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As Auschwitz Visit Concludes, Jews and Arabs Hope for Better Relations

May 29, 2003
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Along the rails leading to the Birkenau death camp walked some 450 Arabs and Jews from Israel and France, silent but for the list of names they were reading.

The names belonged to relatives of Jewish members of the delegation who had been murdered during the Holocaust.

Wednesday’s march was the climax of a trip that constituted an unusual show of Arab identification with the Jews’ Holocaust burden. It was a show of support that — at least for the two days of the trip — wiped away political differences between the two communities.

The delegation to Auschwitz was the brainchild of Archimandrite Emile Shoufani, a Greek Catholic priest from Nazareth. Along with other Arab public figures, he sought a way to mend relations with Jews following the October 2000 Israeli Arab riots and the deterioration of relations between Jews and Arabs since the Palestinian intifada began.

“We must pull ourselves out of the chapter in which everything in the relations between the two peoples is measured on the basis of giving in exchange for giving, killing in exchange for killing,” Shoufani told JTA. “We are a group of citizens with no political aspirations, who are determined to restore relations with the Jewish people.”

Though he stressed the need to stay away from politics, Shoufani said he hoped politicians would use the momentum to create a better atmosphere between Jews and Arabs.

Eliezer Ya’ari, executive director of the New Israel Fund and a member of the delegation, told JTA his organization was looking for ways to make use of the new development.

“I will suggest that this group” — made up of teachers, clergymen and community leaders — “take upon itself the task of fighting racism and incitement,” Ya’ari said.

The group also includes people like Arye Amit, former commander of the Jerusalem police, and Dedi Zucker, a former legislator from the Meretz Party.

On Wednesday, a day after a moving ceremony at Auschwitz, the delegation moved through the various parts of the death camp, from the barracks to the sauna — where inmates had to undergo showers and decontamination — and then on to the gas chambers and crematoria.

One of the more moving moments came when Ruth Lavie of Beit Shearim pulled out a picture she had drawn of a house and a tree when she was a six-year-old hiding in Amsterdam.

She had sent the drawing to her father, who had been sent on a transport to Auschwitz. The drawing never arrived, of course; it was returned to Ruth shortly after she sent it, and she kept it for almost 60 years.

On Wednesday, she put the drawing in a crack in a stone in one of the barracks, along with a letter that read: “My beloved father Dov Jourgran, inmate No. 100896, murdered at the age of 42 on 11/10/43 after eight months of hard labor. This drawing has never reached you, and now I am leaving it here, at this damned place, in your memory and the memory of mother Leah who was murdered in Sobibor. I still miss you and I shall never forget you.”

As the group toured the camp it encountered a delegation of Israeli policemen, also on an educational tour. As they met in one of the barracks, a young singer sang a song in Arabic, and the policemen listened quietly.

“One of the things that troubles me is what’s next,” said Ahmad Massalha, a lawyer from the village of Daburiya in the Galilee. “We haven’t really given it enough thought.”

Shoufani insisted that the visit was not an attempt to form an Arab equivalent of Peace Now — though he knows that some Arabs in Israel, who have criticized him for sympathizing with Jewish suffering, interpreted his actions this way.

“It is time for the Arabs to take the initiative,” said Thabet Abu-Ras, head of the Shatil welfare organization. “The Arab parties don’t really initiate anything constructive.”

“Do not get us wrong,” Massalha said, “most people are not against the initiative, they only question the timing at this delicate stage of the intifada.”

As the ceremony at the rails ended, at the terminus where millions of Jews ended their journey to death, the policemen marched by in an orderly parade, singing.

The sight was in some ways surreal: Jewish policemen at a place where Jews were murdered en masse, mingling with a delegation of Jews and Arabs, still engaged in a bitter conflict over the land that has become the shelter of the Jewish people.

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