On Monday, the Iranian government opened a two-day conference ostensibly to discuss the Holocaust in an open environment where all sides of the story can be analyzed. Aside from well-known Holocaust deniers, no Holocaust scholars are in attendance. The conference raises a number of questions: Why has Holocaust denial become popular in the Middle East? Why is Iran holding the conference? How can we respond to those who seek to deny our past?
According to Itamar Marcus, who monitors and reports on media of the Palestinian Authority, the objective of Arab Holocaust denial is to reject the connection of the Jewish people to their immediate history, erode the legitimacy of Israel, and allow the Arabs "to appropriate the role of historical victim and apply it to themselves. Television and modern technology have provided authoritative vehicles for defaming and denying the Jewish people, their religion, history, nation, and land … in order to sever contemporary Jews from their past and the Land of Israel."
A number of governments have denounced the Iranian Holocaust denial conference for what it is: a forum to deny the Holocaust and advance the Iranians’ own agenda. In a televised address on Dec. 14, ‘005, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, president of the Islamic Republic of Iran, raised Holocaust denial to an international level when he said: "They [the Jews] have created a myth in the name of the Holocaust and consider it above God, religion and the prophets … If someone were to deny the existence of God … and deny the existence of prophets and religion, they would not bother him. However, if someone were to deny the myth of the Jews’ massacre, all the Zionist mouthpieces and the governments subservient to the Zionists tear their larynxes and scream against the person as much as they can."
"On the basis of this myth," he said a couple of months later, "the pillaging Zionist regime has managed, for 60 years, to extort all Western governments and to justify its crimes in the occupied lands — killing women and children, demolishing homes, and turning defenseless people into refugees."
Why has Ahmadinejad become such an advocate of Holocaust denial? One plausible explanation historian Victor Hanson offers is that he understands the West’s fixation with "multiculturalism, moral equivalence, and relativism." As "a Third-World populist," he assumes that his own fascist government will "escape scrutiny" if he continues to list the past misdeeds of the West. He also appreciates the importance of victimology. If he wants to annihilate Israel, Iran has to be seen as the victim? not Israel. He turns to the Europeans with a question: "So we ask you: If you indeed committed this great crime, why should the oppressed people of Palestine be punished for it? If you committed a crime, you yourselves should pay for it."
He knows that there are millions of educated people in the West who question the need for nuclear weapons and do not hold their culture in high regard. If the West can have nuclear weapons, why can’t Iran? "Your arsenals are full to the brim," he says, "yet when it’s the turn of a nation such as mine to develop peaceful nuclear technology you object and resort to threats."
Ahmadinejad also understands that relativism has become part of Western thought. In this environment, who can be sure that the Holocaust was not overstated, the facts embellished or even made up in order to steal Palestinian land?
Iran’s success in analyzing Western malaise, Hanson concludes, has persuaded them to create a reality without the Holocaust, thus enabling them to become the victims and Jews the aggressors who need to be punished. In this way, "Ahmadinejad’s righteously aggrieved (and nuclear) Iran can … finally set things right in the Middle East. And then a world that wishes to continue to make money and drive cars in peace won’t much care how this divinely appointed holy man finally finishes a bothersome war of destiny."
Rather than ring our hands in frustration, we should seize the opportunity to teach about Holocaust denial, which is a threat to the way we transmit history to future generations. If the history of the Jewish people can be distorted, so can the history of other groups. Holocaust deniers seek to make Fascism and National Socialism legitimate alternatives to democracy, which makes this a problem for all those who cherish a democratic way of life.
Dr. Alex Grobman is co-author, with Michael Shermer, of "Denying History: Who Says The Holocaust Never Happened And Why Do They Say It?" His latest book is "Nations United: How The UN Undermines Israel and the West."