Holocaust Memory among Palestinian Arab Citizens in Israel Personal Sympathy and National Antagonism

On International Holocaust Memorial Day in 2010, Ahmad Tibi, an
Arab member of the Israeli Parliament (Knesset), gave a speech that left
the audience excited to the extent that the speaker, Reuven Rivlin, declared
it »the best speech on the Holocaust ever heard in the Knesset.«1
What was so unique about Tibi’s speech? Was it the mere fact that it was
an Arab MK who spoke about the Holocaust? Or was it the relief felt by
the predominantly Jewish members of the audience that a Palestinian patriot
had finally recognized the Jewish tragedy in full, and did not try to
compare, minimize, or, God forbid, deny it?
Tibi opened his speech by expressing his full empathy with the survivors,
claiming that »this is the moment when every person should let
go his national or religious affiliations and differences, and wear only his
human gown, look inside and around and remain just a human being.«2
He spoke fiercely against Holocaust denial and acknowledged that the
Holocaust was the worst crime against humanity in modern times. In the
following days the press reported on hundreds of calls from Holocaust
survivors to Tibi and on an unprecedented compliment from Prime Minister
Binyamin Netanyahu. But most of all, Tibi was moved by the Arab
students who called him and said: »Finally you were able to show the human
aspects of the Arabs, now the Jews understand that we are empathic

toward their suffering during that period.«3
At the same time, another Arab MK, Muhammad Barakeh, the head
of Hadash party, visited Auschwitz. His visit caused debate and criticism
within the Arab public and media in Israel. Barakeh, like Tibi, stood firm
and claimed that the majority of Arabs and Jews alike supported his ges-
* This essay is dedicated to the memory of Salem Jubran (1941-2011), a writer and a
poet, a colleague and friend, who was one of the first Arab educators on the Shoah.

1 Jonathan Liss, Is Ahmad Tibi’s speech the best ever heard in the Knesset?,
Ha’aretz, 28 January 2010.
2 Ibid.
3 Nir Yahav, Ahmad Tibi you have not known, http://news.walla.co.il/
item/1644689, 12 February 2010.
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ture, and that as an Israeli MK educated by the Communist party he feels
»a moral right to express the cry of these innocent victims.«4 He too denounced
Holocaust denial, saying that those who deny the fact of this
horrible crime against humanity »send a poisonous arrow to the heart of
the Palestinians’ rightful desire for an independent state beside Israel.«
But Barakeh also strongly criticized those Israelis who »manipulate the
Holocaust for their political interests and for justifying their policy in
the occupied territories.«5
Seven years before this, a Knesset member from the Islamic Movement
had joined the Knesset mission to Poland. Tawfiq Khatib had to ask the
permission of his party to accept the invitation to participate in the »march
of the living« with his fellow Jewish MKs. He explained that he wanted to
see with his own eyes the places he had read about in order to better understand
the horrors that took place during World War II. When he came
back he encountered criticism in some Arab papers, including the Hadash
organ al-Ittihad. Yet he also received the support of many visitors who
came to his home to greet him upon his return, as is customary in Arab
society. He said that everyone was anxious to hear as much as he could tell
them about this unique trip. His only comment was that the world, and Israel,
should commemorate all 20 million victims of this war, among them
Poles, Gypsies, and civilians of European countries, and not just Jews.6
In December 2011, Tibi participated in a Palestinian medical conference
in Berlin, during which he asked his hosts to take him to Villa
Wannsee. They not only agreed but some of them accompanied him.
Signing the visitors’ book, Tibi repeated what he had said in the Knesset,
adding that »we should all learn from history in order for such horrors
not to happen again« and that »all peoples have an absolute right to
freedom, dignity and life in their homeland.«7 Here he approached the
common Israeli-Arab discourse on the Holocaust, one that tries to draw
lessons from the past for the present, using these lessons in the current
political debate over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in order to defend
and advance the Palestinian cause.
4 Muhammad Barakeh, I have changed in Auschwitz, NRG, 28 January 2010.
5 Ibid.
6 Ha’aretz, 18 May 2000. Quoted in: Yousef Al-Gazi, Arabs in Holocaust Memorial
Days, www.defeatist-diary.com.
