Friday, June 21, 2002
Grey metal towers appeared on the plateau west of Nabatiyeh, Lebanon, within a couple of weeks after the Israeli invasion. I first saw their ungainly silhouettes as I drove quickly from the coast, dodging in and out of the Israeli military convoys that littered the narrow country road with armored vehicles, trucks, and jeeps. The long-legged towers suddenly cut in incongruous geometry against the large, smooth curve of blue sky; they were the same sort that stood around kibbutzim in the Galilee, settlements on the West Bank, and Israeli army bases everywhere. Nobody in the army would say what the towers were for, and the official silence remained long after the answer became obvious. Each time I drove past, there was more activity to be seen beneath them. Bulldozers began to work the earth. A chain-link fence was erected and then topped with rolls of barbed wire. Finally, tons of dirt were piled and pushed until high earthen dikes rose along the road to hide the place from passersby. And then this barren stretch of scruffy land, fenced and guarded, came to have a name. It was called Ansar, after the nearest village, and gradually the name penetrated the vocabulary of all of southern Lebanon, and of Israel as well. It was learned by the Palestinian and Lebanese women in the coastal cities and refugee camps who pleadingly held out snapshots of their missing young men, begging you to find them, saying in the beginning that perhaps their sons and husbands and brothers had been taken “to Israel.” Later, they knew that their men had been imprisoned in Ansar, and they spoke the word with a vile hiss, as if it were a curse.
The Ansar prison camp was not on the Israeli army’s standard tour of southern Lebanon. The distinguished foreigners who visited the area-politicians, celebrities, avid American contributors to Israel-were usually whisked up the coastal road to be shown how many buildings had not been destroyed in the fighting, how unlike the television pictures the reality was in fact. Ansar would have proved a very different point, and so it was kept out of view behind the earthen dikes, a makeshift outdoor complex of tents, barbed wire, and guard towers. Few journalists were allowed inside, and by the time I was called by the army in September 1983 and told I could go, I could not even remember when I had asked, it had been so long before. To avoid a synthetic show’s being put on, I had requested permission to enter the camp and to speak with any prisoners I might choose at random, in addition to a couple of inmates I named in advance. When the army once offered to let me just look at the camp from the outside without interviewing prisoners, I refused to go. Now the authorities had finally agreed to an open visit.
I had two companions: our photographer, Micha Bar-Am, and one other reporter, Cordelia Edvardson of the Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet, a smart, sensitive woman in her middle fifties who had grown up in Germany, surviving the concentration camps of Theresienstadt and Auschwitz. Cordelia had strong feelings on behalf of Israel, a powerful compassion for the Palestinians, and a personal history that deepened her reactions to what she saw at Ansar. “If I were on their side, I’d be a fighter too,” she said later. “And if I survived and prisoners were taken, I would be in there.”
What we saw first were the faces, haunting stares through barbed-wire and chain-link fences, faces of dark anger, of vacant defeat, the tough faces of seasoned Palestinian fighters, the weak faces of those swept up innocently by the storm of war, aging faces, boyish faces whose youthful freshness was already tarnished by an early hardness. They watched us closely, fastening their gazes on us as inmates do when any novelty breaks the heavy boredom of imprisonment. They wore a motley assortment of clothing: sweatsuits, bathing suits in the September heat, Israeli army uniforms that the authorities had turned into prison garb by dyeing them brown instead of the usual olive drab.
About 4,700 men were being kept there at the time-mostly Palestinians, plus some Lebanese picked up in the Israelis’ sweep that followed the fighting fifteen months before. There was a constant turnover of prisoners, with some being released after investigation and new ones arrested by the troops occupying southern Lebanon. Israel was anxious to release them all in exchange for Israeli soldiers being held by the PLO, but it was not until two months after our visit that the PLO’s Fatah faction agreed to an exchange and Ansar was nearly emptied: 4,500 Palestinians for 6 Israelis.
The camp was a squalid sore. The prisoners lived in large, crowded army tents on several fields of bare ground. Around them they could see only barbed wire, guard towers, and armored personnel carriers. The compounds were smothered in an awful stench of sewage and garbage. Gritty, amber-colored dust from the plateau sifted into everything, coating the tents, filtering into hair, tinting the prisoners’ skin and clothing. During the winter rains, the dust turned to mud, and the Israelis were busy making new compounds with asphalt floors and small shower rooms and latrines to improve conditions during the approaching rainy season. Although each prisoner was issued three blankets, the first winter began as raw and miserable, without heaters for the tents, without sufficient clothing. A Red Cross inspector told me privately that tuberculosis had been a problem for a while, but then he shrugged with the weary resignation of a man who has seen too much. Ansar was a prison camp, he said, and prison camps are unpleasant places. He had found worse conditions in Syria and elsewhere.
The Israelis treated prisoners with a blend of brutality and humaneness. Some of the Israeli guards, soldiers who had been court-martialed for various offenses and were serving sentences themselves, returned to their base prison in Israel talking about how they had mixed laundry detergent into soup being prepared for the Arab prisoners.85 Inmates complained of being beaten and insulted during interrogation in the early months, a practice that apparently waned as protests were made and prison routines were established. A few men were killed, however, some during what the Israelis said were escape attempts, others under murkier circumstances. Three died and three were wounded when an armored personnel carrier went through a ditch and a machine gun fired a burst into the camp, apparently by accident. Two officers and two sergeants were court-martialed on charges ranging from negligence to negligent homicide; one officer received a reprimand, and the three others were given suspended jail sentences. Another prisoner was shot in the head and killed as he reached through the barbed wire to retrieve a letter he had dropped, according to the leader of the prisoners’ committee, Salah Taamri.*
Letters were allowed in unlimited numbers by Israeli authorities, and prisoners were writing about 10,000 a week, a ceiling set by the quantity that the Red Cross was able to handle. Technically, every incoming and outgoing piece of mail was subject to censorship, although one officer confided that many were passed unread because of the sheer volume. Evidently, however, at least one Israeli censor indulged himself in a streak of sick humor. Taamri showed us several snapshots of prisoners’ children that had been sent into the camp by families outside. The pictures, too, had been cleared by the censor, who had carefully pressed his ink stamp of approval on each child’s face.
