Mahmoud Abbas' Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day
And how it turned our attention away from the massacre we really should be speaking about this week
Remember those days (see NYT above)? When Abbas had finally come around? Well, he hadn’t of course, but there were few outside Israel who didn’t fall for his pretense.
You (almost) have to feel sorry for Abbas, who last week had, a la the famous Alexander of children’s fame, a “Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.” Asked in Berlin whether, as the 50th anniversary of the Munich Olympics murders approaches, he was inclined to apologize for it, he launched into a tirade in which he said:
If we want to dig further into the past, yes, please, I have 50 massacres that were committed by Israel … Fifty massacres, 50 Holocausts, and to this day, every day, we have dead people killed by the [Israeli Defense Forces], by the Israeli army.”
Listen to Abbas’ comments in the tweet below, posted by Armin Laschet, a Member of the German Bundestag and Vice President of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.
Note that Abbas is speaking in Arabic, but when it came to “Holocaust” (00:03), he switched to English. He had a point to make to his (German/international) audience.
But oops, it turns out that the Germans take the trivialization of the Holocaust seriously. In fact, the news in Germany was not so much that Abbas had said something so stupid, but the fact that the German Chancellor had not taken him on, on the spot.
“Abbas trivializes the Holocaust, and Scholtz was silent,” read the above headline. Scholtz, ironically, was in hotter political water for being silent than Abbas was for being obscene.
Still, Abbas quickly realized he had stepped on a landmine of his own making, and tried walking things back over the next few days, but the damage was done. The German police, new sources reported, were investigating him.
But there’s an unwitting obscenity in the German police investigating Abbas, too. For Abbas, obviously, has much less to fear from the German authorities than did the victims of the Holocaust he continually either trivializes or denies. Jews back then did not have the luxury that Abbas does of cavalierly ignoring being tracked by German police.
Few are likely to say it out loud, but Abbas’ honesty likely caused the Palestinians a signifiant setback. In certain corridors and offices and even homes, it’s probably a bit clearer now as to why things in this region are stuck the way they are.
I say “honesty” advisedly—because this time, Abbas was just saying what he believed, not what he usually remembers the world wants to hear. Recall that he was awarded his PhD after writing a dissertation that argued that responsibility for the Holocaust lay with … the Jews. Yes, you read that right. The Jews caused the Holocaust.
How? Here’s how Yair Rosenberg, writing in Tablet Magazine almost a decade ago, summarized the thesis of the thesis:
One of the less savory aspects of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s biography is that he has a PhD in Holocaust denial–literally. His 1982 dissertation, published as “The Other Side: the Secret Relationship Between Nazism and Zionism,” famously argues that the Zionists collaborated with the Nazis in order to spur more Jewish immigration to Palestine. “The Zionist movement,” it explains, “led a broad campaign of incitement against the Jews living under Nazi rule, in order to arouse the government’s hatred of them, to fuel vengeance against them, and to expand the mass extermination.” The Zionists, the work asserts, were the Third Reich’s “basic partner in crime.” It also claims that the figure of six million dead has been exaggerated for political gain, and suggests one million as a more reasonable estimate. Abbas has never unreservedly repudiated the document, and has in fact regularly reaffirmed its core argument, saying in 2013 that he had “70 more books that I still haven’t published” proving the Zionist-Nazi partnership.
Abbas, it seems, has a unique take on history. And that no doubt has something to do with his unwillingness to apologize for the savagery in Munich. But there's another reason, as well: the fact that he apparently financed the attack. Mohammed Daoud Oudeh, or Abu Daoud as he was commonly known, the only one of the masterminds of the attack to die of natural causes (Israeli security forces hastened the others to their eternal rest), specifically stated that the funding was provided by Mahmoud Abbas.1
Why does any of this matter? Because it explains a great deal about why our region is stuck where it is.