7 Yossi Verter, Solidarity, Ha’aretz, 9 December 2011.
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It is important to separate the discourse on the Holocaust among the Palestinian-
Arab citizens in Israel from that of other Arabs and the Palestinians
who live under Israeli occupation or who are dispersed in the Arab
world. This sub-group of Palestinians, which remained under Israeli rule
after 1949, is unique in various respects and consequently in regard to their
attitude towards the Holocaust. As Israeli citizens, they have mastery of the
Hebrew language and consume Israeli media; most of them are personally
acquainted with (and sometimes friends of ) Holocaust survivors and their
families; they are exposed to ceremonies, museums, and the general Israeli
public expressions of the Shoah, including in the public sphere and in the
media; they learn about the Holocaust from an early age, as it is part of the
curriculum at public schools; they can easily find Arabic translations of relevant
books, such as the diary of Anne Frank and the work of K. Zetnik;
and they can read Hebrew-language works of Holocaust literature.
Salman Natour, a writer and publicist, who died in 2016, said that
his own position as an Arab who lives among Jewish survivors undoubtedly
shaped his attitude toward Holocaust memory and made him much
more sensitive to the issue than others in the Arab world: »On the one
hand, I refrain from hurting their feelings for the sake of our coexistence
in the country, but on the other hand, I resist the idea that as a Palestinian
I am asked to pay the price of a history for which I am not responsible.
«8 This is the kind of deliberation that justifies careful consideration
of how Arabs in Israel see the Holocaust.
The first Arab references to the Holocaust were heard immediately after
the establishment of the state of Israel in May 1948 and the Armistice
agreements in 1949, after which approximately 160,000 Arabs were
placed under Israeli control. Some Arab speakers used to compare their
life under the Military Government to the life of Jews in the ghettos,
claiming that they suffered from curfews and closures like those imposed
on the Jews by the Nazis. The fate of 49 civilians who were murdered by
Israeli policeman in Kufur Qaessem in October 1956 because they had
unknowingly violated a curfew was compared to the atrocities in the
camps. Prominent Arab citizens – Knesset members, writers and journalists
– would ask again and again: how are the Jews, who had suffered so
much, capable of doing the same thing to the Palestinians?
8 Natour (2015), p. 135.
holocaust memory among palestinian arab citizens in israel
Maki, the Israeli Communist party, spearheaded the national struggle
of Arab citizens in Israel during those years, and its members constantly
demonstrated and protested against the Military Government. As communists
under direct influence of the Soviet Union, they interpreted
World War II as a victory over fascism, in which the Red Army played
the major role. They did not deny the Holocaust and felt empathy towards
its victims – Jews and others alike – but they constantly made the
connection between what happened in Europe and the contemporary situation
facing Palestinians.
In the 1980s the prominent author and former Maki MK Emil Habibi
wrote a seminal text on the subject titled Your Holocaust – Our Catastrophe.
9 Habibi was asked by an Israeli magazine to write an article on the
»Arab understanding of the Holocaust« and saw it as both a challenge
and an opportunity to express his opinion on this sensitive issue. The
article was short but contained the main points of Holocaust discourse
among the Arab community in Israel. It claimed that there is a direct
connection between the Holocaust and the establishment of the State of
Israel; it asserted that Europeans cleansed their conscience by recognizing
Israel as a state for the Jews at the expense of the Palestinians. It characterized
antisemitism as a European phenomenon, arguing that Arabs
are not antisemites, and that Arabs have also suffered from antisemitism.
Moreover, according to this argument, the Jews were not the only victims
of World War II, as the Nazis murdered other ethnic groups as well. Following
the common communist discourse, Habibi wrote that overcoming
Nazism was a triumph for all of humanity and not just for the Jews;
the victory should be considered a universal issue. With regard to the
State of Israel, Habibi contended, the Holocaust provides excuses to employ
force and oppress the Palestinians, and Holocaust memory makes
Israeli society fearful and therefore racist.