As the months wore on, the prisoners grew restive. They engaged in political indoctrination, made Palestinian flags which fluttered from tent poles, and sang Palestinian songs. They busied themselves by making bracelets out of stove pipes, chain necklaces out of electrical wire, cigarette holders out of wooden vegetable crates, and canvas bags from tents. To keep his spirits up, one man even built a glider in the hope that he might escape by air; it was left in one of the compounds, a kind of monument to whimsical determination. The prisoners also organized, electing a four-man committee to represent them to the Israeli authorities, who heard their complaints and responded to some of them. All four, led by Taamri, met with us for about an hour. One objective, Taamri said, was to get Israel-which did not regard them as prisoners of war-to treat them as such under the Geneva Convention. They finally obtained a copy of the convention through the Red Cross. “But when we got it,” he said, “it made it even worse, just like reading the Ten Commandments, the Bible-just a fiction.”
Taamri had a disturbing knack for taking the symbols most precious to Jews and twisting them into biting attacks. He was a tall man of forty, fluent in his English and facile in his rhetoric. Married to Dina, the former wife of King Hussein and the former queen of Jordan, Taamri carried himself with an aristocratic air. His hair, nearly black with wisps of grey, hung almost to his shoulders, and his beard and moustache were neatly trimmed. His light-blue eyes locked on people with a discomforting steadiness as he lectured, gestured, wagged his finger, made his points with slick, practiced argument. Originally from a Bedouin settlement near the Herodion, the great hilltop fortress of King Herod on the West Bank, he had changed his name from Assad Suleiman Abdel Khader, had studied at the University of Cairo, and had become the head of the PLO’s youth corps and reputedly a commander of PLO units in southern Lebanon. When he surrendered to the Israelis on July 16, 1982, in Sidon, he gave a moderate speech to other Palestinian prisoners, telling them that the time of armed struggle had passed. A couple of years before, he had guided John le Carré around the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, earning himself a mention of gratitude in the foreword to le Carré’s The Little Drummer Girl. And some who knew him thought he was the model for the novel’s Khalil, the urbane Palestinian revolutionary who favored fast cars and fast women. We met him in the hospital tent, although in a sense we had met him just before. We had come from a tour of the camp. At one compound, where he was being held and was clearly the leader, prisoners who saw us approach their fence crowded together, shouted, whistled, waved their hands in V signs, and burst into nationalistic Palestinian songs. They then had begun to chant in heavily accented English, “Ansar is Auschwitz! Ansar is Auschwitz! You are Nazis!” I looked at Cordelia. She had been fifteen when she was moved from Theresienstadt to Auschwitz, just six months before the Germans, in retreat, started to force prisoners out on long marches, death marches in which many perished. I watched her face as the Palestinian prisoners compared Ansar with Auschwitz. She stared through the barbed wire, into the mass of men in huddles of amber and brown who searched for resilience in the obscene slogan. Ansar is Auschwitz. Cordelia seemed in pain, but she said nothing.
When we then sat across the table from Taamri, he spoke with pride, almost arrogance. “If the Israelis want to turn Ansar into a graveyard of our ambitions, of our hopes to go back, of our dreams,” he declared, “it will be Israel’s graveyard of their own hopes.” He called Jews “the chaotic children of God,” and said, “What is striking is the hypocrisy. They speak of their purity of arms. They raise the banner so pure, under which they wage the most ferocious war. The Jews are chaotic and arrogant.” He said, “I think this last war has created more grudges than in 1948. There will be a qualitative change.” Then he added, “In Lebanon an era has ended where armed struggle could be waged.” But as long as there is injustice, he said, the struggle must continue in some form. “One of the challenges we meet during this imprisonment is not to have our faith in coexistence between Arabs and Jews perish.”
Cordelia, who had visited Ansar a couple of months before, pulled out a striking photograph of a reunion she had arranged between a father and his two sons in the camp. When she met the man, he told her that he did not know where his sons were. She had asked the camp commandant if he would find them, and he had, and when the three were brought together, a photographer had snapped a picture. Now she wanted to give it to them. Taamri missed the point, did not tune in on Cordelia’s compassion and effort. He simply said that he did not recognize the men, and he scoffed that arresting sons was the “special Jewish way of family reunion.” Then he glided back into his rhetoric. “But I still ask: Why should Israel keep such an appalling camp, which at least in appearance resembles some bitter experiences the Jewish people have been through?” Cordelia mentioned the chants, “Ansar is Auschwitz,” and asked him, “Do you agree?” “I can’t agree and I can’t disagree,” Taamri and smoothly. What? Suddenly I wanted to scream at him. Do you know who sits here in front of you? Do you know what she has seen? Ask her, if you don’t know the difference. She’ll tell you about Auschwitz.
“What Begin said about us-animals on two feet,” he continued in a calm voice. “Doesn’t it bring an echo of what Hitler said about the Jews? When you ask children in Sabra and Shatila, ‘How did you survive?’ Because they were short. Well, many Jews survived because they were short.” Tell him, Cordelia. Tell him who you are. Say something! Roll up your sleeve: show him the number tattooed in blue ink on your forearm. I ached for her to do it, to throw it in his complacent face. Tell him. Educate him. Let’s see how he confronts truth.
“To someone whose family got killed, the whole world is a holocaust,” Taamri went on, obviously pleased with the idea he was developing and polishing. “We have a headmaster of a school who lost eighty-two members of his family in one air strike. For him, that was a holocaust. Should anything be special because you are Jewish? Are the Israelis Jews? Are they the chosen people of God, or are they the chaotic people of the devil? Pretty soon you will have more battlefields than synagogues.”
Oh, Cordelia, tell him! But she sat composed, and all she said was, “Auschwitz was an extermination camp. Children and elderly people did not come out alive.” He did not argue with her, did not try to justify his analogy. He simply did not know who she was, and she never told him. Not a word, not a hint. He sailed past without being touched by her. And I felt like a kettle with the lid on, boiling. I yearned to say something myself, and I came to the edge of speaking out, telling him her story. Now I think that perhaps I was wrong not to have delivered a simple, calm sentence to him: Mr. Taamri, you are sitting with a survivor of Auschwitz. But Cordelia was there; it was her interview as much as mine, her experience that day more than mine. It was up to her. I just couldn’t stand it, but I had no right to push her private trials onto the table, to turn an interview into an argument; she had to be the one to speak. When we left the camp and were driving to Jerusalem, I complained and scolded with the warmth I felt toward her, and I asked her why she had kept her silence, why she had not let him know that he was facing somebody with whom he could not manipulate the symbol as if it were just an image in a history book, a piece of propaganda. Why, why? I wanted to know. Her answer was simple, yet it contained all the depths of her suffering and her survival. “It would have been unfair,” she said. “He was behind bars, and I was free.”
