An Israeli Arab lawmaker's plan to attend a Holocaust memorial ceremony at Auschwitz on Wednesday has drawn fierce criticism from both Arabs and some Jews, underscoring the deep divisions between the two sides over the legacy of the Nazi genocide.
The uproar of Mohammed Barakeh's visit highlights the deep reluctance among many Arabs to acknowledge the Holocaust for fear of diminishing their own narrative of suffering at Israel's hands.
Barakeh has come under criticism from Israeli Arabs who say his visit is inappropriate at a time of heightened Israeli-Palestinian tensions - particularly amid Israel's blockade of the Gaza Strip.
The lawmaker's visit is a rare Arab commemoration of the Holocaust, a step Israel has long encouraged. But Barakeh also says he intends to condemn Israel's policies toward Palestinians during the visit to Poland, striking a profoundly sensitive chord. Many Jews say any attempt to equate the Palestinians' plight to the genocide is offensive.
Barakeh is a member of an Israeli delegation, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, attending a ceremony Wednesday marking the 65th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz and Birkenau camps in Nazi-occupied Poland. More than 1 million of the 6 million Jews killed by the Nazis and their collaborators during World War II died at the two camps.
Barakeh frequently calls on his Arab brethren to recognize the Holocaust and understand its importance to Jews. Still, he is also deeply critical of Israel.
"The Jews, who are the victims of the Nazis, are now practicing oppression against the Palestinians," Barakeh told The Associated Press. "I want to tell them: You must learn the real lesson, you must fight oppression and repression in all places and times."
Israel's Arabs minority has an often tense relationship with the Jewish majority. Arabs make up about one-fifth of Israel's 7 million citizens, and there are 13 Arab legislators in the 120-seat parliament.
Despite holding citizenship, Israeli Arabs face widespread discrimination and identify strongly with their Palestinian brethren in the neighboring West Bank and Gaza Strip.
The conflict over the Holocaust dates back to the founding of Israel in 1948.
About 200,000 Holocaust survivors live in Israel among hundreds of thousands of their children and grandchildren. Israel provided a new home for the survivors and a measure of insurance that no future attempt to wipe out the Jewish people would succeed.
But in the war surrounding Israel's creation, about 700,000 Palestinians fled or were driven from their homes, leading to a widespread feeling that they were forced to pay the price of the Nazis' persecution of the Jews in Europe.
That perception makes many Arabs in Israel and the territories hesitate to acknowledge the genocide, fearing it gives justification for their own suffering.
Palestinian officials in the West Bank shut down a children's orchestra and banished its conductor in March after they performed for elderly Holocaust survivors. In August, Palestinian officials in Gaza angrily reacted against UN officials who suggested including information about the Holocaust at their schools.
Views toward the Holocaust among Palestinians - and around the Arab world - range from outright denial to diminishing the full extent of the genocide.
Two right-wing Israeli Jewish parliamentarians have demanded Barakeh withdraw from the trip.
"I am sure he will use this visit to attack Israel," said Likud MK Danny Danon. "The fact that he is making (an) analogy between the Jewish Holocaust and the Palestinians is outrageous."
Amnon Beeri-Sulitzeanu - co-director of the Abraham Fund, a Jewish-Arab organization that tries to promote coexistence - acknowledges the sensitivities over drawing parallels.
But, he says he hopes the visit will "encourage Jewish leaders in Israel ... to at least understand and learn more about Palestinian history. Obviously there is no comparison or parallel, but I believe it's an important step to trust building between Jews and Arabs in Israel."
Few, if any, prominent Arabs from Mideast nations have made publicized visits to Auschwitz - but Israel's Arab community is an exception. Two other Arab-Israeli lawmakers previously visited the camp in an effort to build bridges, as did a group of about 100 Arab-Israeli writers and clerics in 2003.
Barakeh is the most prominent public figure yet to do so. He comes from a family forced to flee their village during the 1948 Mideast war, and his parliament speeches often sharply criticize Israel's treatment of the Palestinians. He belongs to Hadash, Israel's communist party, which traditionally gathers both Arab and Jewish voters.
For the past two weeks, Barakeh's visit has prompted unusually heated debate in the Arab-Israeli press.
His detractors argue that Israel's blockade of the Gaza Strip, which is meant to punish Gaza's Hamas rulers but has created severe hardships for its 1.5 million residents, make his visit inappropriate.
"There's a contradiction in morality between continuing the siege on Gaza and this visit. The Knesset members going to Auschwitz are the ones who demand this siege continue," said Abdel-Hakim Mufid of the radical Northern Islamic Movement.
Prominent Arab writer Zuhair Andraous called it "a slap in the face." Adding to anger is that members of Netanyahu's coalition have tried - so far unsuccessfully - to criminalize commemorations of the "nakba" that Arabs hold every year to mourn the consequences of their defeat in 1948 war.
"We cannot participate in an Israeli formal delegation that includes right-wing legislators who are trying to pass laws preventing us from commemorating our own catastrophe," Andraous said.
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