By STEPHEN GOWANS
Was the two-day conference on the Holocaust held earlier this month by the Iranian government intended to cast "doubt on the Nazi Holocaust during the Second World War," (1) or was it Iran's rejoinder to the Jyllands-Posten affair, an attempt "to embarrass the West and say, 'Look, we are practicing what you preach. We are allowing freedom of discussion of just about any issue, including the Holocaust'"? (2)
It's pretty clear how Western journalists summed up the event. The point of the conference was to assemble the world's most notorious Holocaust-deniers and Jew haters, among them KKK kook David Duke, to lend support to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's claims that the Holocaust is a myth and to cheer on the Iranian president as he prepares to perpetrate a genocide against the Jews and 'wipe out' Israel.
The problem is, matters aren't quite as black and white as all that. Not even close.
Let's start with the claim that Ahmadinejad "has referred to the Holocaust as a 'myth'" (3), a claim made by almost every major media outlet in North America.
Ahmadinejad may have said the Holocaust is a myth, but if he has, it has escaped my attention. Of course, I don't follow him around with a tape-recorder and babel fish in my ear, so maybe I missed it. Still, the file of Ahmadinejad quotes I have before me, which goes back two years, hasn't a single quote that backs up the near media consensus that Ahmadinejad has "repeatedly called the Holocaust a myth," (4) let alone called it one even once. Which is odd. Considering that demonizing the leader of the next oil-rich country on the White House list of targets slated for take-over has become something of a sport in the Western media, you'd think the "no, there never was a Holocaust" quote would be a simple matter to unearth and thrust before the world, like Iraq's WMD. Oh, right.
In the stories that followed the conference, there were dozens of Ahmadinejad quotes, which, if you read them carefully, played opposite type (they didn't say what the headlines said they said) but not one of them had Ahmadinejad saying "Holocaust? Pshaw -- as phony as an all-beef hotdog."
True, Ahmadinejad has played around the edges of the issue, saying things that amount to "maybe it did or maybe it didn't happen, but either way, it doesn't justify what was done to the Palestinians." Always, the emphasis is on the Holocaust as a political construct, not an historical reality. That's not quite in the same league as David Irving, the writer who was jailed in Austria for denying the Holocaust.
Regarding headlines that misrepresent the story they lead, take the "Israel will be 'wiped out'" headline that appeared in the Toronto Star on December 12, a photo of Ahmadinejad nearby just to make clear who was uttering the alleged threat. Outgoing US Ambassador to the UN, John Bolton, is using quotes like this to bring a suit against Ahmadinejad before the International Court of Justice on charges of genocide. Bolton, who the north Koreans once called "human scum," accuses the Iranian president of "calling for the destruction of Israel." The Guardian ran the Bolton-accused-Ahmadinejad-of-genocide story on December 13, under the headline "Move to bring genocide case against Ahmadinejad as Iran president repeats call to wipe out Israel." Bolton's suit also refers to "numerous threats against the United States" Ahmadinejad is alleged to have made, which says that what Bolton has oodles of in the human scum department, is matched by equal oodles of in the chutzpah department.
Did Ahmadinejad really threaten to wipe out Israel? No more than scientists predicting the melting of the polar ice caps are threatening to melt them themselves. What Ahmadinejad did say was that, "The Zionist regime will be wiped out soon the same way the Soviet Union was" (5) a prediction, not a threat. And since the Soviet Union wasn't wiped out in a hail of nuclear missiles, a storm of terrorist attacks, or an epidemic sparked by biological weapons, it might be safe to conclude that Ahmadinejad expects Israel to collapse through self-inflicted wounds the way the Soviet Union did and not under a barrage of nuclear missiles launched from Tehran.
In the Iranian president's view, the days of Israel, as Zionist state, are numbered because it was founded on injustice, and therefore stands on rotten foundations. When the UN carved a Jewish homeland out of someone else's homeland, and without consulting a single Palestinian, it created a Chimera whose existence would always depend on sponsorship by imperialist powers, and unremitting, massive infusions of aid. In other words, Israel has been artificially kept alive from the start.
Elections, explained Ahmadinejad, should be held among "Jews, Christians and Muslims" in Palestine (by which he means Israel, Gaza and the West Bank together) "so that the population.can select their government and destiny for themselves in a democratic manner." (6) That's a far cry from raining down nuclear missiles on Tel Aviv to wipe out Jews, but is much more compelling a story if your aim is to shape public opinion in ways that favor a possible future intervention in Iran.
