April 25, 2003 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 136

An Israeli Arab Initiative to Visit Auschwitz

April 25, 2003 | By Aluma Dankowitz*
Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 136


Over the past few months, a group of Arab and Jewish shapers of public opinion from Israel have been holding a seminar on the Holocaust, which is to culminate in a visit to the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camps in May 2003. The participants are to meet there with a delegation from France that will include Jewish and Muslim community leaders.

The initiative is the brainchild of Archimandrite Emil Shofani, of the Greek Catholic church in the Galilee, who is also the principal of the Al-Mutran (St. Joseph) High School in Nazareth.

In early February 2003, the Arab-Israeli initiative published a communiqué called "Remembering the Pain For the Sake of Peace." It read in part: "We the undersigned, a group of Arab citizens in Israel, fear the deterioration of relations between Arabs and Jews in our land… relations that have been characterized largely by great fear of the other and by nationalistic seclusion. Out of human responsibility, and in the belief that it is possible to change the atmosphere of Jewish-Arab relations in Israel, we are initiating this human initiative. We seek to feel the pain of the other side. The two peoples cannot abandon the path of bloodshed unless each understands and internalizes the pain of the other, and the fears of the other that pushed them to the line of fire, conflict, and war. Understanding this principle, we have decided to delve deeply into history and swim in the Jewish past. We wish to learn and know the suffering, difficulties, torment, and destruction… to identify with and to express, with all our strength, solidarity with the Jews."[1]

This will not be the first trip by non-Jewish Israelis to the death camps of Europe; some Arab Members of the Knesset and public figures have already paid visits. In 1996, Deputy Health Minister Nawaf Masalhah lit a memorial torch at a Holocaust Day ceremony held at Birkenau. In April 2000, MK Hashem Muhammid participated in a trip organized by Israel's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee to the death camps, and in May 2000, MK Sheikh Tawfiq Al-Khattib participated in the "March of Life" from Auschwitz to Birkenau.[2]

Reactions to the Initiative

The initiative faced some criticism from the Arab public. The former spokesman of the Orthodox Church in Jerusalem, Dr. 'Attallah Hanna, declared a counter-initiative: Dozens of Palestinian Muslim and Christian figures would visit the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps in Lebanon at the same time as Shoufani and his group were at Auschwitz-Birkenau, "as a message to the world that the real tragedy is that of the Palestinian people." He said, "It would be appropriate if a group that wanted to understand the suffering of the Jews listened first to the pain of its own people and its suffering in the shadow of the occupation."[3]

In the Israeli-Arab National Democratic Alliance (Balad) Party weekly Fasel Al-Maqal, Elias Khalil wrote, "The initiative will not lead to any notable positive change in the essence of relations between the State of Israel and the Palestinian residents of the country… because the active body in these relations is the State of Israel and its institutions, and the essence of the relations is not connected to the level of the Palestinians' recognition of [Jewish] history or the extent of their identification with the Jewish 'victim' in the world."

According to Khalil, "Our national interest as a people is to separate, as much as possible, the burning problems of our people from the suffering of the Jews in other places in the world, the apex of which was the European Holocaust. It is our obligation to release the Palestinian-Israeli conflict from the burden of the Nazi Holocaust in Europe, so that our problems will not be dwarfed beside their Holocaust…"

"The Jewish identity has a number of characteristics, and among these is the Nazi Holocaust. But this identity also includes repeated aggressive wars, expropriation of lands, and violence towards the Palestinian people. These aspects [of the Jewish identity] which concern us make it more difficult for us to separate one aspect of the Israeli Jewish identity from another. Furthermore, why must I identify with a specific element of all the elements of their identity, while they act tirelessly to eradicate or falsify mine?"[4]

The Initiative Supports Israeli Propaganda

Journalist Emir Makhoul took issue with the declaration by the Arab participants in the initiative that they sought "to understand the suffering [of the Jews] and its influence on the Jewish people, which has led it to live in constant fear of the other," because, he said, it reinforces the Zionist approach that uses the Jewish victim to justify Israel's aggressive policy. According to him, "The Jews' feeling of fear is the result of the racist and imperialistic nature of Israel and the result of the occupation, the settlements, and the repression and humiliation of the Palestinian people. Historically, the [fear] stems from the State of Israel's arising as a colonialist entity on the ruins of the Palestinian people… The Zionist enterprise uses [the Holocaust] to justify Israel's crimes today… In my opinion, Israel can use a project of this sort to reinforce the victim psychology in Israeli society much more than we can use it to bring about openness in Israeli society, or any change [towards Palestinians] at all in it."[5]

