In 2005, Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, declared that the Holocaust was a myth perpetrated by Israel and its supporters. Met with international outrage and ridicule, his denial was insight for many of how Iran – and the many in the Arab world – viewed this horrifying event in human history. This set the tone for the conservative president’s term. At the time of the statement, he had only been in office a few months. For the next eight years, he would continue to direct his inflammatory rhetoric at various targets, making him a source of hostility within his own country and internationally.
His successor, Hassan Rouhani, has taken a decidedly different tact. Since beginning his term in August of this year, President Rouhani has been on a “charm-offensive,” taking a more conciliatory tone on things such as nuclear weapons and Iran’s relationship with the United States; the latter has resulted in a phone call with President Barack Obama. This was the first such call between the two countries’ presidents in more than 30 years. He even tweeted about it.
Shortly after his speech at the United Nations, Rouhani sat down for an interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour. In the interview, he acknowledged “Any crime that happens in history against humanity, including the crime the Nazis committed towards the Jews as well as non-Jews, was reprehensible and condemnable.”
In other words, the Holocaust happened.
His acknowledgement was met with surprise and skepticism, considering just a few days earlier, Rouhani was unwilling to make such a statement. Abraham Foxman, The Anti-Defamation League National Director, said in a written statement, “It is about time an Iranian leader acknowledged the Holocaust as a tragic fact of history.”
In his article, Views of the Holocaust in Arab Media and Public Discourse (Yale Journal, Winter/Spring 2006), Stephen Wicken identifies two schools of thought regarding the Holocaust. The first is denial, as exhibited by Ahmadinejad, which can range from declaring it an outright myth to claiming that there is no way that six million Jews could have been killed. This perspective has been further exploited by some deniers to make outrageous claims like concentration camps were “refugee camps” and that the gas chambers were simply used to purify clothing and tools that contained lice and other disease spreading organisms.
Wicken explains that the “denial and diminution” of the Holocaust is rooted in “vicious anti-Semitism,” as well as a perceived Israeli human rights abuses during wars with Arab states. He points out that while there was outrage over Ahmadinejad’s statement, little notice was taken of his justification saying “that if the Holocaust was a crime committed by Europeans against other Europeans, the Palestinian nation should not be the one to pay the price.”
President Rouhani’s statement falls in line with the second school of thought in which intellectuals, journalists and politicians in the Arab region aim for a greater mutual understanding of the pain of the Holocaust, as well as of the Palestinian people.
As Wicken says, it’s about perspective:
“For Israeli Jews, 1948 was the year of homecoming. It was the year of deliverance from the evil of the Nazi Holocaust, the extermination of six million Jews, alongside millions of Roma, Sinti, Slavs, and many others. For Palestinian Arabs, however, 1948 was the year of the nakba (catastrophe), when, according to Edward Said, ‘750,000 of us who were living there — two-thirds of the population — were driven out, our property taken, hundreds of villages destroyed, an entire society obliterated.’”
Rouhani’s statement acknowledges the pain and the horror of the Holocaust. Empathy for one’s enemy is a necessary step towards reconciliation. There is little doubt that the denying and otherwise minimizing of the tragedy of the Holocaust makes it easier to see Israel as a heartless aggressor and, therefore, find them deserving of retaliation. “Whatever criminality they committed against the Jews we condemn,” Rouhani told CNN. “The taking of human life is contemptible. It makes no difference if that life is Jewish life, Christian or Muslim. For us it is the same.”
Rouhani’s call for an “even-handed approach” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was met with resistance by the ADL. In response to his statement that such a tragedy did not justify Israel to “usurp the land of another and occupy it,” they pointed out that “President Rouhani engaged in the more subtle form of Holocaust revisionism, minimizing it by accusing the Jewish survivors of taking vengeance on the Palestinians in fulfilling their 2,000-year-old dream of returning to their homeland, Israel.”
Whether Rouhani’s acknowledgement is political maneuvering or based in personal belief is unknown. He admits he is not a historian, perhaps as a way of giving a wink and a nudge to the deniers. Nevertheless, nuance has never been characteristic of Iran or in any discussions which involve the Middle East. An attempt to approach the conversation with understanding can help thaw the ice and lead to something that resembles forward movement.
As the late scholar Edward Said wrote in The End of the Peace Process: Oslo and After of each side’s experience, “Neither is equal to the other; similarly, neither one nor the other excuses present violence; and finally, neither one nor the other must be minimized. There is suffering and injustice enough for everyone.”
It’s all about perspective.
Photo credit: Mojtaba Salimi (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons