Arabs Study the Holocaust

Even before the present intifada, Yasser Arafat was never seen as a sympathetic figure in Israel. Oddly enough, one of the times he incurred especially vitriolic criticism was when he sought to demonstrate solidarity with the Jewish people in relation to its most painful subject–the Holocaust. In January 1998, pressure from the U.S. administration led to an invitation being issued to Arafat to visit the Holocaust Museum in Washington. The possibility of such a visit had the Knesset in an uproar. MK Shmuel Halpert of United Torah Judaism called it “a defamation of the memory of those who were killed in the Holocaust, a trampling of Jewish dignity and a terrible insult to the last remaining survivors.” The late Rehavam Ze’evi harshly rebuked representatives of the museums at Yad Mordechai and Lohamei Hagetaot, who had also issued invitations to Arafat. He called them “stooping Jews who groveled before this villain,” and asked: “What is this murderer looking for at the Holocaust Museum? Does he want to have his picture taken there while, lips trembling, he cries crocodile tears at the sight of the horrors so that we’ll think that he’s human? Does he want to study Adolph Hitler’s exploits so he can learn from him?”

Naturally, these comments could not go unanswered. Azmi Bishara remarked in astonishment: “Finally someone wants to recognize your collective memory and you say no.” The next day, in an interview with Haaretz, writer and journalist Salem Jubran said: “I ask those who object to Arafat’s visit to the Holocaust Museum–What would they have said if he’d turned down the invitation to visit the museum?” Jubran suggested that Arafat also be invited to visit Yad Vashem.

As announced at a Jerusalem press conference this past Monday morning, a large group of Jews and Israeli Arabs plans to venture into this volatile triangle of Jews-Arabs-Holocaust. Together, they will attend a series of seminars and lectures about the Holocaust, and then go on a joint visit to Auschwitz. This extraordinary initiative was the brainchild of an Arab priest and teacher; the enthusiastic reception it has received from Jews is fairly surprising, given the general atmosphere of wariness and despair.

Two months after the October 2000 riots in the Arab sector, Father Emil Shufani realized that he was facing a new reality. Shufani, from Nazareth, serves as archimandrite at the Greek Catholic Church in the Galilee. A few years ago, he was the Netanyahu government’s leading candidate to replace the community’s retiring archbishop, but the Vatican had other ideas. Netanyahu’s support for Shufani surprised many people, since Shufani had been closely identified with Hadash. For many years, Shufani has been running the St.

Joseph High School in Nazareth, which is one of the most prestigious Arab schools in Israel. He has always advocated dialogue between Jews and Arabs and he practices what he preaches. In recent years, he has conducted regular meetings between students from his school and students from the Hebrew University High School in Jerusalem.

This tradition was not interrupted by the events of October 2000. At the December 2000 meeting, Shufani heard some things that really knocked him for a loop: “We were in Jerusalem for the weekend, and we talked about the painful things that had happened. A teacher whom I’d known for 15 years, someone who had always presented himself as an Israeli who supports democracy and equality, started to talk about the fact that he is above all a Jew, and he mentioned the Holocaust. And he wasn’t the only one. I felt that the Holocaust was coming back to people, that the feeling of persecution and the palpable fear of the Jews was not just a historical event that belongs to the past, but very present right now. It pained me to see this teacher; there was a disparity between the values that he supported intellectually and what he felt on the emotional level. That was the moment when I realized that there is no chance for true dialogue and reconciliation unless we have an in-depth understanding of this matter of the Holocaust, unless we touch the suffering, the memory, the terminology. It may not be sufficient to get us out of the mud we’re stuck in, but it’s definitely necessary.”

Binational project

Shufani, who became interested in the Holocaust when he was a student in France in the 1970s, started to toss around some ideas. One person he shared his thoughts with was Nazir Majli. Majli, also from Nazareth, is a well-known figure among the Arab public in Israel. A journalist for 30 years, he was for seven years editor of Al-Ittihad, the Communist movement’s newspaper, a position he took over from his “teacher and mentor,” writer Emil Habibi. In recent years, Majli has been analyzing events in Israel for a variety of media outlets in the Arab world, and is also part of an Internet project in which Israeli newspapers are translated daily into Arabic.

