Last week I visited Berlin along with several of my colleagues. We were invited by the German Foreign Ministry for a round of briefings with top Germany officials. The euro crisis, nuclear Iran, the dying peace process and Israel-Germany relations were the main topics of the conversation.
One of the stops on the trip was the Embassy of Palestine in Berlin. In February, during a visit to Ramallah, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle announced an upgrade in the diplomatic status of the Palestinian Authority in Germany from "envoy" to "diplomatic mission." The status of the envoy head was also upgraded and was, for the first time, recognized by the Germans as an ambassador. The move was mostly symbolic, but was seen by the Palestinians as a diplomatic accomplishment due to the close relations between Germany and Israel.
Despite the "upgrade," the small Palestinian embassy sits in a sleepy neighborhood in the capital, far from the embassy quarter in Charlottenburg or from the government buildings and the Bundestag which lay near Unter Der-Linden.
The Palestinian ambassador, Salah Abdel-Shafi, is close to turning 50. Abdel-Shafi was born in Gaza and worked for the World Bank. He arrived in Berlin as a political appointment after serving as Palestinian ambassador to Sweden. His father, Haidar Abdel-Shafi, headed the Palestinian delegation to the Madrid Conference in 1991, although he opposed the Oslo Accords due to the fact that it did not deal with issue of settlements.
We arrived at the meeting with Abdel-Shafi after two days of extended talks with Germany officials over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is difficult to believe how many words can be said about a non-existent peace process. This is probably what Jerry Seinfeld and George Costanza meant when they spoke of a "show about nothing."
Perhaps this is the reason that when it was my turn to ask, I decided to ask Abdel-Shafi about a different issue. "How does it feel to be a Palestinian ambassador in Germany, with all the sensitivity surrounding the Holocaust and the special treatment of Israel and Jews?" I asked. Abdel-Shafi's response surprised me and my colleagues. On the one hand it was very eloquent, and on the other hand it was extremely honest.
"The Holocaust is the worst crime in the history of human kind," he answered. "We must teach generation upon generation about the Holocaust as a terrible event that must never repeat itself. The Holocaust is a human tragedy. The Jews were the major victim of the Holocaust, but the Gypsies, homosexuals and Communists were also victims."
Abdel-Shafi said that he himself visited the Sachsenhausen and Buchenwald concentration camps, although he was never invited to one of the many ceremonies that are held yearly in Germany to commemorate the Holocaust. "If they would invite me, I would attend," he says. "By the way, these are the instructions of President Abbas to Palestinian diplomats. The Palestinian ambassador in Poland was in Auschwitz along with the Israeli ambassador."
Abdel-Shafi has served as the Palestinian ambassador in Berlin since August 2010. Since he arrived, he has attempted to make contacts with the Jewish community in Germany, although the Jewish leadership has not shown much excitement at the prospect of meeting him. When Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas arrived in Berlin in May 2011, Abdel-Shafi tried to organize a meeting between him and the Jewish community. However, once more the response was negative.
Perhaps it is because of Abbas' doctorate, I suggested. Abbas' doctorate, written in the 1970s in Moscow University dealt with the ties between the Zionist leadership in Palestine and the Nazi regime during the 1930s. Many of these ties indeed existed.
However, one part of Abbas' work that angered many dealt with the arguments of Holocaust deniers such as French philosopher Roger Garaudy's over the number of Jews murdered in the Holocaust. Over the years, many Israeli officials gave Abbas the title of "Holocaust denier" due to the inclusion of the chapter in his doctorate.
"President Abbas met with Jewish leaders in the United States over a year ago," Abdel-Shafi said. "They asked him about his doctorate, and he said that he never denied the Holocaust, but rather referred to the different claims regarding the number of victims."
The Palestinian ambassador stated that in his eyes, the Holocaust is not connected to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and that such a connection should not be made. According to him, the Holocaust had an impact on the conflict, but the Palestinians are not the ones who made this choice. "We, as Palestinians, must view the Holocaust as a human tragedy," he clarified. "No one must have a monopoly on suffering. The Palestinians believe that they have suffered the most, and the Israelis believe that they have suffered the most. What is important is learning lessons."
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