by Ellis Weintraub
and Ximena Vega
Several months ago, an Arab lawyer named Khaled Kasab Mahameed and the head of a Holocaust survivor organization were heading to Ramallah to make arrangements between the PLO and that organization. With the two men was a former PLO combatant who had spent three years in an Israeli jail.
After Khaled finished his studies in 2003, he had decided to create a museum dedicated to the memory of the Holocaust in his Nazareth law office. "I had some free time," Khaled told us over coffee and cakes, "and I was politically active, so I began this museum."
One year later, Khaled visited Jerusalem with his family and they visited the separation barrier. After taking a picture of his son at the wall, the Israeli army advised them to go home. This experience left him shaken.
"I had to understand what would lead people to build such a structure, a division between peoples," he said, "so then I knew that I had to go to Yad Vashem."
Khaled bought pictures of the Holocaust from Yad Vashem and put them all over the walls of his office. "I wanted to see and understand," added Khaled.
"I wanted to have this tragic event in front of me so that I could think about it every day."
The dusty front yard of Khaled's law office led to a yellow sign by the front door, emblazoned with the museum's title in English, Hebrew and Arabic: The Arab Institute for Holocaust Research and Education.
As we entered, a mosaic of horrifying images met our eyes from both the Holocaust and the Palestinian tragedy of 1948, the Nakba. Quotes from the Quran and the Bible were interspersed between the pictures. Khaled pointed to a picture of a synagogue destroyed during Kristallnacht.
"You see in the original image that I bought from Yad Vashem," he informed us, "they did not put an explanation in Arabic. They have an explanation in English, Russian and Hebrew, but not Arabic."
"The intention of my museum is to tell the truth about the Holocaust to the Arabs," Khaled said.
“Israel has done a very poor job of explaining this event to us. Arabs do not learn about the Holocaust and so the event remains shrouded in mystery. This event has had such a profound effect upon the Middle East and we must understand it. When we understand it and we can discuss it with the Jews, then the Jews will finally come to see themselves accepted in the Middle East. The Arabs in turn will look upon the Jewish people with love."
Khaled had been politically active from a young age, joining the Israeli communist party and acquiring a degree in international relations from the Hebrew University. He continued on to study law and business in Sweden. Upon returning home, he befriended many of the leaders of the Israeli-Arab community, including Azmi Bishara.
In time though, Khaled came to realize that the he had to come to a deeper understanding of the Middle East conflict and he found the answer to his search in the Holocaust.
"The Holocaust is a part of the Israeli psyche, a part of their consciousness," Khaled continued, "and Arabs, and Palestinians in particular, must understand the Holocaust – why it happened, and how it has come to shape Israeli policy."
"Israelis have the memory of six million lost Jews embedded in the fabric of their very being," Khaled said over a newly poured cup of coffee. "So when Palestinians engage in violence," he added, "then for the Israelis memories of the six million come to mind and Israelis will compulsively respond with violence in turn. When one Jew dies, for the Israelis, it is as if six million Jews died. Palestinians must come to see this."
Over time Khaled's efforts to publicize the Holocaust for the Arab communities of both Israel and the Palestinian territories have gained some successes. Khaled now regularly gives lectures in Palestinian refugee camps. As part of his efforts, Khaled has translated a book he bought from Yad Vashem into Arabic, to which he wrote an introduction and has since published his own book. Two thousand copies of Khaled's book have been distributed for free.
At first it was not easy. Many in his community cursed him and called him Holocaust mad. His own brother for a time refused to come to his home because of the museum, and some in his family requested that he change his family name. All the major media players came to his place – BBC, CNN, and others – but no Arab media. The Arab media initially refused to even publish his articles.
The Arab world eventually came to appreciate his efforts. Khaled cited the example of a letter he sent to Arab and Muslim leaders at the United Nations that arguing the case for their assistance in making a proposal for a yearly commemoration of the Holocaust on January 27. The PLO representative to the United Nations subsequently worked with the Israeli ambassador to pass the initiative. It was the first time that the two had met with one another in five years.
