A Nation of Holocaust Deniers?

The president’s skepticism is, surprisingly, shared by many Iranians. But that doesn’t mean they are anti-Israel. Let me explain


it’s pretty vile having a Holocaust denier as a president. I feel partly responsible, because I didn’t vote in the election that brought President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to power. Who knew the man stood any chance of winning? Who knew the man unlikely to win would use his presidency to challenge historical fact? Once he started up the whole business, I consoled myself and others by arguing this view did not represent that of most Iranians. Turns out, I was wrong.

I put the question to my family last Friday as everyone gathered around for tea and sweets after lunch (yes, it is Ramadan, so we made sure to praise the sole faster among us as we nibbled on syrup-drenched pastry). “You all believe the Holocaust actually happened, right?” I asked, confident everyone would say yes, and that we could then proceed to gossip about the Iranian-American female space tourist.

Instead, my relatives, my very own civilized, educated, well-traveled relatives, began hedging. “A small number were certainly murdered, but the rest probably died of war-times diseases,” said one, a urologist. “The numbers were exaggerated to justify creating a Jewish homeland,” said another, a hotel owner. A monarchist housewife: “Were there even six millions Jews in Germany before the war?” A computer science graduate: “I think it bears further historical research.”

Apparently, Ahmadinejad is not so alone. But what was going on? In Iran, I associate Holocaust skepticism with anti-Westernism and Islamic fundamentalism; with confrontational people who deny Israel’s right to exist and whose violently anti-Israel attitudes overlap with anti-Semitism in such a way that it’s hard to tell which animates which. Radical clerics and the people who came up with the Holocaust cartoon exhibit belong to this ideological minority, not my relatives.