Politics And History Pollute Palestinian View of Shoah

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

Published April 01, 2009, issue of April 10, 2009.
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Strings of Freedom, the Palestinian youth orchestra from Jenin, has been silenced; its instruments confiscated, its rehearsal space sealed, its director barred from the West Bank refugee camp because she took the teens to play for elderly Israelis on a day designated for kindness.

The attempt to do something positive across boundaries of nationality, religion and age on Israel’s recent “Good Deed Day” devolved into a debacle because the Jews for whom the teenagers were playing were Holocaust survivors.

Once news of the March 22 concert became public, a firestorm of anger erupted from Jenin’s Palestinian leadership, much of it alleging that in playing for Holocaust survivors, the teens had been used for Israeli propagandistic purposes. Members of the Palestinian Authority’s Fatah faction quickly imposed the series of severe measures.

For the American Jewish Comittee, the P.A.’s reaction confirmed suspicions about the “extremist agenda” of “elements of the Palestinian leadership.” But Palestinians view the Holocaust as little more than the source of their oppression, experts tell the Forward.

“Palestinians know nothing about the facts of the Holocaust,” said Khaled Kasab Mahameed, an Israeli-Arab lawyer who, since visiting Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust museum, with his young children has worked to bring information about the Shoah to Palestinians. “No one ever brought a picture from the Holocaust into the Jenin refugee camps.” This has left Palestinians bereft of any grasp of both the factual details and human tragedy of the Holocaust, he said.

While Palestinians, because of their proximity to and involvement with Israeli life, are more aware of the Holocaust than many other Arabs are, they view it through a political lens rather than a historic one, said Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and author of the 2006 book “Among the Righteous: Lost Stories of the Holocaust’s Long Reach Into Arab Lands.”.

When it is not being denied outright, the Holocaust is viewed by Arabs in general, and Palestinians in particular, as moral and political justification for the creation of the State of Israel (called “The Catastrophe,” or, in Arabic, “Nakba”) and as an event that condemns Palestinians to perpetual victimhood, say experts.

According to these experts, Palestinians feel they cannot do anything that could possibly confer any legitimacy on the Holocaust, including acknowledging its reality.

“In the eyes of Palestinians, you know the weapon of your enemy is the Holocaust,” Mahameed told the Forward from his home in the Israeli-Arab village Umm el-Fahm.

“Palestinians feel that if they talk about the Holocaust, then they must pay sympathy to the Jewish people and to the Israeli soldiers. Palestinians feel they can’t win anything from the world, because of the horrors of the Holocaust. So they have just one way to deal with it, and that’s to deny it,” he said.

“The Holocaust is an emotive issue for Palestinians, Arabs and all Muslims,” said Satloff, whose book details accounts of Arabs and Muslims who both saved Jews from the Nazis and assisted in their persecution during World War II. In addition to viewing it as rationalization for Zionism, Satloff said, “there’s another strain of thought which equates a historical turning of things on their head. The victims have become the aggressors. Among some elements of Palestinian society, there is the idea that they are the new Jews and that the Jews have become the Nazis.

“They don’t want to have anything to do with the Holocaust, because ipso facto it ends up rationalizing Israel, so they prefer to just stay away. That includes, perhaps, having their children participate in a concert for Holocaust survivors.”

Yet, unexpectedly, both experts say that there is also growing interest in learning more about the Holocaust.

“There’s been an explosion in interest” among Muslims and Arabs, Satloff said, and increasing access to information about the Holocaust, mostly through Holocaust memorial museums.

Yad Vashem, for example, added information about the Shoah in Arabic to its Web site for the first time last year.

Some of the interest is expressed in unanticipated quarters.

According to Mahameed, on April 21, Israel’s national day of Holocaust remembrance, the Palestinian West Bank village of Nilin will open a new, permanent Holocaust memorial, “and the mayor of that village is Hamas.”

Mahameed believes that if both Palestinians and Jewish Israelis focus on understanding each other’s perspectives on the Holocaust, the entire conflict between the two peoples will be resolved.

“Let’s talk through the pain which is unique in the hearts of the Jewish people. If we talk about it, Palestinians understand that, Jews understand that and there’s no need to talk about borders. Two minutes will change the minds of both peoples,” he said.

“This was the problem for the Jenin youth orchestra,” he said. “The whole problem is the understanding of the Holocaust. It’s nothing else. If Palestinians and Israelis understand what the Holocaust means for the conflict, then we will have peace.”

Todd Gitlin, a former political activist who is now an author and a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University, says that the collapse of efforts to bring people together for what was supposed to be a simple concert “is predictably sad and highly deplorable, but not easy to avoid.

“In a highly polarized situation like the one between Israelis and Palestinians, there’s very little scope for neutrality or new efforts. These are fights for ownership of morality, which tend to be rather brutal.”

Contact Debra Nussbaum Cohen at dnussbaumc@forward.com.

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