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March 04, 2003

At least some seem willing to try

A group of Israeli Arabs are going to travel to Auschwitz to try to understand where the Israelis are coming from.

The trip in May by about 100 Arab intellectuals, athletes and business people is unprecedented in scope and is being planned at a time of great polarization and bitterness created by 29 months of Mideast fighting.

One of the organizers of the trip to Auschwitz is Nazir Mgally, a 52-year-old Arab journalist from Nazareth, a city of Jews and Arabs in northern Israel. He remembers feeling little emotion during childhood school lessons about the Holocaust because he was more focused on stories of how Jews had stolen Arab land.

It wasn't until Mgally saw how suspicious Jews had become of Israel's Arabs during the past 2 1/2 years of Mideast fighting that he began to wonder if the Holocaust was part of the problem. ''One of the main things that pushes Jews and Arabs to be enemies is that they don't think of each other as human beings,'' he said.

The Holocaust has played a central role in shaping the identity of Israel, a nation at war since it won statehood in 1948. For many Israelis, the slaughter of 6 million Jews during World War II is a constant reproach to the world for denying sanctuary to Europe's Jews.

''The Holocaust is everywhere,'' said Israeli historian Tom Segev. ''There's not a single day without some reference to the Holocaust in an Israeli newspaper. It influences views on almost every subject.''

During their four-day trip starting May 26, the 100 or so Israeli Arab community leaders plan to visit Auschwitz, the largest of the Nazi death camps, where about 1 million Jews perished in gas chambers or died of disease, starvation and torture.

In preparation, some of the Arabs visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem and listened to a Holocaust survivor describe life in the Warsaw Ghetto.

The group will be led by Emil Shoufani, 47, a Catholic priest, and includes an Islamic sheik and an Arab midfielder for Maccabi Haifa, a mostly Jewish soccer team. It will link up with a group of about 50 Jewish Israelis, including pop singers and actors.

No such large group of Arabs has ever traveled to a Nazi camp, although there have been visits by a few Arab members of Israel's parliament and children from mixed Jewish and Arab schools.

The recent violence has caused what little Arab interest there was in the Holocaust to wither, said Irit Abramski, director of Arab education programs at Yad Vashem. The number of Arabs visiting the museum's seminars annually fell to about 250, half the former level, and journalists, poets and politicians from Arab countries no longer come, Abramski said. Mgally, the journalist who helped plan the trip, said the effort to understand the Holocaust can help mend the trust broken by recent fighting.

''We see that Jews look at Arabs as if we want to push them from the land,'' Mgally said. ''Arabs have to do something to give a feeling to the Jews that we don't want to destroy them.''

Judging from the signs I saw at the protests a few weeks ago, I would say there are plenty of Americans and Europeans who need to make the same journey.

Cross posted at Voice from the Commonwealth