For Palestinians, empathy with Jewish suffering in Holocaust is complicated

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas spoke out against the Holocaust – the first Palestinian leader to do so – just weeks after a trip by Palestinians to Auschwitz.

Muhammed Muheisen/AP/File
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas attends Muslim prayers in 2007 at a mosque adjacent to his office in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

Ohood Muraqten had read a lot about the suffering of Jews in World War II. But that hardly prepared her for a groundbreaking trip that brought 27 Palestinians like her to Nazi concentration camps in Poland last month.

“I thought that OK, I know about the Holocaust…. But when I arrived there it was completely different – there was no comparison [between what we read and] what we saw in Auschwitz and Birkenau,” says Ms. Muraqten, a peace activist. 

For the first few nights, Muraqten had trouble sleeping. She says she felt the presence of the souls of those killed. 

 “It was confusing, because you can’t understand in three or four days that much pain – millions … killed in the gas [chambers],” she adds. “But at the same time, as a Palestinian, I started to compare it or connect it to the conflict here.”

After decades of rejecting the Holocaust's traumatic imprint on Jewish history, out of fear that accepting it would justify Israeli claims to the land to the detriment of Palestinians, the trip generated a fierce debate in Palestinian society. (Editor's note: Due to an editing error, this sentence has been changed to clarify the issue.)

Whether that played a role in Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas taking the unprecedented step Sunday of acknowledging the Holocaust as "the most heinous crime" of the modern era remains unclear. But what is clear is that a taboo topic is now in the spotlight, prompting some rare reexamination in a conflict in which both peoples appear preoccupied by their own suffering. 

“As educators, we have a message for both: for Palestinians, to understand what the Holocaust means to Jews, what it meant, what goal it had, and how this goal was being implemented,” says trip leader Mohammed Dajani. “And to Israel we have also an education role to help them see that the Palestinians, when they look at [the Jews’] suffering, they remember their own suffering.

“And as a result, I hope that the conclusion of all this might be reconciliation,” he adds.

Remembrance Day

Abbas released his statement as Israel commemorated Holocaust Remembrance Day. He expressed sympathy for the "families of the victims and the innocent people who were killed by the Nazis, including the Jews and others."

While Israeli leaders dismissed Abbas’s remarks as an opportunistic appeal to the international community amid a fresh rift with Israel, it marks an unusual willingness – on either side of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – to acknowledge the suffering of the other.

“As Palestinians under occupation, we want all the world to feel sympathy with us,” says Salim Swidan, a Palestinian journalist and one of the students on the trip. “The first step is to feel sympathy with all the world and all the victims all over the world. After that we can ask them to feel sympathy with us.”

The trip was part of a German-funded project run by the Freidrich Schiller University, and also involved two Israeli universities that brought 30 Israeli students to a Palestinian refugee camp. The project title, “Hearts of Flesh – Not Stone,” comes from the words of the biblical prophet Ezekiel: “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.”

The Palestinian trip was led by Professor Dajani, head of the American studies program at Al Quds University in East Jerusalem, where most of the participants study. While Dajani anticipated some pushback, he was unprepared for the ensuing vitriol. He was lambasted as a traitor who was brainwashing Palestinians so that they would give up their rights; Al Quds was pressured to fire him, even though he led the trip in a personal capacity.

[But] he staunchly defended the trip. “I will not remain a bystander even if the victims of suffering I show empathy for are my occupiers,” he wrote in a public statement.

Closed chapter of history

The takeaways from the trip were two-fold. Seeing evidence of the death camps made a deep impression on the Palestinians, most of whom were taught nothing about the Holocaust until university, in contrast to Israelis that begin studying it in grade school. 

From recordings of the sound of the trains, soldiers, and gas chambers, to piles of shoes of those killed, to talking with Holocaust survivors, the Palestinian students peered into a previously closed chapter of history.

But they also saw echoes of their own suffering, including in 1948, when more than 700,000 Palestinians who fled or were forced out of their homes amid the chaotic fighting that surrounded Israel’s declaration of independence – an event Palestinians refer to as the nakba, or catastrophe.

“It’s a mixed feeling,” says Hani Smirat, a trainer in conflict resolution who is also studying at Al Quds. “I need to feel as a human that what happened with Jews is not acceptable, and the other feeling that I face the same situation. So it’s a conflict between my story and the other story.”

“For the Jews to believe more in peace, because they knew and lived very harsh moments, they have to be more sensitive to our suffering,” he adds.

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