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Memory and Peace

August 2003, by Dorit Shippin

On the evening of May 13, 2003 Doumia Sakina organized an open discuss on the “Memory and Peace” initiative, which was well attended by Arabs and Jews from NSWAS and about 40 persons from outside the village.

Our speakers were Father Emile Shufani (Nazareth) and Nazir Majali, the project’s initiators. They are leading a group of Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel to study Jewish suffering throughout history and especially in the Shoah (Jewish Holocaust). Their first major activity has been to organize a delegation of some 150 persons to visit Auschwitz at the end of May 2003. Together with the delegation went a group of Jewish Israelis and another group of Jews and Moslems from France.

the panel

Together with the project initiators we invited Rabbi Micha Odenheimer who was planning to travel with the delegation; Dr. Yair Oron, a historian specializing in the influence of the Shoah on Jewish identity in Israel and the diaspora; and Marzuk Halabi, a writer and journalist who had authored an article critical of the initiative.

Father Emile Shufani opened by explaining that the project related to the estrangement between Arabs and Jews since the events of October 2000 (when, during turbulent demonstrations, the police shot and killed 12 young Arabs).

Fr. Shufani:

“In the initiative we, the minority group, approach the Jewish majority and attempt to understand its suffering and pain. The initiative is not party-political and demands nothing from the Jewish side. However it aims to challenge the current situation, and the problematic and worrisome relations between us. We wish to study the Jewish Holocaust up close, rather than from books. Having had nothing to do with that event, we are not afraid to learn about and understand it.

This is the first time the Arab side will unilaterally and unconditionally place itself in a position of solidarity and listen to the Jewish side. It is not an initiative of give and take.

During this process, the Palestinians involved do not forget the deep suffering of their own people and the traumas they have endured during the last fifty-odd years, whether in this country or in the Occupied Territories and diaspora.

A joint stand against the suffering will give birth to a new way of thinking. This is a personal and collective journey back to that time.

Recently we conducted two seminars in preparation for the journey. Two hundred and sixty Arabs and Jews took part. Jews from the second and third generation of Holocaust survivors spoke. They spoke for hours and this was very moving. No one discussed current events and there was no dialogue – this is accomplished by many other groups. What brought us together was human suffering. During the facilitated talks the issue of fear arose. People spoke of their own fear, and that which prevails in this nation. We took it upon ourselves to go with the Jews in complete solidarity.

The criticism of our initiative relates to timing on the one hand and to the question of its benefit on the other. The trust that had been built between Arabs and Jews in Israel was destroyed in October 2000 and we, as Arabs, are searching for a way to continue. We remain citizens of the Israeli state and want to approach the majority and see how we can connect with the Israeli side. The dialogue about our initiative in Palestinian society in Israel is fruitful and does not divide between Christians and Moslems.”

Nazir Majali:

“In today’s abnormal situation all of us are suffering - physically and mentally. Things are so bad that that few people continue to look for peace.

Though we inhabit a beautiful land, which we could easily transform into a paradise, we are doing just the opposite. Negative, rather than good and humane forces are on the rise, and there is reason to fear that we may even be heading towards a situation of [population] transfer.

In such a situation, there is a need for a different kind of action. After all we have been through, I believe we must strive for a situation where we will live together by choice, and not because we are obligated to do so. We have tried many ways but must find a new one: we must free ourselves from hatred. A breakthrough will require the inner work of transformation, and it won’t be easy. We must connect to positive forces in human history. By listening to the suffering of the other, we can overcome our pain, and this will enable us to move forward. As a Palestinian I long for the day when our two peoples will connect with one-another, without relation to their political affiliations.”

Rabbi Micha Odenheimer:

“My wife and I applied to take part in the initiative after reading about it in the newspaper. Shlomo Carlebach, my rabbi, used to say “whoever wants to build a bridge doesn’t go to an expert but to someone with a strong will to build it.”

My father’s family escaped Germany in the 1930s but I have always been in contact with Holocaust survivors. When I grew up and began to inquire about world events I distanced myself from the matter, since it was so hard for me to deal with. I never wished to make the trip to Poland to visit the camps, or to go there just because I’m Jewish. Now with this group I feel it has a human scale and hope. For me this will be an experience of touching the deepest humanity, looking into the “black hole” and moving forward from there.

I think the initiative could bring a new element to the current situation. There are dangers, such as jumping to conclusions and interpreting contemporary Jewish behaviour in the light of the Holocaust. I very much respect the intention not to link past and present. I don’t know what this initiative may lead to, but I hope it will be good.”

Marzuk Halabi:

“I want to relate to two issues: first, the initiative’s organisation and management, and second, it’s inherent challenge and significance.

