Nazareth museum looks at the Holocaust through Arab eyes

A museum owner believes his fellow Arabs have to understand Jewish suffering at the hands of the Nazis before there can be peace in the Middle East. Donald Macintyre reports
Click to follow

As museums go, it isn't up to much. When you reach the building, after a winding ascent through the old Arab, half-Christian, half-Muslim, hill town of Nazareth, there is no sign to announce what's inside. The gallery itself, in a single room and a short, drab, corridor leading off it, consists of just 80 photographs which the owner/curator, lawyer Khaled Mahameed bought from the Yad Vashem museum shop last year for about £1 each, most with explanatory captions in Arabic that he has written himself. And as Mr Mahameed admits, it isn't exactly yet a star attraction for the visitors and pilgrims who regularly stream in to see the place where the Annunciation took place and the boy Jesus grew up.

It is a remarkable innovation nonetheless. For this is almost certainly the first Arab museum and teaching centre anywhere devoted exclusively to the Holocaust. As such it is an attempt, however faltering, to bridge the chasm between two views of history. A chasm powerfully illustrated by memorial events in the past week on each side of that divide. Sunday was Nakba day, the annual commemoration of the flight and expulsion of about 750,000 Palestinians from what became Israel in 1948.

In Israel Thursday was celebrated, as usual, by a holiday, Independence Day. Both events essentially mark the same historical moment; the end of the British mandate and the victorious creation of the state of Israel. Yet both equally reflect two entirely alternative realities which seldom meet.

To underline the contrast, sirens echoed through the West Bank and Gaza just like those that have been sounded twice in Israel over the past month: in memory of the Holocaust's victims and - last Wednesday - in memory of all Israelis who have died in war for their country.

Mr Mahameed, an Israeli Arab, is driven by an unusual passion - which he has pursued to the neglect of his own legal practice, a total cost of 20,000 shekels (£2,400), the ridicule of some of his fellow Muslims, a studied lack of interest by the town's (Christian) Arab mayor, and a deep family rift with his own brother. He wants to introduce Arabs here in Israel and further afield to the horrors of the Holocaust, a history which he is convinced Palestinians must start to appreciate before they can ever resolve their own plight, and which is sympathetically and factually related in an illustrated booklet he has also produced in Arabic.

Mufid Khatib, the morning's only visitor hasn't, as it happens, come to see the exhibition but to have Mr Mahameed look over some legal documents. But he decides while he's here to study some of the bleak photographs of a synagogue burning amid the destruction of Kristallnacht; the chilling juxtaposition of a smugly smiling boy in a miniature SS uniform basking in Hitler's avuncular gaze, and an emaciated child in the Warsaw ghetto; a row of shirtless Jews facing a wall in front of an Einsatzgruppen death squad; a man contemplating the unbearable sight of his family's incinerated corpses.

Something similar must have been shown on Israeli television, Mr Khatib accepts, but he wasn't paying attention. "All the pictures are very painful," he says. "They're horrible. I heard about this, but this is the first time I saw the pictures. The message of the exhibition is very clear."

There is a debate between Mr Khatib and Mr Mahameed, deliberately provoked by the museum's owner. Mr Mahameed continually tries - somewhat artificially at times - to dramatise his message that to understand the Nakba or catastrophe in which Palestinians - including, as it happens, Mr Khatib's family - were evicted or fled from their homes during the 1948 war, it is essential first to understand the Holocaust.

Pointing at the photograph of the emaciated and unimaginably bereaved death camp survivor, he tells Mr Khatib: "This is the man who took your land in the Carmel. Maybe if you understand him he will give you back your land." Understandably unconvinced by the crudity, crassness even, of this suggestion, Mr Khatib says nevertheless that he is wholly in favour of the Holocaust pictures being exhibited, but adds: "I have a proposal: which is to put pictures of the Nakba side by side with these." Mr Mahameed, doesn't agree; he believes every Palestinian carries that collective memory in his head already. By contrast there is a long and ignominious history of denying - or at least minimising - the Holocaust in the Arab world. And while increasing numbers of Israeli Arab children, subject to a state-approved curriculum, do learn about it, it is still not taught in Palestinian Authority schools in the West Bank and Gaza because, says the PA's education spokesman Muhanad Rashid, of the "fear of a negative reaction from the Palestinian people".

Pinned on the door leading from the gallery to Mr Mahameed's office, a notice in Arabic summarises his version of Middle East history as that of the victims' victims. "The Palestinians are the only people in the world who for the sake of providing shelter to the Jews have paid their homeland as a price for the sins and the deeds of the Nazis." It's not always easy to work out whether Mr Mahameed is a visionary or an eccentric. Refusing to say where he stands on a solution to the conflict - beyond saying he is not in favour of violent resistance to the occupation - he seems to have an almost mystical belief in the power of an understanding by Palestinians of the Holocaust to bring them peace and justice; on the other hand he has a common-sense view that the mutually exclusive historical rights claimed by Jews and Arabs over this land will never lead to the compromises needed for peace. Yet he is touching on - and attempting in his own unorthodox way to remedy - something profound: the deep resistance by each people to the historical narrative of the other.

That Mr Khatib may be part of a modestly growing trend, at least among some intellectuals on each side to understand the other's history better, became apparent at a meeting in Nazareth last month between an international delegation of mayors with two members of a highly unusual joint Jewish Arab delegation which visited Auschwitz two years ago at the instigation of a far-sighted Christian Arab priest from Nazareth, Achimandrite Emile Shoufani. Geula Lapid, an Israeli ex-education official - a kibbutznik but not on the left - and Nazir Majali, a Palestinian commentator and former communist, embraced each other on the platform from which they had both spoken with a real warmth forged in that joint experience. Mr Majali explained how despite strong initial criticisms from some Arab politicians he and his colleagues, both Muslim and Christian had resolved to go on a pilgrimage which he said imparted "not just information but understanding" of Jewish pain. If anything, Ms Lapid's short talk was even more remarkable.