Habibi concluded with a statement that has become a commonly held
belief among the majority of the Arabs in Israel and the rest of the Palestinians:
»If not for your – and all of humanity’s – Holocaust in World
War Two, the catastrophe that is still the lot of my people would not have
been possible.« And finally he wrote: »In the eyes of the Arabs the Holocaust
is seen as the original sin which enabled the Zionist movement to
convince millions of Jews of the rightness of its cause.«10
9 Habibi (1988), pp. 332-336.
10 Ibid., p. 335.
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This is, of course, not an accurate historical analysis, as Zionism dates
back almost a century before the Holocaust. However, it implies that the
Zionist movement used the Holocaust to manipulate its own people – a
thesis that is not exclusive to Arabs and appears in several Jewish and Israeli
texts as well.11
Like Habibi, most Arab intellectuals in Israel today are convinced that
this interpretation is correct. Most refrain from directly comparing the
Holocaust to the Palestinian Nakba, but they do make additional points
that follow Habibi’s way of thinking. As tragic as it was, the oft-heard
argument goes, the Holocaust was an event that happened and ended,
whereas the Nakba continues into the present. After the Holocaust the
Jews were able to establish an independent state that is now strong and
prosperous. However, after the Nakba the Palestinians remained stateless
and dispersed throughout the Middle East and the world. A more general
observation is also often heard, namely that personal suffering is a subjective
feeling and that one cannot argue that one’s own suffering is less
painful than that of others, and so it is in the case with national disasters.
In 1995 Azmi Bishara, a leading intellectual and later Knesset member
who is currently a fugitive, wrote an article for a Hebrew history journal
that aroused emotions and deepened the gap between Arab and Jewish
perceptions of and attitudes towards Holocaust memory.12 Bishara repeated
the argument that the Palestinians are the indirect victims of the
Holocaust, whereas the Israeli Jews, despite currently being the occupiers,
have remained its direct victims. He agreed that any political compromise
between the two peoples must take into account their collective
memories about their past. Yet he also criticized the Israelis for »appropriating
« the Holocaust and using it for their own interests, thereby diminishing
its universal lessons. This point has been raised by others as
well – complaining that Israel »stole« the Holocaust and has not allowed
Arabs and others a free and universal discussion about it. Bishara connected
the Palestinian acknowledgement of the Holocaust to Israeli-Jewish
recognition of the Palestinian Catastrophe and dispossession starting
11 In the works of Tom Segev, Moshe Zimmerman and Idit Zertal, for example.
12 Bishara (1995), pp. 54-71.
holocaust memory among palestinian arab citizens in israel
in 1948. He argued that »in order for the victim to forgive, he must be
recognized as a victim. This is the difference between a historic compromise
and a cease-fire.«13 Bishara was one of the first to point out that Holocaust
memory had become a central motive in crystallizing the modern
Israeli-Jewish identity, mainly the secular one. Yair Oron later developed
this thesis in his book Israeli Identities, in which he claimed that the Holocaust
had become a kind of »secular religion« for many Israelis, mainly
those who are not Orthodox.14
Following the tragic events of the 2000 al-aksa intifada, during which 13
Arab demonstrators were shot dead by Israeli police, a deep split occurred
between Jews and Arabs. The feeling spread that many years of joint efforts
to build trust had been in vain. Interestingly enough, the Arab side
implemented some new initiatives to overcome this trauma by taking
from the example of Holocaust commemorative practice. Thus, in 2003
Father Emil Shofani, a religious leader and educator from Nazareth, led
hundreds of Arabs and Jews from all walks of life on a joint journey to
Auschwitz; the journey was called »From Memory to Peace.« They were
joined by 250 additional Jews, Muslims, and Christians from France. The
journey received extensive coverage in the local and international media.
Shofani said that one of his goals was to enable Arabs to »penetrate« into
Jewish minds and hearts in order for them to be able to understand their
neighbors. »I realized that there is no chance for true dialogue and reconciliation
unless we have 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,«15 he said.