I think the initiative is brave and legitimate even if I don’t agree with it. I think it is possible to understand Jewish fears. For example, the fear that emerged from the events of October 2000. It is possible to understand this fear even without going to Auschwitz. Humanity can be expressed without this initiative. The Holocaust happened outside of our region but it has repercussions on the situation here. In order to understand the current events it must be taken into account, and with this I agree.

Fr. Shufani (l), Halabi (r)

The initiative was taken to the media too early. One must be careful about using the Holocaust for political purposes.

An additional question relates to funding. How was the project funded? Did money arrive from Jewish sources? Would it not be better that people finance their participation personally?

The initiative is a confrontation with Jewish fear. We need to understand this fear, since it determines so strongly the way in which the government works. I can differentiate three levels of Jewish fear. There is the fear that originates in Auschwitz. In view of the real attempt to exterminate the Jewish people, this is an objective fear. There is a fear that relates to the presence of the Jewish people here in the region. This fear too is legitimate. Finally, there is personal fear, which politicians and journalists make use of. Unfortunately certain members of the Israeli establishment and the elite are wont to provoke this fear whenever it suits them. When fears from the past are aroused, brought into the present, and linked with the Palestinians, many people become deeply anxious. Going to Auschwitz will not free them of these fears. Going into the past will not help in this case. Prof. Amnon Rubinstein recently wrote current Jewish fears relate to Iran and Iraq, and thus he threw the ball back at us.

The Jewish establishment invests enough effort as it is in building and memorializing the memory of the Holocaust. Furthermore, every concession by Palestinians is received with suspicion. So Arabs should not go to Auschwitz.

I believe in the importance of coming close to the suffering and fear of the Jews. This fear needs to be freed in order that we can move forward. It should be voiced and related to. The trouble is that, having been oppressed for so long, we Palestinians have still not expressed our own truth to the Jews.

I think that when we have solved the problem on the other side of the Green Line, we will have to contend with the problem in Israel itself. At present there are two main issues: the problem of Jerusalem and the problem of the refugees. Likewise, there is the question of land that was taken from the Palestinians.

I do not see a solution without compromise. Only in the framework of a compromise can we relate to the existing problems and take initiatives like this one.”

Yair Oron:

“I am doubtful about the responses of the Jewish side to this initiative. It throws up a challenge to Jewish society that I’m afraid we may fail, and this would deepen the conflict. In Jewish society we deal only with the Jewish Holocaust. I believe it is our duty to be sensitive also to the suffering of others and especially the suffering of the Palestinians. When you (the Palestinians) hold up a mirror to Jewish society, what is revealed there looks ugly.

Israeli society is unable at present to confront moral questions relating to what it has done to the Palestinians. I am afraid that Palestinian expectations from this initiative will not be fulfilled. While you had no responsibility for what happened in the Holocaust, we have full responsibility over the suffering we have caused you. I do not think we are capable of dealing with this today.

What is important is reconciliation. The events of 1948, while not a Holocaust, were a terrible disaster. The Jews must understand this. There must be recognition.”

Responses from the audience

At this stage, the discussion was opened to the audience:

Some of the Palestinian participants expressed reservations about the initiative and doubts that it would change anything.

Among the points mentioned were the need to invest internally within Palestinian society, which is divided and oppressed, and the need to approach the other side from a position of pride and self assurance. One person said “I, as the victim, find it difficult to support such an initiative.” Another said that he was proud of the initiative, since it transcended the position of being the victim.

Another reservation expressed was the fear of what would follow it and the manipulation and use of the Holocaust as an excuse for the tragedy caused to the Palestinians.

panel, audience

Some Jewish members of the audience said they were very moved by the initiative:
“This initiative goes to the heart of the problem.”
“For us, the Holocaust is not something of the past”.
“I read lately about the genocide victim’s need for recognition. I think that the Jews have a need for recognition especially from the Palestinians, and this initiative responds to this need.”

Some people in the audience and the panel related to mutual recognition: Halabi: “The roots of the Nakba are in the Zionist movement even before the Holocaust. If the Jews will recognize their responsibility, the time for reconciliation will come. The need is to reach a power balance. The fact that there has been no discussion of the initiative (Memory and Peace) in Israeli society is not by chance. Jewish society is not able to accept Palestinians in a position of moral superiority. The situation is governed by the side that has the power.”

Rabbi Micha and Yair Oron related to the issue of recognition and the taking of responsibility by the Jewish side. Oron: “An Israel that takes responsibility for the Nakba would be stronger and not weaker. And this is true also with regard to the Palestinian side.”

Father Emil Shufani thanked everyone for the interesting discussion and remarked that this is one of the purposes of the initiative, i.e. it is intended precisely to awaken such discussion.

Note: At the end of May, as planned, the delegation travelled to Auschwitz. If I receive reports from members of the delegation, I will be happy to publish these.

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