Khaled Kasab Mahameed waited until the very last moment, hoping that his visa would come through. A Muslim lawyer from the Israeli Arab city of Nazareth, he had reserved a seat on an afternoon flight December 10 from Amman to Tehran, expecting to address Iran’s international conference on the Holocaust. His bag was packed. His wife and two children were ready to take him at 9:00 a.m. to the Jordanian border crossing.
But at 9:00 a.m., his hopes were dashed. In a phone call to the Iranian Embassy in Amman, a clerk informed him that there was no visa waiting for him. “I was so disappointed,” he said. “I sat depressed, and I waited an hour and called again. Then another hour and called again. In the end, they said Israelis don’t get visas.”
Mahameed, 44, had been waiting for this day from the moment he received his invitation to the conference from Iran’s Foreign Ministry. In 2005, Mahameed opened the world’s first Holocaust museum for Arabs, called the Arab Institute for Holocaust Research and Education. It shares a floor with his law office.
In a way, the conference was his moment of truth. Not only would Mahameed have an international platform to teach Muslims and Arabs about the Holocaust — and possibly to get more financial support for his work. More important, in his opinion, he finally would be listened to. For the first time, he had been invited by Muslims to speak about his views. And maybe, just maybe, he could convince some to open their minds and hearts — to Jewish pain.
But it was not to be. “I thought about it,” he said, “maybe they invited me because they thought I live in the Palestinian Authority.”
Then the phone rang, and the interviews began. BBC, CBC, French TV. For the two days of the conference, December 11 and 12, Mahameed got more exposure than he would have if he actually had attended the conference. But not in the Arab media.
He called an Arab journalist who once had visited his office. “I suggested writing a story about the conference and interviewing me,” Mahameed said. “He said, ‘Why should I give you a platform?’ That’s exactly the problem that we’re dealing with. The people who need to know are in denial.”
The story began last year, when Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad began making statements denying the Holocaust. Mahameed sent him a copy of his book, “The Palestinians and the State of the Holocaust.” The Iranian Foreign Ministry’s Institute for Political and International Studies invited him to speak at its planned Holocaust conference, which was titled “Review of the Holocaust: Global Vision.”
“I think they invited me because I always send them things,” he said.
It was clear from the outset that the conference would bring together Holocaust deniers from around the world to advance Ahmadinejad’s outrageous notions. Mahameed was hoping to raise his voice, “to convince them that the Holocaust did happen and that they shouldn’t talk about numbers or make light of it.”
Unlike Western leaders who spoke out against dignifying the conference by attending, Mahameed saw an opportunity. He believes that if Arabs and Muslims don’t study the Holocaust, if they continue to deny it, then they will not be able to deal with the conflicts they face.
“It’s very important that they begin to study the significance of the Holocaust,” Mahameed said. “It affects relations between East and West, and it dictates policy regarding the Palestinians in particular.”
The secret to peace between the Palestinians and the Israelis, according to Mahameed, depends on the Arabs and Muslims learning about the Holocaust — the subject of his lecture — and the Jews, in turn, getting over their fear.
“When you don’t understand the Holocaust, it hinders the peace process,” he said. “I wanted to go tell the Iranians that when you play down the Holocaust or deny it, you are directly hurting the Palestinian refugees who are in camps. By denying it, they are making the Jewish people feel persecuted — which doesn’t allow options for peace to develop.”
“Ninety percent of the Israeli identity is based on the experience of the Holocaust — the horrors of the Nazis,” Mahameed said. “So when [the Iranians] deny the Holocaust, they are actually saying [Palestinians] are facing something that doesn’t exist. But it does exist.”
Mahameed’s knowledge is expansive, quoting from Heine and Clausewitz. But his focus is very much at home — directed at the conflict that affects his own life.
“I remember since I was 6, my father always said we are paying for the horrors of the Holocaust.”
His parents were internal refugees, Israeli Arabs who fled from the village of Ilajoun. He was born in Umm al-Fahm, not far away. “My father lived in Ilajoun until age 17, then the state was created and they were expelled to Umm al-Fahm,” he said, adding that his family lost 40,000 dunams of land, or about 10,000 acres. “The kibbutzim took it.”
Mahameed sees a symbolism in his life. He senses that teaching his people about the Holocaust is his calling.
“We are 13 children, and I am number six,” he said. “Like 6 million.” He paused, then added: “Not by chance I was born on the sixth of May, the day the Nazis were defeated. I come to defeat the remains of the teachings of the Nazis. I also want to neutralize the feeling of persecution among the Jews.”
Almost counter-intuitively, Mahameed argues that the Palestinians cannot win by talking of Israeli atrocities, but rather by acknowledging the atrocities perpetuated against the Jews.
“Palestinians talk about Israelis killing 1,000 or 2,000 in Sabra and Shatila,” he said, referring to a massacre that happened under Israeli watch after the 1982 Lebanon War. “But the Israelis have 6 million. I say, Palestinians need to adopt the Holocaust. The result of adopting the Holocaust is that then they don’t need to be violent against the Jews. That’s the power of the Holocaust. So let’s bring information to the Palestinians about the Holocaust.”
But he also believes that Jews need to make an effort: “I also request from the Jews to overcome the Holocaust. Yes, it was a horror, but why let Hitler continue to dictate our lives?”
He blames Israelis and Europeans for not teaching Arabs and Muslims about the Holocaust. “Israelis always speak of the need to preserve the security of the Jewish state. Why not explain why? Why not describe what happened to the Jews in the Holocaust so the Arabs will understand that the Holocaust is an important factor in shaping policies toward the Arab world?”
Like all messengers, Mahameed has not had an easy time. He stood at Kalandia checkpoint near Jerusalem on Auschwitz Remembrance Day last January, and at a conference held by controversial Arab Israeli lawmaker Azmi Bishara at which he distributed pamphlets about the Holocaust that he printed with his own money.
“People get angry and say, ‘No, I don’t want it,’” he said. He sometimes gets ugly comments on his Arabic-language Holocaust Web site. Once, he said, a Hamas activist threatened his life. Mahameed managed to convince him to give up firing Qassam rockets.
Mahameed remains optimistic. “Just give me two months, and I can make peace here,” he said. “You laugh. I’m serious.”