion of men like Jimmy Carter and Tony Karon publically addressing these issues of existential importance to all mankind.

  6. That Lipstadt piece really seems to have been off the wall. Without having read Carter’s book, I must confess scepticism of her claim that the book ‘dwells on the Palestinian refugee experience’. In the all the interviews, speeches, and articles I’ve read, Carter has been absolutely silent on the issue. In an interview on CNN on 27 November (of which I heard excerpts on Democracy Now!), he says, regarding a one state solution,

    To incorporate the Occupied Territories into Israel and have just one state, I don’t think that would work, and I’ll tell you why. First of all, the Palestinians, if they were given a right to vote on an equal basis with all Israelis, they would play a major role in making decisions about the whole country. And with the rapid population growth of the Palestinians, which in Gaza is 4.7% a year, one of the highest of the world, and in the foreseeable future the Palestinians would actually have a majority in that nation.

    It’s a curious position for a man who has built a reputation as a champion of democracy to reject a solution explicitly because it would be democratic. In any event, I surmise from his rejection of incorporating West Bank and Gaza Palestinians into the Jewish state on the grounds that it could erode its Jewish character, that he would also reject a meaningful right of return, even to the limited extent provided for in UN General Assembly Resolution 194, for the refugees from the 1948 ethnic cleansing on which the Jewish state was founded, for the same reason.

    The Shoah was just as unique as any other genocide. It is deeply cynical for Jews to claim it as uniquely ours when other populations, and if it matters, other ethnically defined populations, suffered proportional depletions and under the same kinds of conditions of industrialized slaughter. And for the reasons Tony gives, among others, it is even more cynical for Zionism to claim the Shoah as justification for the persecution of the Palestinians in the occupied territories, for the ethnic cleansing of 1948, for the establishment of an ethnocratic state, or anything.

    What makes it even more nauseating is the Zionists’ attitude to European Jewry, as Ben-Gurion famously told a meeting of Labour Zionist leaders on 7 December 1938,
    If I knew that it would be possible to save all the children in Germany by bringing them over to England, and only half of them by transporting them to Eretz Yisrael, then I would opt for the second alternative. For we must weigh not only the life of these children, but also the history of the People of Israel.

    It’s not clear from Bob K’s comment where the Kovel quote begins and ends. But whoever is relying on Webster for a definition of a political concept is probably doing themselves a disservice. In this case, I would argue that Webster is dead wrong. Race is not and has never been a biological category of any kind. It is a social phenomenon born of racism. It’s the racist who defines who belongs to a ‘race’ without really worrying too much about actual ancestry.

    But the real problem with Kovel’s analysis is depoliticizing a political issue by trying to analyse it in psychological terms. This distorts the fundamentally social nature of the phenomenon and turns it into an individual matter. We can at least begin to understand the psychology of racism from an analysis of the political phenomenon, but a psychological analysis of the racist does little to inform a political understanding of racism. The quoted paragraphs from Kovel contain some real insights but to all appearances do not even begin to address a very closely related phenomenon. Why is it that non Jews appear just as susceptible to the same kind of denial that the Zionists can be responsible for any wrong and making excuses for any wrong they can’t deny?

  7. Matt Hogan says:

    Wouldn’t if be delicious irony if Lipstadt some day ends up doing serious time in an Austrian jail for “Apartheid Denial”?

    Actually,. it would be poetic justice. Every time someone screams “Anti-Semitism!” or “Holocaust Denial!” to defend human rights abuses, it makes it that much easier for the world to distance itself from the memory of this unparalleled atrocity. If there is an afterlife, I sincerely hope Anne Frank has no idea she’s being used to justify Yifat Al-Kobi.

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  9. Blue Gal says:

    Thank you for this. I’m relieved that my own review of Carter’s book, while not as well-written as yours, at least picked up on the whole “holocaust denying” mumbo jumbo. Blogrolling your site. Fascinating, lucid perspective. Thanks again.

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  13. ML says:

    There is no appreciable “pathology of denial” to “Holocaust denial”. There is, however, a very interesting pathology for those who resort to pathologizing denial of the “Holocaust”.

    Whatever. I’d bang Anne Frank.

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