This is the story of Yeshayahu Tadmor, an education professor, formerly the principal of the Reali school in Haifa. In 2003 Father Emile Shoufani, a clergyman and principal of the Al-Mutran high school in Nazareth, invited some friends and presented them with the courageous and exciting idea of forming a group of Arab leaders and intellectuals for the purpose of visiting Poland and the death camps Auschwitz-Birkenau. The aim would be to learn about the suffering of the Jewish people there firsthand. “We live here in this country with our Jewish neighbors,” said Shoufani, “we see them in their mundane lives and understand that the terror of the Holocaust and preparing against any possibility of another one, God forbid, are the first and foremost essential components in their collective consciousness and behavior. Some Jewish traits that seem unfavorable to Arabs, such as extreme nationalism, the emphasis on power, occupation, aggression, discrimination, segregation – can all be attributed to, if not justified by, Jewish existential anxiety, as individuals and as a people, the consequence of their suffering throughout their history, culminating in the horrific Holocaust. We as Arabs,” said Shoufani, “are the weak and dispossessed party, but as our destiny is to live alongside the Jews, we must know them better, and a serious understanding means touching on the inflamed nerve of their identity – the Holocaust. So let us, a group of influential Arabs, travel and learn about the Jews’ suffering at those sites where their hardship reached its apex of misery. Suffering is part and parcel of the essence of man, it’s universal, Arabs suffer too. So, we’ll be able to understand the suffering and identify with it. We’re not looking for symmetry between Jewish and Arab suffering,” Shoufani stressed, “we don’t expect that after Arabs visit the death camps in Poland, Jews ‘in return’ will deal with Arab suffering in general and the ‘Nakba’ explicitly. We will go there out of our human sense of responsibility to suffering, and to the other.”
It wasn’t long before Shoufani, called abouna by his acquaintances, gathered some people and they organized the group who would take the trip. The first people to join were Nazir Majali a reporter and writer from Nazareth, Ahmad Massalha a lawyer from Daburiyya and Dr. Abed al Aziz Darawshe, a physician from Iksal. Along with Shoufani and some others they became the nucleus of the group. Soon other well-known Arabs joined, Muslims, Christians and Druze, intellectuals, professors, people with liberal professions, clergymen and educators. With its consolidation the Arab group decided to work towards a parallel Jewish group that would join the Arab group for a joint Arab-Jewish trip. Ruthi Bar Shalev, a visionary entrepreneur who had already been involved in some community projects, accepted the challenge and assembled the Jewish group. The Jewish group had a similar makeup to the Arab group. Both groups consisted of people with background as activists in peace organizations and Jewish-Arab social interaction. Upon Majali, Massalha and Shoufani’s recommendation, I too was included in the group, and consequently had an invaluable experience.
Over two weekends in April we held meetings of the mixed Jewish-Arab group for the Polish trip, the group already consisted of 400 members. The project was called “from remembrance to peace.” The meetings and the participants honed some feelings and thoughts that I’ve had for a while. It felt like the planned trip was more spiritual than psychological, emotional, intellectual, political or social although each of these dimensions were a part of it. I felt like this was an existential trip because we were touching on fundamental experiences of the human existence. Not only touching them, but picking at them, stimulating them, penetrating their hearts and thus exposing their nerves. We weren’t staying put in our homes as individuals. I felt that through effort and intention of ‘me and you’, through the connection between people, we were testing and trying to identify the human common denominator of the experience, concerning the transcendental sphere. I identified with Shoufani’s repeated calls to leave off political and social ramifications at this juncture and to go deep into our souls. It’s my understanding that he told us to expose our inner experiences, find out their meanings, wake up our humane center and not hesitate to touch the divinity within us.
His call had another meaning. We, the Jewish members of the group, had been taught the political and nationalistic lessons gleaned from the Holocaust. We assimilated them and created a logical mold of Zionistic ideology in our narrative and identity. Shoufani’s call meant putting lessons of this type “in parenthesis” and concentrating only on the human suffering.
The trip to Poland came at the end of May 2003. We were about 300 people, half Arabs and half Jews. For me it wasn’t my first visit to the death camps, so I could pay closer attention to what I was going through and what my companions were going through. We all had an unprecedented, unique and powerful experience. Most of us, Jews and Arabs alike, felt that the journey was a spiritual occurrence, possibly even a very powerful religious experience that caused a mental disturbance for us all but also a transcendence and a rethinking of our attitudes vis-à-vis existential life questions, the Holocaust, and especially personal connections between Arabs and Jews.
The Arabs amongst us completely identified with the Jews who were murdered at the camps and felt our pain. We all went through a crying spree, supportive embraces and deep and sensitive discussions. We became a unified group, Israelis all. There was something surreal about the joint trip to Krakow – at the ghetto, the big synagogue and at Plaszow, to say nothing of the two days we spent at the Birkenau camps. I remember the final ceremony at Birkenau. My travel companions, both Arabs and Jews read names of people who died at the camps we visited. I listened to the reading of the names that was lengthy. Suddenly, I heard the names of thirteen of my family members, including children, who were wiped out in Auschwitz. I noticed that the person reading was Ahmed Maryiah from Tamra. I was very moved. I went over to him and hugged him and told him, “Ahmed, from this moment I feel that our souls are connected.”
