At a press conference in Germany on August 16th, Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas horrified Germans and Jews alike. He was asked if he would apologize for the murder of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics; the terrorist organization responsible was once associated with Abbas’s Fatah party. Abbas did not denounce the attack. Instead, he said, “If you want to look at the past, go ahead… I have 50 massacres that were committed by Israel… 50 Holocausts.” He said the word “Holocausts” in English — there is no translation confusion, no benefit of the doubt.
Jews were outraged but not surprised by Abbas’s comments. Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid called them “not only a moral disgrace, but a monstrous lie.” Dani Dayan, the Chairman of Yad Vashem, said he was “appall[ed].” Dayan’s word choice might convey more shock than is warranted, considering Abbas’s personal history. After all, Abbas’s cavalier dismissal of the Holocaust was not a one-off mistake but part of a decades-long pattern. Abbas has at times denied the Holocaust by arguing about the number of Jewish victims. His 1982 doctoral dissertation, “The Other Side: The Secret Relationship Between Naziism and Zionism,” stated that Jewish leadership encouraged the Nazis as part of a master Zionist agenda to get Jews to settle in Palestine. Zionists and Nazis, he argued, were not enemies but “partners in crime.” Such a perspective dismisses Jewish persecution and perpetuates the stereotype of a manipulative Jewish elite pulling all the strings.
Perhaps not as familiar with Abbas’s past Holocaust rhetoric, Germans have reacted even more viscerally than Jews. Some Germans believe that people should only use the word Holocaust to describe the Nazis’ actions and are accustomed to a degree of sensitivity that Abbas disregarded. German chancellor Olaf Scholz, who grimaced at the press conference in response to Abbas’s words, said that he was “disgusted by the outrageous remarks. For… Germans in particular, any relativization of the singularity of the Holocaust is intolerable and unacceptable.” Abbas did more than hurt a few feelings; he alienated Germany, at least temporarily, at a time when Palestinians need as much foreign support as they can get as Israel makes peace with its neighbors. Foreign and security policy advisor Steffen Hebestreit said that Abbas’s comment “casts a dark shadow over Germany’s relations with the Palestinian Authority.” German leadership is investigating Abbas for inciting hatred, but his status as a diplomat will ensure immunity from prosecution.
Abbas’s political rivals have jumped to his defense in response to widespread and global criticism. Islamic Jihad official Khaled al-Batsh blamed the Germans for displaying “double standards, hypocricy, and bias in favor of the [Israeli] Occupation [of the West Bank].” Hamas official Hussam Badran, too, has dismissed the German investigation as a blatant double standard. Qais Abdel Karim, Deputy Secretary-General of a PA opposing party (the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine), said that “the crimes committed by Israel are no less horrific” than the Holocaust. Within three days after his remarks, Abbas has united bitter political opponents through what they call an expression of the Palestinian “historical narrative.”
Palestinian leadership might respect Abbas for his Holocaust comments, but that does not mean that the Palestinian people do. Abbas does not represent all Palestinians or even the majority. In fact, he is in the 18th year of a term that was supposed to be four — people attribute his refusal to hold elections to a worry that the Palestinian people would bote him out. Many Palestinians view him as a corrupt power-grabber who does not have their best interests at heart. According to a public opinion poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, 70 percent of Palestinians want Abbas to step down. There is no cause, therefore, to write his sentiment large, and ascribe it to the whole Palestinian people. New Palestinian and Israeli leadership could revitalize hopes for peace and perhaps welcome in a mutual respect for historical and national narratives.