A Palestinian refugee walking past a banner during a Nakba Day protest in Jordan.
A Palestinian refugee walking past a banner during a Nakba Day protest in Jordan last month. Photo by Reuters
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In a special announcement, made in public and in both Arabic and English, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas declared that the murder of Jews in the Holocaust was “the most heinous crime to have occurred against humanity in the modern era,” and expressed sympathy for the victims and their families.

This statement, the first of its kind by a Palestinian president, received a chilly reception from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who said Abbas had made it “to placate international public opinion.” Netanyahu, who himself has turned the Holocaust into a political tool for harnessing public opinion against Iran and uses it to justify his policies in the West Bank, could not bring himself to welcome Abbas’ remarks, which could serve as an example for other Arab leaders. It seems as if the fear that Abbas will score some points with international public opinion and ruin the image of him that Netanyahu is trying to build has clouded the prime minister’s judgment.

The uniqueness of the Holocaust as the worst crime ever doesn’t mean Israel must ignore crimes committed against other nations, be they Armenians, Palestinians or African tribes. The State of Israel refuses to recognize these tragedies, lest such recognition eclipse the uniqueness of the Holocaust, undermine its foreign relations (in the case of the Armenian genocide) or impose responsibility upon it (in the case of the Palestinians). But Israel is not entitled to exclude the Palestinian tragedy from the historical consciousness of Israeli citizens. It is the flip side of Israel’s rebirth.

The dispute over the degree of Israel’s responsibility for the emigration, expulsion and displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians during the War of Independence is a matter for historians. It does not negate the fact that a national and human disaster befell the Palestinians. This disaster must be studied and understood, not merely to fathom the political and diplomatic motives of the Palestinian leadership as they negotiate with us, but as a cultural and human obligation. All the more so when this disaster affects a fifth of the state’s population and millions of Palestinians with whom Israel seeks to end the historic conflict.

The Israeli government must, therefore, make the history of the Palestinians an integral part of every school curriculum. It must cease its systematic disregard of the Nakba (the Palestinian term for the “catastrophe” they suffered upon Israel’s founding), arrange a program for touring the ruins of villages that were destroyed, encourage exchange visits and instill in the curriculum the message of the historic partnership between the two nations. This is the road that will lead to understanding and mutual recognition.