by Dr. Rafael Medoff
David Duke, perhaps America’s most notorious racist and Holocaust-denier, has finally found a country that welcomes him: Syria.
The Syrian government last week rolled out the red carpet for Duke, the former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, one-time Louisiana State Representative, and author of a vicious screed called ‘Jewish Supremacism: My Awakening to the Jewish Question.’
Duke addressed a rally that was broadcast on Syrian government television (he told the crowd that New York and Washington, D.C. are “occupied by the Zionists”), held a press conference alongside Members of the Syrian Parliament, and basked in the lavish praise of the Grand Mufti of Syria, the country’s top Islamic religious leader, who praised Duke’s “courage” and his “message of peace.” A photo of a beaming Duke with two Syrian officials now headlines his web site.
It’s not hard to see why Duke was pleased to be in Syria. Pariahs crave legitimacy. The fact that a government, any government, is willing to befriend him is welcome news to the former Klansman. It’s the same reason that Kurt Waldheim, when he was declared persona non grata by the United States in 1987 because of the revelations about his Nazi past, desperately sought countries that would invite him to visit. (Egypt, Jordan, and the Vatican were the only ones to do so.)
So it’s not hard to understand why Duke eagerly embraced Syria. But why did Syria embrace Duke?
I posed that question to a colleague of mine, an academic who enjoys close relations with various Arab officials and himself visited Syria not long ago. I found his explanation less than persuasive. “The United States has pushed the Syrians into a corner,” he said. “This is their way of responding.” He was referring to the Bush administration’s strong criticism of Syria for its role in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri and for its reported sheltering of Iraqi terrorists and Iraqis who took part in Saddam Hussein’s war crimes.
But is it really fair to blame President Bush for Syria’s invitation to David Duke?
The fact is that Syria’s soft spot for Nazis, neo-Nazis, and Holocaust-deniers long predates the current policies of the Bush administration.
More than fifty years before Syria began sheltering Iraqi war criminals, it was sheltering Nazi war criminals. Israeli military intelligence reports during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war were filled with references to the presence of Nazis among the Syrian forces attacking northern Israel. Some of them served as commanding officers.
The names of prominent Nazis living in Syria began to surface during the 1950s and 1960s. One was SS Captain Theodor Dannecker, who helped Adolf Eichmann implement Hitler’s genocide policy in France, Bulgaria, and Hungary. Another was Karl Rademacher, a senior Eichmann aide who had been involved in the mass murder of Jews from Belgium, Holland, Croatia, and elsewhere. After World War II, Radmacher escaped Allied capture by fleeing to Syria, where he became an official in the Syrian Secret Service.
The most notorious of the Nazis granted asylum in Syria was another top Eichmann aide, SS Lieutenant Alois Brunner. After being convicted in France in 1954 of responsibility for the murders of more than 100,000 Jews, Brunner disappeared. Two decades later, the famed French Nazi-hunters Serge and Beate Klarsfeld tracked down Brunner in Damascus, where he was making a comfortable living as an adviser to the Syrian intelligence services. And he is apparently still there.
Not that sheltering the perpetrators of the Holocaust has stopped the Syrians from denying that the Holocaust took place. Indeed, the Syrian government-controlled media’s take on the Holocaust sounds like it could have been scripted by David Duke. The daily newspaper Tishrin has described the Holocaust as “a Jewish lie,” while the Syria Times has called the gas chambers “a myth.” Damascus Radio has accused world Jewry of spreading “the myth of the Nazi ovens” in order to extort reparations money from Germany and Switzerland.
Why, then, did Syria invite David Duke? Perhaps the answer is not to be found in sophisticated analyses of international diplomatic developments, nor in partisan assumptions that somehow it must be President Bush’s fault. Perhaps the answer is to be found simply by glancing at Syria’s sixty year-old record of hostility toward Jews and Israel and affection for those who share that hostility.