Shufani and Majli decided that their project had to be binational, so they searched for Jewish partners. Four months ago, they contacted Ruth Bar-Shalev. Bar-Shalev, from Tel Aviv, specializes in teaching individuals and organizations how to make breakthroughs, or “take a stand and create a new situation where there seemed to be a dead end,” as she puts it. She took it upon herself to put together the Jewish-Israeli group that would take part in the project.

The effort to recruit participants is now in full swing. So far, the list includes more than 100 Arabs and 80 Jews. Bar-Shalev expects the final number to be about 300: “Our guiding thought was to reach a critical mass. Granted, it’s not an intimate framework, but if we were to work with just 20 people, they wouldn’t change the thinking of the broader public. We want a mass of people who will write, act, lead and live within the new paradigm. Our goal was to enlist people who are leaders, entrepreneurs, trendsetters–not politicians.”

The Arab participants include prominent attorney Ahmed Masalha; bus and tour company director Ahmed Afifi; Sheikh Nimr Darwish, leader of the northern section of the Islamic movement; actor Salim Daw; soccer player Walid Badir; singer Amal Murkus; writer Naim Areide and a long list of academics and educators. An initial, partial list of the Jewish participants includes:

Chief Rabbi Yisrael Lau, singer Ahinoam Nini, singer Ehud Banai and poet Agi Mishol. This is an expensive project; a nonprofit organization called Mizikhron Leshalom (“From Memory to Peace”) has been set up for fund-raising purposes, and a Web site where participants can exchange views and experiences has recently been inaugurated. Bar-Shalev says that sizable contributions have already been received from several private donors.

The project’s Arab founders formulated its goals in a document they entitled “Remembering the pain for the sake of peace”: We, the undersigned, a group of Arab citizens of Israel, who are concerned about the deterioration in relations between Jews and Arabs in our country … are going out to feel the pain of the other side. The two peoples will not be able to abandon the path of bloodshed until each understands and internalizes the other’s pain and the other’s fears, which pushed them to the line of fire, conflict and war … We wish to study and to get to know the suffering, the hardships, the torture and the destruction … to fully identify with and express solidarity with the Jews.”

In upcoming weeks, the participants will attend three weekend seminars dedicated to study and discussion of the Holocaust from various angles. On the first day, only the Arabs will participate. The Jews will join them after that. As part of the seminars, the participants will hear lectures about the historical background of World War II and the Holocaust, will meet Holocaust survivors, learn about the syndrome of second- and third-generation descendants of survivors and also devote time to a particularly loaded subject–The Arab world and its attitude toward the Holocaust. The project is supposed to reach its climax toward the end of May, when the group will leave for a five-day visit to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. They will be joined there by a 150-member delegation from France that includes leaders of the Jewish and Muslim communities.

Why now?

As expected, the initiative, and especially its timing, is eliciting a lot of questions from the Arab world. Ever since October 2000, Israelis and Palestinians have been expending considerable energy vying for the right to be perceived as the real victim of the conflict. Each side does its best to diminish the enemy’s pain and suffering. Then along comes this group of Israeli Arabs that seeks to bond with Jews in the one place in the world where Jews clearly hold exclusive rights to the title of victim–the place that epitomizes the Holocaust.

A good number of Israeli Arabs object to this move, but are reluctant to voice their criticism publicly; they know that the Holocaust is a sacred cow in the Israeli discourse. One Arab public figure, who requested anonymity, said the following: “I don’t for a moment question the evil of the Nazis or the fact that the Jewish Holocaust was a horrific event. But everything has a context. When the two peoples are competing for victim status, and when the Jews cynically exploit the memory of the Holocaust in order to commit war crimes in the territories and to imprison an entire nation with closures and curfews, I feel that there’s an almost immoral element in traveling to Auschwitz and showing solidarity with the Jewish victim right at this time. Personally, my heart is with the Jews who suffered and were exterminated in the concentration camps, but there’s a difference between feeling solidarity–which is an intimate human emotion–and making a public display of this solidarity, which is an act that has political significance.”

Nazir Majli is well prepared to respond to such criticism. Over the last

months, he has frequently been asked, “Why are you going to Auschwitz when the Israelis are killing our children in Jenin?”

