Monday 23 September 2019

PLO chief Abbas throws poison into toxic mix of anti-Semitism

Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority: his remarks ‘are a fundamental menace to our open and liberal societies’, according to the EU’s foreign
service, the EEAS. Photo: Reuters
Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority: his remarks ‘are a fundamental menace to our open and liberal societies’, according to the EU’s foreign service, the EEAS. Photo: Reuters

Mary Fitzgerald

Anyone who has spent time in the Middle East knows anti-Semitism is dismayingly widespread there.

Tropes including age-old stereotypes of Jews are common in media, cartoons and sometimes even educational materials.

When I lived in Jordan my Arabic tutor - from the country's Christian minority - once used a story montage that featured a predatory black-clad character with hooked nose and a large black hat. She was surprised when I pointed out the offensive inference, she had not noticed it herself.

The famous anti-Semitic forgery 'The Protocols of the Elders of Zion' can be found in bookshops and airport stands across the region.

This week Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, sparked outrage when he delivered a speech studded with anti-Semitic tropes to a gathering of the PLO's legislative body in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

Broadcast live on Palestinian TV channels, Abbas's rambling speech included a rumination on the history of European Jewry.

He claimed Jews in Europe had been subjected to persecution over centuries, culminating in the Holocaust, "not because of their religious identity but because of their social function". Abbas continued: "So the Jewish question that was widespread throughout Europe was not against their religion but their social function which relates to usury and banking and such."

He also denied Ashkenazi Jews from north-eastern Europe were Semitic, claiming: "They have no relation to Semitic people."

It was not the first time the octogenarian Palestinian leader's views on the Holocaust have caused controversy. In his doctoral dissertation written in the early 80s, Abbas claimed there had been a "secret relationship between Nazism and Zionism" before World War II and he appeared to challenge the figure of six million Jews who perished in the Holocaust.

He subsequently sought to deflect accusations of Holocaust denial, remarking at one point in 2003 that "the Holocaust was a terrible, unforgivable crime against the Jewish nation, a crime against humanity that cannot be accepted by humankind."

The meeting Abbas was addressing was a rare gathering; the last time the PLO's legislative body held a regular meeting was in the late 90s.

While Abbas told those assembled that he wanted the Palestinians to live peacefully in an independent Palestinian state existing alongside Israel, it was his thoughts on the fate of European Jews that unsurprisingly made headlines and prompted a series of denunciations.

"Such statements are unacceptable, deeply disturbing and do not serve the interests of the Palestinian people or peace in the Middle East," said Nickolay E Mladenov, the UN's special coordinator for the Middle East peace process. "Leaders have an obligation to confront anti-Semitism everywhere and always, not perpetuate the conspiracy theories that fuel it."

The EEAS, the EU's foreign service, also condemned the remarks as "unacceptable" and said "such rhetoric will only play into the hands of those who do not want a two-state solution, which President Abbas has repeatedly advocated".

With anti-Semitism growing in several corners of Europe in tandem with the rise of far-right movements, the EEAS described it as a threat not only for Jews "but a fundamental menace to our open and liberal societies" and said it was committed to any attempt "to condone, justify or grossly trivialise the Holocaust".

Jason D Greenblatt, the White House Middle East envoy, posted on Twitter: "President Abbas' remarks...must be unconditionally condemned by all."

Israeli officials also weighed in. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's spokesman remarked in a tweet: "A man who denies the Jewish people's connection to the Land of Israel that is thousands of years old, blames the Jews for the Holocaust and claims that Hitler helped Jews has lost all connection to reality and does not want peace."

Michael Oren, Israel's deputy minister for diplomacy, tweeted: "Mahmoud Abbas says money-lending Jews provoked Holocaust... Now there's a peace partner."

The furore comes at a particularly delicate time. The US is due to open its embassy in Jerusalem on May 14, the 70th anniversary of the founding of Israel.

Palestinians are planning to mark the anniversary of what they call the Nakba or "catastrophe" with a series of protests. Abbas's remarks this week will only have further poisoned the mood.

Irish Independent

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