Friday, April 24, 2009

Remembering the Holocaust in the West Bank

The village of Na'alin in the West Bank now has a Holocaust museum. The founder of the museum a lawyer named Khaled Mehamid convinced the Hamas affiliated mayor of the village--who had no idea how many people were killed in the Holocaust--to allow the museum to open. The museum, paid for out of Mehamid's own pocket, will soon receive Palestinian students and is in part aimed at overcoming the absence of any explanation of the Holocaust in Arabic (including at the Israeli Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial which only recently began providing information in Arabic.) Mehamid also commented that his motivation was that "I believe that only by learning about the Holocaust and understanding the magnitude of the tragedy can there be peace and security."

Mr. Mehamid doesn't just talk the talk on Holocaust education. This is at least the second museum he's opened, another one being in Nazareth in 2005. Mr. Mehamid is paying a price for his work in Holocaust commemoration. His own brother was at least temporarily estranged from him because of the work he's done, and some Arabic press has gone so far as to suggest that he may have a mental illness because of his interest in the Holocaust.

Nonetheless, his dedication is steadfast. Mr. Mehamid was even invited to Iran to participate in that county's Holocaust denying conference where he was to be one of two speakers arguing that the Holocaust did actually occur. His invitation was rescinded, however, when it came to light that he had an Israeli passport.

Time magazine even dedicated space to Mr. Mehamid and explained how he first came to realize that the Holocaust is important to Israelis after a visit with his children first to the Security Barrier being built by Israel and subsequently to Yad Vashem. On his own website Mr. Mehamid tells this story which appeared in Time and provides some more insight into the political rationale behind his work. It is certainly worth a read. Nonetheless, some of Mr. Mehamid's comments in this article and a quote from him in the Time article linked to above:
"...we Palestinians are the victims of the terrible things that were inflicted
on the Jews by the Holocaust...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..."
give some pause and merit closer inspection.

It's a falsehood to suggest that Israel exists because of the Holocaust, that the Holocaust is the prime driver of Israeli policy or that the Palestinians suffer because of the Holocaust.

Israel, and the Zionist movement that lead to its creation had its earliest appearance in its modern/political form (and this distinction is relevant because culturally and religiously, Jews have mentioned a return to "Jerusalem" and "Zion" at pretty much every Jewish holiday for thousands of years) in the 19th century, well before the Holocaust. Political Zionism was a response to centuries of persecution, unequal treatment, pogroms, and expulsions directed at Jews. Indeed, Herzl, the "father" of modern Zionism was influenced by the scapegoating and the trial of Dreyfus, a French army officer wrongly accused of and punished for espionage. The Holocaust was the worst, most blatant example of this type of persecution. It's true that Israel was founded after the Holocaust, but not because of the Holocaust.

What of the Holocaust being the reason for Palestinian suffering or influencing Israeli policy? The implication that Israel was founded where it was arbitrarily, or that Palestinians were being made to suffer because of the Holocaust is also false. Why was Israel founded where it was? The answer is, because Jews have always looked to that part of the world as the birthplace of Jewish culture and indeed the Jewish religion. That's where the first Jews came from. It's where the first Jewish state (or at the time kingdom) ever existed. It's because Jews are indigenous to Israel.

There should be no question that the situation of the Palestinians in the occupied territories needs to change. No question that the situation in the territories are untenable, but this is not because of the Holocaust. If Israelis are security obsessed it's because their neighbours have called for Israel's destruction. It's because Palestinian leaders and the leaders of neighbouring Arab states have called for Jews to be driven into the sea. It's because Israelis have seen suicide bombers and all manner of terrorist attacks. It's not the Holocaust that elicits an Israeli security response, it's the actual threats and actions from Israel's neighbours.

The only place where the Holocaust may creep into Israeli policy making is that it has taught Israelis to be aware of threats made against them and to take them seriously. Perhaps the single greatest lesson taken from the Holocaust is that threats must be taken seriously and that someone says they are going to kill you, they mean it. As Canadian member of parliament Irwin Cotler has said on many occasions, the Holocaust began with words. This lesson was sadly repeated in places like Rwanda, where nobody believed that racial tension would actually erupt into genocide. In this regard, with respect to Iran for example, where the Iranian leader has called for Israel's destruction this lesson of the Holocaust, of the seriousness of threats, looms large in the consciousness of Israeli decision makers and should, be a lesson that resonates around the world.

Returning to Mr. Mehamid, whatever his motives (and they may be misplaced) his efforts are laudable. Right or wrong about the influence of the Holocaust on Israeli policy, the collective histories of Israelis and Palestinians are now inseparably intertwined. Mehamid is undoubtedly correct that each group would do well to learn the history of the other. Kudos to Mr. Mehamid for taking bold steps in the right direction.

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