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Israeli Arab Uses Past in Bid for Peace

His Holocaust museum aims to educate fellow Palestinians, but empathy is rare, anger common. He is accused of harming Arab cause.

June 12, 2005|Kristen Stevens | Associated Press Writer

NAZARETH, Israel — At a recent family wedding, Khaled Mahameed says, no one talked to him. Neighbors curse him at the supermarket. A relative accuses him of unwittingly playing into Israel's hands.

The reason: This Israeli Muslim has embarked on a lonely mission to teach his fellow Arabs about the Nazi Holocaust.

Mahameed's newly opened Holocaust institute in the biblical town of Nazareth is a modest operation, with occasional lectures and about 60 photos documenting the genocide mounted on the walls.

But it's unique in the Arab world, where the Holocaust is often played down or even denied.

One photo shows a Nazi officer pointing a gun at the head of a Jew squatting at the edge of a mass grave. "Men like this man settled our land," Mahameed told five Arab visitors recently. "We have to understand the very deep trauma of this man."

Mahameed, 43, believes understanding the Holocaust could help Arabs understand Israel better and ultimately resolve the Mideast conflict.

A few of his neighbors have expressed their support for his museum, but it has provoked strong opposition among Palestinians who say Israel has used Hitler's genocide as an excuse to take Arab land.

Underlying this dispute is competition over victimhood, said Tom Segev, an Israeli author on the Holocaust. "Arabs often feel that if they acknowledge the Holocaust they give up their claim of being the real victim of this conflict," Segev said.

Arab attitudes about the Holocaust are to some extent mirrored by an abiding Israeli indifference to the catastrophes that have befallen the Palestinians because of Israel's creation. That indifference also has begun to fracture, as is evident these days in a five-part documentary airing on Israeli television that delivers a blunt indictment of Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Mahameed said his interest in the Holocaust was first sparked by photographs of Nazi atrocities that he saw as a young man. He learned more about it at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he studied sociology and international relations. Along the way, he also adopted Mahatma Gandhi's doctrines of nonviolence. The final trigger came during the Israeli-Palestinian fighting that erupted in 2000 and led many on both sides to despair that peace could ever be achieved.

Mahameed spent $5,000 of his own money to set up the Arab Institute for Holocaust Education and Research in his law office. He bought the photos from Israel's Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial and reprinted some of them in 2,000 glossy booklets and on his website, www.alkaritha.org, which offers a discussion forum in Arabic.

The Holocaust ended three years before Israel was founded, and largely shaped its identity. "The Holocaust really is the heartbeat of the Israeli soul. If you understand this heartbeat, you soften the ground for relations," said Karin Dengler, a spokeswoman for Yad Vashem.

But the price of Israel's creation was what Arabs call the Naqba, or catastrophe -- the uprooting of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who became what today is the refugee tragedy at the core of the struggle with Israel.

Those who stayed put became Israeli citizens, and now number 1.2 million -- one in six Israelis. Their complaints of systematic discrimination by the Jewish majority peaked in October 2000 when they rioted in solidarity with the Palestinian uprising and police opened fire, killing 13 of them.

Israeli Arabs learn about the Holocaust in eighth grade, and Mahameed said he was in touch with the Education Ministry about developing a more comprehensive course.

Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, who live separately from Israel's Arab community, know little about the Holocaust. It is not taught in their schools.

Mahameed has become increasingly vigilant about Holocaust deniers. A Muslim cleric's sermon, broadcast live from Gaza on Palestine TV recently, accused Jews of inflating the dimensions of the Holocaust.

"If I could have talked with him, I could [have] change[d] his mind," Mahameed said.

Mahameed's venture, though groundbreaking, is not the first. Two years ago, led by an Arab Catholic priest from Nazareth, more than 100 Israeli Arabs toured Auschwitz together with Israeli Jews.

Laura Kam Issacharoff, co-director of the New York-based Anti-Defamation League, said Mahameed had his work cut out for him. "There is a tremendous amount of Holocaust denial in the Arab world, and it's positive that he's trying to combat that," she said.

Mahameed's message is getting through to some.

Khamaisi Mufleh, 34, a Galilee Arab, said he happened to see the photos when he visited Mahameed on business and it helped him understand Israeli Jews a little better.

"They relate every demand ... to their fear caused by the Holocaust. We need to change the conversation," Mufleh said.

But Mahameed's critics say he is hurting the Arabs' cause.

Hashem Mahameed, a relative and former member of Israel's parliament, said that in highlighting Jewish suffering, the institute was providing justification for Israeli actions against the Palestinians.

"Even if it's not Khaled's intention, it will be interpreted that way," he said. "I proposed that he open a study center about Zionism and its relationship to the Naqba and Palestinian pain. I don't want to understand my pain through the lens of the Holocaust."

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