Tamim Mansour, a high school teacher in the city of Tira and lecturer at Beit Berel College in Kfar Saba, Israel, had in the past criticized Al-Khattib for joining the delegation to Auschwitz. He had said that in this way, Al-Khattib aided Israeli propaganda and world Zionism, which every year stages shows of "weeping and wailing in the camps to cover up their sins, past and present, towards the Palestinian people."[6]

Mansour also opposes the initiative now underway. He said, "My opposition does not of course mean that I am in favor of the Nazis… I think that to travel now to Auschwitz means giving tools to Israeli propaganda. I do not remember that I saw a Jewish leader, from the Left or the Right, visiting Sabra and Shatilla or one of the cemeteries full of the corpses of Palestinians. Enough leaders in the world show solidarity with the Jewish people in all things connected to the Holocaust, and I think that the Jews have exploited them well and circulated it as a clearly political matter, and done many terrible things in the name of the Holocaust. They built a country here at the expense of the Palestinian people because of the Holocaust, so I don't have to identify with them… Obviously, it is also a matter of timing. The timing now is very bad, because the Jews do not recognize the suffering of the Palestinian people, and the repression and occupation become worse every day."[7]

The More You Understand the Jews, the More You Must Justify Israel

Author and critic Antoine Shalhatstrongly objected to the initiative, and suggested another way of addressing the Holocaust. He said, "Some of the initiative's planners play no role in political parties or any other cultural arena, and therefore seek a role and tools for action. Addressing the matter of the Holocaust now is a game in the court of the other, on his terms and without the ability to influence. It also constitutes a reinforcement of the legitimacy connecting the establishment of Israel with what happened in Europe. The Holocaust must be handled differently. It must be taught in an historical framework, without connecting it to the establishment of the Hebrew state, as this connection is Zionist and must be discussed [independently], morally, politically, and historically… What is demanded now is that the strong Jewish side recognizes the catastrophe [of the 1948 war] as a Palestinian tragedy and implements what stems from this recognition."[8]

MK 'Azmi Bishara, who visited concentration camps during his Ph.D. studies in Germany, had mixed emotions about the initiative: "If this interest is a genuine and honest desire to know about the historical and collective memory of the majority in the state in which we live, I think it is good. Anything like this is welcome. The problem is that I am a little skeptical. I fear, for example, that there is here an attempt to be 'okay' – as if this in itself would open the Jews' heart and influence their public opinion, [and they] will begin to take an interest in us the moment they see that we are taking an interest in them."

"The problem is that it is not proven that talking more [about], and taking greater interest in, the Jews' pain increases the Jews' sensitivity to other peoples. To date, when other peoples took an interest in the Holocaust, the result was that Israel turned this opportunity into an instrument. A situation arose in which the more you understand the history of the persecution of the Jews [the more] you must justify and understand Israel and its behavior today. This is what they call instrumentalization of the Holocaust. There are two great crimes regarding the Holocaust – denying it and [using it] as it is being used. Both contain an element of denial, because as soon as you compare the Holocaust to anything, you also dwarf it."[9]

A Patriotic Arab Act

In an attempt to prevent misunderstandings about the initiative, one of its active participants, journalist Nazir Majali, former editor of the Communist paper Al-Ittihad, embarked upon an explanatory campaign in Egypt. He met with shapers of public opinion and explained that this was neither "Zioniziation" of the Arab-Israelis nor obsequiousness, but a patriotic Arab act of the first order, aimed at showing Arab humanity. He said that most of the people with whom he had met gave the plan their blessing, and that Arab League Secretary Amr Moussa said it was very important and that as far as the Arab world was concerned, it was even self-evident. He also promised that were the participants to be attacked when the delegation set out, he would issue a call for public support.

Association of Arab Authors in Israel Chairman Mahmoud 'Ali Taha rejected the claim that such visits could not be carried out "while the Israeli government was committing crimes in the Palestinian territories." He said, "like the enlightened world was against the Nazis, we too can be against them, and can identify with the victim. We are not playing into the hands of anyone, certainly not Israeli propaganda. When I identify with the victim, I bring out the humanity within me, and I don't do it in order to receive anything. "[10]

Scrapped: An Initiative to Include Holocaust Studies in the Palestinian Curriculum

The criticism of the Israeli Arab initiative to visit Auschwitz bore some similarities to criticism of a project, launched in 2000, initiated by then-Palestinian Planning and International Cooperation Deputy Minister Anis Al-Qaq. Al-Qaq had proposed including Holocaust studies in the Palestinian curriculum.