Khaled hopes his work will put an end to Holocaust-denial amongst the Arabs and Muslims. Khaled tried to attend the Iranian Holocaust-denial conference of 2006 in order to spread his message, but could not because of his Israeli visa.
Reflecting upon the phenomenon of Holocaust denial, Khaled said that, "many in the Arab world cannot bring themselves to look sympathetically upon the Jews, or worry that talking about the Holocaust will give Israel legitimacy. Some hope to end Western support to Israel. However, when Arabs deny the Holocaust, then they prevent themselves from giving their own interpretation to the event. Arabs, through Holocaust denial, cannot give their own take on an event that still has strong repercussions in the world today. Holocaust denial prevents the Arabs from understanding what makes the Israeli tick."
Khaled spoke at length about the need for nonviolence. He believes that discussing the Holocaust can help forge peace. In his opinion, "studying the Holocaust will help Arabs realize the futility of violence. Many Palestinians think violence will destroy Israel, but violence can at most only injure Israel. Palestinians instead must come to terms with the consciousness of the Israeli people, and therefore must understand the Holocaust. If Arabs can study the Holocaust and see it in perspective, then the Arabs will see that they must be with the Jewish people."
Khaled noted the importance of the Holocaust in understanding the national narratives of both the Israelis and the Palestinians. According to Khaled, the Holocaust helped to forge the Israeli identity, which in turn helped to create the Palestinian identity.
"The best proof of the Holocaust, said Khaled, "is the situation wherein the Palestinians have found themselves." When Palestinians deny the Holocaust, argues Khaled, they are denying their own national identity. This denial foments fear in the Israeli public and forces the Israelis to build walls and look inward.
"We cannot allow Adolf Hitler to determine the course of this conflict," Khaled said, "and denial allows this to happen." Khaled approvingly cited the work of former Knesset Member Avraham Burg, who has written about a Holocaust complex amongst Israelis, a tendency to see Hitler around every corner and under every rock.
"We must break this cycle of violence," Khaled continued, "from both the Israelis and from the likes of Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Muslim extremists that use violence are not real Muslims. The memory of the Holocaust, instead, will give a venue through which Jews and Palestinians can come together and talk."
Khaled thinks the Holocaust should serve as a means for conflict resolution, believing that the memory of the Holocaust teaches the importance of tolerance and the need to fight racism. "One picture of the Holocaust can defeat Hamas," Khaled laughed.
The hallway leading to his office has photos hung of Palestinian villages destroyed during 1948. This juxtaposition of the Holocaust and the Nakba has led to mixed reviews from Jews about Khaled's work. The Anti-Defamation League and Yad Vashem have accused Khaled of having an agenda, using his museum as a means to show Arabs that they suffer because of this event.
"I am not trying to show that the Nakba equals the Holocaust. I only want to put the Nakba in context for Arabs. The horrible fate that befell the Palestinians did not occur in a vacuum. Perhaps these critics themselves fear that Israel needs the Holocaust for its legitimacy," said Khaled when asked about this criticism.
A profound faith in Islam shapes Khaled's perceptions of the Holocaust. "The Quran tells us that Arabs and Jews are both the sons of Abraham," he said, "and Arabs are commanded to protect the Jews, the people of the book. Islam is built upon the traditions of Judaism and Muhammad emphasized the holiness of Jewish history. Jews died during the Holocaust merely for believing in the teachings of Moses."
Khaled does not know what the outcome of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians will look like.
"State lines and borders, they are all artificial," he said, "but it is issues like the Holocaust that really touch upon the heart of this conflict."
“By providing information about the Holocaust to the Arab world, I want to bring Arabs and Jews together, not drive them apart. Jews will see that they are strong when Arabs defend Jews and support them, not when there are borders."
As Khaled gave us a ride to the bus station he left us with some final thoughts. "Do not forget that many Arabs saved Jews during the Holocaust," he said. "Israelis tend to only remember the Mufti's time in Berlin when they talk about Arabs and the Holocaust."
He added that Arabs and Jews must learn about this event together. Khaled warned that the Holocaust, or, its denial cannot be ideological weapons. Rather, the Holocaust must serve as a means to end bloodshed.