My title isn’t the beginning of a tasteless joke, but one of the more significant moments of my life and quite possibly, emblematic of significant shifts taking place in the Middle East following the Abraham Accords.
In late April, on Holocaust Memorial Day and to coincide with the International March of the Living, Sharaka (the organization for which I work) organized a unique and historic delegation of journalists, influencers, and peace activists from around the Arab and Muslim world to visit the notorious death camp, Auschwitz, and partake in the solidarity march. I experienced what is usually a definitive moment in the Jewish journey of many of my friends in a dramatically different way, surrounded by Arab Muslims. Indeed, my Auschwitz experience can be symbolized by one particularly memorable moment – it was an Arab Muslim friend who comforted me when I broke down in tears upon entering the gates of Auschwitz.
Why bring an Arab delegation to Auschwitz?
It was not to dwell on the past or earn sympathy points. Indeed, more than a few internet trolls noted that the “Jews always use the Holocaust to play the victim card,” and that it is fabricated or exaggerated.
The Sharaka delegation consisted of participants from around the region: Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Syria, Lebanon, Morocco, and Turkey. We were joined by members from Palestinian East Jerusalem and from Israel – Jews and Arabs. Our goal was to take on the dangerous and shocking lack of knowledge about the Holocaust in the Arab and Muslim world, and even its widespread denial. Moreover, we wanted to use the Holocaust as a starting point to tackle radicalism in the region, and as a tool to spur reconciliation between Israel and its neighbors.
Each participant came to this difficult journey from a different place. Some had learned about the Holocaust through films or in university; others had visited Holocaust museums, including Yad VaShem in Israel; two had visited other concentration camps in Europe.
Others came from countries and societies where if the Holocaust is discussed or taught at all, its glossed over as a small part of history, as an episode of World War II. “I had heard of the Holocaust, but didn’t know much about it,” shared one participant, a social media influencer from Bahrain who came to learn first-hand, out of curiosity. Another social media influencer decided that if she can help teach others in the Arab world about this tragedy, she will have done her part.
A prominent Saudi journalist noted the importance of taking on Holocaust denial in the Arab world. A Syrian-Lebanese peace activist shared that she was ashamed when she first learned about the Holocaust – how people could do this to others. Another Syrian peace activist was ashamed and even felt personally guilty for the denial in the Arab and Muslim world.
A Palestinian intellectual had long-since been ostracized by his society for trying to teach about the Holocaust. A Bahraini intellectual spoke about the human message inherent in what we were doing – to ensure no other people be subjugated or oppressed in such a manner.
By the end of the trip, the group participants agreed that we had achieved, and will continue to work toward two main goals: the first is that by spreading education and awareness of the Holocaust, we are building empathy. For decades, the Holocaust was rejected or denied in much of the Arab world because when one recognizes the suffering or tragedy of the other, it humanizes them. Therefore, awareness of the “Jews’ tragedy” was buried out of political calculations – lest it lead to empathy toward Israel, the “aggressor.”
Secondly, we stressed the human message: the Holocaust not as a Jewish story, but as the extreme edge of where hatred and radicalism toward one group of people, the “other” can lead when left unchecked. The current Middle East has no shortage of radicalization, othering, or atrocities being committed. This is not to put the Syrian Civil War or the genocides of ISIS or the radicalism of Iran and its proxies on the same plane as the Holocaust. But these are awful tragedies and crimes against humanity in their own right.
We agreed that recognizing the other’s suffering is an important step toward reconciliation. However, this must not come at the expense of negating one’s self or one’s own tragedy for the sake of recognizing the other. It is in this moment, when you can recognize the other’s suffering and they can recognize yours, that two conflicting sides can work toward reconciliation.
Another theme the Arab participants picked up on was one not considered by the Jewish participants. The Holocaust, we all agreed, was not a Jewish story. The victims were primarily Jewish, but it was a Nazi story, first and foremost; it was a story of hate and intolerance. The Jewish story was the rich pre-war life in Poland and around Europe. But it is also the post-war rebirth of Jewish life – in Israel, around the world and even in Poland.
Like a flower growing out of the ashes – we decided to conclude with a visit to the Krakow Jewish Community Center. There we discovered a small but vibrant and growing community. Every day, we learned, new people around Krakow and in Warsaw are discovering Jewish roots and seeking to reconnect, and gentile Poles come to volunteer at the center.
The participants noted something they will take with them to their own societies. They pointed out that one tragic and defining element of the Arab countries was a baked-in sense of victimhood and thus of being stuck in the past, dwelling in rage and hatred over past tragedies or conflicts. They admired the Jewish people who were able to pick themselves up rebuild, including those who went to live in and help build the now thriving State of Israel.
A Jew and a Muslim walked into Auschwitz, and came out more united and stronger, vowing together to set an example for where Middle East peace can go in the new Abraham Accords reality. It’s no joke, but a message of hope.