There are obviously myriad reasons for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict enduring as it has, and yes, there is plenty of blame to go around. But at the very core of the whole complicated mess is what one might call the Palestinian myopic take on history. Either what happened never happened, or it did happen but needs to be reversed (and when does history get reversed?).
Yasser Arafat was an expert at the “it never happened” take on history. As is well known, he denied that there had ever been a Temple in Jerusalem, his point being that the Jews had not come home, but were, instead, interlopers just like the Crusaders—and just like the Crusaders, they’d eventually be gone.
A comment by Dennis Ross in his excellent The Missing Peace is almost funny, though he certainly did not intend it to be so. Ross, who in addition to many other roles, served with distinction as Middle East Envoy under President Bill Clinton, said to Arafat:2
Mr. Chairman, regardless of what you think, the President of the United States knows that the Temple existed in Jerusalem. If he hears you denying its existence there, he will never again take you seriously. My advice to you is never again raise this issue in his presence.
Arafat, though, stopped making that argument only because he died. And Abbas picked up the thread, making precisely the same absurd claim.
The world, of course, pretended not to hear.
And as for history, don’t forget the Palestinian mantra: “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.” No reasonable mind can deny that 1947-1949 was horribly tragic for the Palestinian people. But how does their narrative relate to that tragedy? It needs to be reversed. All of Palestine must be free. If the Jews experienced tragedy, it either never happened (Temple) or was their fault (Holocaust). If the Palestinians experienced tragedy, the world needs to ensure that history is reversed (1948).
That’s not a take on history that makes resolution of the conflict terribly likely.
For most of the western world’s narrative to function, however, Abbas must either be a good guy or at least must always be on the verge of becoming one.
Which begs the obvious question: if Abbas hoodwinked everyone eight years ago, what happened this week?
The answer is likely age. Abbas, who is in the seventeenth year of a five-year term and is 86 years old, is just old and tired. With no real progress for his people to which he can point after almost two decades on the job, he’s just ancient and exhausted. So old and tired, in fact, that he finally just said what he thinks, forgetting for a moment that his job has always been to say what the world wants to hear.
If someone were to ask you, “when did the Israeli-Arab armed conflict begin?”, what would you say? The best answer is that it began in 1929, in this week of August, with the “pogrom” that ended the ancient Jewish community of Hebron.
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If Abbas’ outburst at being asked whether he felt contrition over Munich has reminded us why the end of the conflict is nowhere in sight, we mark this week, on August 24, the anniversary of the day that the conflict began.
Tensions surrounding the Temple Mount in Jerusalem had been simmering for months. In September 1928, Jews erected a temporary divider in front of the Western Wall so that men and women could pray there separately on Yom Kippur, in keeping with Jewish tradition. In response, the grand mufti, Haj Amin al-Husseini (who later collaborated with the Nazis), demanded restrictions on Jewish activity at the Western Wall, beginning a pattern of incitement that only further inflamed matters. Rumors that the Jews had designs on the al-Haram al-Sharif (“Noble Sanctuary,” known to Jews as the Temple Mount) then began to spread as did the circulation of falsified images of damage at the site of the Dome of the Rock; Muslim leaders claimed the “damage” was done by Jews.
Rumors of Jews taking over the Temple Mount or destroying the mosques on the site have been a consistent theme in the Arab-Jewish conflict and have proven incendiary since the first days of the violence between the two communities. In 1929, these rumors led to the destruction of the centuries-old Jewish community of Hebron, which essentially ignited the Arab-Jewish conflict. In 2000, an announced and legal visit to the Temple Mount by then MK Ariel Sharon (he did not enter any of the mosques) enraged Muslims, which Yasser Arafat used as a pretext for unleashing the Second Intifada, which lasted from 2000 to 2004 and claimed thousands of victims. In 2015, (false) rumors that Israel planned to change the status quo of who could visit the Temple Mount and who could pray there led to incitement and then to yet another outbreak of Arabs stabbing and shooting Jews, and attacking them with vehicles.
