4 September 2009 2 Comments

Suffering 101

Palestinians and Israelis take an eternal debate into the classroom, leaving the UN stuck in the middle. By Matt Beynon Rees – GlobalPost

JERUSALEM — In the Book of Lamentations, the people of Jerusalem cry out against the destruction of the city: “Is any suffering like my suffering?”

The answer, of course, is: No. Ever since, Jeremiah’s phrase has pretty much been the catchphrase of the entire Middle East.

On a recent Sunday, the Israeli Education Minister Gideon Saar told the cabinet that the word Arabs use to describe the foundation of Israel — “Nakba,” or catastrophe — would be removed from Arabic-language textbooks in the schools of Israel’s Arab minority. His contention: it wasn’t a catastrophe for him or the government that pays the schools’ bills, so out with “Nakba.”

The same day, Hamas lashed out at the U.N. agency that educates Palestinian refugees. The agency, Hamas alleged, was planning to change its textbooks to teach Palestinian children about the Holocaust. Hamas’s contention: the Holocaust didn’t happen, and teaching about it would legitimize the State of Israel which, in the opinion of most Palestinians, was foisted on them as payback for the Holocaust by guilt-ridden Europeans.

Recognizing the sufferings of the other side is generally the first step in conflict resolution. It makes the enemy seem human. It’s something Israelis and Palestinians find particularly hard to do.

In a letter to the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, the Hamas-affiliated Popular Committees for Palestinian Refugees called the Holocaust “a big lie that was fabricated by the Jews and a big campaign of propaganda.” The U.N., the letter says, should “erase the subject of the Jewish Holocaust from the curriculum, and stop future attempts to insert strange concepts which contradict Palestinian values and principles.”

Hamas claimed to have uncovered plans to teach about the Holocaust in a human-rights course. There are 200,000 Gazan children in U.N. schools.

U.N. officials tried to set the record straight. Karen Abu Zayd, the UNRWA commissioner-general, said Tuesday that she could “refute allegations that the U.N. school curriculum includes anything about the Holocaust.”

A relief, perhaps, to anyone worried about offending Palestinians. Maybe not such a relief to those hoping the U.N. provides refugee children with a fully rounded awareness of history — the history of the people who live right next door.

Holocaust denial is common among Palestinians. That’s because they believe the enormity of the Holocaust diminishes — in the eyes of the world — the significance of their own suffering. The figure of 6 million murdered was made up, they contend, so that it would dwarf the 750,000 Palestinians who lost their homes and became refugees in 1948 when Israel was founded.

Hamas has backers in this regard. Since its international isolation in 2006, the Islamic group has increased its political and financial ties to the Holocaust-denying regime in Tehran.

In contrast, Saar, the education minister, didn’t entirely deny the grievance of Israel’s Arab population at the cabinet meeting in Jerusalem. “It can be said with certainty that Arab Israelis experienced a tragedy in the war [of 1948],” he said. “But there will be no use of the word ‘Nakba,’ whose meaning is similar to Holocaust in this context.”

For Saar it seems to be more a matter of capitalization. That is, 1948 was a catastrophe for the Palestinians, but not a Catastrophe.

“Nakba” didn’t have a very long run in Israel’s schools. The left-wing education minister, Yuli Tamir, introduced it two years ago to third-grade Arabic-language textbooks. Saar took office this spring as part of a more rightist government.

“The creation of the State of Israel cannot be referred to as a tragedy,” he said, “and the education system in the Arab sector will revise its studies in elementary schools.”

All this is just in time for the return of students to school for the start of a new academic year.

Now that’s a kind of suffering everyone can relate to.

2 Responses to “Suffering 101”

  1. Y. Ben-David 6 September 2009 at 9:19 am #

    Dealing with the Holocaust forces the Arabs into twisting themselves into knots. There was an interesting article in the Jerusalem Post some months ago by a Doctoral student in Middle East studies who visited Cairo and was talking to a liberal student about the common presence of "Mein Kampf" in Cairo bookstores. The student said many people (liberals, like herself) she knew read Mein Kampf because it could teach the Arabs a lot about "Western Imperialism", taking a defeated nation and building it back up, how to deal with the Jews and such. When asked if she believed if their was a Holocaust, she said no. No doubt many Jews died in the war, that is what happens in war, but there was no Holocaust, and Hitler was great man who could teach the Arabs a lot.
    Then, the writer notices the usual propaganda in the bookstores comparing Israel (and by reference, the Jews) to Nazi Germany! But Nazi Germany and Hitler weren't so bad according to these people, so are they saying that Israel isn't so bad? Rather strange….my view is that the Israeli = Nazi comparison is maintained out of inertia only, due to the old Egyptian and PLO alliance with the USSR. Nazism didn't leave a bad legacy with the Arabs (some Arabs viewed them as liberators from French, British and Zionist colonialism, others had a neutral view of them) so I don't see how propaganda of this sort can really mean much to the Arab in the street.

    Matt, what is your view? How do the Palestinians you have met view Hitler and Nazi Germany?
    (BTW-I just finished "Collaborator of Bethlement"-it was very good. I am recommending it to my friends, and I am looking forward to reading the rest of the books in the series.

  2. Matt Beynon Rees 6 September 2009 at 10:54 pm #

    Glad you've enjoyed THE COLLABORATOR OF BETHLEHEM. My novels focus on life within Palestinians society — Israelis exist on the fringes of Bethlehem, as shadowy figures in the night, or not at all in the second and third novels. In many ways that reflects the current reality of life for Palestinians who mostly lack permits to exit their towns and therefore rarely see an Israeli. however, I also did it because I wanted to reflect the opinions of many of my Palestinian friends who wish to see their own society take responsibility for what happens to its people — rather than blaming Israel, Europe, the Holocaust, the Arab world. All of those other factors play a role in Palestinian history, but I wanted to write books in which both the good guys and the bad guys were Palestinians, showing a true society, and reflecting what I heard from the Palestinians I liked best.

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