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A new chapter for Arabs and Jews – at Auschwitz

At the end of the day, what matters is that inhumanity to one is inhumanity to all

As I marched on the ground of Auschwitz, dozens of visitors asked to take my photo. I’m not a celebrity of any sort, but wearing a hijab and walking with other Arabs from Morocco, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, and Algeria in a place known for Jewish suffering made our presence there a source of fascination.

Dozens came up to us and with tears in their eyes and said how grateful they were to see Arabs acknowledge — and not dismiss — their suffering.

I arrived as part of a delegation organized by Sharaka, a non-governmental initiative that grows the impact of the Abraham Accords by transforming the vision of people-to-people peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors into a reality.

While this was my second time joining Sharaka on a mission to March of the Living — the annual march from the Auschwitz concentration camp to the Birkenau extermination camp on Holocaust Remembrance Day (Yom HaShoah) — my knowledge about Jewish and Israeli history continues to evolve.

I came to Israel shortly after the signing of the Abraham Accords. I was the first individual not associated with a government to do so. I didn’t know what to expect. All my life, I’d been conditioned to think that Israel is a hostile and unwelcome place to Arabs and that I would be unwanted.

Yet, that couldn’t be further from the truth. The people were welcoming, curious, and engaging. My short experience there compelled me to be an advocate for peace and dialogue and eventually to become Sharaka’s Gulf Affairs Director and CEO of the newly founded Sharaka Bahrain chapter.

This year, I brought six other Bahrainis with me to the March of the Living. Together, we marched with the rest of Sharaka’s delegation with a banner proclaiming, “Muslims Stand Together With Jews.”

We know that message flies in the face of the news that often dominates headlines. But the news only tells part of a narrative.

At the March of the Living, I witnessed the diverse mosaic of Jewish peoplehood and of humanity in general. In fact, a young Arab woman (also donning a hijab) came up to me, and we embraced as if we were longtime friends because of a singular shared belief — we believe that inhumanity to one person is inhumanity to all.

That was the message that we all internalized as we slowly made our way through the grounds. Our hearts felt heavy as we realized that each step we took followed in the steps of others who stood in our very same spot and suffered, perhaps even died, simply because of who they were.

While feeling these visceral emotions of horror and sadness is important, it is not enough. That’s why the delegation to the March of the Living is only one aspect of Sharaka’s year-long Tolerance Program. In addition to taking part in the ceremony, participants engage in a series of in-person and online lectures and conversations about the Holocaust (including on the efforts of Muslims who saved Jews), antisemitism and all forms of extremism, genocide in modern history, sources of moderation within Islam, and what they can do in their societies to promote tolerance. The program is conducted with the assistance of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany (Claims Conference), which is sponsored by the Foundation “Remembrance, Responsibility and Future” and supported by the German Federal Ministry of Finance.

When Israel signed the Abraham Accords three years ago, it set in motion an encouraging trend of tolerance across the Arab world. In fact, the Center for the Study of Contemporary European Jewry recently published a report acknowledging the Arab world’s increased efforts to recognize the Holocaust and antisemitism.

The report cited Egypt’s participation in the UN General Assembly, where it adopted a resolution condemning Holocaust denial. Additionally, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Morocco have all adapted new projects aimed to preserve Jewish heritage. In my native Bahrain, the Association of Gulf Jewish Communities launched a project last year to renovate the old Jewish cemetery located in the capital of Manama. And in ​​in my neighboring UAE, they have decided to reform the education curriculum to include teaching about the Holocaust.

These are steps in the right direction, but we must not rest our laurels.

Sharaka’s approach is effective because it leverages government attempts at normalization to reach out to people on the ground — people who believe that Arabs and Jews have been at odds for far too long; people who embrace the fact that a new chapter is upon us.

It’s a stark reality check that this new chapter is marked by something as catastrophic as the Holocaust. But if we can start lifting each other during times of sadness, it should not take too long before we exalt together in times of joy.

About the Author
Fatema Al Harbi is the CEO of Sharaka Bahrain and the Gulf Affairs director, Sharaka Global.
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