Salem Jubran, who took part in the journey, said to a Jewish participant
that the Jews cannot bear the burden of this trauma on their own,
that the horror is too heavy and it affects all of humanity. He explained:
»Visiting Auschwitz made me understand the abnormal situation of Israel
– on one hand it is a mighty country with a strong army, and yet you
13 Bishara (1996), pp. 102-107.
14 Auron (2010).
15 »We are There,« the documentary on the »From Memory to Peace« journey is accessible
via the Yad Vashem website/ www.yadvashem.org.il.
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are so afraid, feel threatened, you are like a chronic patient.«16 In an attempt
to be optimistic he concluded, »maybe a joint journey to the past
would help create a common future.«
Yad Vashem has a documentary film in Arabic about this journey on
its website, which contains interviews with several Arab participants.
One of the most moving images is that of a Muslim imam praying in Arabic
at Auschwitz while the entire group surrounds him, with solemn expressions
and tears on their faces. Nazier Majali, an Arab journalist from
Nazareth and one of the organizers of the journey, explained that he and
a group of friends wanted to change the atmosphere between the two
communities after the events of 2000. He said they desired to create a
new discourse between them through understanding the Holocaust and
its influence on the Jewish people.17
The journey to Auschwitz apparently made a great impact on most
of its participants. A survey of them, conducted four years later, showed
that the personal experience caused a real transformation in the participants’
lives in many different ways.18 The interviews of the Arab participants
showed a variety of motives for joining the group, with several
common denominators: previous contacts with Jews; belonging
to a family with a Communist background; previous actions of »swimming
against the stream« in their own society; and anger and bitterness
towards Jews due to previous confrontations and/or a family history of
being uprooted.19 Visiting Auschwitz »brought the participants to the
edge of emotional experience that goes beyond any political and personal
concepts,« wrote the researchers, as they described the different points
of »no-return« that caused a transformation among the Arab visitors. A
young female participant said »we were all there as human beings, nothing
separated us since we were all in the same status of human. The pain
of that Jew [who went through the Holocaust] is the pain of the entirety
of humanity. The Holocaust was a universal catastrophe. This was our
feeling standing there.«20 Some of the Arabs who took part in the journey
were criticized upon their return home, and were asked why they do not
take Jews on a parallel journey to sites of Palestinian pain in Israel. This
16 Conversation with Hava Pinchas Cohen: http://sites.google.com/site/havapinhasco/
17 Nazier Majali, interview with the author, December 2011.
18 Shechter, Farhat, and Bar-On (2008), p. 84.
19 Ibid, p. 56 ff.
20 Ibid, p. 64 f.
holocaust memory among palestinian arab citizens in israel
oft-heard comparison was, in this case, set aside, probably because the
initiative, leadership, and organization was all Arab and it had clear goals.
Another initiative by an Arab in Israel was the opening of a modest
Holocaust museum in Nazareth in 2005. Attorney Khaled Mahamid
published a book titled The Palestinians and the Holocaust State in which
he repeated the argument that the Palestinian people had paid the price
of the Shoah in 1948 when the Europeans, as a result of their bad conscience,
had granted the Palestinian homeland to Jews as a basis upon
which they could build their state. And yet, he wrote, the Palestinians
had never investigated the Holocaust seriously, despite the fact that it affected
their history, so he wanted to help them do so through the museum.
21 Mahamid encountered different reactions from Arabs, from
claims that he was a »Zionist« to expressions of deep appreciation. He,
too, believed that the road toward true peace between the peoples passes
through learning and understanding the traumatic influence of the Holocaust
on the Jewish psyche.
