Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Politics of Denial

Published September 24, 2009 in Middle East Mirror.

History is political. And in a region fraught with battles over legitimacy, where each group prizes the mantle of righteous victimhood, the political implications of history are deeply felt. Unfortunately, when political ideologies obscure our common humanity, conflicts over history can generate a climate of denial.

In the Middle East, the present reverberates with historical suffering. On Yom HaShoah in Israel, sirens mark the tragedy of the Nazi genocide, and the nation comes to a stop as Israelis stand at attention and remember the loss of six million. Memorials to the victims of terrorism dot the country. Each year Palestinians remember the Nakba ("Catastrophe") with demonstrations commemorating the exile of 750,000 Palestinians during the 1948 war. Shaheed ("martyr") posters cover the walls of refugee camps in Gaza and the West Bank. The faces of martyrs are also omnipresent in Iran, where passion plays mourning Shia leader Imam Hussein swirl with memories of bloodshed in the Islamic Revolution and Iran-Iraq War.

Denying the suffering of others can serve multiple political purposes. For example, rejecting the Holocaust or the Nakba can be a vehicle to challenge Israel's right to exist or Palestinians' right of return. Denial--especially when victims are accused of emotional manipulation--can also undercut sympathy for adversaries, which is especially critical in a battle over international opinion.

Denying the Holocaust

Before heading to the United Nations General Assembly in New York, Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made a speech during Iran's annual Quds Day (Jerusalem Day) rally labeling the Holocaust "a lie" and "a mythical claim". The speech was one of many expressions of denial from the Iranian government, which in December 2006 convened a conference challenging the authenticity of the Holocaust. According to NPR diplomatic correspondent Mike Shuster, the Iranian government's Holocaust denial serves the political purpose of delegitimizing Israel's existence while diverting attention from domestic problems such as its troubled economy.

Holocaust denial also runs rampant throughout the Arab Middle East, appearing often in newspapers and other media. As the U.N. Relief and Works Agency discussed plans to teach about the Holocaust in its Gaza schools, Hamas spiritual leader Younis al-Astal condemned the curriculum as a "war crime." In a written statement, Al-Astal called the curriculum tantamount to "marketing a lie and spreading it," arguing that it "serves the Zionist colonizers."

In an April editorial in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Palestinian writer Aziz Abu Sarah wrote of his decision to commemorate Holocaust Remembrance Day by watching the film Schindler's List. His reflections reveal much about the impulse to deny the suffering of those on the opposing side of a conflict. "As Palestinians, we simply did not learn about [the Holocaust]," he wrote. "There was a stigma attached to it, an understanding that Israel would use the Holocaust to lobby for sympathy, then turn and use the sympathy as a terrible weapon against the Palestinian people…. Deep down, I think I felt that by acknowledging their pain, I would betray or marginalize my own suffering."

Silencing the Nakba

Denial cuts both ways, however. Israeli Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar recently announced his intention to remove mention of the Nakba from textbooks, arguing that the subject would encourage extremism among Arab-Israelis. Notably, Israeli textbooks bore no mention of the Nakba at all until Israel's former Education Minister Yuli Tamir approved a text broaching the subject in 2007.

In an interview with the Institute for Middle East Understanding, Israeli activist Eitan Bronstein, founder of the organization Zochrot ("Remembering"), described the lack of awareness about the Nakba in Israel. "When it comes to the Nakba and what was there before Israel was created, it's a big hole, a black hole and people don't know how to deal with it," he said. There is, in part, a linguistic reason for this gap: during the 1948 war, many Palestinian villages were destroyed or depopulated, and the names of those that remained were changed from Arabic to Hebrew.

In May, Israel's Ministerial Committee on Legislation approved a motion to ban Nakba Day commemorations of the birth of the refugee crisis. According to the motion, brought before the committee by Knesset Member Alex Miller of the far-right Yisrael Beiteinu ("Israel Is Our Home") party, anyone observing Nakba Day could receive up to three years in jail. The motion was a source of heated controversy between those who opposed it on free speech grounds and those who alleged the Nakba demonstrations constituted "incitement" against the State of Israel.

The Armenian Genocide

In Turkey, the government refuses to acknowledge the Armenian Genocide that claimed an estimated 1.5 million Armenian lives in the Ottoman Empire during and shortly after World War I. As with the Nakba, the Turkish avoidance of history has a linguistic side. Because of Turkey's 1928 language reform, during which Turkey switched from an Arabic alphabet to a Latin-based alphabet, most Turks are unable to read Ottoman-era writings.

In April 2007, Turkey objected to the wording of a U.N. exhibition entitled "Lessons from Rwanda," which included the following sentence: "Following World War 1, during which one million Armenians were murdered in Turkey, Polish lawyer Raphael Lemkin urged the United Nations to recognize crimes of barbarity as international crimes." The objection caused a delay in the opening of the exhibition, which occurred three weeks later after a compromise wording was created.

Official rejection of the genocide has had real consequences for Turkish artists and intellectuals courageous enough to address the issue. Under the controversial Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code, which took effect in 2005, it is a crime to insult Turkey, the Turkish ethnicity, or Turkish government institutions. The article has enabled prominent Turkish novelists Orhan Pamuk and Elif Shafak to be brought to trial for referencing the genocide, though charges were dropped in both cases. However, the grave repercussions of denial came through in 2006, when renowned Armenian-Turkish journalist Hrant Dink was prosecuted under Article 301 and was subsequently assassinated in January 2007. The assassination took place shortly after Dink appeared in the documentary Screamers, about denial of the Armenian Genocide.

Recognition and Reconciliation

The act of acknowledging and honoring others' suffering is an essential part of reconciliation. In an interview with JustVision, Aziz Abu Sarah told of his desire for revenge after his brother died from injuries he sustained during beatings in an Israeli prison. However, after a family friend persuaded Abu Sarah and his parents to participate in the dialogue organization the Bereaved Families Forum, his growing awareness of Israeli grief prompted him to become a peace activist.

On a larger scale, such encounters can play a significant role in dismantling the climate of denial and transforming conflicts. Acknowledging past suffering does not mean excusing present-day injustices. Rather, by recognizing others' pain, it is possible to reverse the battle over victimhood and establish meaningful human connections.

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