The whole sordid business of the Holocaust conference, and earlier, the Holocaust International Cartoon Contest, would never have happened had the Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, not run flagrantly racist cartoons mocking the prophet Mohamed, and had Western governments not dismissed the resultant flap as an over-reaction by a bunch of hot-headed Mohammedans. It's a free speech issue, the West's politicos said. You Muslims -- simmer down.
What a crock, retorted Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. "In this freedom, casting doubt or negating the genocide of the Jews is banned, but insulting the beliefs of 1.5 billion Muslims is allowed." (7) Bull's eye.
With the Jyllands-Posten scandal still resonating, Iran's largest newspaper, Hamshari, counterpunched. It would sponsor a carton contest to mock the Holocaust. If you can mock the prophet Mohamed, and say it's a free speech issue, then surely we can mock the Holocaust, and say the same.
As it turned out, the cartoons didn't do much mocking. They didn't present the genocide of Europe's Jews as a myth, or mock its victims. Instead, they explored the themes of Israeli brutality against the Palestinians, use of the Holocaust to justify anti-Palestinian crimes, and parallels between Israel and Nazi Germany.
Judge for yourself. The drawings showed: A vampire wearing a Star of David drinking the blood of Palestinians; Ariel Sharon in a Nazi uniform; three army helmets together, two with swastikas and one with the Star of David; a rabid dog with a Star of David on its side and the word Holocaust around its collar; a dove prevented from flying because it is chained to a Star of David; US president George Bush seated at a desk swatting doves; an Israeli asleep with three Arab heads mounted to the wall above his bed; an Israeli soldier pouring fuel into a tank from a gasoline can that reads Holocaust on the side; a razor blade in the ground, representing the illegal Israeli-built separation wall, bearing the word Holocaust; two firefighters, each with Stars of David on their chests, using Palestinian blood to extinguish flames issuing from the word Holocaust. (8)
While the director of the exhibit correctly pointed out to a New York Times reporter that the drawings were anti-Israeli and anti-Zionist, not anti-Jewish, the newspaper nevertheless ran the story under the headline "Iran exhibits anti-Jewish art." (9) Conflation of Israel and Zionism with Jew, and therefore anti-Israel and anti-Zionist with anti-Jewish, is a handy howitzer to have around whenever you need to blow away opposition to Israel.
This month's conference was similarly described as anti-Jewish and while the conference certainly featured a cast of unsavory Jew-haters, not all the participants were of the same stripe.
Shiraz Dossa, an admirer of Noam Chomsky and Hannah Arendt, who teaches Third World politics at St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia, delivered a paper on the abuse of the Holocaust to justify the war on terror. Dossa calls the Holocaust a reality and says that "anyone who denies it is a lunatic." (10) He accepted the invitation to speak at the conference to help Tehran make its point: That the West's commitment to freedom of speech extends only to insulting someone else's sacred cows.
Last point: If the real aim of the conference was to call the Holocaust into question, it would hardly make sense to assemble a gang of hacks, flakes and whack-jobs whose credibility is nil. On the other hand, if the aim was to show that free speech doesn't justify a repellent, silly, and disgusting display, inviting David Duke and his gaggle of misfits, was the right stroke.
Still, no matter how vigorously Ahmadinejad plays to Western public opinion, he can't win. Some will say his moves are bone-headed, and, in the end, they are, not because they alienate Western public opinion, but because he thinks he can win it over. He can't, unless he can cut through the West's mass media and that won't happen. The point about tolerance of freedom of speech will hardly be grasped by Americans or Britons or Canadians. No matter what he does, he will be portrayed as the new Hitler. That's how many leaders of countries on the US hit list are eventually portrayed. That's how they must be portrayed.
Stephen Gowans is a writer and political activist who lives in Ottawa, Canada. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
(1) "Israel will be 'wiped out'", AP, December 12, 2006.
(2) "Canadian prof attends Tehran's gathering of Holocaust deniers," Globe and Mail, December 13, 2006.
(3) AP, December 12, 2006.
(4) "Even a scholar's academic freedom has its limits," The Globe and Mail, December 14, 2006.
(5) AP, December 12, 2006.
(7) New York Times, February 8, 2006.
(8) New York Times, August 25, 2006.
(10) Globe and Mail, December 13, 2006.