I have a nagging suspicion that Ahmadinejad and possibly most of his supporters don't really believe that the holocaust is a myth. I'd rather be tarred and feathered than appear as an apologist for the Islamic Republic, but I just don't buy this denial of history on their part. It is quite possible that the white supremacist cretins in this country, for example, are capable of absolute historical jehaalat, but this Iranian attempt to tamper with history is a different story.
The Middle East is not a place for the denial and fabrication of history. No degree of political repression has been able to eradicate historical memory or put an end to scholarship. Take 28 Mordad for example. Even those of us who were not born then cannot get over that. The sense of betrayal is still raw, the need to unearth new information still strong. And 28 Mordad was not nearly as catastrophic for Iranians as what the creation of Israel was for Palestinians. How can Palestinians lose sight of the lies and fabrications that have left them where they are today? How can the rest of the people of the Middle East lose sight of the devastating consequences of these lies for the entire region?
And what do decent folks do to counter historical falsehoods? They try to fight lies with truth. They do research. They write books. They try to spread the word. They teach. For decades now historians, journalists, artists, activists, and certainly academics have been doing exactly this. They have upheld the “If Only” school of displaying faith in humanity: If only Americans and the rest of the world knew the truth of what happened to Palestine and the Palestinian people… If only they knew the devastating impact of the politics of Israel on the people of the region… If only they knew the cost to democratic movements in the Middle East of denying historical and political facts …
But where has this good-faith approach gotten us? A concerted effort to intimidate and suppress anyone challenging uncritical support for the state of Israel on college campuses, for one. (I wish the proponents of freedom of expression in the wake of the Danish cartoons would make more reference to this.) Take what has been going on at Columbia University as an example. (For a fairly good account of it see “The Mideast Comes to Columbia” by Scott Sherman in The Nation.
In 2002, a group of students and professors started an anti-divestment campaign asking Columbia to divest from companies that provide Israel with the weapons it uses against Palestinians. In response, not only was the effort forcefully and gleefully crushed but a well-organized harassment and intimidation campaign was unleashed on faculty members critical of the state of Israel. The main targets were three professors: Joseph Massad (Palestinian), Hamid Dabashi (Iranian), and George Saliba (Lebanese). (Another Palestinian professor, Rashid Khalidi, though not a direct target, also suffered the consequences of this campaign.)
Numerous Zionist and other right-wing think tanks, a formidable organizational network, and generous financial support were behind this concerted effort. Newspapers like the Daily News, New York Post, Wall Street Journal, and the Village Voice lent their support as well. Thankfully, the witch-hunt did not silence these professors or the numerous supporters of academic freedom and historical accuracy. But the fiasco did take a toll. For one thing, it is a bitch to live with death threats or, even worse, with idiot undergraduates populating one's classes.
I remember the days back in the 1980s when a divestment campaign against South Africa took place on the Columbia campus. It was about the same time that Edward Said's office was vandalized by the Jewish Defense League. I remember Said talking about his daughter asking him when he thought the cause of the Palestinian people would be taken up by college activists. “Never,” he had told her. Now I think even that marhoom, so intimately aware of the extent of the tragedy, is turning in his grave over what is going on at his old university. Although the anti-Massad/Dabashi/Saliba campaign targeted individual professors, the real target was historical truths and political realities established beyond the shadow of a doubt.
Gas chambers at Auschwitz still stand. So do Palestinian ghost villages and old abandoned homes˜and the “bulldozers” demolishing new Palestinian homes, and the checkpoints, and the statistics on murdered Palestinian children, and Sabra and Shatila survivors, and dismal refugee camps, and confiscated property in East Jerusalem, and countless witness accounts… and, now, the wall.
Parenthetically, what is bewildering to me is that proponents of creationism, who are certainly not without their own considerable political clout and popular support, have not managed to pull off similar witch-hunts on college campuses. Try as they may to turn evolution theory into some kind of personal opinion open to controversy, they have not started targeting science departments and storming biology classes yet. Or maybe now precedent is set for that too.
The ugly, hysterical, and self-righteous viciousness of the intimidation and harassment campaign at Columbia University was such as to make one avert one's eyes rather than to take it on. But what stings to the core is that the best and the most earnest efforts at fighting lies with truth have met with this utterly cynical and vicious denial of truth, history, decency˜and the First Amendment.
So where does this leave us?
Enter Ahmadinejad and fighting lies with lies. You deny the Palestinians? We deny the holocaust. You make fun of our prophet? We make fun of your worst suffering. You lie about our history? We lie about yours. An eye for an eye and a lie for a lie. Above all, shamelessness for shamelessness.
After all, it was the Jews who invented the tit-for-tat system of divine justice. The Muslims came much later.
I think this recent holocaust-denying, foreign embassy-burning mass hysteria is a throwing up of the lies, double standards, and bad faith that Middle Eastern people have been fed for so long. Vomit is not a pretty sight.
About Sima Nahan is a writer based in California. She graduated from Reza Shah Kabir high school in Tehran.