Editor’s note: on 27 January 1945, Soviet forces broke open the most infamous Nazi death camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau. We publish this second article marking the anniversary in accordance with our belief at EER that only by ensuring people know and remember the history of the Holocaust, is there any possibility of preventing it being repeated.
Professor Mohammed S. Dajani Daoudi, a Palestinian professor and founder of the Wasatiya (Moderation) Movement
“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 Book of the Prophet Ezekiel 36:26).
The image, significant for Jewish, Christian and Muslim cultures, gives insight into the central question which seeks to understand the movement of individuals and groups from lesser to greater willingness for tolerance and reconciliation. No doubt, empathy for the “suffering of the other” has significant impact as to how and why individuals and groups may become more or less open to reconciliation.
My first encounter with the Holocaust was in February 2011 when I visited a Nazi concentration camp after an invitation from the French organization Aladin. Up until then, I had not given it much thought. I was so immersed in my own 1948 Al-Karithah/Nakba (Catastrophe) that I failed to recognize the suffering of others. Seeing for myself the scale and systematic diabolic nature of the Holocaust first hand gave me the courage to not be a bystander in the face of those who deny it, and the inspiration to become an active proponent of Holocaust education for Palestinians and other Arab students.
Together, with my research assistant Zeina Barakat and German friend Martin Rau, we authored in 2009 a book in Arabic about the Holocaust in order to acquaint Palestinians with important historical facts. The book was distributed to students, schools, and libraries. I then co-authored with my friend Robert Satloff the book Among the Righteous (2007), which tells the stories of Arabs saving Jews during the Holocaust. Then, in March 2011, I published an article titled, “Why Palestinians Should Learn About the Holocaust”.
My second encounter with the Holocaust was in March 2014 when I escorted 27 Palestinian students to Poland to visit the notorious Auschwitz Nazi concentration camp. In Krakow, the students visited the Jewish ghetto and learned that the Holocaust did not take place in a vacuum but was preceded by a long history of anti-Semitism and incitement against Jews incarnated by the 1903 anti-Semetic text: Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
The Palestinian students had been taught that the Holocaust was a Zionist propaganda tale to gain world sympathy and was used as a justification for the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. This explains their tendency to deny the Holocaust or to claim death toll figures are exaggerated. Thus, the visit of the students to the camp in Auschwitz angered many Palestinians, prompting Al-Quds University and Birzeit University to distance themselves from the trip.
A huge barrier to Holocaust education in Palestine is political — the Holocaust is perceived as the cause for the Palestinian 1948 Nakba and the persistent Israeli occupation. Another barrier is educational — the Holocaust is not being taught in Palestinian schools or universities. A third barrier is psychological — Palestinian society is deeply wounded, and with continuous Israeli occupation these wounds have not healed. And finally, the last barrier is religious — students are being taught that Islam has inherent enmity towards Judaism.
During the trip, one of the Palestinian students asked: “Why should we learn about the Holocaust when Israelis have legislated the term Nakba as illegal and banned teaching it in their schools?” My simple answer was: “Because it is the right thing.” He persisted asking: “But why is learning about the Holocaust considered to be ‘doing the right thing’?”
I responded: “There are many reasons why it is the right thing. First, the Quran, as well as the Prophet, encourage seeking knowledge and learning: The Quran urges Muslims: “And Say, ‘My Lord, advance me in knowledge’.” (Taha Surah, verse 114). The Prophet is quoted to say: “Seek knowledge from the cradle to the grave”; “Seek knowledge even in China.” This impels us to seek knowledge: “I do not know but I want to know.” Second, Holocaust denial and distortion are historically incorrect, factually wrong, and constitutes a major threat to morality and human dignity, as well as to the prospects of reconciliation and peace between Muslims and Jews as well as Palestinians and Israelis. Third, it is a sign of respect for the truth. When the truth is denied or ignored, it destroys the values one cherishes. Fourth, the need to learn the tragic lessons of the past is necessary to avoid their recurrence in the present and future. Fifth, showing empathy and compassion for the suffering of others, even if no relations, friendship, or love bonds you with them, would make this world a better place to live in. Sixth, as the wise have argued, without knowing about evil, we cannot understand the meaning of good. Seventh, being criticized for doing the right thing, should not mean not doing it.
One important lesson that the students learned was the deep impact of the Holocaust on the Jewish psyche and feelings of distrust, fear, and insecurity. They realized they have nothing to fear from opening their eyes to this tragic chapter of human history. This led one of the students to remark: “Visiting Auschwitz and learning about the Holocaust did not make me less nationalistic but more humanistic.”