We internalized Shoufani’s call. Over and over throughout the trip we put aside political and social issues, at least temporarily, despite having them lurk in the background, and oftentimes try to take over. We attempted to concentrate, each person by himself and all of us together, in discovering the essence of suffering, the existence of a suffering man and its meaning. The participation of the Arabs helped us, the Jews, maybe for the first time in our lives, engaged in these profound human manifestations of the Holocaust while temporarily removing the collective narrative.
The Arabs had no prerequisites for the Polish trip. Upon hearing about the project, some acquaintances of mine were suspicious and cynical. They said that the Arabs, true to their devious nature, were setting us up; that all they wanted was for us to recognize the Nakba. I don’t think this is true. They made the trip out of nobility and a true desire to understand the foundations of our suffering, their Jewish neighbors in this country. The lack of any preconditions for symmetry made each person’s motive strong and expressive of their independence and personal freedom. Nevertheless, many of us Jews felt the need – also with no prerequisites – to acknowledge the suffering of Israeli Arabs and Palestinians as a whole, to understand and feel it out of empathy and pain.
Throughout the trip I thought of the ‘banality of evil’, the phrase coined by Hannah Arendt. We kept asking each other how such a monstrous evil formed in the first place? Can it be that humans did this? It was Samia Shechada from our group who said after the trip to Auschwitz, “I was ashamed to be a human being.” Evil is part of the essence of humans, as is good. Evil seeks to be an ideology, an absolute, as does good. Furthermore, evil, cruelty, abomination and sadism are all endlessly varied. The saying, “men are good in but one way, but bad in many,” has been attributed to Aristotle, the 4th century BC Greek philosopher, (Aristotle, 1973, p. 50)
The Holocaust also undermined the certainty that good is one. We encountered and discussed ethical and value-centric dilemmas, but had aa hard time reconciling them. I thought about the prisoners who had to physically push families from the transport into the gas chambers; about the prisoner who hesitated whether to give the better soup portions to the ill who may not live or to the strong in order to increase their chances to live. What is the correct solution in such matters? There is no one absolute solution. The one thing we can say about Aristotle’s one good, is that the indecision in solving an ethical dilemma, the doubt about what would result in a greater human good or possibly a decrease in evil, is the one good. Beyond that we can’t say a thing, especially we who were not there, it’s better to be silent.
I remembered that following the Holocaust there was a common thought that the Holocaust was an erstwhile event, an incident, outside history. A sort of hitch, an unforeseen break, an earthquake that no seismograph could predict. That it happened on a different planet. But that type of attitude removes our responsibility, as if it weren’t human beings who caused the Holocaust. That’s why we must say over and over that it was people who caused it. The Holocaust and Nazi racism are part of human history; a section of road in the central avenue of human history, not a side alley. A nightmare that could become real; what happened once could happen again.
There are many approaches to Ethics. In Western cultures the prevalent school of thought is the rational approach. Aristotle and the monotheistic religions espoused that ethical decisions are the result of rationalism. This also held true in the teachings of Maimonides, the teachings of Al-Farabi, the 10th century Muslim philosopher, as well as in the writings of Saint Thomas Aquinas, the 13th century Christian theologist and philosopher. In the modern age, this was best put by Kant who established absolute moral precepts (Kant, 1975). The legal system of the German culture is characterized as intelligent and rational. This also characterizes German order and bureaucracy. However, from this rationality, the Nazis developed a supposedly rational formula with the purpose of freeing them from ethical dilemmas. The ethical principles are man’s domain and relevant to human life. Humanity is defined by what is human. Therefore, that which is outside humanity should not be held to ethical principles. Furthermore, if ethical principles apply to what is not human, they are unethical. And that which is not human is for example, rats, but also Jews. So, the Auschwitz camp commander could have a hearty dinner with his wife and two cute daughters, dressed in expensive dresses, listen to Mozart on his turntable in his quiet, well kept home, a stone’s throw away from the valley of death, whilst speaking on the phone in a bored tone, asking if the bodies of the Jews who were gassed in the morning had already been incinerated.
There are levels of racism. Its ‘lower’ levels are all about patronizing the other, feeling superior and holding him in contempt. Its higher, more severe levels are about exploitation, the transformation of the other into an object, a violation of the basic rights of man. The Nazis turned racism into an ideology, into an absolute. They sought not only to exterminate a whole people consisting of millions of human beings, but to expel them from humanity following their distinction that human principles do not apply to Jews. Like evil, suffering is part of the essence of man, a building block of existence. What does it mean? What is the significance of suffering during a desperate situation, humiliated and reduced, a state of total helplessness? Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor offered an insight which is the essence of humanism. He stated that in any situation, even on the brink of death, even when you’re at your lowest, a person has a choice. Not much of a choice, but a choice nonetheless. Also, this choice is monumental if looked at through the eyes of existentialism and philosophy.
The lessons learned from the trip were myriad, though provoking and full of dilemmas, but that’s for another time. Please note, that the Jewish-Arab trip to Poland was an Arab initiative. Usually, plans and project initiatives to further Jewish-Arab coexistence come from Jews. Our trip was the result of a unique initiative that came from Arabs. This was a very courageous move for them. It’s especially commendable in the wake of the bloodshed in Wadi Ara in 2000. The fact is, that Jews and Arabs shared an experience with which they identified, felt mutual pain and participated in a deep discussion that touched their souls about a loaded subject like the Holocaust. Many thought that we were able to further noble ideas, tenets of well-known philosophies which seemed both ideal and farfetched.
Many thanks to Yeshayahu Tadmor who shared his personal experience and insights with us about humankind and humanity.