Teaching Auschwitz to the Palestinians

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Yoav Lemmer / AFP / Getty

Khaled Kasab Mahameed poses at his office in Nazareth. Mahameed is unique among fellow Israeli Arabs — he has created a small memorial to the Holocaust in his office in Nazareth, drawing the ire of both Palestinians and Jews.

As the road dips and rises through the Hebron hills, white etched with the glowing green of vineyards, the turn-off to Edna village is marked by the grey, concrete watchtower of an Israeli checkpoint. But it doesn't deter Israeli-Arab lawyer Khaled Kasab Mahameed from his quixotic mission: He has come to the West Bank to educate Palestinians about the Jewish Holocaust.

Many Palestinians have never heard that the Nazis killed 6 million Jews during Word War II — it doesn't rate a mention in their school history books. Others join with the likes of Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad in denying that the Holocaust ever happened. The Jews, according to this blinkered reasoning, are their enemies in the battle over the Holy Land, and they cannot afford to have sympathy for their enemy. Mahameed sees this view as tragically misguided. The key to the Palestinians achieving their own goals, he says, is to understand the Holocaust, and the place it holds in the Israeli psyche and its obsession with security.

But in Edna, Mahameed faces a tough crowd: The walls are bedecked with posters of Palestinians killed while fighting the Israelis, and at least three of the seven middle-aged men sitting beside me drinking tea with a sprig of sage have endured long stretches in Israeli prisons. Twice in the past few years, bulldozers had rumbled out from the nearby Israeli checkpoint to demolish the two-story home and ancient vineyards of our host, geologist Taleb al-Harithi. Armed with an Israeli court order, he managed to turn the bulldozers away, but he fears their return at any moment.

Mahameed passes around a death-camp photo of a Jewish inmate standing over a mass grave full of naked corpses. The room of Palestinians falls silent. "That man, that survivor, in the photograph came to Israel. Can you imagine the nightmares, the horrors that he brought with him? It's a suffering that nobody, even us Palestinians, can begin to comprehend," he says with quiet, lawyerly persistence. The photo moves around the room, again and again, in silence. Finally, a retired Palestinian general, Abdul Latah Solimia, once captive in an Israeli military prison in Lebanon says: "As a militant, I know the cost of war and hatred. For 60 years, we have tried to eliminate each other, and neither has won. We Israelis and Palestinians should share this land."

Mahameed's epiphany on the Holocaust occurred three years ago, when he took his two children to see the massive 20-foot high concrete wall that Israel has erected around parts of Jerusalem to keep out Palestinians. It is so high in places that it seems to slice in half the blue sky. "I told my son to break off a piece of the wall as a souvenir. It was very difficult, and while he was trying, I asked myself, what would drive the Israelis to do such a thing to us, build such a monstrosity as this wall?" He gathered his son and daughter and drove them to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum. "It was very moving. I couldn't breathe. Six million. It's like something off another planet," he recalls.

Touring the somber museum, it occurred to Mahameed that "we Palestinians are the victims of the terrible things that were inflicted on the Jews by the Holocaust." The images of the crimes perpetrated against the Jews of Europe also made him understand international support for Israel. "If an Israeli child dies from a Gaza rocket, the Israelis can take a photo of that child to America and remind Bush of the 1.5 million Jewish children who died in the death camps, and Bush will give the Israelis more money and weapons to use against us," he says. And Israelis experience the same images of a Gaza rocket attack in the exterminationist frame of Auschwitz, not simply as a product of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict over land.

Using photos donated by Yad Vashem and images from the Naqba — the "Catastrophe," which is how Palestinians refer to the events surrounding Israel's independence, which left thousands of Palestinians in exile and in refugee camps — the lawyer set up a one-room museum in his hometown of Nazareth, called the Arab Institute for Holocaust Research and Education. Every week, he travels to towns, villages and refugee camps in the West Bank trying to enlighten his fellow Palestinians. Says Mahameed, "Even with the militants, when I explain to them that Israel's brutal policies in the Palestinian territories stem from the Holocaust, they tell me 'You're bringing us an atomic bomb. We need to think about this.'"

Sometimes, his message is greeted with hostility — even in his own family. Mahameed has been ostracized by his brothers, who say that his obsession with the Holocaust is tantamount to sympathizing with Israel. Last week, one of his lectures in a refugee camp was canceled because a militant group spread the false rumor that he was secretly on Israeli payroll. On the Israeli side, there is incomprehension, too. Only last January did Yad Vashem put up an Arabic language website on the Holocaust, and when asked about Mahameed's activities, one staffer replied warily: "We have doubts about his agenda." Replies Mahameed: "They don't want us Palestinians to have pity on them. They only want to show us how mighty they are."

Mahameed is an avid believer in Mahatma Gandhi's dictum that truth leads to non-violence, and he sees himself practicing a kind of ju-jitsu, using Israel's own moral superiority over the Holocaust as a way to shame the Israeli occupiers in the West Bank into treating the Palestinians more humanely. "If the Israelis believe that the Holocaust justifies this kind of brutal discrimination, then they're wrong." He travels through army checkpoints showing his ID card and a photo from Auschwitz. At first he's met with suspicion. "I tell the soldiers that this could be a photo of their grandfather, and that I understand that they, as Jews, are unique victims. But the paradox is that we Palestinians have the Holocaust on our shoulders, too."