“I understand her,” said Irene Eber, a good friend of mine who had also gone through the Holocaust, in Poland. Irene listened to the story of that day at Ansar. “I understand her. It is hard to throw it in someone’s face,” she said. “It is hard to lose your compassion for someone whose fate you can empathize with. It is really hard to see people behind bars. When I go by a prison, my heart stops. I think it gets into a real tangle of emotions there. It is so close. And if it’s that close, you don’t go up to strangers and tell them what’s going on in your head.”
The Holocaust has become a vehicle of hurt and outrage between Arabs and Jews, a symbol of immense grievance on both sides, an event without analogy, yet one used often as analogy to inflate the scope of each side’s transgressions. Arab propagandists frequently liken Israel to Nazi Germany and the Palestinians to the Jews of Europe. Menachem Begin, for his part, routinely accused the PLO of aspiring to commit genocide against the Jews. The respectability of the forum has been no deterrent to this sort of nonsense. During a 1985 debate on Israel’s attacks on villages in southern Lebanon, for example, the Saudi Arabian representative to the United Nations, Samir S. Shihabi, told the Security Council, “Hitler preceded them [the Israelis] with his Nazi destructive machinery in the ways of brutality and murder, collectively and individually, and even though they have surpassed them now, his end was inevitable, and their end will be inevitable if the world does not stop them before it is too late.” An Egyptian newspaper, Al-Gumhuriya, editorialized in 1983, “Now one can ask the leaders of Israel: ‘Did not the Nazis torture you or in previous generations did you not represent the Nazis before the world as wild, cowardly beasts? And is what you are doing less than what the Nazis did?’” A similar parallel was drawn in a 1984 issue of the same paper. “Just as Hitler behaved with conceit, so too Israel behaves,” it declared. “Why did the Jews of the world fight Nazi Germany while they are doing the same thing which the Nazis did against them? Israel enslaves the Palestinian people in the West Bank and Gaza more harshly than the Nazis fought the Jews.” A 1977 commentary in the Syrian paper Al-Baath was apparently written on the assumption that its readers accepted the parallel and that Israel hoped to exterminate the Arabs. “Zionism ought to realize that it can never attain the strength of Nazi Germany,” the paper said, “neither will the Arabs in Israel ever assume the status of the Jews in Hitler’s Germany.” In earlier years, an explicit affinity for Hitler was expressed by some Arabs. Mein Kampf was translated into Arabic and circulated extensively. Haj Amin el-Husseini, the mufti of Jerusalem, wrote in 1943 to the German foreign minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, requesting German intervention in the Balkans to prevent Jews from migrating to Palestine, a fact noted on a small panel in Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem memorial museum to the victims of the Holocaust. Especially during the first twenty years of Israel’s existence as a modern state, some Arab scholars and politicians wrote approvingly of Nazi efforts at extermination, blaming the Jews for attempting to subvert Germany. Abdallah al-Tall, of Jordan, declared, “The blame applies first and foremost to the Jews themselves and their characteristics of treachery, deceitfulness, crime, and treason, and in the second place to European civilization, which apparently could not long suffer the vile Jewish character, and in the course of time hatred of the Jews and loathing for their vices led to a movement of collective killing.” Others have branded as an exaggeration the figure 6 million as the number of Jews exterminated in massacres and death camps. In 1960, after the Israelis had kidnapped Adolf Eichmann, the Lebanese paper Al-Anwar published a cartoon of Eichmann and Ben-Gurion shouting at each other, with a caption:
Ben-Gurion: “You deserve the death penalty for killing six million Jews.” Eichmann: “There are many who argue that I deserve the death penalty for not finishing the job.”
During Eichmann’s subsequent trial in Israel, the Jordanian English-language paper, Jerusalem Times, printed an open letter to Eichmann bemoaning his failure to kill all the Jews but praising him for getting 6 million, who otherwise, the writer asserted, would have committed atrocities against Arabs in a second part of the Middle East.
The memory of the Holocaust is a potent weapon in the hands of Arabs, and some enjoy using it as tool to shock Jews. An Arab student, Samit Zrake, once told me how he needled a class at Hebrew University. “They asked a question, ‘Who was the most idealistic person in history?’ My answer was Hitler, a man who stood for his principles. All the Jews looked at me. The teacher intervened.”
Jews react variously, and not always with predictable outrage, when Arabs draw parallels between Israelis and Nazis. After our Ansar visit, Cordelia and I gave a lift to an Israeli army officer who listened to me boil and rage for a while about Salah Taamri’s glib use of holocaust terminology, and then spoke up. The officer said he didn’t blame the Palestinians. They were merely wielding the best weapon they could find to attack Israel, he said, and he would do the same if he were in their position. That is how the game is played, he explained: It is a war of emotion and propaganda, not only of guns.
A very different response came from an American cardiologist who read my account in the Times and was so enraged by the chant, “Ansar is Auschwitz,” that he called me long-distance from New York City one night to talk about his feelings. He had been in Auschwitz at thirteen, he said. His parents and his brothers had perished there, their bodies burned in the huge crematorium. “I can still remember the chimneys, the smoke coming out of the chimneys,” he told me. “I will never forget that my whole life.”
Irene Eber saw the parallel as infuriating, but she also understood it in another way, as a search for a Palestinian history. “It’s not only a Jewish experience, I think it is a human experience,” she said. “It has such implications for all humanity, it is such an event in history. Nothing afterwards can be the same. And when people come along and use it for their own purposes-trivialize, vulgarize, in effect violate those who have vanished in smoke there-you want to shake them. And you want to say, ‘Look here, you’ve got to understand what you’re talking about. You can’t talk in these terms. You must get your terminology straight. Learn about it and then come back. But don’t say such things because that’s not what the Holocaust means, that’s not what it’s about. You cannot do that.’ That is, to call Israelis Nazis may release tension, but it is not the same thing. The trivilization-it’s staggering. Why is everybody latching on to this as a symbol? I’d say because of the power of the images. You say ‘Holocaust,’ and anybody who’s ever seen a picture, and anybody who’s seen a film immediately has a certain image, and you don’t have to say anything more.” It has been natural for the Palestinians, pitted against the Jews, to use the Holocaust as a device for building their own history. “This establishing of history is a very powerful impulse in people generally,” Irene observed. “People must search to establish their history. It becomes extraordinarily painful to watch it when you see that they’re establishing the wrong history for themselves.”
