By Robert Fisk
Editor’s note: This article was originally printed in The Independent.
“This young woman who upsets people ...” was the headline in Lebanon’s L’Orient Littáraire yesterday [Thursday]. The teenager was Anne Frank, who died of typhoid at Bergen-Belsen in 1945 after being betrayed to the Nazi authorities, along with her family, in her Amsterdam “safe house”. The upset people were the Lebanese Hizbollah, who successfully persuaded teachers at a Beirut school to withdraw an English language primer from the library after it discovered extracts from Anne Frank’s world-famous diary in the book. Yesterday, in a brave and literary defence of freedom of speech, Michel Hajji Georgiou told his readers why this act of censorship was against the Arabs.
Anne Frank, he said, was “a child in revolt against fear, against intolerance, against a mad world, who escapes her Lebanese critics ... Anne, under injustice, in a suffering transcended by art and writing, is nothing less than the sister of the Palestinian or Lebanese children in the novels of Elias Khoury or Ghassan Kanafani ... of the British children in J G Ballard’s Empire of the Sun and John Boorman’s Hope and Glory.”
Jews and Israelis may object to the parallel – indeed, will object to the parallel – between Jewish suffering under the Nazis and Palestinian suffering under the Israelis, but they should at least admire Georgiou’s front-page article. It is accompanied by a large and well-known photograph of Anne, smiling in all innocence into the camera, unaware how short her life will be. The Jewish Holocaust is not a subject which Arabs have learned to live with. While Arab censorship is not as outrageous as Turkish laws against all mention of the 1915 Christian Armenian Holocaust by the Muslim Ottoman Turks – which can send writers to prison – Hitler’s Mein Kampf is freely on sale in Beirut and reference to the Jewish Holocaust has been censored on television.
When I made a two-and-a-half-hour documentary on the Arab-Israeli conflict, Lebanon’s New TV channel initially cut out a 16-minute sequence on the murder of Polish Jews whose surviving families eventually arrived in Israel. Only after angry remonstrations did I persuade the station’s owner to show the uncut film – which he did the following night. But being the first Westerner to put the Jewish Holocaust on a Lebanese television channel did not win any favours. Respectable, well educated families in Beirut argued with me for years afterwards that the Nazi massacres were either exaggerated or non-existent.
There is no doubt that Israel’s use of the Holocaust to suppress any legitimate criticism of Israel’s current brutality towards the Palestinians has much to do with this. Holocaust denial is anti-Semitic, but the facile slander of anti-Semitism against anyone who condemns Israel’s outrageous behaviour towards its neighbours long ago provoked a deep sense of cynicism among Arabs towards the facts of 20th century Jewish history in Europe. The insistence of Palestinian academics such as Edward Said that the Jewish Holocaust should not be denied – on the basis that a denial of one people’s suffering automatically negated another people’s suffering (the Palestinians, albeit on a far smaller scale) – has received little understanding in the Muslim world. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s ravings about the Holocaust have only encouraged the habit of “denialism”.
A pity. For while serious study of the subject might have been denied to pupils at a school at Mseitbeh – a Shia suburb of Beirut – who were using The Interactive Reader Plus for English Learners, Lebanese students are also deprived of Victor Klemperer’s diaries. Klemperer, a German Jewish academic, condemned the Jewish colonisation of pre-Second World War Palestine even as he and his wife were threatened by the Nazis in his native Dresden. Ironically, I bought my copy of Klemperer’s books in highly Islamic Pakistan.
In other words, not all Jewish Holocaust survivors – or victims – would automatically have supported the creation of the State of Israel. Israel’s constant demonisation of Palestinians as Nazis – the late prime minister Menachem Begin specifically compared Yasser Arafat to Hitler – finds its apotheosis in the Holocaust museum at Yad Vashem outside Jerusalem where the equally late Grand Mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini is pictured with Hitler. Al-Husseini’s picture is real; Israel’s racist foreign minister used it a few weeks ago to further demean the Palestinians, although it is immensely to Israel’s credit that the fairest biography of this anti-Jewish figure was written by a former Israeli military governor of Gaza.
Hizbollah, of course, has well and truly managed to put its foot in it in Beirut. Its Al Manar television station criticised Anne Frank’s diaries because they are “devoted to the persecution of the Jews… Even more dangerous still is the dramatic and theatrical way in which the diary is written – it is full of emotion.” Poor 15-year old Anne Frank’s record of her suffering was not unemotional enough for the warriors of the Hizbollah, her book mere proof of “the Zionist invasion of [Lebanese] education.” In fairness, Beirut’s bookshops show no fear of selling books on the Jewish Holocaust and the evils of the Second World War. The Jews of Lebanon were once counted in their thousands; many came from Nazi Germany en route to Palestine but stayed because they loved the country and the Arab people. The government is repairing the old Jewish synagogue whose roof was shot off in 1982 – by an Israeli gunboat.
AP / Evert Elzinga
A facsimile of Anne Frank’s diary is displayed during a press conference at Anne Frank House in Amsterdam last June 11.