The Holocaust Through Arab Eyes

Reporting from Israel: Yovav Kalifon

That was the title of a talk I attended last night.

The talk was held at “The Museum on The Seam”, located on the road which goes between East and West Jerusalem, formerly the border between Israel and Jordan.

The organizer of the event was Smadar Peri, journalist for Yediot Aharonot. Speakers were MK Ahmad Tibi, Israeli-Arab member of parliament, and Nazir Magally, an Israeli-Arab journalist and writer for Asharq Alawsat, probably the most influential international Arabic newspaper.

On the issue of the Holocaust, both speakers basically saw eye-to-eye. They both talked of how they first heard of the Holocaust relatively late in life, and how this was probably the case for most Arabs living in Israel or the Middle-East.

Both speakers agreed there exists general ignorance, dismissal, and outright denial of the Holocaust in the Arab world. They told personal stories of encounters with high governmental officials in the Arab world who expressed denial or ignorance towards the Holocaust. One such diplomat is the current candidate for the presidency of Egypt and former GS of the Arab-League, Mr. Amr Musa. Musa first refused to visit Yad-Vashem, the main Holocaust museum in Jerusalem, but later agreed to visit only the children’s memorial site at the museum. He refused to be caught on camera, so there’s no documentation of that visit.

Personally, after spending one month in Egypt during the summer of 2011, I know full well that Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” is sold in almost every book-store and street-side book-stand. One might wonder how people can know Hitler so well and at the same time deny the Holocaust…

On a positive note, the audience and myself were relieved to learn that both speakers considered this situation extremely shameful. To them, “a true Arab cannot possibly dismiss the Holocaust”. I suspect they feel some sort of personal connection to the Holocaust because of its underlying theme of suffering and victimhood.

Both speakers had visited concentration and death camps in Europe, organized trips and visits for others, spoke and wrote about the Holocaust through Arab eyes, and they seemed to be doing so with a passion.

Naturally, MK Ahmad Tibi could not avoid sticking in a few political statements during the evening. Being very careful not to draw comparisons with the Holocaust or use Nazi terminology, Tibi reiterated the point that he would have expected Jews, those who suffered “the most terrible crime in modern history”, to be more lenient and understanding towards their own victims – Arab Palestinians.

Here, Tibi was subtly suggesting a point which comes up very often, and I always find it is misleading. Palestinians consider themselves victims of Israel, and often argue that the crimes committed against Jews in Europe serve as no justification for Palestinian suffering today, by the hands of those very same Jews. Instead of arguing my point of view, I presented MK Ahmad Tibi with a question to demonstrate why I think it is a misleading point to make:

My question was: “Seeing that we all agree there is general ignorance in the Arab sector towards something very obvious which took place in plain view for the entire world to see only 70 years ago, is it not very likely to assume there will also be found general ignorance towards less obvious and much more distant chapters of Jewish history?

“I am thinking of ancient Jewish and Israelite kingdoms which existed here during Biblical times, their associated archaeological remains throughout Judea and Samaria, the importance of Jerusalem to the Jewish people, and many other such things. They are well known and generally accepted outside the Arab world. How are they seen through Arab eyes?”

MK Ahmad Tibi, losing his temper right away: “Let me ask YOU a question: do you speak Arabic?”

“I took Arabic in primary school and high-School, yes, but I don’t speak it very fluently.”

MK Ahmad Tibi: “You should know that my Hebrew is much better than yours. In-fact, most Arabs know your language and your history much better than most Jews!”

An Arab-Israeli university student standing right next to me whispered in my ear: “it’s not really so, only few Arabs know these things…”

MK Ahmad Tibi continued: “We are fighting for only 22% of our homeland. What do you expect, that the Arabs will embrace your history? That would erase us!”

Very well, I thought to myself. Even though Tibi avoided giving me an answer, he managed giving me a very clear answer. Tibi gets emotional over the topic of Jewish history and he seems to think Arabs should not be educated on Jewish history in the land of Israel, since that would “erase them”.

My take on it is that Arabs gradually feel more comfortable showing how they dare to publicly admit the Holocaust took place, but immediately argue that the Holocaust does not justify Palestinian suffering. They are correct to do so. I also don’t feel the Holocaust serves as valid justification for displacing others, but that’s not what is happening here.

The thing which makes me Jewish and ties me to Israel is not the Holocaust. Tibi misunderstands or ignores the main issue. The thing which matters to me is the +3,000 years of Jewish history, in Israel and later in the diaspora. It is the Hebrew language and Jewish dialects of languages in the diaspora. It is my Jewish heritage, culture, holidays and traditions. It is my connection to the Jewish people as a whole. It is my Jewish identity and consciousness.

I don’t define myself based on the Holocaust, and I wish Tibi would also not define me as the grandchild of Holocaust survivors. My ancestors were proud to be Jewish already 500 years earlier, when they survived the Spanish inquisition, for example.

Basically, all the elements I listed to define the Jewish people as a nation were in place much before the Holocaust, extending far back into ancient times. Those are the things which define us and justify having a national home for the Jewish people in the land of Israel.

Based on Tibi’s reaction, those are exactly the things he cannot afford to recognize in public. Those are the things he says will “erase the Palestinians”.

Nazir Magally, the second speaker, felt he had to step in. With a calm smile he said Tibi’s reaction was what you’d expect of a politician. Magally later told me he thought it was a sign of weakness by the Arab leadership, not to recognize obvious elements of Jewish history.

I totally agree. People who feel secure in their own identity and right of way can afford to listen and recognize other people’s points of view. Those are the same people who can afford to face historical facts and deal with current realities. Thus they also tend to make more educated choices and have better chances of success.

I believe that if Arabs would calmly recognize Jewish history and understand why the state of Israel exists, it will not cost them any piece of land, rights or liberties. On the contrary, I think they will simply be more ready to accept Israel as a legitimate state, and strike a deal with Israel. There really is no reason for suffering on either side, if you look at the situation with honesty. Realizing that would lead to Palestinian independence, alongside and in good relations with the Jewish state of Israel.

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