In a symposium held in Nicosia, Cyprus in April 2000, Palestinians and Israelis discussed "How to Strengthen Peace through Education." Representatives from Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, and Tunisia were also present. Heading the Israeli delegation was then-Minister of Education Yossi Sarid, and the Palestinian delegation was led by Al-Qaq.

Al-Qaq stated at the symposium that he was "interested in teaching the history of the Holocaust in Arab and Palestinian schools... I believe that Palestine and the entire Arab world need to learn about the Holocaust, and therefore this subject should be included in the school curriculum."[11]

The idea was never implemented, but Al-Qaq's statements sparked outrage in Palestinian intellectual circles. Dr. Musa Al-Zu'but, Chairman of the Education Committee of the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) said, "There will be no attempt to include the history of the Holocaust in the Palestinian curriculum. It is the Palestinian Legislative Council that determined the general framework [of the school curriculum] by law. The Council in general, and the Education Committee in particular, monitor what is being learned in the framework of the curriculum, and examine whether anything contradicts or harms Palestinian history."

Al-Zu'but continued, "The Holocaust has been inflated so as to show the Jews as victims of a great injustice, in order to justify [the claim] that Palestine is necessary as a homeland for them, and to give them the right to demand compensation. When the history of the Holocaust is taught [in the Palestinian schools], it must be explained to the pupils that the Holocaust was significantly inflated and that we, the Palestinians, were forced to live with its results: Our country, Palestine, was lost and was occupied by Israel. It is better to teach the pupils about what is happening to our people."

Al-Zu'but expressed his hope that Al-Qaq had intended that schools teach that the Holocaust was blown out of proportion. He concluded by saying, "We [the Palestinians] have no interest in teaching the Holocaust. If the purpose is to express sympathy, this is useless to us, since we are the ones who suffered from its outcome."[12]

'Teaching the Holocaust Endangers the Developing Palestinian Mentality'

PLC Political Committee Chairman Ziyad Abu Amr said that in any event, "the study of this subject must not be mandatory. All those who have studied the history of the Holocaust in the past have reached different conclusions. Why, then, must we require our pupils to read the history, heritage, and experience of the Jews? We are in dire need of reading our own heritage and history. Likewise, the relationship between us and them must first of all be rehabilitated by their recognition of our people's full rights. The fundamental problems between us and them have not been solved, and I do not believe that this is the time to program our children and the pupils of our schools by teaching them Jewish history in general, not only the Holocaust."[13]

PLC member and Fatah leader Hatem Abd Al-Qader said that teaching the Holocaust in Palestinian schools "is a great danger to the developing Palestinian mentality. It would be dangerous to change the Palestinian curriculum in such a direction. The Jews should first learn about our disaster, the massacres, the murder, and the exile, because this disaster is still alive. As for the so-called Holocaust, it has already been moved into the museum of history."

Abd Al-Qader added, "We cannot abolish the historic Palestinian dream, even if we remove it from the official Palestinian rhetoric... This land was promised to us by Allah, while it was promised to the Jews by Balfour. If such a decision [about teaching the Holocaust] is carried out, it will undoubtedly ruin the Palestinian dream and aspirations. It will entirely obliterate the past, present, and future of the Palestinians. We in the Legislative Council will oppose any experiment that might harm the mind, the identity, and the historic roots of the Palestinians."[14]

'We are More Entitled than the Jews to the Support of All the Nations'

Palestinian historian Dr. Isam Sisalem, who has in the past denied that there were gas chambers in the Nazi death camps, stated: "We as Palestinians condemn the indiscriminate killing of many people by the Germans, but we cannot allow the killing of the Jews to be used to oppress another nation, namely the Palestinians. The Nuremberg courts exploited [Jewish] lies to divide Palestine, claiming that the Jewish community had suffered annihilation and was in need of a homeland in which to settle. What interests us, however, is our own people, who suffered from the exile and destruction of thousands of its people. We are more entitled [than the Jews] to the support of all of the nations."

Dr. Sisalem said that since the Stockholm International Forum on the Holocaust in January 2000, which stated that all European countries should include the history of the Holocaust in their curricula, the Western media has lied about and exaggerated the Holocaust. He said, "The Zionist movement exploited it in order to cover up its loathsome crimes in Palestine. It also continues to extort the European states to this very day. The truth is that the Zionist leaders negotiated with the Nazis and signed agreements with them under which many Jews were expelled to Palestine. They also agreed that the property of the Jews would not be harmed, and in exchange the Zionist movement would provide the Germans with thousands of trucks for use on the Russian front."[15]

Palestinian intellectual Abdallah Horani said about the initiative: "I don't think that Israel and the Zionist movement need the efforts and voices of the Palestinians to spread the false story of the Holocaust. There are those whose loyalty to Israel and their volunteerism for its sake are greater than their loyalty to the national and pan-Arab cause. Instead of talking about the false Holocaust, Al-Qaq should have monitored the doubts [about it], which are gaining momentum in the international arena and among leading European intellectuals. He should have spoken about the massacres perpetrated by the Israelis against the defenseless Palestinian people, which wherever it may be, still suffers from the cruel Zionist terror."

