NAZARETH, ISRAEL — Lawyer Khaled Mahameed opened his modest Holocaust museum a year and a half ago, tacking up 80 historical photographs, with captions that he translated into Arabic, at his law office in downtown Nazareth.
Attendance has been sparse.
Mahameed, a 44-year-old Muslim, says the exhibit aims to break down what he describes as a tendency among Arabs to avert their gaze from the Holocaust -- at the cost of understanding a defining experience of their Jewish neighbors. Only when Arabs understand the dimensions of the Holocaust is real peace possible, he argues.
"They don't want to know," Mahameed said in English, surrounded by black-and-white photographs of cramped Jewish ghettoes, scowling Nazi soldiers and ghastly stacks of emaciated bodies. "It's not that they don't understand -- they understand. They don't want to talk about it."
But the museum, called the Arab Institute for Holocaust Research and Education, is proving controversial on all sides. Mahameed, an Israeli Arab, said his efforts on the Holocaust had left him ostracized by friends and snubbed by his brother.
At the same time, Jewish leaders who at first praised his plans say the exhibit may do more harm than good by including a Palestinian flag and images of Arab refugees who fled or were expelled from their homes before and during the war that broke out with Israel's creation in 1948.
The Anti-Defamation League last week said Mahameed had based his museum in part "on the false premise that the Palestinian people are paying the price for European guilt" about the Holocaust.
By including emblems of the Palestinian political cause, Mahameed is making "a wholly inappropriate connection between the plight of the Palestinians and the Jewish Holocaust victims," the league said in a statement. "This approach undoes much of the benefit the museum could have."
Mahameed has attracted media attention in Israel since he received an invitation to a two-day Holocaust conference this month in Iran, whose president has called for Israel's destruction and has labeled the Nazi genocide a myth that justified Israel's creation.
If he is granted permission to attend by the Israeli government, he said, he will tell participants that the Holocaust was a historical fact and the deaths of 6 million European Jews should not be denied.
"Don't question the numbers. Don't question the events," Mahameed said.
He said he was invited to the conference after writing to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad this year, urging him to acknowledge the Holocaust.
The Anti-Defamation League has expressed concern about Mahameed's participation in the conference, "Review of the Holocaust: Global Vision," which it characterizes as a platform for people seeking to deny the Holocaust.
Mahameed offers a sometimes-meandering explanation of his views, sprinkled with Koranic and biblical appeals for tolerance but laced with assertions many Jews would find objectionable. As he talks of defeating the "horrors of Hitler," Mahameed calls the Holocaust a "weapon in the hands of Israelis" and argues that "persecution thinking" has influenced Israel's policy toward Arabs.
Mahameed said Arab citizens of Israel, and their cousins in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, would benefit from a greater awareness of the magnitude of the Holocaust.
"It's the power of human feelings," Mahameed said.
But he also adds Palestinians to the roster of victims, saying Israel was formed on their land largely as a result of the Holocaust, a viewpoint held by many Palestinians. That reasoning is roundly rejected by Jewish leaders, who say it ignores decades of earlier efforts to form a Jewish homeland in Palestine and appears to deny the legitimacy of Israel as a state.
Mahameed said giving Arabs a fuller understanding of the Holocaust might soften the tone of their interactions with Israel. He said a change in attitudes on both sides could inspire Israel to adopt policies friendlier to Arabs, including perhaps allowing them to return to homes they left nearly 60 years ago.
Mahameed said his father's family lost 40,000 acres of land in 1948 and relocated to Umm al Fahm, a predominantly Arab town in northern Israel. He recalled developing an interest in the Holocaust as a young man, and said he surprised a Jewish professor while a student at Hebrew University when he proposed doing a research project on the topic.
In his current project, Mahameed bought posters from Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, and added photographs from websites. A Yad Vashem spokeswoman said Mahameed's display was a "good private initiative, but it needs more work."
Mahameed acknowledges that the presentation is amateurish, but said he had no money to hire a staff.
The project has caused him a "tsunami of embarrassment," Mahameed said, as friends and colleagues have shied away and Arab officials and journalists have ignored his efforts. School officials in largely Arab Nazareth turned down his offers to give tours to students. Mahameed said his brother's disapproval caused a rift between them.
He said many Arabs were afraid to confront the Holocaust because they were unfamiliar with it or viewed it solely as part of the "Israelis' narrative." But he said he would continue.
"Palestinians have to talk through the values of the Israeli people, and Israelis have to talk through the values of the Palestinian people," he said. "This is the method of the prophets."