Jews and Arabs Visit Auschwitz Together

A group of 300 Israeli Arabs and Jews toured the historic Jewish district of the southern Polish city of Krakow yesterday, opening an unprecedented visit intended to help Arabs understand the Jewish suffering in the Holocaust.

The trip will culminate tomorrow, when the group will tour and learn about the Auschwitz-Birkenau Nazi death camp.

Some 150 Israeli Arab intellectuals, athletes and businessmen and as many Jews from Israel are taking part in the trip. They are joined by some 200 Jewish and Arab public figures and youth from France. This is the largest group of Arabs ever to visit the camp, Auschwitz Museum spokesman Jaroslaw Mensfelt said.

"We are here to be with the Jewish people, in all its history and all its suffering," said Father Emil Shofani, of Nazareth, who initiated the pilgrimage, at the ceremony marking the trip's opening at the Krakow Temple. "From the suffering of our people today, we unite with your suffering," he said.

Shofani's initiative to study the Holocaust followed the October 2000 events, when 13 Arab demonstrators were killed by Israeli police. The Arab participants have so far held study meetings in Yad Vashem in Jerusalem and in the Ghetto Fighters' Museum in the north as well as two weekends of lectures and talks with their Jewish colleagues.

For many Jews, the trip is important because it demonstrates a willingness on the part of the Arabs to recognize what European Jews had to endure in World War II.

The initiative has raised a controversy among Israel's Arabs. Many say it could be interpreted as an apologetic move that could weaken the Arab and Palestinian struggle.