In a speech to the governing body of the Palestine Liberation Organization last week, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas rambled off a host of textbook antisemitic myths. He reiterated the refrain that Jews have no historical connection to the land of Israel, unearthed a legendary trope about Ashkenazi Jews actually being descended from Khazars and accused European Zionists of collaborating with the Nazis.
Abbas went on to say that the tragedies of Jewish history were not a result of antisemitism, but of Jews’ own behaviours. “The Jewish question that was widespread throughout Europe was not against their religion,” he said, “but against their social function, which relates to usury and banking and such.”
One of the things Abbas has in common with other elected leaders is the willingness to try to get away with something and then to apologize when called out. Though his wasn’t much of an apology: “If people were offended by my statement … especially people of the Jewish faith, I apologize to them.”
The speech gave Israeli and other commentators the opportunity to once again insist that the Palestinian leader is no partner for peace, something that is no more or less true today than it was last month. Abbas has been saying things like this most of his adult life. His doctoral dissertation, which was later published as a book, quibbled over the number of Jewish victims of the Shoah and advanced the perverse conspiracy theory he returned to last week: that Zionists were Nazi collaborators for whom six million (or, on Abbas’s abacus, fewer) Jewish lives were a small price to pay for advancing the Zionist cause.
Inherent to most antisemitic suppositions is the defence that Jewish particularities, habits, traditions, identities – in other words, whatever stereotypes the purveyor is advancing – are the legitimate causes of Jewish woes. In Abbas’s telling, all European Jews were usurers and bankers. (Consider the corollary: That, if true, being bankers and usurers would seemingly justify genocide.)
It is appalling that a man who is accepted as a legitimate figure on the international stage can claim, with minimal consequence, that Jews brought the Holocaust upon themselves. So, the most salient point from this terrible incident may be what it says about his audience.
Consider this in the context of the widespread global interpretation of the Arab-Israeli conflict. One can disagree with the policies or approaches of an Israeli government or any number of historical and contemporary developments. But, by no fair reading of history can the full blame for 70 years of conflict be laid at the feet of Israelis. Yet, at almost every point in history – when a pizzeria blows up in Tel Aviv or Jews are stabbed walking down the street in Jerusalem or when Hamas sends thousands to the Israeli border and floats firebombs that set the Israeli landscape aflame – there will be a sizable number of people who will conclude that Jews brought it on themselves.
Whatever else his speech may have accomplished, and despite his apology, Abbas has succeeded in bolstering the stereotype that cunning Jews will sacrifice whatever is necessary to reach their devious aims, and that any horrors that befall them are their own fault. That suits the contemporary popular narrative neatly.