Several initiatives by Arab activists developed as a result of the 2000
intifada. These groups issued documents in which they presented their
future vision of their relations with the Israeli state and of their own civil
status in that state. One of these documents, published by the Mada
al-Carmel Research Center in Haifa in 2007, and known as »The Haifa
Declaration,« contained a special paragraph dealing with Holocaust
memory.22 It started with the intention to »reach historic reconciliation
between the Jewish Israeli people and the Arab Palestinian people,« and
continued with a demand for the state to recognize its responsibility for
the injustice it committed against the Palestinians during the Nakba in
1948, to approve the right of return, and to acknowledge Israel’s »war
crimes« in the Palestinian territories. The writers then stated the following:
»This historic reconciliation also requires us, Palestinians and Arabs, to
recognize the right of the Israeli Jewish people to self-determination and
to life in peace, dignity, and security with the Palestinians and the other
peoples of the region. We are aware of the tragic history of the Jews in
Europe, which reached its peak in one of the most horrific human crimes
in the Holocaust perpetrated by the Nazis against the Jews, and we are
fully cognizant of the tragedies that the survivors have lived through. We
21 Itamar Inbari, The Arab public is invited to learn about the Holocaust in Nazareth,
Ma’ariv, 16 March 2005.
22 The full text of the Haifa Declaration can be found at http://www.mada-research.
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sympathize with the victims of the Holocaust, those who perished and
those who survived. We believe that exploiting this tragedy and its consequences
in order to legitimize the right of the Jews to establish a state at
the expense of the Palestinian people serves to belittle universal, human,
and moral lessons to be learned from this catastrophic event, which concerns
the whole of humanity.«23
This is a mixture of, on the one hand, sensitive and sincere personal
sympathy towards the Jewish victims of the Holocaust, and, on the other
hand, a sophisticated repetition of the argument that the justification of
establishing a Jewish state at the expense of the Palestinians was deeply
connected to the Holocaust. But above all, this document reflected a profound
understanding of the role of the Holocaust as a deeply rooted issue
in Jewish-Arab relations, one that needs to be addressed by both sides,
despite the fact that the Arabs had nothing to do with it. Such an attitude
is possible only among Palestinians who live inside Israel and are deeply
familiar with their Jewish neighbors. Only they – in contrast to others in
the Arab World – can appreciate the impact of the Holocaust on Israeli
Jews as individuals and as a collective.
In 2008, on the 60th anniversary of the Nakba and the establishment of
the State of Israel, the Islamic Movement in Umm al-Fahm published
a document bluntly intertwining the Shoah and the Nakba. It printed
identity cards of »returnees« and underneath mentioned the number six
million, suggesting that the six million Jewish victims of the Holocaust
parallel the number of Palestinian refugees who had been uprooted and
exiled – a number that is obviously much exaggerated. This is an exceptional
example of how the two national tragedies have been connected.24
Arab students in Israel are introduced to the story of the Holocaust for
the first time in the official education system in the ninth grade, when
they study general history and discuss World War II. The second time the
23 Ibid.
24 Al-zikra 60 (Memory 60) Returnee Document (2008).
holocaust memory among palestinian arab citizens in israel
Holocaust enters the official curriculum is in the 12th grade, but it is only
for those few students who take history as a major. So the average Arab
high school graduate has a limited knowledge of the Holocaust, according
to a retired history teacher.25 Teachers try to stick to the textbooks,
which are mostly translated from Hebrew and are not adapted to the
Arab schools; as such, the books emphasize the Jewish point of view and
not universal lessons. Usually the students feel alienated from the subject,
and many of those young people make comparisons to the contemporary
situation of Palestinians in the occupied territories.
The absence of appropriate texts is partly filled by independent NGOs
and private initiatives. The first anthology about the Holocaust in the Arabic
language was published in 1988 by the Jewish-Arab Center for Peace
at Givat Haviva.26 The book had been supported and recommended by
the Ministry of Education, and a total of 10,000 copies were distributed
to all Arab schools and libraries in Israel. Dozens of Arab teachers attended
special training sessions and workshops held by the Center, where
they met with Holocaust survivors and discussed ways of teaching this
sensitive topic in their schools. A similar program was started years later
at the Ghetto Fighters Center for Humanistic Education in northern Is-
25 Said Barghuth, Interview with the author, December 2011.
26 Orkin, ed. (1988).
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rael. The center trained young Arabs to be guides in the local museum,
and thousands of Arab students visit it annually for tours and workshops.