How do you reply?

Majli: “I tell people that we mustn’t let ourselves be prisoners of the existing modes of thinking, that we shouldn’t be fettered to outmoded concepts. Yes, we are trying to turn things inside out, which is good, because the present situation and all the hatred that exists will destroy both peoples. We know we’ll get clobbered by critics and perhaps even pay a heavy personal price, but the hope for a better future in this region is worth more. We’re living in hell and we want to breathe a little clean air, to be more pure. I’m out to cleanse myself and my people from the hatred that exists today.”

Majli and his friends were anticipating a barrage of criticism as soon as the project was announced–not only within Israel, but primarily from the Arab world. In a bid to soften the expected blow, Majli went to Egypt a few weeks ago to meet with a group of prominent intellectuals. “I explained to them that this wasn’t about a Zionization of the Israeli Arabs, that it wasn’t sycophancy, but rather a patriotic Arab deed of the first rank that was intended to demonstrate our humanity. The overwhelming majority of the people we met there gave us their blessing and we also were able to meet with the foreign minister, Amr Moussa, who told us it was a very important, even obvious, step to take in terms of the Arab world. He also promised us that if we were attacked when the project was launched, he would make a public statement of support.”

Poet, writer and journalist Salem Jubran (he is the editor of the weekly Al Ahli, based in Sakhnin), is a participant in the project and has been dealing with these issues for some years now. In the early days of Oslo, when it

appeared that normalcy was finally on its way to the region, he lectured on the Holocaust at the Givat Haviva Institute, to West Bank Palestinians who were interested in the subject. He currently teaches a seminar at Beit Lohamei Hagetaot to mixed groups of Jewish and Arab teachers.

Jubran: “As a person, as a humanist, as a leftist, I cannot be indifferent to an ideology of extermination. In my seminars, at first the people do not let go of their national affinities, but after two or three sessions, it becomes harder to think in terms of being only Jews or only Arabs. We are human beings first of all.”

No doubt you’ve been accused of obsequiousness.

“There are those who would even call the aspiration to live in coexistence obsequiousness, so what can one do? I find that one of the most moving moments is when people come up to me at the end of the course and tell me that learning about the Holocaust has actually made them more Arab, more

proud. Learning about the suffering of the Jews doesn’t take anything away from our national identity. Is that what national identity is–hating another people? In the course, we strive to understand the difference between patriotism and chauvinism, between loving oneself and hating the other. If I say that you are a true victim, does that have to mean that I am not a true victim? Maybe we both can be victims simultaneously. To me, visiting the

Lohamei Hagetaot museum isn’t obsequiousness and it doesn’t mean that you’re distancing yourself from our own nationality. Rather, it’s a distillation of all that is humane and moral in the Arab nation.”

Arab attitudes

Grappling with the Holocaust has always been a complex challenge for the Arab world. In the collective Israeli consciousness, the Arab attitude toward the Holocaust is embodied by the Mufti of Jerusalem, who maintained ties with Adolph Hitler during the war. The reality is more complicated, of course. Contrasting forces were actually at work in the Arab world then–those who held a positive view of the Nazis’ rise to power and those who doggedly opposed it, led by the members of the Communist movements.

Prof. Moshe Zimmerman of Hebrew University: “Because of their connections in the Arab world, such as the Jerusalem Mufti and with Iraq, and the hope of forging cooperation with officials in Egypt, at a certain stage the Nazis started to refrain from using the term `anti-Semitism,’ since the Arabs are also Semites, and instead talked about `anti-Jewishness.’ In their propaganda, they also tried to emphasize that the rivalry between Islam and Judaism was just as great as that between Christianity and Judaism, which, of course, was supposed to be a testament to the Jews’ nature. On the other

hand, Zionist propaganda tends to imply that the connection between the Mufti and the Nazis is representative of all the Palestinians and that’s a problematic generalization. One should be careful about that.”

