Israeli Arabs, Jews visit Auschwitz, seeking understanding

“I feel so strange,” said Tahhous, one of 120 Muslim and Christian Israeli Arabs who visited the infamous Auschwitz-Birkenau death camps yesterday with an equal number of Israeli Jews.

“My head is aching. My shoulders ache. I thought I knew how Jews feel about the Holocaust. “

This was the Rev. Emile Shoufani’s  point when he thought up the unusual pilgrimage. Shoufani, a Greek Catholic pastor from Nazareth, felt the need to lead a group of Arabs and Jews to Auschwitz to understand why so many of his conversations with Jews about the Palestinian intifadah, or uprising, wound up delving into the suffering of 60 years ago.

“We can’t understand our conflict without understanding the history of the Jewish people, the Holocaust, and how it lives today,” he said. “We cannot make peace until we understand the pain. “

And so, after a series of workshops, six tour buses pulled up to the camp yesterday, spilling out Christians, Muslims and Jews who had flown from Israel to Krakow, Poland. They were joined by an equal number of French Jews and Muslims.

A declaration worked out by the group made clear what it did not want: “This visit is not symbolic and will not represent a political, party or religious project. “

They walked in virtual silence, considering their visit to the death camps the beginning of a journey that might heal “the relationship between two wounded peoples. ” They set no more specific goals than that.

Critics have accused the group of naivete, of bad timing, of serving as easy prey for politicians on all sides. Shoufani answered that this trip was not about politics.

“We are going through this circle of death and accusation: ‘Who is more victim? Who can kill more? Who can hurt more?’ ” he said. “Many people said this will be used politically. We don’t wait for any political result. We just go. “

Israel’s 1.2 million Arab citizens make up more than one-sixth of the country’s population. Although they acknowledged that it was important for them to understand the roots of Jews’ suffering, some of those who visited Auschwitz also stressed that Israel must work to improve living conditions for the Palestinians.

“We are not responsible for the Holocaust, but they are responsible for what is going on now in Israel,” said Awwad Nawaf, 57, a teacher who lives in Nazareth.

“I don’t think you can compare the suffering in the Holocaust to the present violence and bloodshed in Israel,” said Ayala Sitbon, a 55-year-old Jewish schoolteacher from Jerusalem, seeing Auschwitz for the first time. But she said yesterday’s visit could be “a start for a change of dialogue” between Jewish and Arab Israelis.

Twice in the first hour, Fatina Hazzan, an Arab Christian, broke down while taking in the Birkenau death camp.

“It’s terrifying,” said Hazzan, who teaches Arabic at a Jewish middle school in Haifa.

“The world hurts for what happened here. I heard about it in school, read about it in books, but I didn’t expect to see such a thing.

“Where was the world? My God, six million people. “

Of her Israeli neighbors she said: “We don’t know each other. This is the problem. We don’t feel each other. We have to learn to eat, drink with each other, celebrate each other’s customs, learn each other’s history. We hear such horrible things about each other on TV. I am here to feel the pain of the Jews. “

Not a day goes by in the Israeli media in which the Nazis’ plan to exterminate European Jewry is not mentioned, said Tom Segev, author of The Seventh Million: The Israelis and the Holocaust. This, he said by telephone, mystifies many Palestinians, who minimize its significance as if acknowledging the enormity of loss would justify Zionism.

What bothers Segev about the trip is who did not come: Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

None chose to make the widely advertised trip. Just the Israeli Arabs joined the Jews who came.

“This is a start,” said Tahhous, who plans to shut her windows and disconnect the phone when she returns home so she can take in what she saw at Auschwitz – the piles of shorn human hair, the faces of children.

“My hope is that every Arab will know what happened to the Jews here,” she said. “People need to understand what has happened. “

As she spoke, a woman walking next to her broke in.

“My God, my kids are not safe from this danger yet,” said Gina Ross, a Jewish psychotherapist from Jerusalem. “This could happen again and again. And when I hear her [Tahhous] talk, I think, ‘Maybe not. Maybe this won’t happen again if enough people have her courage. ‘ “

The two women embraced, sobbing.

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