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(photo credit: AP)
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has taken advantage yet again of the annual convening of the United Nations General Assembly to continue his proud tradition of Holocaust denial. One could safely assume that the intense interest that he shows in denying the Holocaust does not emerge from a passion for World War II history, and that the quest for historical truth is not what keeps him awake at night.
As Israelis, we interpret Holocaust denial as a direct attack on what some believe is the basis for Israel's legitimacy - a problematic claim that tends to marginalize the legitimacy of Zionism as an independence movement of Jewish self-determination. But there is a broader aspect at play: like a child finding a shiny toy, the Iranian president discovered at one point that along with the development of nuclear weapons, Holocaust denial was one of the fastest and most effective means - if not the most effective - of positioning himself as the leader of the axis of countries that challenge the West.
SINCE THE 1990s, Holocaust remembrance has become universalized and went from a 'Jewish issue' to a 'humanity issue', especially in the West. Holocaust museums have been built around the world typically emphasizing the local and global contexts, rather than the Jewish one. One need only visit the Holocaust Museum in Washington's DC Mall, a symbol of everything American, and to embark on a viewing journey that begins with the images and voices of American soldiers who liberated the camps and ends on the shores of the United States and the Statue of Liberty, to witness a very different type of Holocaust remembrance narrative than the one of devastation and renewal with which we are familiar in Israel.
This process of universalizing Holocaust remembrance was aided by popular culture, especially in books and film, and through numerous countries' internal investigations in the wake of archives opening and high-profile struggles for restoration of property and compensation to survivors. This has led to many countries adopting Holocaust remembrance as a value in itself. This process reached its peak with the United Nations General Assembly resolution of November 2005 that set January 27th as International Holocaust Remembrance Day. The decision was welcomed in Israel, albeit accompanied by a sense of unease that 'our' Holocaust is no longer just 'ours'.
In this manner, Holocaust remembrance has become one of the most important markers of universal enlightenment and a shorthand for a whole set of values such as human rights, freedom, equality and the dignity of man, and in so doing, has moved away from the particular Jewish context to become a signifier of belonging to a certain group - mostly that of the West.
As Holocaust remembrance became identified with a certain set of values, so has Holocaust denial become a simple and effective means of flipping the finger to the Western world. In the era after the fall of Communism, Holocaust denial has become a symbol of extreme ideological opposition to the West. It's a particularly effective shortcut - no need to laboriously write a revolutionary manifesto and present an ideological alternative. It is enough to convene a Holocaust Denial conference and to gain immediate status as the 'top dog' mounting the challenge to the West. If in the process, one could also undermine Israel's legitimacy - that's just a bonus.
Iran operates on several fronts to defy Western dominance, especially in the Middle East. Ahmadinejad's persistent and provocative Holocaust denial is not simply the ranting of a madman, but a conscious and planned element in this on-going challenge.
The writer is a Fellow with the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute and a member of the President's Conference Steering Committee, specializing in policy and strategy. She served as foreign policy adviser to then vice premier Shimon Peres in 2002-2006.