Describing how her generation shared the conviction that the state of Israel was "the only possible answer" to the Holocaust and the only way to prevent history repeating itself, she read a famous passage - to Israelis - from a letter written to his girlfriend by a 21 year old, Otto Pfeniger, four years before he was killed in the Six Day War of 1967. Having just read a book about the Holocaust, he wrote: "I can never forget this! - I feel that from the horror and helplessness, a huge power rising inside me to be strong; strong to tears; strong and sharp as a knife, silent and terrible; that is how I want to be! I want to know that never again will eyes stare behind electric fences! They will not, only if I am strong! If we are all strong! Strong proud Jews! We will never be led to slaughter again." Ms Lapid commented: "Those words represented our feelings in those days."

Forty years later, essentially the same message was delivered by the Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon this month on Holocaust Memorial Day - that the Jews can rely only on themselves, and a strong, militarily-defended Israel is the one guarantee that Jews will never again exist in a world with no home." Few Israelis would disagree with that. But Ms Lapid does not believe this should be the only lesson from the Holocaust. "Since [the Sixties] I have grown, matured and learned that the reality in which we live is very complex ... But you lose a lot if you are constantly preoccupied by the need to be strong, driven by the fear of the possibility of being attacked again because of being Jewish."

Ms Lapid, who was born in Israel, had, she said, found the prospect of a visit to Auschwitz unbearable. But having been "enriched" by working with Arab educationists on bringing Jewish and Israeli Arab schools in much closer contact with each others' cultures she was attracted by the idea of joint visit. "Thus I, who never wanted to be in that terrible place, found myself in Auschwitz hugged and surrounded by my Arab friends. Friends that identified with my pain and my feelings of insult and indignity. It was such an empowering and enriching experience words are inadequate to describe it." But Ms Lapid also understands the potential for this to be a two-way process. In the seminars to prepare for the Auschwitz trip, a young Palestinian woman told the group: "We are the true victims of the Holocaust, because you, the victims of the Holocaust, turned us into victims..." Ms Lapid says: "It does not matter if I agree with her: What is important is that I could understand the position from which she felt and spoke."

Ms Lapid says that Israeli Arab children learn "far more" about Israeli history than they do about that of the Palestinians. "Because we live in a multitude of cultures we have to change our way of education. On both sides - but because we are the majority we have to do much more than the minority in changing, in having a wider point of view."

The most prominent Palestinian intellectual to denounce attempts to deny or minimise the Holocaust was Edward Said. In the late Nineties he argued - rightly - that it would be foolish "even to try" to equate the Holocaust with the Nakba, adding, "who would want morally to equate mass extermination with mass dispossession?" But like Mr Mahameed he argued equally trenchantly - "a different thing altogether" - that the two events were connected. Since then, in a remarkable new book Shared Histories: A Palestinian-Israeli dialogue the Palestinian writer and journalist Ata Qaymari, who learnt his excellent Hebrew as a leftist PFLP prisoner in Israeli jails, makes an eloquent plea for mutual understanding by Israelis and Palestinians of each other's history after discussing some of the reasons for the alienated reaction by many Palestinians to the Holocaust. He points out that Palestinians tend to see Jews as "using, indeed ... misusing, the Holocaust not only to rally support for Israel's aggression against Palestinians but also to diminish or underestimate Palestinian sufferings."

He writes: "?How dare you compare anything with the Holocaust!' is the usual Jewish reaction. In the Holocaust an entire people was persecuted and doomed to total annihilation they (rightly) say." Correct though that is, suggests Mr Qaymari, it leads the Holocaust to seem to many Palestinians like an "excuse and a camouflage for the atrocities and injustices which Israel thrusts upon them." Another Palestinian, Aziz Haider, complains in a discussion reported in the book that he was invited by the Israeli education ministry to draw up a common Arab-Jewish curriculum but that the work stalled for many months because although the Arabs accepted "the Holocaust ... independence, everything" the Israelis refused for a long time to accept any inclusion of the Nakba.

At a discussion to mark publication of the book in Jerusalem this week, Mr Qaymari said many Palestinians wondered why Jews did not also draw a lesson about minorities as well as the need for a strong Israel; "how can the people of the Holocaust do bad things to us?" He added: "We have our own catastrophe which is still going on. If we understand your catastrophe and hardship, you have to understand ours." But Mr Qaymari concludes his paper with a clarion call for Palestinians "to recognise the Holocaust and its victims, not just numbers but names. When names substitute for numbers and the conflict is thus humanised, the solution will be round the corner."

At their meeting in Nazareth, Mr Majali and Ms Lapid each stressed the importance of mutual understanding for its own, humanising sake, as well as a step, however initially modest, towards resolving conflict. Mr Majali says: "Some of us, Arabs in Israel, thought we have to do something against the conflict. The two people have no idea about the other. How can you have peace together unless you know about the other's past? He adds: "We do this not for something in return but for our culture, for our humanity as Arabs. We do it for ourselves." Did Ms Lapid think it was important for Jewish children to learn what the Nakba meant for Palestinians as well as for Arab children to learn about the Holocaust? "Our obligation is to hear the story the Arabs want to tell us. I don't have to agree with them, but we have an obligation to listen to how they see what happened here. And we have to learn the facts."We can have different interpretations but we have to deal with it. We can't say there's only one way to teach history." Like Mr Majali she adds: "For our sake. Not only to be nice to the Arabs, but for our sake and for the sake of the two peoples who live here."

Comments