Palestinian Youth Make Rare Yad Vashem Visit

The entrance to Yad Vashem Holocaust museum in Jerusalem was filled yesterday, as every weekday, with groups of soldiers. Yesterday's assembled crowd was marked by an abundance of Air Force officers and Givati Brigade troops, all of them armed. Standing out among the crowd was a small group of teenagers, wearing well-pressed slacks and ties and speaking to each other quietly in Arabic.

The youths represented the first group of Palestinians to visit the museum in several years, and the first Palestinian educational group to visit the museum in it's history.

The group consisted of 13 teenagers, aged 16 to 19. Two others were forced to cut their journey short after being denied entry into Israel. The visit was the brainchild of Mujhad Sarsur, 20, a resident of the West Bank village of Mas'ha near Nablus, who attends college in the United States. It was on campus that he first became exposed to the Holocaust.

During his summer vacation in Mas'ha, Sarsur decided to hold a kind of summer seminar on the Holocaust for other local youths and asked Yad Vashem for permission to visit. After a month of negotiating with Israeli security officials, Sarsur's group finally arrived.

"It was very unusual for us. I'm aware of the fact that not many Palestinians come to visit Yad Vashem," he said. "Palestinians hear about the Holocaust on television, but never learn the real facts. It's very challenging for [us]."

The group was led by Yaakov Yaniv, a Yad Vashem tour guide who speaks Arabic. Yaniv said the present-day Israeli-Palestinian conflict came up time and again in his talks with the visitors. "They asked me why revenge against the Germans is being taken against them, sixty years later," he said, adding that students compared the wall built around the Warsaw Ghetto to the West Bank separation fence.

Still, the young visitors seemed to have been deeply moved by the experience. "It raises some thoughts," said one, who asked to remain anonymous. "I understand why you have so much pain, and it's very, very saddening."

"It was fascinating, but very difficult," said Yaniv. "They came with good intentions, but it's complicated. Even the word 'refugee' in Arabic has very specific connotations of the Nakba," he said, referring to the term for the fate of Palestinians after Israel's creation.

"When I asked in the opening discussion what they knew about the Holocaust, their answers were confused," Yaniv continued. "They said they knew there was a Holocaust, and that between a half-million and six million Jews were killed. They said the Nazis didn't like the Jews because they wanted to create a state in Germany. On the other hand, they were very willing to take things in and listen." One visitor said, "In school we didn't learn about the Holocaust - there were no books. The thing that most surprised me was that there were six million who were killed in such a short time, and no one intervened."

Sarsur said acquaintances prodded him with questions like, "Why are you going to see the suffering of the enemy? Go to Gaza or the Jenin refugee camp to see our own suffering." Others saw the trip as a step towards normalizing relations with Israel.

"I told them if you really want a solution with Israel, we have to understand both sides," he said.