While European Union officials praised Yasser Arafat's decision to appoint his first-ever prime minister, historians of the Holocaust winced at the news that a leading candidate for the job is the author of a book denying that the Nazis murdered 6 million Jews.
The candidate is Mahmoud Abbas (also known as Abu Mazen), Arafat's second in command, and his book, published in Arabic in 1983, translates as "The Other Side: The Secret Relations Between Nazism and the Leadership of the Zionist Movement." It was originally his doctoral dissertation, completed at Moscow Oriental College.
The book repeatedly attempts to cast doubt on the fact that the Nazis slaughtered 6 million Jews, according to a translation provided by the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles.
"Following the war," he writes, "word was spread that six million Jews were amongst the victims and that a war of extermination was aimed primarily at the Jews...The truth is that no one can either confirm or deny this figure. In other words, it is possible that the number of Jewish victims reached six million, but at the same time it is possible that the figure is much smaller -- below one million."
Abbas denies that the gas chambers were used to murder Jews, quoting a "scientific study" to that effect by French Holocaust-denier Robert Faurisson.
Abbas' book then asserts: "The historian and author Raoul Hilberg thinks that the figure does not exceed 890,000."
That is, of course, utterly false. Hilberg, a distinguished historian and author of the classic study "The Destruction of the European Jews," has never said or written any such thing.
Abbas believes the 6 million figure is the product of a Zionist conspiracy: "It seems that the interest of the Zionist movement...is to inflate this figure so that their gains will be greater," he writes. "This led them to emphasize this figure in order to gain the solidarity of international public opinion with Zionism. Many scholars have debated the figure of six million and reached stunning conclusions -- fixing the number of Jewish victims at only a few hundred thousand."
Another falsehood. In fact, no serious scholar proposes such a figure.
After reducing the magnitude of the Nazi slaughter so that it no longer seems to have been a full-scale Holocaust, Abbas seeks to absolve the Nazis by blaming the Zionist leadership for whatever killings did take place. According to Abbas, "A partnership was established between Hitler's Nazis and the leadership of the Zionist movement...[the Zionists gave] permission to every racist in the world, led by Hitler and the Nazis, to treat Jews as they wish, so long as it guarantees immigration to Palestine."
In addition to encouraging the persecution of Jews so they would immigrate to the Holy Land, the Zionist leaders actually wanted Jews to be murdered, because -- in Abbas' words -- "having more victims meant greater rights and stronger privilege to join the negotiation table for dividing the spoils of war once it was over. However, since Zionism was not a fighting partner -- suffering victims in a battle -- it had no escape but to offer up human beings, under any name, to raise the number of victims, which they could then boast of at the moment of accounting."
Perhaps sentiments of this sort were common within Abbas' circle of graduate students in the Soviet Union in the 1970s. But in the free world, such propaganda has never been accepted as serious scholarship.
In most Western countries, Holocaust-deniers have been treated as pariahs. In Canada and many European countries, Holocaust-denial is a criminal offense. In New Zealand, Canterbury University recently issued an apology for having accepting a master's thesis denying the Holocaust, while the French minister of education revoked a doctoral degree that was awarded to a Holocaust-denier by the University of Nantes. A Polish university professor who denied the Holocaust was suspended from his position. The Japanese publisher Bungei Shunju shut down one of its magazines for printing an article denying the Holocaust.
International pressure compelled Croatian President Franjo Tudjman to publicly retract statements in his book doubting that the Holocaust had taken place. Austrian Freedom Party leader Jorg Haider was ostracized by the international community for his remarks praising members of the SS, as was French politician Jean Marie Le Pen, for questioning the existence of the gas chambers and belittling the significance of the Holocaust. A recent poll found 64 percent of Americans believe world leaders should likewise refuse to meet with Abbas.
Yet some in the media have treated Abbas with kid gloves, to say the least. The official BCC News Profile of Abbas reports: "A highly intellectual man, Abbas studied law in Egypt before doing a Ph.D. in Moscow. He is the author of several books." The New York Times recently characterized Abbas as "a lawyer and historian...He holds a doctorate in history from the Moscow Oriental College; his topic was Zionism." Neither the BBC nor the Times offered any further explanation as to the contents of Abbas' writings.
Bestowing the title "historian" upon Mahmoud Abbas awards his writings a stature they do not deserve, and deals a grievous insult to every genuine historian.
If Abbas is elevated to the post of prime minister of the Palestinian Authority, not only the media but the entire international community will be confronted with the question of whether Abbas deserves to be treated any differently from Tudjman, Haider and Le Pen.
The writer is visiting scholar in the Jewish studies program at the State University of New York-Purchase College. His latest book is "A Race Against Death: Peter Bergson, America and the Holocaust," co-written with David S. Wyman.