In a fire-and-brimstone speech to the Palestine Liberation Organization’s Central Council in Ramallah recently, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas claimed that Zionism and Judaism are unrelated and that Jews imperilled by genocide had no interest in leaving wartime Europe.
Abbas, who wrote his PhD on the Holocaust, should have known better than to make such patently false and counter-productive assertions.
Yet context is important in discussing this matter.
One can speculate that he made these absurd comments out of anger and disappointment following U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision on December 6 to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
Abbas, too, may have been incensed by reliable information that the United States planned to offer the Palestinians the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Abu Dis as the capital of a future Palestinian state, and that Washington intended to slash its contributions to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency by tens of millions of dollars.
Abbas, having also decided that the United States was hopelessly biased in favor of Israel and thus could no longer serve as an impartial mediator between the Palestinian Authority and Israel, thought he had nothing to lose by pandering to the rejectionist wing of the Palestinian national movement, which believes that armed struggle against the Jewish state is and has always been absolutely necessary.
It’s very regrettable that Abbas — a staunch believer in a two-state solution, an avowed opponent of violence and one of the most moderate Palestinian leaders in history — adopted this strategy.
By doing so, he played right into the hands of the current Israeli government — which has never formally endorsed Palestinian statehood, which is more interested in maintaining the status quo in the occupied West Bank than in reaching a fair and equitable peace agreement with the Palestinians, and which claims that Abbas is not a real negotiating partner.
In addition, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing government continues to abide by its damaging unilateral policy of expanding settlements in the West Bank, which ought to be an integral component of a Palestinian state, and building new apartment buildings in East Jerusalem, which the Palestinians rightfully claim as their future capital.
If Abbas had not succumbed to emotion, he would have kept a cool head, reiterated his support of two states for two people, and hewn to a reasonable narrative of the protracted dispute between Israel and the Palestinians.
Instead, in a reference to Zionism, he said, “It is a colonial project nothing to do with Judaism, but rather used the Jews as a tool under the slogan of the Promised Land.” Abbas also said, “The Jews did not want to emigrate even with murder and slaughter. Even during the Holocaust, they did not emigrate.”
Zionism, as Abbas ought to know, is the national liberation movement of the Jewish people. And as Theodor Herzl might have told him, Zionism was a spiritual and religious longing for the biblical Land of Israel and, of course, a reaction to the persistence of European antisemitism. For Abbas to suggest that Jews have no tangible historical connection to Israel is beyond ridiculous. Jews, having lived in what is now Israel since time immemorial, are not foreign interlopers, like the French settlers of Algeria or the white colonialists in southern Africa.
And for Abbas to claim that Jews had no desire to leave Nazi-occupied Europe is simply stupid and a bare-faced lie. As he must know, European Jews threatened by persecution and genocide were unable to emigrate in substantial numbers. In Palestine, after 1939, British authorities refused to admit more than a trickle of Jewish refugees from the continent. In Germany, Jews were forbidden to leave after the autumn of 1940. And entry visas from Western countries like the United States, Canada and Brazil were extremely difficult to obtain due to their antisemitic policies.
Given these indisputable facts, it’s very unfortunate that Abbas chose to rewrite history in order to rebuke the Trump administration and please hardliners in his constituency. He would have done himself and the Palestinians a great favor by exercising restraint and sticking to the facts.