The Common Good
May 2010

A Visit to Birkenau

by Sami Awad | May 2010

Making peace in the Middle East requires empathy for Jewish wounds.

For 2,000 years, everywhere Jewish people went, they have suffered. They have been discriminated against. They have been attacked. You can think of all the things that they’ve experienced, leading up to the Holocaust. For me, as a Palestinian, my engagement in nonviolence should also be to address the issues that prevent Israelis from being what they should be, to be able to see themselves as humans who have dignity, who should have respect in the international community.

It has not been an easy process for me to engage in this. It led me to Auschwitz and Birkenau, where I have visited twice. Once, outside of Birkenau, we were sitting in the grass in a circle and reflecting on our experience. Busloads of Israeli children came in, because every Israeli child of 13 to 16 years gets the chance to come and visit Auschwitz with his or her school. They got off the bus and began walking on the railroad track with their Israeli guides. They had big Israeli flags wrapped around them, and they were singing nationalistic Hebrew songs.
After they finished visiting the different sites, they came back and sat in circles, and they began talking about what they’d experienced. The Israeli guides were standing in the middle of the circles, and all of them were saying the same thing. They were saying, “See what happened to us? You see what the Nazis did to us?” Many of these children probably had their grandparents or great uncles and aunts killed in these camps. Afterward, when they’re sitting in the circle, you can see how the experience was very traumatizing for them. You would assume that these guides would take this as an opportunity to say, “Never again.” But their message was: “You see what the Germans did to us? Well, guess what? It’s not over. If they have a chance, the Palestinians will do exactly the same thing to us as the Nazis did.”
So they’re saying, “It’s not just our history, this is our future.” Imagine this child, 13 or 14 years old, hearing all of this, and thinking, “This is what the people living next to us want to do to us.” Israeli children come back, they finish high school, and, as you know, every child has to serve in the military. They say, “We’re going to teach you the tools to deal with this threat.” It’s never about nonviolence. It’s never about negotiations. It is about the military. “It is only through weapons and the military and being stronger than the other,” they’re taught, “that you can prevent this threat from happening to us again.” So they now look at the Palestinian as a Nazi soldier, and the only tool they have is the tool of the weapon to deal with this threat. This is what, as Palestinians, we are dealing with.
Our work is not just about changing policy. It is about helping Palestinians and Israelis find ways to recognize themselves as equals and to live with the other side as equals as well. Once we begin to engage in actions that focus on human rights and dignity and equality, then we will see changes in the Middle East and solutions to the conflict that we have not dreamt of.

Adapted from a November 2009 lecture in Washington, D.C., to a gathering convened by Evangelicals for Middle East Understanding.

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