Irene, who teaches Chinese philosophy at Hebrew University, is a delicate woman who speaks with a quiet, charming lilt that seems too light to carry the weight of her thoughts. She was just a child when invading Germans massacred Jews in her hometown of Mielec, Poland. “They came into this town, made a pogrom, and burned down a large portion of the Jewish section,” she said, “burned the synagogue, burned the butcher, burned the bath house, and killed the people, because it was Erev Rosh Hashanah-it was Eve of New Year-killed the people who were in the bath house and the butcher. They came on motorcycles. I was nine years old, and I remember it. That is what is so uncanny. It is so clear to me. I remember the next day when they buried the people who had been killed, in a mass grave. They apparently weren’t allowed to bury them in the Jewish cemetery, so right across from where we lived there was a field, and then there was the back of where a house had burned, and they dug a big, big pit and they buried the people there. That was in 1939.”
In March 1942, the Jews were deported from Mielec to the Lublin district, where Irene and some of her relatives lodged with Jewish families in a small village. One by one, they made their way back to Mielec, were deported again to a ghetto, and again elsewhere, and finally they knew that in the next deportation they would be going to Auschwitz. “People write books and say nobody knew. We knew. Other people knew. If they now say they didn’t know, it is memory. We knew. I knew, and I was a child. What we did is we all made a false wall under a roof in the attic. We left a little hole in it. And it was supposed to be just for our family, my father’s two sisters, and we had a cousin living with us and so on. The day of the deportation, everybody’s frantically running to hiding places-other people had also prepared hiding places. We rushed up there, but other people knew about it, so other people rushed up there too, and there were in that space, I don’t know, a hundred people? I can’t tell you. There wasn’t enough food, and there wasn’t enough water. We took turns sitting and standing. They were flushing people out and shooting people. And we kept hearing the shooting. The Germans came searching, of course; we could hear them; they came with dogs. And, you know, the familiar story: A child started crying; the mother took a pillow and smothered the child. It happened there. I’ve never seen anything quite so awful. When she came down, her husband was allowed to stay, and she handed him the dead child.”
The ghetto was converted into a camp, and eventually Irene escaped. “I dug my way out under the barbed wire, and I just went to the railroad station and bought a ticket-I was twelve-and got on a train. I went back to Mielec and asked Polish people to hide me.” Much of her family, including her father, perished. Many years after the war, Irene finally found the strength to go back to see her town of Mielec. The buildings were there, just as she remembered them, every house in its proper place along every little street, practically unchanged, as if a war, a holocaust, had never happened. But all the people were gone, the Jews had disappeared, and others were living in their place. That eerie physical sameness inflicted the return with hardship. And in her generosity, Irene could see the parallels between her pain and that of Arabs who return and are wounded by the physical destruction they find. I was moved to tell her about a middle-aged Arab professional I had just met who worked in Amman, Jordan, and had lived before 1948 in Jaffa. There was no parallel in the departure, of course, for Arabs fled from Jaffa; they were not deported to ghettos and death camps. But going back seemed to have something of the same quality of suffering. In 1984 he returned for the first time and went back to find his house, his neighborhood. It had become a slum. His family’s citrus grove was a dump. I asked what he had imagined, and he said, “I had remembered it the way it was.”
“Had you felt a yearning to go back all these years?”
“Oh, yes,” he said.
“I realize I can’t go back, I don’t want to go back, it’s finished.”
“How does this sit with you emotionally?”
“It’s too early to tell. It’s only been a day. One thing I can say now is that it’s resolved something for me, something that was nagging at me for all these years.”
Irene listened to the story and talked about her own return. “It was just like the whirlwind swept them all away,” she said of the Jews of Mielec. “And there were the signs, the mezuzoth-not the mezuzoth but the indentations where the mezuzoth had been on the doorposts. It was all there. Again, it is the same and it is different. Both are equally powerful. Because in one case you realize that that past is so gone for the Arabs, they can’t go back naming the streets as they had been doing in the camps after Jaffa, where they had lived; it just won’t work anymore. The more Arabs come here, the less this kind of imagery will work. And it is for this reason that other kinds of images have to be invented for their past. That past doesn’t work because that past is so gone, is so finished. Going back, to me, was that I remembered everything with such uncanny clearness, such clarity. I see the pictures over and over. There came one moment when I said to myself, Maybe I invented it all. Someone once asked me, ‘Please draw me a picture of where grandmother’s house was, where you lived, where the baker was, the butcher and all that.’ I sat down and I took a pencil and I drew it. The proportions were probably all wrong because, you know, distance is so much greater for a child. I drew it all, I remembered it, and then I said, Maybe it didn’t happen. Maybe I’m just fantasizing everything. And for me, this going back and finding this shock of recognition was, I think, equally powerful as that shock must have been for him of nonrecognition.”
Very few Arabs seem to know much about the Holocaust. Its full horrors rarely seem to penetrate. It goes unmentioned in the Jordanian curriculum that governs teaching in West Bank schools, for example, and it is skimmed over quickly in the Israeli schools for Arabs. Even the best informed and most sophisticated and moderate of the Palestinian Arabs cannot bring themselves to gather the experience of the Holocaust into their understanding of the Jews. That essential feel for the trauma, the tragedy, the aloneness of the Jews in that dark period is simply missing from the Arabs’ sense of history and from their grasp of the present. And therefore they cannot understand Israel. They cannot understand the fierce sensations of vulnerability, the lusty devotion to military strength, the stubborn resistance to international criticism, the waves of guilt that soften the core of the hardness. They cannot comprehend the gnawing fear of powerlessness that grinds beneath the arsenal of tanks and planes, the lurking conviction that it could happen again, and that again the world would look the other way.
Raja Shehadeh, who grew up in the West Bank schools under Jordan, knew absolutely nothing of the Jews’ sufferings under the Nazis before 1967, when his territory came under Israeli control and he found himself in contact with Israelis. “Certainly we had never heard of the Holocaust before ’67, all over the Arab world,” he said. Now, at least among his circle of relatively knowledgeable friends on the West Bank, he observed, “I do hear much more said about the Holocaust. I think there is much more awareness of the Holocaust than there ever was in pre-’67 and in Jordan.” But the awareness translates more easily into self-pity than into a sympathy for the Jews, as Raja himself demonstrated in choosing the title of his book, The Third Way: A Journal of Life in the West Bank. On the back cover, the origin of the phrase “the third way” is explained: “From the wisdom of the Treblinka concentration camp: ‘Faced with two alternatives-always choose the third.’ Between mute submission and blind hate-I choose the third way. I am Samid [the steadfast].” And so Treblinka becomes a metaphor for the West Bank. How did he come to this? I asked him. “An Israeli friend of mine told me about this, a Canadian Jew,” Raja explained lightly. “It struck me as something interesting, so I used it.”
