Friday, December 22, 2006

The Disgrace of Holocaust Denial

While studying at Temple University in Philadelphia in the ‘70s, I became good friends with a fellow-student named Bob Morraine. Bob had a terrific sense of humor who could tease out laughter from the bleakest of situations. I found hipany delightful.

One day I learned that Bob’s father was a dentist with a thriving practice in a suburb of Philadelphia. When I told him that I had never had a dental checkup in Bangladesh, Bob was aghast. Ignoring my protestations, he made an appointment for me to see his father.

When Dr. Morraine took a look at my teeth the following week, it would be an understatement to say that he was shocked. I was overdue for extensive dental surgery. The treatment had to be spread out over several weeks and would have cost a few thousand dollars even then, but knowing my student status and still wanting to honor me as a paying patient, he charged me a grand total of … fifty dollars.

Bob was Jewish and we rarely saw eye-to-eye on the Palestinian issue, having animated give-and-take whenever the opportunity arose. There was one topic, though, that cast a shadow on Bob’s ever-smiling face, and that was the topic of the Holocaust. Although I was aware of the general nature of this crime against humanity (my most vivid exposure to it until then was the 1961 movie, Judgment at Nuremberg), I would never have fathomed its affect on the Jewish psyche had I not known Bob. Even though removed from the event by a generation or two, the Holocaust seemed as real to Bob as it was to its victims. I learned to respect that and developed an understanding of the enormity of the genocide.

Bob and I lost contact after graduation. I came west to California (“Go west, young man!” as Horace Greely, a newspaperman from Lincoln’s time, exhorted.) As far as I know, Bob stayed East.

The memory of my friend came flooding to my mind when I learned that the Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had sponsored a 2-day “International Conference to Review the Global Vision of the Holocaust” in Tehran, beginning December 11. I could almost see the sorrow on Bob’s face as he lapsed into uncharacteristic silence on hearing the news. Nothing could make the atrocity of this conference more painful for me than imagining the effect it must have had on a friend I had known decades ago. I felt ashamed and angry.

The question remains: why? Why hold a conference like this? Surely it cannot be to prove that the Holocaust never happened. There is far too much evidence for even the most diehard denier to seriously consider such a notion. Is it to prove then that, while it may have taken place, it wasn’t as “bad” as it has been made out to be, that maybe, instead of 6 million Jews, only a million or two perished? Would that somehow make the Holocaust a lesser crime against humanity? What lunacy is this, trying to open a hidden wound with such cruelty?

I was heartened to see the major American Muslim organizations unequivocally condemning the Iran conference. I was most inspired by Imam Mohamed Magid of the All Dulles Area Muslim Society who organized a visit by several Muslim leaders to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum to acknowledge and commemorate Jewish suffering under the Nazis. As reported by Mary Beth Sheridan in Washington Post on December 21, the museum’s director, Sara J. Bloomfield, said: “We stand here with three survivors of the Holocaust and my great Muslim friends to condemn this outrage in Iran.” Johanna Neumann recalled how Albanian Muslims saved her Jewish family when they fled to Albania from Germany. “Everybody knew who we were. Nobody would even have thought of denouncing us to the Nazis,” said Neumann. “These people deserve every respect anybody can give them.”

Equally compelling was the letter written by a Palestinian militant to the president of Iran (reported by Rabbi Michael Lerner in a message to the Tikkun community) who had spent 18 years in an Israeli prison.

Mahmoud Al-Safadi wrote: “I am furious about your insistence on claiming that the Holocaust never took place and about your doubts about the number of Jews who were murdered in the extermination and concentration camps, organized massacres, and gas chambers, consequently denying the universal historical significance of the Nazi period … Whatever the number of victims – Jewish and non-Jewish – the crime is monumental … Ask yourself, I beg you, the following question: were hundreds of thousands of testimonies written about death camps, gas chambers, ghettos, and mass murders committed by the German army, tens of thousands of works of research based on German documents, numerous filmed sequences, some of which were shot by German soldiers – were all these masses of evidence completely fabricated?”

While the Tehran conference reflects the opinion of Ahmadinejad and his cohorts, it is a mistake to think that it also reflects the opinion of ordinary Iranians. During the week of the Holocaust conference and afterwards, students at several leading Iranian universities staged massive demonstrations against the president for his crackdown on academic and personal freedom. “Forget the Holocaust – do something for us,” they chanted, and even “Death to the dictator!” (reported in New York Times by Nazila Fathi, December 21).

Denying the Holocaust only diminishes the denier. In this regard, one irony that must have escaped the president of Iran is that Jews, Christians and Muslims are celebrating Hanukkah, Christmas and Eid-ul-Adha, respectively, in the same month in which he held his infamous conference. I find the symbolism deeply persuasive, in that enmity, despair and hate will be trumped by peace, hope and goodwill.

PS: More than a hundred Iranian intellectuals recently signed a statement condemning the Holocaust conference sponsored by the government of Iran.

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