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Israeli Arabs Plan Auschwitz Visit to Bridge Gap of Pain

Trip to death camp where 1 million Jews died is part of a broader effort to recognize the suffering on both sides of Mideast divide.

March 09, 2003|Jason Keyser | Associated Press Writer

NAZARETH, Israel — A group of prominent Israeli Arabs plans to journey nearly 60 years back in time, taking a pilgrimage to the Auschwitz death camp to lay bare one of the festering roots of the Arab-Jewish conflict: the difficulty that each side has in recognizing the other's suffering.

The trip in May by about 100 Arab intellectuals, athletes and business people is unprecedented in its scope. It is being planned at a time of great polarization and bitterness created by 29 months of Mideast fighting.

At the same time, Israel is revising its textbooks to give students a better understanding of the uprooting of the Palestinians that resulted from establishment of the Jewish state.

One of the organizers of the trip to Auschwitz is Nazir Mgally, 52, an Arab journalist from Nazareth, a city of Jews and Arabs in northern Israel. He remembers feeling little emotion during childhood school lessons about the Holocaust because he was more focused on stories about how Jews had stolen Arab land.

It wasn't until Mgally saw how suspicious Jews had become of Israel's Arabs in the last 2 1/2years of Mideast fighting that he began to wonder if the Holocaust was part of the problem.

"One of the main things that pushes Jews and Arabs to be enemies is that they don't think of each other as human beings," he said.

The Holocaust has played a central role in shaping the identity of Israel, a nation at war since it won statehood in 1948. For many Israelis, the slaughter of 6 million Jews during World War II is a constant reproach to the world for denying sanctuary to Europe's Jews.

"The Holocaust is everywhere," Israeli historian Tom Segev said. "There's not a single day without some reference to the Holocaust in an Israeli newspaper. It influences views on almost every subject."

Segev, author of "The Seventh Million: The Israelis and the Holocaust," said many Arabs resist understanding the Nazi genocide because the "conflict between us is really over who is the victim." He sees the trip to Auschwitz as a sign that at least some Arabs are trying to become part of mainstream Israeli society.

But many Palestinians say that Israel exploits and even exaggerates the Holocaust to justify oppressing them, and that it was the world's guilty conscience that explains why it allowed a Jewish state to be set up at the Palestinians' expense.

Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, who are separate from Israel's own Arab community, know little about the Holocaust. It is not taught in Palestinian schools.

They also contend that Israelis know or care little about their suffering. Even before the Palestinians launched their latest uprising in September 2000, few Israeli Jews ever visited the squalid Palestinian refugee camps in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

But before the uprising broke out, and Israel and the Palestinians were still negotiating peace, Israel's Education Ministry began to address the Palestinians' plight in school programs.

For example, some Israeli texts have changed the way that they handle the flight from Israel of about 700,000 Arabs during the 1948-49 war that established the country. In the past, students learned that the Arabs fled in response to calls by Arab leaders to clear the way for Arab armies to invade and massacre Jews. Now, they learn about evidence that at least some were expelled by the Israelis.

The Israeli Arabs of today are mostly the descendants of those who stayed in the new Jewish state. They became Israeli citizens and now number 1.2 million -- one in six Israelis. They have their own complaints, including systematic discrimination by the Jewish majority.

That resentment peaked in October 2000 when police fired on Israeli Arabs rioting in solidarity with the Palestinian uprising, killing 13 people.

The plight of Israeli Arabs is also being introduced into Israeli schoolbooks.

A new civics textbook includes passages on Israeli Arabs' mixed feelings about living in a Jewish country that is in conflict with their Palestinian brethren.

"We have changed completely the whole story to make sure each sector in the population [has its] narrative treated equally," said Yacov Katz, who plans school curriculums for the Education Ministry.

Former Education Minister Yossi Sarid began reforming the curriculum three years ago when he added the works of a Palestinian poet exiled by Israel. Sarid also urged classroom discussions on a 1956 massacre of 47 Israeli Arab civilians who accidentally violated a curfew.

During their four-day trip starting May 26, the 100 or so Israeli Arab community leaders plan to visit Auschwitz, the largest of the Nazi death camps, where about 1 million Jews perished in gas chambers or died of disease, starvation and torture.

In preparation, some of the Arabs visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem and listened to a Holocaust survivor describe life in the Warsaw Ghetto.

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