There are no courses on the Holocaust at Bir Zeit University, a bastion of Palestinian nationalism on the West Bank. And in the Israeli-Arab schools, teachers often race through the chapters on the Holocaust in a couple of days, giving the subject the kind of pro forma treatment that just doesn’t stick in kids’ heads. An Arab teacher told me that he had no grasp of the magnitude of what had happened to the Jews until he had been teaching for some years and happened to see films and photographs on Israeli television of the ghettos and the concentration camps. Then, and only then, was he awakened to the scope and the severity of the event. Something of the same thing happened to a militant Arab in his early twenties who had gone to Israeli schools for Arabs but expressed himself in vehemently anti-Jewish terms. He even equated Israel with the Nazis and said that what happened in Germany was the same as what was happening on the West Bank. Several American Jews in the Interns for Peace program challenged him, asked him what he really knew about what had happened in Germany, and then took him to a museum established by ghetto fighters. He was deeply moved, seeing what Jews had suffered. In his lifetime he had seen the Jews only in command; to him, Jews were the powerful. On his job at an ice-cream factory, he told some of his Jewish co-workers about his visit to the museum, about his reactions, and they began to open up to him, to accept him as they had not before. For many others, however, even knowledge fails to open a clear view through the corrosive Arab-Jewish conflict; neither side can truly see the other through the veil of grief and anger. And so, many Arabs who know something about the Holocaust tend to interpret it in their own terms, in their own interest. “I think they are aware of the brutality the Jews have suffered,” Albert Aghazarian of Bir Zeit said of his Palestinian students, “but being aware, I think they are surprised and say, ‘How come these people, who have suffered, are doing the same thing?’” I asked him how anyone could reasonably argue that the Israelis are doing the same thing. “Two hundred thousand Palestinians have been imprisoned since 1967,” Albert contended. “That is one out of six of the population. Many of them are arrested after a bomb; you collect five hundred people or one thousand people. But that is still the experience of prison, even if it is for ten hours, even if it is for six hours. You have to consider that as being in prison. You have forty-eight percent of the land taken, you have ten thousand houses demolished, including the three villages near Latrun, including the esplanade of the Wailing Wall, including the detonation of houses. You have over one thousand two hundred leaders of the community who have been deported. These were leaders who were not involved in any kind of activities that even subjectively you can call terrorist. These are church leaders, university presidents, union leaders-they threw them out. You have a thousand two hundred laws that have been implemented, arbitrarily controlling every aspect of life in a very racist and apartheid way. You need a permit to plant tomatoes and to plant eggplants and to plant vines. You have to get a permit if you want to plant a plum tree in front of your house. If you lose your ID [card}, you are in vital trouble. If you do not follow all this trickery in paperwork you are out and the border is sealed. If it is accumulated, I think it is enough brutality to call it genocide.” I asked him if he didn’t see that genocide was an exaggeration, since the word’s literal meaning, the intention to murder a whole people, had no application here. “It’s the form of murder which is changing,” Albert replied. “Let’s agree on the term ‘mass brutality against a people.’ Once you start seeing a group of people as less human, anything becomes possible.”
Courses on Israeli society and Jewish history, including the Holocaust, are given by Arab faculty members to Arab students at an-Najah University on the West Bank. “We teach about the Zionist movement, the first five immigration waves that came here, the settlement before 1948, the state,” said Abed Samara, a sociology professor, “about Israeli institutions, the [political] parties, the Histadrut [the nationwide federation of labor unions], the political differentiations, the social stratification of Israeli society, the political movements, industry, agriculture, all aspects of Israeli society. We teach about anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe, the history of the Jews in Europe. Most of the students are very interested. They say it’s the first time they hear such analysis of Israeli society.” One result, he felt, was that some of the Arab students began to abandon some of their stereotypes, or at least refine them by differentiating between Jews in Israel and Jews outside. Others resist; most of those are extreme nationalists or members of the Islamic fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood. “I have four or five out of fifty who say, ‘What’s the use of this?’ They say, ‘Why learn this? We know their history. They are all against us, and they will continue to be against us, so what’s the point of this?’ But after four or five lectures they take it and they become more understanding.”
But does this newfound knowledge, especially of the Jews’ suffering under the Nazis, alter the way in which the students interpret Israeli behavior? Samara’s answer was discouraging. “They say, ‘The Holocaust was a very bad thing for us Palestinians, because the final development of the Holocaust was the creation of Israel in this part of the world against the Palestinians, which means we were the main losers of the Holocaust. Even more than any other people, we are against [the Holocaust] because we are the victims, the final victims, the ultimate ones.’ It was the way they reacted.”
Palestinian Arabs who see themselves as paying for the crimes of the Germans explore the theme frequently. In The Third Way, Raja Shehadeh tells of a “a waking nightmare” that once took possession of him. The soldiers burst into my room and as they surrounded me their uniforms faded away and turned into striped rags, and their cheeks and their eyes hollowed out and their guns dissolved. They bared their arms and on each one was a concentration camp number. They surrounded me in a tight circle, pointing their tattooed arms at me. As they stood there, all their flesh withered away, and they were just skeletons, interlocked skeletons, gripping each other, encircling me.
“Your turn has come,” they whispered.
“Why? What have I done?”
“You are Samid [the steadfast]. We know all about you, we have been watching you. No one, let that be known, no one will ever get away from us. We are the survivors of our six million brothers.
“We are here on earth to avenge our brothers’ deaths. This time we shall exterminate every one, before they get a chance to touch us.”
“But what have I done?”
“What have you done? Don’t look so innocent.
“You seek our destruction-as does everyone. You, the Arabs, are the new Nazis. But we shall get your first. Never Again....You cannot hide. Remember what we say. Never Again. Never Again. Never Again.” As their voices faded out, one reached out and stamped my arm with a number. And then they were gone. Raja goes on to write, “Sometimes I think I am the victim of the victims of the Nazis. Fate has agreed that I also pay the price of the Holocaust; fate-through nightmares, through the great subconscious-has decreed that I inherit the memory, the fear, and the horror of Auschwitz....I have the horrible suspicion that I am more aware of the concentration camps, think about them more and dream about them more than the average Israeli of my age does. He acts, and I dream the dreams that he should have.”
