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(photo credit: Courtesy of www.ncpublicschools.org/ holocaust_c)
He swallowed, opened his eyes wide, put one foot forward and one foot back. His eyes were full of regret or fear, perhaps because he had just shaken my hand and dared to greet me. Or perhaps they were just the eyes of an angry man who despises whoever even mentions the name of the enemy. I couldn't tell. Whatever it meant, this was the reaction of an Arab man when I, a Palestinian woman, greeted his group at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. This is what happened when I told him I am from Israel.
The group gathered around a table where I offered them coffee, tea and cookies. Silence pervaded the room but for the faint sounds of distressed breath - the breath of years of Palestinian-Arab diaspora and despair, the breath of years of anger and feelings of betrayal, the breath of agony over scattered refugees and the unforgettable memory of the founding of Israel regarded by Palestinians as "the catastrophe."
So there I was, a young Palestinian-Israeli woman, representing a new paradigm that troubles and shakes the suffering of my own people by working with the suffering of the "enemy" at a Holocaust museum.
Suspicious eyes gazed at me from all directions, wondering what a sellout I had become to the Zionist establishment. This is the reaction I often get at the Holocaust Museum, particularly from Arab men. It is a bizarre reality I live. I meet people from all over the world, and they usually welcome me with great respect and a smile. But there is something about the word "Israel" that brings down the Arab men and women.
THERE ARE obvious political realities that explain why there is so much hostility to the existence of this "entity." The unstable war zone in the Middle East leads to corruption, destruction and an unbearable cycle of violence driven by blame and humiliation in each party's name. No one wants to listen to "the other" - or even one another. There is only one claim: Israel is responsible for every single shooting, fire and flame.
The Arab world today is filled with misery, and it constantly wants to put on a mask to protect its dignity and honor. It craves praise. For better or worse, this is a region filled with the victims of victims. Its people will always play the game of chicken and egg, chasing history in circles and pining for victory. Moreover, Israel is always on the battlefront, ready to fight or defend. Israel provokes the Arab world through humiliation, humiliating Arab fathers in front of their children and showing off its "successful" democracy - one that does not equally include me.
AS PART of my work as a Palestinian-Israeli woman at the museum, I have had the unique experience of introducing audiences from all over the world to the subject of the Holocaust. It seems to me that few make the distinction between the Holocaust as a human story and Israel as a political story. Certainly, for the Arab world, they are intertwined.
In the Arab world, the Holocaust is not a story about human suffering, capacity for evil or indifference. It is understood only as an excuse for Israel to exist. It is perceived as a political vehicle through which Israel gets US aid and is thus paid to be strong, stable and annoying to its Arab neighbors. Among scholars, intellectuals, educators, political leaders and the average person in the Arab world, the Holocaust is regarded as a tool to fool the world into legitimizing the Israeli occupation.
This is what charges the Arab mind. There is no place for Jewish suffering when that suffering is associated with Israel, the Israeli occupation over the Palestinians, the history of 1948, and a new Middle East that is accompanied by unprecedented traumas and losses. Despite all my complaints and issues with the Arab reaction, there are good reasons why they cannot hear the suffering of "the other."
But they hear it through me and the anomaly I represent. I try to convey a model of suffering where there is space for people to express, face and relate to suffering from a humanistic point of view. I do not fight hatred with hatred, nor violence with violence. If there is one lesson to learn from the Holocaust, it is how hatred led Nazi Germany and other countries to commit human atrocities. I believe we all must face our mistakes, past and present, and share responsibility for our role in human tragedy. Pain should not be a divider but rather a bridge - enabling us to identify with human suffering, humanize our enemies and foster a much healthier world in which to live and grow.
It is rather astonishing to watch Arab men visiting a Holocaust museum. Their visit is a statement that dismisses any accusation of extremism or anti-Semitism. Their visit is a gesture for positive change.
WHEN THE time came for the group to leave, the visitors shook my hand, this time confidently, one by one, with their other hand on their chest, almost like a bow, a gesture of respect. It was a remarkable experience for a young Arab female to receive this nonverbal sign of respect in the midst of such controversy.
But the fact that they are here, and I am here, even as we both maintain our commitment to a just solution for the Palestinians, is evidence that there is a wind of change moving people to face history, their enemies and, most important, themselves.
The writer is a graduate student at the Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University. [email protected]
- Common Ground News Service
Middle Israel returns next week