One female student was intrigued by the inscription placed above the main gate of the Auschwitz concentration camp, ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ (German for “Work Sets You Free”). The sign gave the impression that this was a ‘work camp’ but once her tour was over, she realized it was a cynical lie and that this was, in fact, a ‘death camp’.
One student wrote on Facebook: “Visiting Poland was an eye-opener for me and a great educational experience. I learned a lot about the Holocaust. Prior to going to Auschwitz, I didn’t know what the Nazi concentration camps were all about.” One of the scenes that deeply touched the students was when the tour guide explained how sanitary facilities were used by prisoners in an extremely inhumane manner. Prisoners were forced to use the toilet together — up to 100 at a time. They were also given less than a minute to use it and had no tissues or water to clean up with. As a result, they spent their existence in the camp dirty and in filthy clothes contracting infections and diseases which led to their death.
At school, Palestinians learn, ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’; at Auschwitz, they learned, ‘the evil enemy of my enemy is my enemy’. The students learned that Nazi cruelties and atrocities were not committed by psychopaths and criminal minds but by nice ordinary people against neighbors and foreigners. The perpetrators were just ordinary people who lived a normal life, celebrated Christmas and Easter with their families and loved their dogs.
The Palestinian participants left with unforgettable sad memories. The visit taught them that the impact of the Holocaust continued after liberation and that it is still part of the fabric of Jewish society, thinking, and psychology.
Palestinians, as well as the Arab and Muslim world, need to become educated about the Holocaust. Also, Jews need to know there were many Arabs opposed to Nazism and there were also those who helped save Jews during the Holocaust. The question we should answer for ourselves is: Should we remain chained by anti-Semitism, ignorance, and bigotry or crack the walls of ignorance even at the cost of being victimized and ostracized by the group?
The liberation of the Nazi Holocaust camps has not made the world safer for Jews and non-Jews. Genocides will continue to happen if we remain silent and bystanders when evil projects itself. In refusing to be a bystander, one opts to exercise his freedom to dissent from the collective narrative and stand by the ideals of truth, righteousness, justice, compassion, and freedom. Taking the risk of making that choice even at the cost of alienation from society in which one is born and bred is the moral thing to do.
Breaking this taboo leaves the door wide open for social change, reconciliation, and peaceful coexistence. When someone asks me, “What makes you remain so optimistic about peace when no one else believes in peace or that this conflict will ever be resolved peacefully?” My response is: “I left behind the baggage of the past and have set my eyes on the future.” By using our creativity for spreading love, tolerance, justice, and compassion we make ours a beautiful world!
In first grade, I was taught the tale of the king who while walking in the fields passed by an old man planting an olive tree. He asked him: “Old man, why are you planting an olive tree when you know that you would certainly die before it gives fruit.” The old man responded: “Our ancestors planted, we ate, and we plant for our grandchildren to eat.” A Rabi friend pointed out to me that the moral of the story was adopted from the Talmud.
Another shared story I am fond of repeating is the following:
Cohen and Levi both approached the rabbi in an attempt to resolve a festering dispute between them. After Cohen relates to the rabbi his side of the story, the rabbi pronounces to him: “You are right”. Following Levi’s statement of the facts as he sees them, the rabbi declares to him: “You are right.” Once the two have departed, the rabbi’s wife turns to the rabbi and asks: But rabbi, how can they both be right?” To this question, the rabbi responds: “You are also right.”
Once, in a workshop I was conducting, a Palestinian imam (religious leader) was upset I said rabbi since he learned it was a Muslim sheikh who said that.
Israeli and Palestinian conflictual behavior is a reaction to the demonized picture in their heads of each other. In a hostile environment, both react in a defensive manner to their negative stereotype image of the other, believing these images to be the reality and not a mere construction of their own perceptions of reality.
We need to teach our children about life, not death; peace, not war; diplomacy not violence; love not hate; kindness not cruelty; friendship not enmity; forgiveness not revenge; tolerance not hostility; dialogue not boycott; moderation not extremism and reconciliation not conflict.
There is an important lesson in courage we must learn moving forward. We can accomplish this by letting go of grudges, hate, vengeance, and enmity, the sad memories of yesterday and today’s words of incitement. Moderation ushers in reconciliation, empathy and trust, leading to peace, democracy, security, and prosperity.
We have seen death, known displacement, suffered loss, embraced grief, experienced sorrow and pain, but we should find our way out of the abyss to a life of compassion, peace, gentleness, empathy, kindness, and a deep loving concern for humanity.
 Mohammed Dajani Daoudi and Robert Satloff, Why Palestinians Should Learn About the Holocaust?, I.H.T., March 29, 2011.