Growing up in the West Bank, Mujahid Sarsur knew next to nothing about the Holocaust and saw little ground to sympathize with a people he saw as his occupier.
Palestinian students visit Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial
But thanks to an Israeli roommate overseas, the 21-year-old Palestinian student learned about the Nazi murder of 6 million Jews during World War II and discovered a new understanding of his Israeli neighbors.
Now he wants other Arabs to do the same. Sarsur heads one of a handful of Palestinian grass-roots groups seeking knowledge about the Holocaust.
On Wednesday, he led a delegation of 22 students to Israel's official Holocaust memorial, Yad Vashem. The students, fasting for Ramadan, listened closely to their Arabic-speaking guide's explanations, and were left wide-eyed by the gruesome images of the death camps.
Girls in Muslim head scarves turned away in horror at the sight of Jewish corpses being shoveled into pits. They huddled together as they watched film from Auschwitz, where about 1 million Jews were put to death.
"The Holocaust is a huge part of Israeli society. We live so close to them and we need to understand them better if we are ever to live in peace," said Sarsur, a junior at Bard College in New York. "If we change the way we think about the Holocaust, we can create bridges."
Arab sentiment toward the Holocaust ranges from ignorance about its details to outright denial. Some hold a more complex belief system, acknowledging that the Holocaust did happen, but that they are paying the price by the loss of their land with the creation of the State of Israel after World War II.
Last year, in an incident that got international attention, a Palestinian youth orchestra performed a concert for Holocaust survivors in Israel and caused such uproar among Palestinians that it was shut down. Its conductor was banished and blocked from entering a West Bank refugee camp out of concern for her safety.
Two years ago, Yad Vashem launched an Arabic version of its website to combat Holocaust denial in the Arab world and provide credible historic material to those who seek it. A similar version in Farsi was aimed at Iran, whose president has called the Holocaust a "myth."
Noor Amer, a 15-year-old Palestinian who attends high school in Jordan, said he compares Jewish suffering in the Holocaust to Palestinian suffering in the West Bank and Gaza. While he still rejects Zionism, he said the Yad Vashem visit helped him understand that "the Jews had nowhere else to go" after the Holocaust.
He said Palestinians have trouble seeing their enemies as victims to be sympathized with.
"The conflict is so complicated that people cannot forget it or put it aside," he said. "If we say that the Holocaust happened, if we accept it, then we accept that Israelis are human just like us and I think that here is the twist - we do not want to consider Jews as humans because of all the suffering that we go through we cannot believe that human beings can do such a thing."
Palestinians maintain that Israelis generally have failed to come to grips with responsibility for the Palestinians' six decades of dispossession and exile, though a new generation of Israeli historians has challenged their country's widely held narrative of blamelessness.
Surveys show that Holocaust denial is common even among the 20 percent of Israeli citizens who are Arab and grew up under the Israeli educational curriculum.
Aumamah Sarsur, 22, an Israeli Arab and cousin of Mujahid Sarsur, said the Yad Vashem visit taught her that Jews were tortured and killed by the Nazis.
"I am not giving them legitimacy to come here and make their own country, but I get their point of view," she said.
Dorit Novak, the director of Yad Vashem's international school for Holocaust studies, called the visit a "blessed initiative" and hoped for continued dialogue to break down the stereotypes on both sides.
"I appreciate their principles, their courage, their curiosity and their willingness to come, listen and learn," she said. "The Arab world is exposed to the Holocaust in a very distorted way. I know this is limited outreach, but I am willing to suffice with something limited in the reality in which we live."
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