Auschwitz Diarist: Pilgrim's Progress

by Yossi Klein Halevi

As we emerge from the underground crematoriums, Ali, a leader of the Arab Israeli Scouts movement, links his arm in mine. "Does it make it easier or harder to deal with the past by coming here?" he asks. For a Jew to be comforted by an Arab in Auschwitz is so counterintuitive that all my accumulated rage, from the Holocaust to the intifada, yields to grief.

We are participants in the first pilgrimage by Arab and Jewish Israelis to Auschwitz. There are 260 of us, almost evenly divided between Jews and Arabs, joined by 200 Muslims, Christians, and Jews from France. The Arab Israelis include professionals for whom coexistence with Jews is routine. One Arab Israeli doctor who heads an emergency ward tells me, "I haven't missed a terrorist attack." The Jews include the rabbi of a West Bank settlement, who says that, when your neighbor tries to feel your pain, you must respond, and a former Knesset member from the ultra-dovish Meretz Party, which expelled him for seeking common ground with rightists. Our starting point is political despair. We are entering the abyss together, hoping to emerge in some way transformed. It's no coincidence that this pilgrimage was conceived by a priest, Emile Shoufani, an Arab Catholic from Nazareth, whom we all call "Abuna," Arabic for father. Abuna speaks grandly of creating "a new human being." Fostering dialogue between Israeli Arabs and Jews seems ambitious enough.

I didn't want to come. For years, I've avoided the Holocaust, convinced that, as a survivor's son who had experienced militant Zionism in my teens, group therapy in my twenties, immigration to Israel in my thirties, and spiritual journeys in my forties, I had exhausted my ability to find some way to respond to the event that formed me. And I've long resisted linking the Holocaust with Israel's predicament. After all, Jews hardly need Auschwitz to feel vulnerable today.

Finally, I worried about Arab expectations of a false reciprocity: Your Holocaust for our nakba ("catastrophe"), the term Arabs use for the creation of Israel. But Abuna set a precondition for Arab participants: No comparisons between our suffering and theirs. In the late '90s, I undertook a journey of prayer into mosques and monasteries. When the Palestinians began their current terrorist war, though, I felt too betrayed to continue reaching out. Only an Arab attempt to understand us, I decided, could renew my capacity for empathy. Now, here was a group of Arab Israelis trying to do precisely that. On the bus to Auschwitz, an Arab woman takes the mike. She has joined us, she explains, because she fears the anger that's distorting her. That is why I've come: not to save the Middle East but myself.

Abuna set another precondition, this one for both Arabs and Jews: No politics. To bring together Jewish and Arab Israelis and forbid them to argue politics borders on abuse. That restraint is itself the beginning of a new discourse. And it's contagious. As we enter the Auschwitz complex, I mention to an Arab woman that I'm named for a grandfather who was murdered here. "Arabs had nothing to do with this," she says. "The Palestinians are also victims of this place." What about Arab pressure on the British to turn back refugee boats? Or the Mufti, the Palestinian leader who spent the war years as a Nazi propagandist in Berlin? But I sense that she's speaking not from anger but distress. And so I say nothing.

In one sense, Arab Israelis are our natural partners. However unhappily, we share a common citizenship and speak together in Hebrew. Yet, in the last few years, we've become dangerously alienated, caught between Arab resentment over Jewish discrimination and Jewish suspicion of Arab treason. For Arabs, a Jewish state means their permanent displacement to the periphery of Israeli society. For Jews, Arab insistence on a binational Israel is considered a plan to destroy us: First, create a Palestinian state emptied of Jews; then, empty Israel of Jewishness. The very existence of the other in our midst threatens our sense of home. Perhaps that's the real issue we've come to confront in Auschwitz, where existence was a crime.

Inevitably, there are tensions. When a Christian Arab woman reads aloud a poem asking how God could have allowed "the people you chose" to be murdered, other Arabs are outraged at her seeming identification with Judaism. And, in coming here together, we all take emotional risks. For the Arab participants, who have been attacked by their own media as traitors, conceding the enormity of their enemy's tragedy risks diminishing their own. For Jews, coming to the place that teaches us the necessity of power, together with Arabs who threaten that power, risks weakening our will to fight for survival. The result of our mutual risk-taking is an exchange of sensibilities. Jews acknowledge that Auschwitz isn't just a Jewish but a universal wound, while our Arab partners discover Jewish outrage. "Where was the world?" they demand. And, with unintended irony, "Why didn't the Jews fight back?" Referring to the Nazis, a Bedouin social worker invokes that old Jewish curse, "Y'mach shmam" ("may their names be blotted out"), as if he were from Brooklyn.

"You are trapped in the pathology of our Jewish story," I say to Abuna. "We can free each other," he replies. Arabs hold the hands of elderly survivors; Jews weep on Abuna's shoulder. For Arabs to mourn Jewish suffering and for Jews to trust Arabs in Auschwitz is subversive. I confess, I had wanted Arabs to emerge from this journey "understanding" Israel's predicament. No doubt some of our Arab Israeli partners had similar hidden hopes about us. Now those expectations seem vulgar. For now, I want nothing more than to be together with these people in this place.

We gather for the Israeli custom of reciting the names of victims. This time, though, Arabs read the names. While much of the Arab world promotes Holocaust denial, here Arabs are affirming the legitimacy of our story. Whatever disagreements await our return to Israel, I know that, for my Arab partners, the notion of Jews being murdered for being Jews has become unbearable. Listening to the Yiddish names recited in Arabic accents, I sense a new language being born.

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is a correspondent for The New Republic, senior fellow of the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, and author of At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden: A Jew's Search for God with Muslims and Christians in the Holy Land.