Eventually, the false rumors led to violence. On Friday, August 23, 1929, Arab youths hurled rocks at yeshiva students in Hebron.3 Later that day, when a young man named Shmuel Rosenholtz went to the yeshiva alone, Arabs forced their way into the building and killed him. He would be the first of dozens to die in the unfolding riot. The following morning, on the Jewish Sabbath, Arab mobs, wielding clubs, knives, and axes, began to surround the Jewish community of Hebron. Arab women and children threw stones at the Jews, while men ransacked Jewish homes and destroyed Jewish property. The rioters turned to one of the community’s rabbis, in whose house many frightened Jews were hiding, and offered him a deal. They would spare the local Middle Eastern Jewish community if the rabbi turned over the Ashkenazi Jews. When he refused, the rioters killed him. The rioting that ensued soon spread beyond Hebron. By the end of the rampage, 133 Jews lay dead, 67 of them in Hebron alone.
Hundreds of Jews who survived the massacre were saved by their Arab neighbors, some of whom hid Jews in their own homes at great personal peril. Nonetheless, the Hebron Jewish community, which had been established four centuries earlier by Jewish refugees from Spain and was one of the oldest Jewish communities in the world, had been utterly destroyed.
And the Jewish-Arab armed conflict, which has now endured for 93 years, was underway.
It’s unfortunate that that anniversary will go largely unmentioned in most of the world’s media, and even in many Jewish communities around the world. It’s telling that few people recall any longer how all of this started, and that it started almost a century ago.
If there’s any ironic consolation, it lies in the fact that at least we’re talking about Abbas’ terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day. For if we’re not going to discuss at all how the conflict began, the least we can do is note how obvious it became this week why it’s not about to end.
With the holidays coming up and many of them falling on Mondays (our column day) and Yom Kippur on Wednesday (podcast day), here is the tentative schedule for Israel from the Inside for the weeks of the holidays:
If you read Sapir, the relatively new and absolutely excellent new Jewish publication which I’ve mentioned before, you’ve likely seen Rachel Fish’s piece, Can the Academy Be Saved from Anti-Zionism? In that piece, Rachel discusses what happens when certain intellectual ideas become the primary lens through which all other issues are refracted. It’s happened with gender in America, of course, but also race and power. And when it comes to race and power, Israel almost invariably ends up in the crosshairs.
Rachel, a cofounder of “Boundless,” a new think-action tank partnering with community leaders to revitalize Israel education and take bold collective action to combat Jew-hatred, spoke with us about the challenges that Jewish students are now facing on college campuses, particularly around issues related to Israel.
What happens when a statistics professor uses Israel, and only Israel, as a statistic in human rights abuses “examples.” If students complain, the Dean of Students will reply that the example is protected under freedom of speech and academic freedom. What’s a student who has to be in the class for an entire semester or year supposed to do? Or what about when the starting point of discussions about Israel is not the Green Line, but the question, “Does Israel have a right to exist?”
Rachel, an activist to her very core, has some theories about why the Jewish community hasn’t begun to pressure and cut off the flow of Jewish money to universities until they change their tune. If the issue was sexual harassment or gender, people would cut off money in a second; people would be fired. But not when it comes to Israel or Jews.
What is Rachel discovering about the priorities of philanthropists who continue to support these universities and colleges, and those of parents who continue to send their children to them? And where do we go from here?
To listen to Rachel is to listen to a fighter, a person with a passionate sense of justice, and a person who cowers before nothing. Listen to her, and you’ll just wish there were more of her. Our conversation with Rachel, along with a printed transcript, will be posted on Wednesday for paid subscribers to Israel from the Inside.
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Dennis Ross, The Missing Peace:The Inside Story of the Fight for Middle East Peace (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004), page 718.
Summary of the Hebron violence is taken from my book, ISRAEL: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn (Ecco, 2016).