It is impossible to see Jews as victims when you are being victimized by them, even where your suffering has no parallel to theirs. And the defenses you set up to screen out the suffering of your enemy are quite effective, it seems. Jamil Hamad doubted that knowledge of the Holocaust induced Arabs to see things any differently. “I’ll tell you why,” he said. “First of all, I think the Arabs are aware of what happened in the Holocaust, and they intentionally disregard it. They don’t want to talk about it. They minimize it. Because the Holocaust to them represents the case which made the Jews establish their state on their land. But if you talk to them on an intellectual basis, they would say, ‘We condemn what the Nazis did to the Jews.’ At the same time they would say, ‘We are not responsible for that, we are not the ones who massacred the Jews, so why do we pay the price?’
“If we bring more young people to see the films of the Holocaust, that would not change the situation. Why? Because the political conflict between the Arabs and the Israelis has reached a point, a degree, at which the human factor does not count too much. We are involved in a political confrontation, military confrontation, so the talk about the human-life value, the loss of the human lives, this and that, does not count.” Jamil also stressed the attempt to dismiss the Holocaust as something less in reality than it has been portrayed, or something that the Jews brought on themselves. “Many Palestinians believe that the numbers of Jews massacred and killed was and still is exaggerated,” he observed. “They say that the numbers of Jews massacred in Germany was exaggerated by the Zionist movement just to promote the idea of establishing a Jewish state at this time. Secondly, they see it from a different angle, that, okay, the Germans did that to the Jews, but the Jews may have provoked the Germans into doing this. When the Palestinians talk about the Holocaust, they can’t take the Holocaust as an isolated issue and talk about it-it’s impossible. They have to link it with the political developments and military developments that came in Palestine. To see the Holocaust the way the Americans and Europeans see it? It’s impossible. There you are not party to a political and military conflict with the Israelis. Here we are a party to it.”
In their insensitivity to the proportions of the Holocaust, Arabs are often annoyed at what they see as the Jews’ wallowing in their grief and suffering. “Now let’s talk about it frankly,” said Jamil. “You Americans have faced in the past terrible times, more or less massacres-the Civil War. Now, it’s a good subject for a film, but not an issue which you keep feeding up to your children. Why don’t the Jews stop talking about the Holocaust? My theory is that the conflict is badly needed for the survival of the Jews. I feel sometimes that the Arab-Israeli conflict is also needed badly to crystallize, to strengthen the national spirit among the Israelis. It’s trying to make use of the Holocaust-which is a very disastrous event, disgusting, I admit that-again, it’s trying to make use of it for political reasons. Blackmailing. It’s like trading my personal pain, my personal tragedy, to get something. That’s why I don’t like it, personally.”
In practice it is not so calculated, of course. The scars of the Holocaust are deep, and they form the background against which the Arabs’ pledges to drive the Jews into the sea are seen. But in Israel, of all places, the memory of the Holocaust is also frequently cheapened by Jews who use it for political propaganda. My first encounter with this was a poster, pasted to a building in downtown Jerusalem by Kahane’s Kach movement, which opposed the periodic summit meetings between Begin and Sadat. The poster featured a doctored photograph of Begin and Sadat together, Sadat wearing a tie emblazoned with swastikas and Begin wearing a big Star of David on his lapel, like a Jew under Germany. As I stopped and gawked, Israeli Jews walked past unfazed, accustomed as they were to such tactics.
But Begin would have been wounded most painfully, for he was deeply rooted in that traumatic history, imprisoned in its agony. It was Begin, more than any other Israeli leader, who saw contemporary events through the prism of the genocide that had been practiced against the Jews. When he ordered Iraq’s nuclear reactor bombed, he did so citing the potential for another attempt to exterminate the Jews, and he made that vow of resolution: “Never again.” Even his involvement in Lebanon was governed by the memory and the fear, the conviction that the PLO, from its bases in southern Lebanon, was bent on exterminating the Jews and that the Christian Arabs of Lebanon faced extermination by the Muslims. That concern for the Christian minority as potential victims of a holocaust framed Begin’s secret commitments to Christian leaders to defend them against the Syrian air force, if it were used; in part, the obsession was responsible for drawing Israel into the quagmire of vicious Lebanese factionalism.
Begin reacted vehemently during the Israeli siege of West Beirut when President Ronald Reagan called him and asked him to stop the bombardment. “What hurt me deeply was that the president said, ‘It’s a holocaust,’” Begin told me during a later interview. He was sitting on a couch in his office. “He hurt me very deeply,” he said, “and I answered him in my answer to his letter. I said to him, ‘Mr. President, I know what is a holocaust.’” Then Begin turned to his press secretary, Uri Porat. “Will you please bring me the picture?” Uri didn’t have to ask which one. He picked a framed photograph from the prime minister’s desk: the famous picture of Jews being rounded up in the Warsaw Ghetto. Begin held the photograph in front of him. “This is holocaust,” he declared. “This is the Warsaw Ghetto, 470,000 Jews already taken out and brought to Treblinka. And these are the children and the women. Look at this child. Look at the fear in his eyes, how he tries to raise his hands, and look at this mother, looking at the other Nazi soldier lest he open fire at the child. Such children were killed-one and a half million for six years, brought to Auschwitz, Treblinka Maidanek, etc. This is holocaust. And I later wrote to the president that he hurt me deeply and personally by using that word.”
On occasion, the Holocaust has also become a weapon used by Jews against other Jews. A couple of Israelis who had been children of the Holocaust remembered, when they first arrived from Europe, being called “soap” by other Jewish children who were already in Palestine. The cruel taunt was a reference to the Germans’ making soap out of the bodies of murdered Jews. In 1982 and 1983, in the throes of severe ethnic tension, Sephardi Jews scrawled slogans on buildings and shouted epithets at Ashkenazi Jews who were demonstrating against Begin. “They shouldn’t have rescued you from Hitler in 1945!” one man yelled, and somebody wrote on the Jerusalem Theater “Ashkenazim to Auschwitz, Treblinka, and Dachau.” At a Haifa art exhibition in 1985, Meir Kahane became the victim of his own tactics; a Jewish artist, Harold Rubin, hung a painting entitled “Homage to Rabbi Kahane,” showing “a Nazi-like bully with Jewish features, his tefillin-wrapped arm raised in a Nazi salute,” The Jerusalem Post reported.* An inscription read “Judenjugend,” or “Jewish Youth,” a takeoff on the Hitler Youth of the Nazi era. A right-wing Knesset member, Meir Cohen-Avidov, pulled the painting off the wall, demanded that the exhibition be postponed, and promised to work for the cutoff of public funds from the Chagall House of the Haifa Painters and Sculptors Association, where the show was held. The offending painting was put on display again, however. · · ·
The Holocaust never quite leaves Israeli Jews alone. Arabs use it against them, and they use it against Arabs. Jews use it against other Jews. Even the president of the United States, it seems, can use it against the prime minister of Israel. And finally, in spasms of outrage and guilt, some Israeli Jews use it against themselves. “Even when Begin didn’t talk about the Holocaust,” said Irene Eber, “it was there as an underlying ghost.” And it haunts Israel at every step, shaping attitudes quietly, fundamentally.