Yad Vashem launched an Arabic website in 2008. The then Minister
of Culture and Science, Ghaleb Majadla (the first and only Muslim-Arab
minister in any Israeli government) spoke at the ceremony marking the
website’s launch. He began by saying that, as an Arab who lives among
survivors, he applauded the initiative not only as a commemoration of
the past, but also as a way of dealing with contemporary problems and
of supporting the struggle against racism, antisemitism, and neo-Nazism
everywhere in the world.27 Since the Internet is open and free to all, it
cannot be blocked by walls of hatred and censorship, he said, and he then
expressed his hope that thousands of Arabic reading people from around
the world would use the website to learn the truth about the Holocaust.
Prince Hassan of Jordan sent his own remarks for the occasion, the video
of which was later uploaded to the site.28 Indeed, Yad Vashem reported
168,000 visits to its Arabic website during its first year. However, this
number dropped dramatically to 94,000 in 2012. As a result, the institute
hired an expert to advise on outreach to »tough audiences« and was able
to almost triple the number to 242,000 visits-per-year using a targeted
online ad campaign.29 One of Yad Vashem’s highlights in recent years was
a photo exhibit on Muslim Bosnians who saved Jews during World War
Two and who were recognized as »Righteous Among the Nations.«30 Yad
Vashem continues to make serious efforts to bring groups of Arab teachers
and students to the museum, and holds special seminars for them.
More modest private individual initiatives also emerged after 2000.
History teacher Othman Khatib from Kalanswa, for example, created
a history program called »Taking Responsibility for the Other Among
Us – Young Arabs and Jews Study the Holocaust Together.« Khatib,
who won a prize from the teachers association for his program, did not
conceal his motives for the initiative. The program was designed to expose
racism, stereotyping, and hatred of the »other.« It was meant, he explained,
to show how the phenomena which had made possible the awful
27 The Arabic website can be found at the following: Yad Vashem/www1.yadvashem.
28 Ibid.
29 Ofer Aderet, How Yad Vashem markets the Holocaust in Arabic, Haaretz, 11
February 2014.
30 Here it is worth mentioning Robert Satloff book Among the Righteous: Lost
Stories from the Holocaust’s Long Reach into Arab Lands, (2006), which contributes
to this case.
holocaust memory among palestinian arab citizens in israel
events of the Holocaust still exist, and to teach the youth of both societies
about how dangerous these phenomena are.31
It is arguable, however, that such initiatives only touch a small part
of society and cannot make a real impact. In 2008 Professor Sammy
Smooha from Haifa University conducted his annual Coexistence Index,
a survey of mutual attitudes between Arabs and Jews in Israel. He included
a direct question about the Holocaust, and the survey delivered
shocking results: 40 % of the Arabs interviewees answered that they do
not believe the Holocaust actually occurred and that so many millions of
Jews had actually been murdered – an increase from 28 % two years earlier.
Smooha himself tried to »comfort« the public, attempting to explain
these results not as Holocaust denial but rather as a protest against the
Israeli-Jewish instrumentalization of the Holocaust and its memory as a
justification for Israel’s use of force towards the Palestinians.32 I tend to
agree with him and do not think Holocaust denial as such is widespread
among Arabs in Israel. Nazier Majali claims that Holocaust denial does,
in fact, exist on the margins of society, but he also explains that it is directly
connected to the political situation in Israel and the humiliation
felt by Palestinians.33
A Knesset research paper about teaching the Holocaust in Arab schools
was published in the wake of Smooha’s survey results. It specified in details
the very small number of Arab students and teachers who took part
in special programs on the Holocaust, recommending a significant increase
in participation. The paper included the results of yet another survey,
one conducted by Yad Vashem, which showed that 58 % of the Arabs
in Israel believed that studying the Holocaust in schools was needed; the
sentiment was particularly strong among youth, with 64 % of people aged
24 and below advocating for more education on the Holocaust. Indeed,
in 2012, 1,500 Arab students went to Poland as part of their curriculum,
and the Ministry of Education declared that Holocaust Studies will soon
be obligatory in all Arab schools.