Al-Horani added that Al-Qaq's statements "remind him of those who 'volunteered' to refrain from talking about the return of the [Palestinian] refugees to the land from which they were driven in 1948. These statements come in the framework of what is known as the 'culture of peace,' which is supported by the U.S., which maintains hegemony in the region. The goal of this 'culture of peace' is to propagate the American interpretation of globalization, which means capitulating to America's conditions – and thus to Israel's conditions. The meaning of this globalization is also to eradicate the memory of the nations, efface their national heritage and history, [and neutralize] any resistance to foreign ideological or cultural invasion."[16]

Leader of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad Movement in Gaza Sheik Nafez 'Azzam, said in reaction to Al-Qaq's statements, "It is inconceivable that a nation would respect its murderers and the robbers of its rights and its land. Why do people speak only of the Jewish victims of World War II, without a word about our own victims and martyrs?! We must first and foremost teach our children of the catastrophes carried out by the Jews that afflicted and are still afflicting us. We must teach them the history of this conflict, which symbolizes the great wrong done to the Palestinian people, on the background of the silence and conspiracy to which most of the world's governments are party."

'Azzam stated, "Whoever gambles on brainwashing is bound to fail... Such a program will have no influence on the formation of the minds of the sons of the [Islamic] nation. The intention to teach the Holocaust in Palestinian schools contradicts the natural order of the universe."[17]

'It is Unfair to Diminish the Importance of the Persecution Suffered by the Jews, But…'

In contrast, Sheik Jamal Mansour, a Hamas leader, said, "It is unfair to deny the Holocaust or to diminish the importance of the persecution suffered by the Jews. We must clearly condemn it and stand by the oppressed – whoever they may be – and against the oppressor." However, Sheik Mansour explained that the problem lies with "the West, which takes a rigid stance when it comes to the history of the Jews with the Nazis, and compels all governments and peoples to teach a single history of the Holocaust. In addition, the West uses Zionist historians to establish this [narrative] and turn it into an axiom that cannot be questioned."

"At the same time, they want us to forget all the massacres, the tens of thousands of victims, the millions of exiles, our confiscated land, our occupied land, and our blood which continues to be spilled... The Jews have mobilized the so-called free and civilized world to subjugate its victims, apologize for their history, and to undertake [to ensure] their well-being and their strength in the future – all because of one crazy man who was an enemy to the entire world, not only the Jews, and who murdered 20 million Russians with his own hands."[18]

*Aluma Solnick is a Research Associate with MEMRI.

[1]Haaretz (Israel), February 5, 2003.

[2]When asked about his impressions of the visit, Al-Khattib said he had a broad point of view that wasn't restricted to scheming against the Jewish people. He rejected the statement that participation in such delegations was out of the question because the Jews were committing similar crimes against the Palestinian people, and explained that he had participated in the delegation for humanitarian and cultural reasons, but was opposed to how the Jews' tragedy was being used in Europe "to legitimize the acts taking place today in the West Bank, Gaza, and within Israel." See Kul Al-Arabi (Israel), May 5, 2000.

[3]Al-Hayat Al-Jadida (London), February 27, 2003.

[4]Faisal Al-Maqal (Israel), March 7, 2003.

[5]Al-Mash'had Al-Asra'ili, supplement in Al-Ayyam (Palestinian Authority), February 11, 2003.

[6]Faisal Al-Maqal (Israel), April 28, 2003.

[7]Haaretz (Israel), February 5, 2003.

[8]Al-Hayat (Palestinian Authority), February 11, 2003.

[9]Haaretz (Israel), February 5, 2003.

[10]Haaretz (Israel), February 5, 2002.

[11]Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), April 11, 2000.

[12]Al-Risala (Palestinian Authority), April 13, 2000.

[13]Al-Risala (Palestinian Authority), April 13, 2000.

[14]Al-Istiqlal (Palestinian Authority), April 20, 2000.

[15]Al-Risala (Palestinian Authority), April 13, 2000.

[16]Al-Istiqlal (Palestinian Authority), April 20, 2000.

[17]Al-Istiqlal (Palestinian Authority), April 20, 2000.

[18]Al-Risala (Palestinian Authority), April 13, 2000.

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