Holocaust remembrance and Palestinian Identity

April 17, 2009

palestineimagesThe story of the Palestinian children’s orchestra (Strings for Peace, see previous blog entry) has kept me occupied. My mind keeps returning to the fact that the Palestinian children had never heard of the Holocaust. We know that Palestinians prefer not to talk about the Holocaust, because they fear that the Holocaust will be used to legitimize their own dispossession. We also know that seeing the other as the victim of something so horrendous would imply seeing the other as human, which people who are at war with each other avoid at all cost. And finally we know that some of the most hateful extremists deny the Holocaust out of pure spite against Israel and the West. However, whole generations growing up alongside Israel’s borders without even the most basic knowledge of this ultimate evil is very scary. The names of the death camps (Treblinka, Sobibor, Belzec and Chelmno), should be engraved in the memory of all of us as places where people were send for the sole purpose of being slaughtered by the millions in an industrialized fashion. They have to be engraved in our memories because part of being human is to be aware of the evil we are capable of, and there is no bigger evil than the evil that was committed in these camps. It is the responsibility of all of us to remember and be aware. Not knowing is inexcusable and unacceptable. Palestinians should know first of all because they are human. However, they should also know because they are involved in struggle with the people that were the victim of this. How can one make peace with an enemy one does not understand?

Vice versa, it has also become more clear to me that Israelis don’t understand Palestinians much better. It seems to me that Israelis have settled upon their own version and interpretation of their history in the Arab world and base their policies upon this interpretation. This interpretation often involves the denial of the unique identity of the Palestinians as Palestinians, the denial of the right of the Palestinians to a piece of land that can be the foundation of a sustainable state, and all sorts of opinions on the responsibilities of surrounding Arab nations. There is very little compassion for the circumstances the Palestinians in the occupied territories. On the contrary, these circumstances are often being denied, even the occupation itself is often being denied.

It is hard to understand how Israel and Palestine will be able to make peace with each other without recognizing either the history or the identity of the other. What seems to be desperately lacking in years and years of ‘peace processing’ is some form of openness to the story of the other and the willingness to see each the other as human. Not much dialogue is needed to understand another human being. All that is needed to have empathy is openness, a little imagination, and the capacity to see the other as a human being with the same desires and fears as ourselves. Without compassion for the other, there can be no wisdom, and without wisdom, conflict can never progress into a lasting peace.

In conjunction with all of the above, I have thought about my own problems debating this issue with people that hold different positions from myself. I am wondering whether or not the same problems people face debating this issue on a micro level aren’t exactly the same problems, maybe to different degrees, that occur on a macro level between Israel and Palestine.

A couple of the things I have learned:

1) Anybody entering this conflict narrative should be aware of the fact that this debate is very old and positions have hardened. This does not mean however that emotions have cooled down. On the contrary. When it comes to this conflict, the most reasonable people are capable of the most unreasonable reactions. The fierceness of the debate, combined with the fact that the arguments pro and against are so old, makes it very hard for a ‘novice’ to enter it. There are standard responses for standard criticisms and standard attacks for the same criticisms. More often than not an attack constitutes the response.

2) Trust is very hard to build. One has to remember at all times that one is debating a people that has faced the worst. A people cannot face the worst and comes out of it unscathed. The fear of anti-Semitism is real and justified. So it is important to exercise restraint. This is one of the responses I received by somebody who believes I do not exercise enough restrain in debating Israel:

“Feelings about the Holocaust is something that runs extremely deep in many of us. In me, it’s a gnawing pain. My mother very nearly lost her life and her father did. When you love somebody who experienced such rabid racism first-hand – you kind of get upset when your friends can’t see how hurt you are. Maybe we are too sensitive to criticisms of Israel, but you should try to be a little more sensitive to your friends. You know, bite your tongue from time to time. Realize that however incensed you are by the treatment of the Palestinians, that your friends may get really truly hurt by your opinions.” (Kate)

I am no diplomat. And I have a lot more to learn. My perspectives need to widen. Wisdom doesn’t only come from compassion, but from perspective as well. I hope to be as open as possible to anything that can help me understand something.


After one has taken into account a very long history of anti-Semitism culminating in a Holocaust and all the fear and pain associated with this history.

After one has taken into account the long history of the Jewish people in the lands that are being disputed.

After one has taken into account the many contributions of the Jews to our own history and current material prosperity, richness of ideas etc,

After one has reassured as much as one can that the existence of Israel is not at stake, that it should not be at stake, and if it is at stake then the whole world should come to its defense,

And finally, after one has made sure that anti-Semitism is not an option,

One should be able to express that what is happening in the occupied territories is wrong. That a country should not have ‘occupied territories’ to begin with. One can and should argue that all of the above factors make Israel’s predicament understandable. It places it within a context. However, it doesn’t justify anything or even makes it tolerable. Understanding the behavior of a country or being sympathetic to this country does not mean we should tolerate the behavior. In other words, while the past, the present and fears about the future might make the irresponsible behavior of a country comprehensible, it doesn’t make it defensible. The actions of Israel in West bank, Gaza and East-Jerusalem are deeply wrong, to say the least. Israel is to a large extend responsible for the fact that a few million Palestinians are either living as second class citizens within Israel (threatened at the very moment by a foreign minister that wants to expel them) or without any nationality and rights in either refugee camps in other Arab countries or in West bank and Gaza. If Israel itself cannot fix this situation, that it is the responsibility of the rest of the world to intervene. One has to be able to say this much. Silence cannot have the last word, as silence creates complicity.

I keep thinking about the concept of a no-mans-land. There should be a zone where people can exchange stories, thoughts, sentiments and even opinions without being ‘blasted’ viciously by the other. In a land that is claimed by two people, maybe a zone that doesn’t belong to any of them is necessary to make such a dialogue possible.

To end this essay on a happier note. Thinking about the terrible fact that there is so much Holocaust taboo and straight out anti-Semitism in the Arab world, I was browsing the web and found this project: Project Aladin. It is a multilingual website (in Arabic, Persian, French, English, and soon in Turkish) supported by over a 100 muslim intellectuals and a lot of western politicians and thinkers (among them Chirac, Simone Weil, etc) which provides information in a simple fashion on the Holocaust, on the Jews and on the relationship between Jews and Muslims throughout history. Accompanying the website is an online library where members are able to download freely reference books on the Holocaust translated into Arabic and Persian. They include such classics as Anne Frank’s “Diary”, “If This Is a Man” by Primo Levi, “Hitler and the Jews “by the Swiss historian Philippe Burrin, and” Sonderkommando “by Shlomo Venezia. Please check it out. Such initiatives deserve a little attention in a world that seems hell bend on more conflict and more war.


3 Responses to “Holocaust remembrance and Palestinian Identity”

  1. […] if you write something criticizing Israel’s critics for their lack of precision, invention and originality, or because they criticize Israel for stuff everyone does worse, or for things that simply […]

  2. Marc Says:

    In your fantastic “no-man’s-land”, is it considered good form to call anything you dislike “fascist?” Or is that a mood-killer?
    Just curious.

    • owlminerva Says:

      that’s a good question. What do you think? I would like to set up some sort of conceptual space to debate sensitive things. If you are interested i would definately like to hear what you and anybody thinks should be the rules for such a space. I can’t imagine name calling of the people you are talking to to be a good idea. But what about politicians, religious figures etc. What should be the ground rules that we can agree upon so that we can finally talk to each other in a civilized fashion? I like to keep the liberty to call iran a human rights violating country, or Lieberman a fascist. But maybe that is unrealistic? What do you think? Are you even interested in serious conversation or are just you trying to provoke?

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