I met Simon Wiesenthal as a cub reporter in the early 1980s. I was one of the only Palestinian Americans working as a full-time reporter at a daily paper in the country. My editor, who was Jewish, must have thought it funny to assign a Palestinian reporter to cover Jewish American and Holocaust events.
I didn’t mind, though. Wiesenthal received an honor from the Decalogue Society, the association for Jewish lawyers in Chicago. I interviewed him and we had a great conversation. He was fixated on me being Palestinian, but in a positive way.
At the end of the evening, he gave me his autograph, which I put alongside autographs from other Middle East luminaries including Abba Eban (whom I debated on national television when I was 25), Menachem Begin and Yasser Arafat.
Wiesenthal told me he believed the Palestinians deserved a state, and hoped violence would be overcome by peace. He said Palestinians needed a visionary leader who could see peace and work toward it, and not be distracted by the ongoing violence.
Wiesenthal, to me, was a very tolerant person who seemed to consider the feelings of others in his quest to hunt down Nazi war criminals. That’s why I am concerned, as are all Arabs and Muslims, with the Wiesenthal Center’s plans to build a “Museum of Tolerance” on land adjacent to what was once a prominent Muslim cemetery in Jerusalem.
The Wiesenthal Center defends the decision, arguing the land was used as a municipal parking lot by the government for many years and no Muslims complained.
Well, they did
complain, but who listens when a Palestinian complains about anything in Israel? (No one listened when Israel bulldozed dozens of Arab homes and expelled the residents around the Western Wall in order to expand it.) It’s not a good defense to argue, “well, Muslims didn’t complain when concrete was laid on top of the cemetery and cars were parked there.”
The other argument is that Muslims planned to build something on it years ago under the British Mandate, but are opposed now because it’s the “Jews” who want to build on it.
MY ATTITUDE is simple, and I am a very tolerant person. If Muslims want to do something with a Muslim cemetery, that is their business and their right. Jews don’t have a right to do anything with a Muslim cemetery. And Muslims don’t have a right to do anything with a Jewish cemetery, either. Sadly, that has happened, too. Arabs have desecrated Jewish cemeteries.
These acts of desecration have been the result of our unending conflict.
It’s not unusual to have an Israeli institution built on top of something the Arabs and Muslims hold sacred. Israel rarely worries about what Arabs think, whether they are citizens or neighbors.
Yad Vashem, for example, is built in close proximity of the land of Deir Yassin where the pre-state organizations, the Stern Gang and the Irgun, killed about 100 Palestinian civilians.
I understand the building of a memorial to the 6 million Jews murdered by the Nazis. But to do so on a spot sacred to others, and where others were killed? Some might not see that as being very tolerant at all.
Certainly, there is no equivalency between a mass campaign to murder 6 million Jews and the killing of “only” 100 civilians.
The sad truth is, intolerance is rampant on both sides. Palestinians’ continued support of extremism and violence against Israeli civilians gives Israel its best defense: Hey, the Arabs do it! Palestinians and Arabs have massacred Jews.
That is not a good defense. It is an intolerable defense. You can’t defend a crime, a killing, an unethical or immoral act or policy by saying, “Well, the other side did the same thing.”
I’m not just picking on the Israelis. As I have said, Palestinians do it too.
Here’s a great idea. Maybe we should all
stop. Maybe Palestinians and Israelis should spend a little less time on intolerance and a little more time showing compassion and concern. Yes, tolerance for each other.
What Palestinians and Israelis clearly seem to lack is tolerance. Until
everyone starts tolerating each other better and tolerating their
views, grievances, claims for justice and even their conflicting
historical narratives, I am not sure either side should be building
museums of tolerance. Or claiming to be more tolerant than the other.
We can’t claim to be tolerant of challenges facing the world when we
can’t even be tolerant of the challenges that face us in our own little
space in Israel and Palestine.
Maybe the Wiesenthal Center might consider building a Museum of Palestinian-Israeli Tolerance and Peace.
I’d support that. I bet the late Simon Wiesenthal would have supported it, too.Named Best Ethnic Columnist in America by New America Media,
the writer is a Palestinian- American columnist and peace activist. He
can be reached at www.YallaPeace.com