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Right Idea, Wrong Holocaust Museum

A visit by Abbas to Jerusalem's Yad Vashem, not D.C. institution, would be strong symbol instead of PR stunt.

August 18, 2003|Walter Reich

U.S. officials want Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas to visit a Holocaust museum. They have the right idea but the wrong museum. The museum they have in mind is in Washington. The one to which he should go is in Jerusalem.

Abbas wrote a book that distorted, denied or minimized core facts of Holocaust history. Were he to visit a Holocaust museum, he would have the opportunity to correct his assault on history and at least quell some of the Holocaust denial that's rampant in the Arab world.

But he would be able to accomplish that with seriousness and credibility not in Washington -- where any such act would be seen as having been engineered by the American government to enhance Abbas' image -- but at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, where it would truly be a courageous and galvanizing act of humanity and education.

The central argument of Abbas' 1984 book, "The Other Face: the Secret Connection Between the Nazis and the Zionist Movement," was that the Zionist movement was a partner in crime with the Nazis against the Jewish people. After the war, Abbas wrote, the Zionist movement inflated the number of Jews killed by the Germans to 6 million in order to arouse sympathy. The actual number, he suggested, might have been fewer than 1 million.

And regarding the gas chambers -- which, Abbas wrote, "were supposedly designed for murdering Jews" -- he refers his readers to "a scientific study" by the French Holocaust denier Robert Faurisson. Faurisson, Abbas points out, believes they were used "only for incinerating bodies, out of concern for the spread of disease and infection in the region."

Last April, after Abbas was designated as the prime minister of the Palestinian Authority, Tom Lantos, the highest-ranking Democrat on the House International Relations Committee and the only Holocaust survivor in Congress, knowing of Abbas' writings on the Holocaust, offered to guide him through the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.

According to the congressman, Abbas accepted the offer. But in a letter to Lantos written just before his visit to Washington in July, the Palestinian prime minister said that his schedule would be too tight for a museum visit, adding that he looked forward to seeing it on his next trip to Washington.

Lantos should breathe a sigh of relief that Abbas didn't go through with the museum visit in Washington, which would have been hijacked in the service of political agendas. He should try, instead, to convince Abbas to drive a few miles from his home to Jerusalem's Yad Vashem.

The unsuitability of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum for this kind of visit was made evident in 1998, while I was its director, when the State Department initiated an invitation for a visit by Yasser Arafat -- a visit I opposed.

At the time, the State Department was encountering bumps in the path of the Oslo peace effort. The hope was that prominent press coverage of Arafat surveying exhibits on the Holocaust would induce American Jews -- many of whom opposed the administration's policy of pressuring Israel for concessions because they distrusted Arafat -- to see the Palestinian leader as a man who could feel their pain and therefore could be entrusted to protect the security of the Jewish state.

On the day of the planned visit, Arafat himself demonstrated its political essence. He called it off as soon as he learned there would be no press coverage. The Monica Lewinsky story had just broken, and the Washington press corps had decamped to the White House to cover it.

And now the administration is again focused on Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking and wants to convince skeptical Jews, in both the United States and Israel, that Abbas is not Arafat.

Were Abbas to visit the Holocaust museum in Washington, many Jews would see the visit as a diplomatic gimmick set up by the administration to manipulate their opinions and as an exploitation of the memory of their dead for political purposes. And Arabs would see it as a humiliating concession extorted from a weak Palestinian leader by a powerful America. The visit's potential to advance Holocaust education would be smothered by the reality and appearance of politics.

On the other hand, a visit by Abbas to Israel's own Holocaust museum would separate the gesture from diplomatic maneuverings by Washington. In the Arab world it would raise doubts about Holocaust denial; in Israel it would be seen as a genuine acknowledgment of the history and fears of Israelis.

Like Anwar Sadat's breakthrough trip to Jerusalem, such a visit would be a great act of statesmanship, courage and imagination. It would be a journey to the heart of the darkness that is central to Israel's nightmares. It would establish Abbas as a leader independent of Palestinian politics and taboos and independent of Arafat, and it would reveal the bravery of a man willing to risk attack at home and to do what few of us are ever willing to do: acknowledge that he was wrong. Most important, it could galvanize and reset the dynamics of the Israeli-Palestinian confrontation.

Walter Reich, a professor of international affairs, ethics and human behavior at George Washington University, was director of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum from 1995 to 1998.

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