Avihu Ronen, who has been teaching the Holocaust to Arabs for many
years in Givat Haviva and in Lohamei Ha’getaot (Ghetto Fighters Center),
published an analytical article about his experience.34 As an educator,
he wrote, he believes that studying the suffering of the »other« in
31 Arye Kizel, Taking the Responsibility on the other among us, http://www.
e-mago.co.il/Editor/edu-1904.htm (4 October 2007).
32 Smooha (2010).
33 Interview with the author.
34 Ronen (2009), pp. 226-242.
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the context of Jewish-Arab relations is possible only by relinquishing the
feeling of being the »absolute victim.« The attitude towards the subject
matter (Holocaust and/or Nakba) must not be comparative, but rather
one of sharing and empathizing with different narratives. He suggested
that teaching methods should be based on mutuality, employing, for example,
team-teaching by Arab and Jewish instructors, and that the syllabi
should include subjects relevant to both Arabs and Jews. Teachers must
be ready to discuss any controversial subject. Ronen also recommended
that dealing with these issues should be an ongoing process and not a
one-time experience.
Studying the suffering of the »other« can lead to a better understanding,
Ronen claimed, and it is most effective in establishing a genuine dialogue
in a multicultural society. Unfortunately, in the current political
atmosphere in Israel, only few schools are engaged in such long-term and
sensitive educational initiatives.
In 2010 the Lebanese-Christian-born author Gibert Achkar, who now
lives in London, published a book titled The Arabs and the Holocaust: The
Arab Israeli War of Narratives, an English translation of the French original.
35 Achkar addressed the heart of the issue, »the war of narratives.« As
is the case concerning the events of 1948, there is a deep gap between the
narratives of the two peoples about almost everything – and the Holocaust
as a major trauma in modern Jewish history is no exception. It is
natural for Arabs to interpret this tragic event from their own point of
view and according to their understanding of its implications for their
own history, Achkar claims.
Indeed, leading Palestinian intellectuals had already referred to this
»war of narratives.« Some stressed its universal lessons, such as Mahmud
Darwish, the Palestinian national poet who can also be considered »Arab
Israeli« since he had been born in Birweh in Western Galilee and had
lived as a citizen in Israel until 1970; Darwish speaks Hebrew and published
his first works in Israeli journals. Darwish was among 14 Arab intellectuals
who signed a petition calling for the cancelation of a conference
on Holocaust denial that was about to be held in Beirut in 2001.36 In
35 Achcar (2009).
36 Tom Segev, Arabs against Anti-Semites, Ha’aretz, 21March 2001.
holocaust memory among palestinian arab citizens in israel
several of his poetic works he referred to the Holocaust and its survivors
with compassion, and said that however intense the hostility between Israelis
and Arabs might be, no Arab has the right to feel that his enemy’s
enemy is his friend, for Nazism is the enemy of all peoples around the
More recently, Marzuk Halabi, an Arab-Israeli poet and writer, wrote:
»I do not think a Palestinian can lose anything by understanding the Holocaust
deeply, beyond its influence on the Arab-Israel conflict.« He presented
a question that does not yet have an answer: »will the Palestinians
be able to remember the Holocaust as a distinctive event without the
shadow of their Nakba?«37
This »war of narratives« and the misunderstanding of the other side’s interpretation
of the past is indeed one of the main obstacles for reconciliation
between Israelis and Palestinians. Control over collective memory
is an important means for politicians on both sides for strengthening national
identity and »patriotism« among their peoples, and the feeling of
victimhood is a strong tool for national mobilization. The Holocaust as
a global memory became one of the political instruments in this »war of
narratives.« The more hopeless the political situation seems, the greater
the use of the Holocaust by all sides becomes. If the two peoples cannot
find a way out of this reciprocal trap, we can expect further generations
of mutual suspicion and hatred, as it will not be possible to look toward
a peaceful future until accounts have been settled with the past. In this
regard the Palestinian citizens of Israel can play a major role in mediating
between the two sides because of their unique historical perspective and
ability to understand both sides.
37 Halabi (2010).

Jacob S. Eder, Philipp Gassert & Alan E. Steinweis, Holocaust Memory in
a Globalizing World, Wallstein Verlag, GÖttingen 2017

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