Holocaust survivors can be found at all points on the Israeli political spectrum. No particular position seems to attract them more than another. They stand on the extreme right, advocating Jewish settlement on the West Bank and tough military measures against Arabs. They stand on the far left, calling for withdrawal from the West Bank and the establishment of a Palestinian state. Some, such as Israel Harel, the settlement leader, combine conflicting views of nationalism and humanitarianism into an idiosyncratic synthesis. Harel is a resolute believer in the Jewish right to integrate the West Bank into Israel, but he was disgusted by the emergence of Jewish terrorism against Palestinian Arabs. Born in Rumania, he was seven when he and his mother were sent to a concentration camp in the northern Ukraine. His father, taken away to be shot, fell among others who had been killed, and thus survived beneath the heap of bodies. “Right after the war we tried to make our way to Eretz Israel, at that time Palestine,” Harel recalled. “A British ship, I remember, stopped our way. I remember the British soldiers’ jumping on the deck, and we were taken to Cyprus. They released us because I was sick, and they took sick children to Haifa.”
How much does this experience bear on him now? A friend of his who was sitting with us as we talked said that she had never heard this story; she had assumed that he was a sabra-Israeli-born-and never realized that he had been through the Holocaust. “I wonder how deeply the Holocaust still drives people,” Israel mused. “I would say that in some way, even myself but definitely others, we put up big gates [to fence off] the Holocaust. If it influences, it’s so deep you cannot distinguish it. My feeling is that the Holocaust has less effect on our life-political, spiritual, moral-than it should have. I think in some way we passed it too quickly, too easily, and I include myself, too. If I look very deeply into myself, I cannot find very definite marks.” Then he immediately qualified his observation. “Maybe the way I eat,” he said, laughing. “Until today, I can see my father. Once my father wouldn’t let me not finish bread. It’s holy. Because for a piece of bread he worked a week. Up to today, even this Shabbat, ‘Well, why don’t you finish your bread?’”
Nevertheless, some of the Israelis’ moral agony about being occupiers, about being military victors, about being political oppressors-some of the guilt about being strong-finds its roots in the Holocaust. Albert Aghazarian did not quite seem to understand this as he concluded his catalogue of grievances against Israel and his argument in favor of the application of the term “genocide” to Israeli behavior toward the Arabs. I pressed him repeatedly to revise his terminology. As an Armenian, could he not see the difference between Turkey and Germany on the one hand and Israel on the other? He talked in vague circles for some time, but finally concluded, “What I have a grudging admiration for-grudging-is that in spite of everything, you still have moral forces in Israel. What you may broadly call the ‘peace camp.’ You have some forces in Israel that have not been numbed, surprisingly.” And he did not seem to see that this came at least partly from the Holocaust, from the Jews’ sense of obligation, having once been victims.
Remarkably, images of the Holocaust kept flashing through the minds of some Jews as they fought in Lebanon, and others, such as Dov Yermiya, an old veteran of the good fight in and before 1948, groaned and fumed under the weight of the history and the present. “I was in the Great War, World War II,” he said. “I was in the British army, and I fought in the Middle East and then in Europe. And when we first met the remnants of the Holocaust, and just started to help them, to gather them, to ship them to Israel with the Haganah, I remember, already then, thinking and conversing with my close friends who were together with me in this business, saying that what happened to you Jews and your Holocaust will affect us, Jews in Israel, for the bad. First of all, we lost a lot of good people. Millions and hundreds of thousands of those who could have done something better. But also something has happened. The victim has gained some of the character of the victimizer. And it’s hard to believe, but I see it.”
Dov pointed to a photograph of a high-ranking Israeli general. “He is supposed to be my friend because he was in the Palmach, and we come from the same origin. But I see him as more or less a fascist warlord who is capable of doing things that have been done to us. The idea of taking the Arabs and shipping them in lorries or on foot out of this country is there somewhere. And if it becomes possible, or feasible, it might happen. That’s why I see that we have been influenced by the victimizers, and we have become more or less similar to them.”
It was hard for an outsider to argue with someone who was so deeply and purely Israeli, but I could not let it go at that. I asked first why he thought the Arabs used the Holocaust as an argument. “Because they know that they would have done it to us if they could,” he said sharply. “One doesn’t have to be a big fool to know that some Jews do think it and some Jews do say it. Now, certainly, both sides use that harsh idea for propaganda. But they all have some kernel of truth in them.” But surely it’s an exaggeration, I said. Nobody has suggested taking Palestinians off to gas chambers. “No. Well, certainly, what the Nazis have done, there’s nothing to compare. But for me it’s bad enough that somebody thinks of taking them from their places and putting them on lorries and throwing them on the other side of the Jordan. It’s bad enough. It needn’t be as bad as it was with the Germans.”
