Every authoritarian regime fears the truth. As Nazi chief propagandist Joseph Goebbels infamously said, «If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it … the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the state.»
Arab regimes have been no exception. Hoping to deflect criticism, for decades, they fed lies and distortions to their public, demonizing enemies – Israel, in particular – in order to hide their failures and avoid taking responsibility.
The Arab Spring now offers a chance to set the record straight. Insofar as the upheavals now shaking the Middle East and North Africa are genuinely democratic revolutions, they can illuminate a dark past. Arab governments had no interest in opening their archives to public scrutiny even to sympathetic researchers – for they knew that there was much to lose in revealing truth to a public so accustomed to their lies.
Here’s a challenge, then, for the forces of change in the Arab world: Open the archives and let truth spring forth.
Revelations will be slow in coming – the process of sifting through decades of classified information will no doubt take time – but the persistent refusal of the old regimes to reveal the past suggests that they had much to hide. And revealing the truth will no doubt help dissipate the hatred these lies have sustained for so long. Historians of the Arab-Israeli conflict in particular should recognize that the lack of access to Arab historical archives makes their work incomplete and their conclusions only tentative. However, some New Historians have either downplayed the issue or dismissed the relevance of Arab documents – in some cases, they themselves were instrumental in propagating those lies.
State-sanctioned lies about Israel and the West have a long history in the Arab world. The charge that Zionists sought to ethnically cleanse Palestine of Arabs in order to make room for their nationalistic designs was first aired by Arabic-language Nazi propaganda, as Prof. Jeffrey Herf documented in his 2009 book «Nazi Propaganda for the Arab World.» The same Nazi propaganda also charged that Jews were inventing sordid tales about their own suffering in Europe to blackmail the world into supporting Zionism – an early version of the Holocaust denial that is now wildly popular in the Arab world. Nazi officials propagated these lies to justify the extermination of the Jews and improve their relations with Arab countries in North Africa and the Middle East, where they hoped to overrun Allied forces.
Many of these dark tales survived the defeat of the Axis powers and, after World War II, received a new lease on life as Arab regimes hired Nazi fugitives, such as Johann von Leers in Egypt and Alois Brunner in Syria, to run their propaganda departments. In the 1950s, Soviet propaganda adopted many of the same themes, thus transforming them overnight into «progressive» battle cries. In time, these falsehoods metastasized like cancer, becoming accepted truths in Arab societies.
Beginning in the 1980s, many Jewish anti-Zionist scholars lent these lies credibility by claiming to have found incontrovertible evidence to support them in previously classified documents in Israeli state archives. Their scholarship was politically driven and often shoddy – but the fact that they were Jewish – sometimes Israeli – gave their writings a ring of truth and an almost invincible shield against any criticism.
Take, for example, Exeter University professor and leading New Historian, Ilan Pappe. When he could not document that Israel’s founders planned ethnic cleaning, he postulated that the absence of a master plan for the expulsion of Palestinian Arabs in 1948 was evidence of a Zionist conspiracy of silence. As Pappe put it, «There were not specific orders written, only an atmosphere that has to be reconstructed.»
For Pappe, it was clear that «this is exactly how ethnic cleansing is achieved: by creating the kind of education and indoctrination systems that ensures that every soldier and every commander, and everyone with his individual responsibility, knows exactly what to do when they enter a village, even if they haven’t received any specific orders to expel its inhabitants.»
In fact, such state-sanctioned policies always leave behind considerable paper trails. For Pappe, then, the only way to revamp a lie originally crafted by Goebbels’ Arab minions is to allege a conspiracy of silence, compelling his scholarly opponents to prove a negative.
Pappe and his fellow travelers claim to rely on newly found evidence; consider their own work the final word; and call their critics «stooges» of the Zionist establishment. Yet, historians cannot reach a final determination until governments reveal the records of their policies. If truth be the antidote of lies, and propaganda the staple of dictatorships, let Arab democrats begin the process of dispelling myths.
For decades, Arab autocracies have spread pernicious lies and historians have perpetuated them, fanning the flames of extremism across the Middle East.
As proof that they are turning the page on dictatorship, let Arab reformers lift censorship and open their state archives to the world.
Emanuele Ottolenghi is a Brussels-based senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and the author of «Iran: The Looming Crisis» (Profile Books, 2010 ).
Let truth spring forth
Let Arab democrats begin the process of dispelling myths by lifting censorship and opening their state archives.