Palestinian politicians lash out at renowned academics who denounced president's antisemitic remarks

RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) — Palestinian politicians on Wednesday raged against dozens of Palestinian academics who had criticized President Mahmoud Abbas' recent remarks on the Holocaust that drew widespread accusations of antisemitism.

They lambasted the open letter signed earlier this week by over a hundred Palestinian academics, activists and artists based around the world as "the statement of shame."

The well-respected writers and thinkers had released the letter after footage surfaced that showed Abbas asserting European Jews were persecuted by Hitler because of what he described as their “social functions” and predatory lending practices, rather than their religion or ethnicity.

“Their statement is consistent with the Zionist narrative and its signatories give credence to the enemies of the Palestinian people," said the secular nationalist Fatah party that runs the Palestinian Authority.

Fatah officials called the signatories “mouthpieces for the occupation" and “extremely dangerous.”

In the open letter, the legions of Palestinian academics, most of whom live in the United States and Europe, condemned Abbas' comments as “morally and politically reprehensible."

“We adamantly reject any attempt to diminish, misrepresent, or justify antisemitism, Nazi crimes against humanity or historical revisionism vis-à-vis the Holocaust," the letter added. A few of the signatories are based in east Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank.

In Geneva on Wednesday, Deborah Lipstadt, the U.S. special envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism, blasted Abbas’ comments as “overtly antisemitic” and distorting of the Holocaust. She said the open letter from the Palestinian academics was “stronger almost than what I had to say.”

“There’s no question about it: These kind of statements must stop, because they do nothing to advance peace, and worse than that, they spread anti-Semitism,” Lipstadt told The Associated Press outside an event on antisemitism attended by dozens of diplomats on the sidelines of a session of the Human Rights Council.

The chorus of indignation among Palestinian leaders over the letter casts light on a controversy that for decades has plagued the Palestinian relationship with the Holocaust. The Nazi genocide, which killed nearly 6 million Jews and millions of others, sent European Jews pouring into the Holy Land.

Israel was established in 1948 as a safe haven for Jews in the wake of the Holocaust, and remembering the Holocaust and honoring its victims remains a powerful part of the country's national identity.

But the war surrounding Israel’s establishment displaced hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, who fled or were forced from their homes in what the Palestinians call the “nakba,” or catastrophe. Many Palestinians are loathe to focus on the atrocities of the Holocaust for fear of undercutting their own national cause.

“It doesn't serve our political interest to keep bringing up the Holocaust,” said Mkhaimer Abusaada, a political scientist at Al-Azhar University in Gaza City. “We are suffering from occupation and settlement expansion and fascist Israeli polices. That is what we should be stressing.”

But frequent Holocaust distortion and denial among Palestinians has only drawn further scrutiny to the tensions surrounding their relationship to the Holocaust. That unease may have started with Al-Husseini, the World War II-era grand mufti of Jerusalem and a Palestinian Arab nationalist. He was an enthusiastic Nazi supporter who helped recruit Bosnian Muslims to their side, and whose antisemitism was well-documented.

More recently, Abbas has repeatedly incited various international uproars with speeches denounced as antisemitic Holocaust denial. In 2018, he repeated a claim about usury and Ashkenazi Jews similar to the one he made in his speech to Fatah members last month. Last year, he accused Israel of committing “50 Holocausts” against Palestinians.

For Israel, Abbas' record has fueled accusations that he is not to be trusted as a partner in peace negotiations to end the decadeslong conflict. Through decades of failed peace talks, Abbas has led the Palestinian Authority, the semiautonomous body that began administering parts of the occupied West Bank after the Oslo peace process of the 1990s.

Abbas has kept a tight grip on power for the last 17 years and his security forces have been accused of harshly cracking down on dissent. His authority has become deeply unpopular over its reviled security alliance with Israel and its failure to hold democratic elections.

The open letter signed by Palestinian academics this week also touched on what it described as the authority's “increasingly authoritarian and draconian rule" and said Abbas had “forfeited any claim to represent the Palestinian people.”