by Rafael Medoff
The decision by Palestinian officials or supporters to hide anti-Israel maps from the view of foreign dignitaries is reminiscent of a tactic that dictators have been using for nearly a century.
In the latest incident, officials at the Al-Zeitoun School in Hamas-controlled Gaza reportedly covered up a large map showing all of Israel as “Palestine” when United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon visited this week.
When President Barack Obama visited Bethlehem in 2013, the Palestinian Authority temporarily removed a large sculpture showing a map with all of Israel as “Palestine,” which had been situated along the president’s travel route. According to Palestinian Media Watch, the sculpture was replaced with a monument of a dove.
This propaganda technique originated with Grigory Alexandrovich Potemkin, a Russian cabinet minister who reportedly built fake villages to impress the Czarina Catherine II during her visit to the Crimea in 1787. Some historians believe Potemkin merely redecorated towns along the czarina’s route, rather than fabricating them entirely for the sole purpose of the visit, but either way, Potemkin’s name has come to be associated with this particular kind of deceit.
Soviet dictator Josef Stalin was a master of Potemkinism. In the 1920s and 1930s, many Western visitors to the USSR were taken to see Bolshevo, supposedly an example of the Soviet Union’s “progressive” prisons without walls or guards, where criminals supposedly were educated and inspired to become productive citizens.
Nobel laureate George Bernard Shaw went so far as to claim that the only problem in dealing with a Bolshevo prisoner was “inducing him to come out at all” when his jail term ended. In fact, Bolshevo had been created to impress foreigners. It actually was populated largely by informers whose reward was to live in the sham prison, The slave labor camps of the Soviet gulag remained hidden from foreign eyes.
Adolf Hitler likewise used Potemkin-style deception to help camouflage the mass murder of the Jews. In June 1944, the Nazis invited a delegation from the International Red Cross to visit Theresienstadt (Terezin), the Jewish ghetto that they created in Czechoslovakia as a transit point for Jews being shipped to the gas chambers in Auschwitz. In the Nazi Potemkin version, the camp was presented as an ‘Endlager,’ a final destination where Jewish prisoners lived happily.
In ‘The Terezin Diary of Gonda Redlich’ (edited by Saul S. Friedman), a Theresienstadt inmate noted the Nazis’ preparations for the Red Cross visit: “They rain down order after order. Kindergarten children are to sing during the visit, the workers are to return home. Plays and cultural events and sporting activities must take place. Even the few lambs left here roam about on the grass around the city. The children, the workers, the sheep–a perfect idyll.”
Another prisoner recalled: “A playground was laid out with sandboxes and swings, a ‘children’s pavilion’ was built and painted from inside with big wooden animals as toys. Behind a glass veranda you could see a dozen cribs. It was like a story book–but children were only allowed to enter this little paradise on the day the commission visited Theresienstadt.” Houses were freshly painted–but only those portions that would be visible to the Red Cross inspectors.
The visitors’ final report to Red Cross headquarters described conditions tin the camp as “relatively good.” Nobody asked why the population of Theresienstadt at the time of the visit was 30,000 less than what the Red Cross knew it had been a few weeks earlier.
In the 1950s, the North Korean government built a village called Kijong-dong in the demilitarized zone separating North Korea from South Korea. The North Koreans call it a “peace village” that supposedly is inhabited by two hundred families but in fact Kjong-dong has no civilian residents; it houses soldiers, artillery, and underground bunkers. A Washington Post correspondent who visited the area in 1998 reported that “if you squint through your binoculars, you’ll see that the buildings [in Kjong-dong] don’t even have glass in the windows. It’s a lie, a huge Potemkin village…” The sidewalks are empty, and automatic timers turn lights on and off in the buildings in order to create the illusion that people live there.
Mahmoud Abbas is not Josef Stalin or Adolf Hitler or Kim Jong-un. But the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, like other totalitarian regimes before them, have much to gain by creating political mirages for the benefit of foreign visitors.
The Germans wanted to hide the mass murder of the Jews for fear that the international community might intervene. The Soviets hoped to improve trade relations with the West and promote Communism as the ideal system of government. The North Koreans are trying to disguise military activity in what is supposed to be a demilitarized zone. The Palestinian Authority and Hamas, for their part, receive large amounts of U.S. and international aid, and do not want any negative publicity that could jeopardize that assistance.