Amin Abu Lashin was intrigued and bewildered when he heard from his teacher that an Arab would care enough about the Holocaust to establish a museum to educate other Arabs about the Jewish tragedy.
So the 12th-grader from the Franciscan Sisters School in this city and a classmate visited the site and met its founder, Khaled Kasab Mahameed, for themselves. Now the two Arab Israeli students, who say they have learned little about the Holocaust in school, plan to make a short film about the Arab Holocaust museum — the first of its kind — for their final class project.
“We sat with him and started to talk about why he’s doing it,” Abu Lashin, 18, said at the small museum where about 80 black-and-white posters of Holocaust photos from Yad Vashem are displayed with some Arabic explanations.
“In my opinion it’s a great idea. I think that for the problems with the Arabs, the Palestinians — in order to solve our problems — we need to see the problems of the other, of the Jews.”
Mahameed says that despite being met with skepticism or silence, The Arab Institute for Holocaust Research and Education — created two years ago in the lobby of his law office — is beginning to capture the attention of the Arab media and earning support from some in the community.
Mahameed, 45, believes his self-funded museum and Web site could contribute to peace in the region. But he still finds himself being criticized by Jewish organizations that claim he is manipulating the Holocaust for political aims and from Arabs who brand him a Zionist or a traitor to his people.
“I am alone, like Moses who stood on Mount Sinai,” Mahameed, who has a photo of Yasser Arafat hanging in his back office, told JTA from his museum recently. “The poor souls of the 6 million Jews of the Holocaust are protecting me against the Palestinians and the ADL.”
Mahameed came up with a great idea in educating the Arabic-speaking public about the Holocau! st, said Arieh O’Sullivan, spokesman for the ADL Office in Israel, but has taken it in a direction with which the Anti-Defamation League cannot agree.
“He’s saying ‘the Holocaust existed, it’s a terrible thing, but the Palestinians pay the price of the Holocaust, and Europeans felt guilty about the Holocaust, and they set up this colonial state here which is also totally ignorant of Zionist history,’ ” O’Sullivan said, referring to statements Mahameed has made in his Arabic book “The Palestinians and the Holocaust State” and in Arabic on his Web site.
“Israel arose not because of the Holocaust but despite the Holocaust,” O’Sullivan said.
The museum also juxtaposes the Holocaust with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by placing pictures of Nazis threatening or killing Jews next to pictures of Palestinian refugees, Palestinian victims of violence and the Palestinian flag.
“He’s equating the two, and you can’t equate those things,” O’Sullivan said. “The juxtaposition is just wrong.”
Officials at the Yad Vashem memorial in Jerusalem, who met with Mahameed at the start of the project and even provided him with materials, say that such a juxtaposition “contributes to the misappropriation of the Holocaust as a tool against Israel” and say they cannot support his museum or his agenda.
Although Mahameed says Palestinians are paying the price for the murder of 6 million Jews, he insists that he is not equating the suffering of Holocaust victims with the plight of the Palestinians. Those who try to equate the two have an “undeveloped” understanding of the unique tragedy that is the Holocaust, he said.
“You see this?” a passionate Mahameed asked, pointing to a poster in his museum representing Palestinian refugees among a cluster of Holocaust posters. “I want to tell those people that 6 million were killed. I will tell these people that you have been expelled from your country. You weren’t expelled just because you are Arabs but it is because of co! nflict.
“They were killed,” he said, pointing to the poster of Jewish Holocaust victims, “just because they were Jews. How can I equate? I can’t. It’s to tell these people that we can’t equate.”
Yet at least some visitors to the museum come away with a different impression.
“In the Shoah they killed a lot of people, and now with Palestinians it’s like the same,” the student Abu Lashin said, explaining why he thinks Mahameed’s museum has value. “The Arab people are being killed there in Palestine.”
“It’s not the same,” he said, “but you can say that it’s kind of” the same.
His 17-year-old classmate, Rana Odeh, agreed.
“The Jews are doing the same” to Palestinians “that was done to them,” he said.
Mahameed told JTA that such perceptions are due to a dearth of instruction about the Shoah in Arab Israeli schools, for which he blames the Israeli Ministry of Education. But fellow attorney Solleman Qaddan of Nazareth developed similar ideas after visiting the museum and talking to Mahameed. Qaddan said he stopped talking to his friend for a whole year because of his opposition to the Arab Holocaust museum.
Today, however, Qaddan said he understands the connection and the need to compare the Holocaust with the suffering of the Palestinian people.
“We are not expecting the Israelis to wake up and give us full rights, but we are expecting from the international community to compare between the two things — the way Khaled is comparing between the two issues, the two phenomena,” he said. “He’s right, 100 percent.”
Mahameed believes that if Arabs only understood the Holocaust, they would choose nonviolence in their dealings with Israel. It is because Arabs have denied the Holocaust and its centrality in the minds of Israelis, Jews and the Western world that they deny their own power to affect Israeli policy and behavior, he said.
Mahameed’s theory is that if Palestinians or Arabs would recognize the Holoc! aust as historical fact, they would bring the world to recognize their Palestinian tragedy, or “naqba.”
Subsequently the world would recognize the Palestinians’ political rights, probably including the right of return and compensation, according to Esther Webman, a researcher at Tel Aviv University’s Stephen Roth Institute for the Study of Anti-Semitism and Racism and The Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies. Webman recently visited the museum.
Still, experts like Webman say, the conflict and its solution cannot be reduced just to the Holocaust.
Webman said it is a positive that Mahameed’s museum — the only such place in an Arab community — is educating people on the Holocaust since many in Israel, particularly Arabs, and in the Arab world are ignorant or have misconceptions about the human tragedy.
“He has good intentions,” she said of Mahameed.
However, Webman said, it is important to note that the museum “doesn’t elevate itself from the political thing. He doesn’t hide his end goal, which is recognition of the Palestinian naqba.”