Abbas made the statement in a speech at the beginning of a meeting of the Palestinian National Council, a top PLO body that is convening in Ramallah this week to elect members to two other PLO institutions.
The comments marked the second time in several months that the 83-year-old Palestinian leader spoke about his take on Jewish and Zionist history. In a speech in January at a meeting of the PLO Central Council, Abbas discussed his perspective on Jewish and Zionist history, arguing Israel is a “colonial project with no relationship to Judaism.”
His comments in January were met with a highly critical response and accusations of antisemitism by Israeli government officials and Jewish organizations and overshadowed other remarks he made about coexistence and nonviolence.
Abbas’s remarks on Monday appear to reflect that the PA president has become less concerned with the ramifications of making comments that Israel and much of the international community likely reject.
“From the 11th century until the Holocaust that took place in Germany, the Jews – who moved to Western and Eastern Europe – were subjected to a massacre every 10 to 15 years. But why did this happen?” Abbas said on Monday, before interjecting, “The Jewish issue that was widespread in all European countries... was not because of their religion, but rather their social role related to usury and banks.”
He said his comments were based on the writings of Karl Marx and two other Jewish authors.
Esther Webman, an expert on Arab perspectives of the Holocaust, said Abbas’s remarks on the persecution of Jews are inaccurate.
“[His statement] certainly is not accurate, because Nazism wanted to annihilate Jewish people wherever it is,” she said in a phone call. “An ideology, such as Nazism, that wants to erase all Jews is against Jews. The argument that Jews were killed for their social role is nothing more than an excuse that was used to justify the annihilation of Jews.”
During the Holocaust, the Nazis and their collaborators murdered some six million Jews.
Abbas also cited a theory that Ashkenazi Jews do not hail from what is modern-day Israel, but rather Khazaria, an empire that was located between Eastern Europe and the Middle East hundreds of years ago.
“Arthur Koestler, an American-Jewish Zionist, wrote a book about the 13th tribe... Where did you get the 13th from? They invented them. Where? In the Khazar Kingdom. When? In the ninth century,” Abbas said. “This kingdom was not religious and then it became Jewish... It later broke up, and all of its residents moved to Europe. These people are the Ashkenazi Jews. They have no relationship to Semitic culture, Abraham, Jacob and others.”
There were 12 Israelite tribes.
Koestler was not an American.
Koestler and some other historians such as Shlomo Sand have argued that Jews from Central and Eastern Europe are the descendants of Khazars.
However, Alexander Beider, a scholar of Jewish studies, and other academics have dismissed the Khazar theory about the origins of European Jewry. In an article in The Daily Forward in 2017, he called the theory “junk science.”
“The theory is absolutely without evidence,” Beider wrote. “As any historian will tell you, generations of Jews, like generations of any people, leave historical traces behind them. These traces come in multiple forms. For starters, people leave behind them historical documents and archeological data. Predictably, archaeological evidence about the widespread existence of Jews in Khazaria is almost nonexistent.”
In his speech, Abbas also reiterated that Israel is “a colonial project” and that Jews were not backers of building a Jewish state in historic Palestine.
“Now let’s talk about the homeland of the Jews,” he said. “They say they are yearning for Zion... History says this is baseless. The proof is that the first person to call for a Jewish state was Cromwell, the British leader, in 1653... Napoleon Bonaparte came after him [and said the same thing]. And after [Napoleon], Churchill, the grandfather, came in 1840 [and said the same thing]... So everyone was calling for a Jewish state, but not the Jews... The story of building a national home didn’t come from the Jews, but rather the colonial states.”
According to Abbas, the European leaders wanted to plant “a foreign people” in Palestine as a way to impress conflict and division in Arab states and thereby maintain control over them and exploit their strategic location.
He also said Nazi Germany made efforts to help to create Israel and cultivate a supportive population there.
Abbas said the Nazi Economy Ministry and the Anglo-Palestine Bank made an agreement that any Jewish German who wanted to immigrate to Palestine could have his or her tangible and intangible assets transferred there.
“Did Hitler love the Jews to this extent?” Abbas asked rhetorically. “What did Hitler want? He wanted the Jewish homeland [in Palestine] to be supportive of him.”
Nazi Germany, the Anglo-Palestine Bank and the Zionist Federation of Germany agreed in August 1933 to the Haavara Agreement, which allowed Jews to relinquish their possessions in Germany in exchange for payouts when they arrived in Palestine.
Nonetheless, Abbas clarified that he still wants to coexist with the country in a two-state solution.
“[Israel being a colonial project] does not mean that we should uproot them,” Abbas said. “We are not saying that... We want to coexist with them on the basis of two states, a Palestinian state and Israel on 1967 borders.”
Abbas also said the Ramallah-based Palestinian leadership is in favor of building ties with Israeli supporters of peace.
“We are with the supporters in Israel,” he said. “We want to cooperate with them to build peace in Israel and the region... Thus, there is communication. We will continue to communicate with those who want peace and those we expect want peace.”
Later in his speech, Abbas eschewed violence as a means to oppose Israel’s military rule in the West Bank, offering his support for “peaceful, popular resistance.”