Why More Arab Israelis Are Joining the March of the Living at Auschwitz

Despite skepticism from Arab and Jewish friends alike, groups of Israeli Arabs have flown to Poland for the Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony: ‘How can we coexist with Jews if we don’t know their history?’

Janet Soury, left, and Nadia Ibrahim Azizi in Poland this week.
Janet Soury, left, and Nadia Ibrahim Azizi in Poland this week.

When Nadia Ibrahim Azizi told friends she would be traveling to Poland for the March of the Living ceremony at the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp on Holocaust Remembrance Day, she recalled that “you could see the puzzled looks on their faces.”

Nadia, 42, together with her 36-year-old sister Janet Soury, both Arabs from Jaffa, arrived in Poland on Monday as part of a group of 27 Arab Israelis who will hold a ceremony at Auschwitz after visiting the Jewish community in Krakow.

In preparation for the trip, the sisters visited the Yad Vashem World Holocaust Center. While both were educated at Christian schools and took part in coexistence programs, it was their first visit to the museum and memorial in Jerusalem.

“We always studied the Holocaust at the global level, but we never really saw the visuals and understood the magnitude of suffering,” Ibrahim Azizi said. “At the museum, we were both in tears and were speechless.”

The group they are traveling with comprises Muslims, Christians and Druze from across Israel. It’s the initiative of an NGO called Together – Vouch for Each Other, which was founded in 2018 with the stated goal of closing “gaps between Arabs and Jews in Israeli society.”

The group’s CEO, Yoseph Haddad, who also travels the world defending Israeli government policies and opposing the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, said in a statement: “It is important for us to make the memory of the Holocaust accessible to Israeli Arab society and the Arab world, because every human being must know about this shocking event in human history and learn about it and from it, thus fighting hatred today from Holocaust denial to any manifestation of racism.”

A previous March of the Living at the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camps in what was Nazi-occupied Poland.Credit: REUTERS

Despite the limitations of coronavirus restrictions, Haddad has in recent years promoted Holocaust Remembrance Day gatherings in Israel’s Arab community, where participants heard Holocaust survivors’ testimonies. He also held Zoom events with participants in Arab countries.

The March of the Living program was launched in 1988 and features thousands of people marching silently from Auschwitz to Birkenau on Holocaust Remembrance Day. Historically, most of the participants have been Jewish, but Haddad’s group is one of several efforts this year promoting participation from the Arab world, both in Israel and internationally.

Another relatively new Arab-Israeli organization, Atidna, founded three years ago, is sending 120 Arab teenagers who are part of its youth movement, in a delegation that was set to depart on Tuesday.

“I believe this is a unique and extraordinary experience considering what’s going on in Israel now and all of the tensions,” said Atidna’s co-CEO, Dalia Fadila. “It’s a strong statement declaring: ‘We’re here, we care about our home, and we seek to understand the narrative of Israel and the Jewish people.’ It’s also an opportunity to examine our own narrative.

“As a minority, we can learn so much from people who went through incomprehensible catastrophe and rose nonetheless to agency, and rebuilding and reclaiming their future,” she added.

The March of the Living is also spotlighting the participation of an official delegation from the United Arab Emirates, led by H.E. Ahmed Obaid al Mansoori. He will light a memorial torch at Thursday’s official ceremony in Auschwitz together with Eitan Neishlos, who is the “newly appointed founder and ambassador of International March of the Living in the Gulf states.”

Mansoori unveiled a permanent Holocaust memorial exhibition at the Crossroads of Civilizations Museum in Dubai last year.

Exposure to the atrocities

Neither Ibrahim Azizi nor Soury had any prior involvement with the organization that invited them to Poland, but Soury said Haddad struck a chord when he asked them to join the trip by saying: “As Arabs, how can we coexist with the Jews if we don’t know their history?”

Ibrahim Azizi said she hesitated initially because she is “a sensitive person” and wasn’t sure if she could handle exposure to the atrocities. After visiting Yad Vashem, she said she was “trying to put it all together emotionally; I can’t understand how something like this happened.”

Holocaust survivors at the Auschwitz death camp following its liberation in 1945. Credit: AP / HO

Both sisters said they faced skepticism from both Arab and Jewish friends regarding their participation.

“I had Jewish friends asking me why I would go, joking that I should convert because I’m more Jewish than they are,” Ibrahim Azizi said. “Of course, I also had friends saying it was amazing and wishing me luck. And I had Arab friends on both sides of the issue as well: some were supportive and others asked ‘Why would you do that?’”

Soury said some of her Arab friends questioned their participation, pointing to recent tensions in Jerusalem regarding access to holy sites and asking, “How can a Jewish population that went through all this horror act in a cruel way to the Palestinians?”

But the sisters both agreed that, for them, the issues could be separated.

“We can disagree with a lot of things our country does, while considering ourselves Arab Israelis who love our country and its people,” Soury said.

Ibrahim Azizi added, “You will always have extremists from all sides. We will not let the extremists win … we know we cannot please everybody, and we’re doing what feels right to us.”

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