Salem Jubran: “The Mufti’s attitude toward Hitler was `The enemy of my enemy is my friend.’ There were also a lot of Palestinian intellectuals who proudly and publicly took a stand against the Nazis. It’s a terrible tragedy that the right-wing Zionist establishment sought to blacken the reputation of the

entire Palestinian people. All Arabs are not the same, just as all Jews are not the same. Today, you won’t find a single person in the top ranks of the Palestinian national leadership who would justify the Nazi movement, even tacitly. In the days before Oslo, when I traveled to Tunis, Arafat asked me to lecture to his people about the Jews, the Arabs and the Holocaust. He wanted me to help them understand the Jews’ psychology, to learn how to soften the toughness.”

Two years ago, the Arab world was roiled when a number of Holocaust-denial organizations were scheduled to hold a conference in Beirut. Fourteen prominent Arab intellectuals, including poet Mahmoud Darwish, published a petition saying, “We are appalled by this anti-Semitic initiative” and demanded that the Lebanese government stop the conference from taking place. An editorial in Al-Hayat said that “The conference degrades Lebanon” and that “in the name of the Palestinian victims, the conference will seek to defend the Nazi executioner and his crimes against the Jews.” Israeli Arab MK Ahmed Tibi wrote a letter to the Lebanese president in which he said, “We cannot agree to any step whose objective is to express understanding for Nazism and its crimes as genocide of other peoples, including the Jewish people, who suffered greatly from the crimes of the Nazi executioner.” The Lebanese government caved under the pressure and the conference was canceled.

In May 2000, only a few months before the outbreak of the intifada, MK Tawfiq Khatib (Ra’am) was part of a parliamentary delegation to the concentration camps in Poland and the March of the Living at Auschwitz. “I consider my

participation an important mission. In doing this, I represented the true Arab face. The few who criticized me are a distortion of our true face,” he said at the time.

When Khatib spoke about his critics, he was referring mainly to Tamim Mansur, a high school teacher in Tira and lecturer at Beit Berl, who published a scathing article in the Balad party newspaper. Mansur argued that by joining the delegation, Khatib was lending a helping hand to Israeli and world Zionist propaganda, which stages annual “tearjerker productions at the camps in order to cover up their past and present crimes against the Palestinian people.”

Mansur is not very enthusiastic about the new educational project either: “Just because I’m opposed to it doesn’t mean that I’m for the Nazis. I’m a graduate of Tel Aviv University with a degree in the history of the Land of Israel and the Jewish People. You can’t say that I don’t know the subject. But I think that going to Auschwitz now is assisting Israeli propaganda. I don’t recall seeing a Jewish leader, from the left or right, visit Sabra and Chatila or one of the cemeteries that are full of Palestinian corpses.

“There are enough leaders in the world who display solidarity with the Jewish people in everything regarding the Holocaust, and I think that the Jews have exploited it well and used it as a clearly political issue and done a lot of terrible things in the name of the Holocaust. They built a state here at the expense of the Palestinian people thanks to the Holocaust, so I am not obliged to show solidarity with them.”

If there were peace, would your view be any different?

“Obviously, it’s also a matter of timing. The timing right now is very bad, because the Jews do not recognize the suffering of the Palestinian people and the oppression and the occupation are getting worse every day. I deal with the subject of the Holocaust all the time, because I teach history in high school. I have a problem, because nearly every morning when I enter the classroom, the students have recently heard on the news that a few more Palestinians were killed in Nablus or Gaza. In this situation, if I start talking to them about the suffering of the Jews, they’ll say, `It’s too bad they didn’t kill all of them.”

So what do you do? After all, Holocaust studies are a required subject in Israeli schools [including Israeli Arab schools].

“I teach them what’s in the book. I stick close to what’s written there and am careful not to show empathy or solidarity, because as soon as that happens, they scold me: `While they’re killing us, you’re crying for the Jews.’ If I were to talk about how the Jews suffered, they’d chase me out of the classroom. I gently try to convey the message to them that there’s no point in hating others, that we have to be ethical and only when one of the kids says something like, `They deserve it,’ do I confront him head-on.”

Mixed feelings

MK Azmi Bishara: “When I was in Germany, I visited almost all of the concentration camps. I had an obsession against the Nazis. At first, it was as a Communist. Later, this feeling extended to Communism itself and against any totalitarian regime.”

