History has seen its fair share of propagandists, the most cunning of whom master the art of misinformation.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas proved himself once again to be a master misinformationist when he made the claim in a speech this week that Jews were targeted in the Holocaust for their “social function” in banking and not for their religion. He was not ranting from the podium or calling for death to the Jews. His approach was much more subtle, and therefore much more sinister. Further, the weakness of his apology is outmatched by the danger of his words.
His blaming sounds preposterous to educated ears, but he was not talking to an informed audience. Holocaust education in the Arab world is dismal, so very few in Abbas’ intended audience have the knowledge or training in critical thinking to discern what he is saying. From the vantage of his audience, Abbas comes across as learned – a thoughtful leader guiding his people wisely.
Abbas is trafficking in a kind of pseudo-intellectual demagoguery that thrives on ignorance. And let’s be clear: the ignorance isn’t confined to any particular region. Abbas stands upon a global platform that reaches a worldwide audience, where UNESCO reports more than one-half of children and adolescents are not learning. And in another eye-opening survey in the United States earlier this month, data showed that memory of the Holocaust is fading among American millennials and younger students.
Throughout the world, the soil is becoming ever more fertile for the seeds of misinformation to blossom into hate. At this nexus – where the uneducated are influenced by misinformationists like Abbas – there lies the powder keg for violence.
Misinformation propaganda usually includes elements of the truth. Abbas did not lie when he said that Jews were marginalized in Europe; it is also true that Jews often earned their living from lending money; it is also true that Karl Marx called out his fellow Jews for being isolationist. But that is where the truth ends.
Jews were outcasts, not isolationists. Their gravitation toward the lending services stemmed from their persecution, not the other way around: In Germany before World War II, many anti-Jewish laws were passed that limited their ability work, from the medical and legal professions to business, military, public service and other sectors, all of which were reserved for Christians.
Abbas' comments were particularly pernicious because he purposefully was attempting to neutralize the Holocaust, and by extension, undermine the state of Israel.
Let’s break down the antisemitic misinformation: Abbas creates the illusion of Jewish self-destructive behavior and lies, neither of which are true. He is effectively saying that Israel came into being on the basis of misconstrued pretext – the suffering of Jews during the Holocaust. His argument is that if the Jews were responsible for their own downfall, then the Nazis were not to blame, Jewish people do not deserve sympathy, and the State of Israel was established based on false pretenses.
The virulent antisemitic misinformation by Abbas continued in his “if people were offended” apology today, which fails to correct the record. The unfortunate truth is that neither he – nor any other leader – is likely to change a message that works for their political ends.
What can be done?
Everyone can apply a deeper commitment to informing the ignorant environment to which Abbas speaks. For us at USC Shoah Foundation, that means adding to our efforts for education about the Holocaust and Jewish history in the Arabic speaking world.