YIVO, the New York-based Institute for Jewish Research, is widely known as the go-to organisation for anything you needed to know about the Holocaust — after Yad Vashem in Israel, it holds the second largest collection of Holocaust-related material in the world.
So it is unusual, to say the least, for YIVO to be hosting a webinar series over the next three months, in which historians will examine the origins and ideology of Hamas, the terrorist organisation which struck Israel in October 2023.
But as YIVO’s chief executive Jonathan Brent explained: “These are not normal times”. As the October 7 tragedy unfolded, Brent said, he was struck by the “Venn diagram” between antisemitic Nazi propaganda “which poured into the Arab world via the Mufti of Jerusalem” during the Holocaust, and the discovery, by IDF forces late last year, of an Arabic translation of Hitler’s Mein Kampf in a Gaza kindergarten.
For Brent there were echoes of what became known as the “Red/Brown Alliance” in the 1990s — “the coming together of the Communist Left with the reactionary, Nazi-influenced Right. What was particularly startling to me was that this ‘Red-Brown’ confluence had come together in antisemitism directed at Israel, as a consequence of its striking back at Hamas”.
He said that “Nazi antisemitism” had been “kept alive in the ideology of Hamas. It has burst forth on October 7 with one important addition. It isn’t simply that Jews deserve to be exterminated. It is that Zionism equals racism, and imperialism — and that comes directly from the Soviet Union. So there is this horrible confluence of Nazi and Soviet propaganda with Islamist thought.”
Historian Jeffrey Herf, who has curated the YIVO Hamas webinars, said: “As shocking and awful as the Hamas attack of October 7 on Israelis was, it was not a surprise for those of us who have examined the Jew-hatred at the core of Hamas’s ideology.
“It is a set of ideas that combined a distinctly Islamist interpretation of Islam that took shape in the 1930s and 1940s, survived in the Muslim Brotherhood after World War II, and persisted in the formation of Hamas in 1988. One aim of these webinars is to present the work of scholars who have examined that ideological background and its consequences.”
He hoped, he said, that the webinars — whose contributors include historians Benny Morris and Matthias Küntzel as well as Britain’s own David Hirsh — would encourage people to go back to original sources, such as the 1988 Hamas Charter, in order to focus clearly on the evidence. “People should be willing to read the material which challenges the anti-Zionist narrative”, Herf said, “we’re trying to open up some minds”.
Brent said that the programmes were neither “pro-Zionist nor anti-Zionist”; but he observed that those people who had strongly criticised YIVO for hosting the webinars, “with their really (usually) sincere dismay at us for taking this on, are unfortunately thinking of labels and pigeonholes [whereby] any kind of criticism of the Palestinians, and they don’t really differentiate from Palestinians in the West Bank and Hamas, they view such criticisms as giving comfort to Trump and Islamophobia.” He said he hoped the webinars would “break down these completely arbitrary and artificial categories of thinking”.
The webinars begin on February 26 at 6pm UK time on a free Zoom link, with Jeffrey Herf and Matthias Küntzel discussing the origins of Hamas, the history of Islamic antisemitism, and its causal significance in the war of 1947-1948.
On March 25, Herf and Benny Morris look at Colonialism, Racism, and the Arab Israeli War of 1948, again at 8am UK time; while the third session, on April 16, looking at responses to October 7, will see Herf lead a panel of scholars — Meir Litvak, Norman Goda, Karin Stögner, and David Hirsh — who will explore responses to Hamas’s massacres and to Israel’s subsequent military response.
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