Nonetheless, Bishara has mixed feelings about the new project: “Several of the people who are involved in it are friends of mine and they also consulted with me. If this interest in the subject contains a genuine and honest desire to know about the historical and collective memory of the majority in the state we live in, then I think it’s a good thing. Any such effort is welcome.

“The problem is that I’m a little skeptical. For example, I suspect that there’s an attempt here to be `okay.’ As if this by itself will open hearts and affect public opinion among the Jews–that as soon as they see that we’re interested in them, they’ll start to be interested in us. The problem is that, up to now, when other nations have shown an interest in the Holocaust, the result was that Israel turned this solidarity into a tool for justifying its own actions. This is the instrumentalization of the Holocaust. There are two great offenses related to the Holocaust–denial of it and the use that is made of it. Both contain an element of denial, because as soon as you compare the Holocaust to all kinds of other things, you’re also diminishing it.”

After the crisis of October 2000, what’s wrong with an effort finally being made on the part of Israeli Arabs to reach out to the Jewish public?

“It’s not something bad, I’m just not sure that it’s the right way. It could blur the fact that the main factor in the worsening of relations between Jews and Arabs is the occupation–not a lack of knowledge about Jewish history. In my experience, when I’ve shown sensitivity, I’ve ended up being attacked even harder, because then they can’t neatly categorize me as they’d like. They want an Arab who will listen when Jews talk about the Holocaust. I remember the one time I was part of Dan Shilon’s famous circle on Channel Two. Benny Katzover was there, too, and he said, `What they did to us in Yamit was a mini-Holocaust.’ I was outraged–not as an Arab, but as a human being. I asked him what remarks like that do to the memory of the Holocaust, how he could be so insensitive. Not only did no one else there back me up, they all started shouting at me–`Who are you to defend the victims of the Holocaust?’ and hurling all kinds of collective accusations about `you Arabs’ and all that we did or didn’t do during the Holocaust.”

Jewish reciprocity

Ruth Bar-Shalev has been busy trying to increase the number of Jewish participants in the project. She says she is surprised anew each time from people’s “responsiveness and willingness to come and work. They don’t just say yes–They immediately get to work and take on responsibilities.”

One such person is retired police superintendent Aryeh Amit, a former commander of the Jerusalem police. “Since October 2000, I’ve felt that the divide between Jews and Arabs in Israel is a strategic problem,” he says. “We don’t know one another. We don’t know each other’s culture, each other’s dreams, each other’s poetry and literature. They’re actually ahead of us in terms of knowing the other side, and still they’re the ones who are saying, `We’re going to be the first to learn about you. We are taking this step.’ Last week, I was at a meeting in Nazareth where the project was discussed and after two minutes I knew that I wanted in. Not as a member of the Council for Peace and Security, but as a citizen who is very excited by it and wants to help, to be a soldier–though soldier probably isn’t the right word to use in this context.”

In the next stage, would you be prepared to learn about and show solidarity with Palestinian victimhood, regarding the Nakba for instance?

“I don’t know about showing solidarity, but I’d definitely be ready to learn. They decided that they’re volunteering to go first, and I have no doubt that this group will afterward study the Arab issue with courage and thoroughness.”

The matter of reciprocity could prove to be the project’s undoing. The Arabs are coming to express solidarity; for now, Amit is only ready to learn. Luckily, the Arabs did not make reciprocity a condition and, at this point, nothing of the sort has been made part of the plans for the project.

Nazir Majli: “We’re coming to recognize your victimhood. Will you recognize ours afterward? I wouldn’t be telling you the truth if I said that I hadn’t thought about this, but I try to ignore such thoughts. I’m doing this to serve my people, so should I be expecting something in return from the Jews at the same time? We’re pursuing this initiative for the sake of the Arab people. You [Jews] do what you want to do for the sake of your people. If we succeed in changing something in the relations between the two peoples, then we’ve accomplished something. If not, then we did something for ourselves personally.”

Emil Shufani: “We leave it to the Jewish street to say how it wishes to make the parallel move. No conditions are being set. The time has come to put an end to the ping-pong dialectic that we’ve been stuck in for the past two years. I don’t know what the Jews’ answer to this will be, and I’m not waiting for it. Whoever wants to offer an answer is most welcome to do so.”

This article originally appeared in Ha’aretz.