For an idealistic old veteran who imagined his country forsaking its ideals, the Holocaust became the only container large enough to hold the grief and the guilt, the only metaphor atrocious enough to accommodate the shame. In the autumn of 1982, after the invasion of Lebanon, the siege of Beirut, the massacre by Israel’s Lebanese Christian allies in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, many of the old veterans and the new veterans who searched for a denunciation had to use the Holocaust. Nothing else seemed sufficient to capture their deep agony and anger. They recognized the differences, of course; they were trying to measure not the objective events in Lebanon but their feelings about what they, their army, had done there. Just as Shimon Avidan, the famous brigade commander from 1948, sat on his kibbutz during the war and saw, flashing in front of his memory, the photograph of the Warsaw Ghetto that Begin kept on his desk, so younger warriors kept seeing images from Nazi Europe. Gidon Shamir, a thirty-four-year-old book publisher, served as an officer in his elite unit in 1982, as he had in 1967, 1973, and the War of Attrition against Egypt. He went into the villages, the refugee camps, where he never knew who was going to shoot him. “It can be a ten-year-old kid. You can’t take a chance. You can’t wait and ask him, ‘Say, do you have a gun?’ On the other hand, you can’t kill him. He is a kid. He’s really innocent. You see all these young boys fighting. You have two choices: one, not to fight and take the chance that they will kill you, or to fight, to kill them, and after that you have time again to think and say, ‘What’s going on with me? Who am I fighting against? Why? What for? Is it necessary to fight?’” When his unit went into the town of Nabatiyeh, the Israeli army made an announcement over loudspeakers. “Everybody should come out of their houses and come to this big yard, men on one side, women on the other side,” he recalled. “And it was a terrible shock. It looked like the trains in the ’40s in Germany, one side children and women, one side men, a very hot day, not enough water, from the morning till the evening, and the army started researching. That’s a system to keep the people from getting wounded, on the one hand; on the other hand it looks very ugly.” Gidon Shamir was born in Israel, a highly trained, skilled combat officer.
Ran Cohen, a lanky, balding kibbutznik and colonel in the paratroopers, found the same analogy. “The government decided to make selections among the whole Palestinian population,” he said. “That means you have to take all the Palestinians-and there are hundreds of thousands of Palestinians-and to go to every one to see if he’s a member of the PLO or not. That means you have to go to every family, every household, everyone, and to make a selection. We remember the selection from other places, from our history in Europe, where the Nazis used to make a selection from the Jewish people. It’s not the same, I know, but after all, that means that we have to go to Rashadiyeh, to Ein Hilwe, to other refugee camps, and to make a selection. That means that we have to kill many, many people, to wound many, many people. Little by little we become more and more ugly, not in the character we want to be. For the Jewish people, who have suffered, it is more critical than for other nations.” Ran Cohen, born in Iraq, became a member of the Knesset two years after the war.
These soldiers are men of extensive experience both in combat and in human affairs. They are tough and sweet, men of justice who know how to kill. “I want to keep my army morally the best,” said Ran Cohen. “I think this makes us stronger, more unified, more ready to go and fight. And this makes our army the best in the world. Without that it would be another army. No, I don’t feel guilty. As a citizen of Israel I feel bad, not guilty. Bad.”
But the Holocaust? Selections in the camps? Trains disgorging their passengers on their way to death? The boy with his hands raised in the Warsaw Ghetto? I sat over these questions with my friend Hillel Goldberg, a young lecturer at Hebrew University in Jewish ethics and intellectual history. He was a religious man with a graceful, fine precision of compassion in his reasoning, and our long discussions brought a valuable clarity to my own thinking. We rarely conversed except at length, and this time we met after the massacre of Palestinians in the refugee camps of Beirut.
“There is quite clearly a segment of the population of Israel-how large one cannot really know, but certainly a significant segment of the population-for whom this event is a turning point in the moral context of Zionists and Israeli history,” he began. “There was, quite clearly here, a failing of massive proportions. Jews have been sensitized over the centuries, and particularly since World War II, to the notion that the ultimate evil is twofold: the killing of innocent people and the stance of the bystanders, the standing by in indifference to the killing of innocent people. Jews have been almost reflexively conditioned to regard the ‘outside world’ as morally inferior on account of either its active participation in or indifference to the fate of the Jews during the Holocaust. As research gets uncovered year by year, it becomes increasingly clear just how widespread that indifference was. It becomes quite clear how truly insignificant the fate, or the murder, of the Jews was to people who had the power, in at least some way, to change that fate by bombing the rail lines to Auschwitz. All this has simply increased the sense that Jews are morally superior-not necessarily inherently, racially, but simply by what’s occurred, simply by historical fact. In the slaughter of millions of Jews, the people who did it were obviously guilty, and the people who could have done something about it were, in another sense, guilty. “The Jews struggled along the best they could,” Hillel continued, “created a state against formidable odds and of course made mistakes in varying degrees of severity along the way, but essentially maintained Israel as a moral enterprise. Now, this massacre is one incident; it doesn’t retrospectively change all that was done. The scope of this massacre was quite small compared to the kinds of massacres that were perpetrated against the Jews in World War II. Notwithstanding all that, the point has been reached where it becomes clear that even if only by crimes of omission, we are capable of those very sins against which we have rightly objected so reflexively, strongly, vociferously, and with such great and justified righteous indignation. And when the tables are turned on you in that way, you reach a great-we reach a great moral crisis. That moral crisis cannot be wished away; it has to be confronted. It’s not like the recitation in the Yom Kippur service, where one says that one has sinned before God and then one is absolved. With respect to sins one commits against God, God himself can absolve you completely, providing that your remorse is sincere and complete. That’s all it takes. It can be instantaneous. However, with respect to sins committed against man, God as it were removed from himself the power to absolve you until you have rectified those sins. The only absolution that can occur can occur only after the wrong has been righted.”
Hillel had been a supporter of Begin and was sorely disappointed with him. “Here was a man who, on almost every public occasion, dragged in the Holocaust as a justification for whatever Israel was doing at the point,” he said. “And I thought they were inappropriate, but I never thought they were insincere. I thought they were politically unwise but heartfully felt. I certainly can’t say at this point that he wasn’t sincere. But what I can say is that if all that he learned from the Holocaust was that it’s wrong when it’s done to the Jews but it’s not wrong when something similar is done to other people, then he’s ignored the universal side of Jewish thought, which clearly links the Jew to mankind.”
I told Hillel what one soldier’s mother had done after the massacre. The story was powerful, and it left him sitting in silence for a long moment, meditating, gathering his thoughts. “What happened out there was somehow of a kind with what happened in the Holocaust,” he said finally, “at least in the consciousness of those people who, in fact, went through the Holocaust and know it better than anyone else.”
The mother lived in Jerusalem. Several days after a Lebanese Christian Phalangist unit entered the refugee camps and slaughtered men, women, and children, her son came home from the army on leave. She met him outside the door and would not let him into the house until he answered some questions.
Was he there during the massacre? Yes, he said, outside Shatila. Did he hear anything, see anything? No, the young man replied, but his friends did. And what did they do? Some did nothing, he answered. But had he known anything himself? No, he repeated.
His mother was not sure that he was telling her the truth, and she is not sure today. But she let him come home. It was her most painful moment in all the years she had had this boy, she said to friends. She was a survivor of Hitler’s concentration camps.
Salah Taamri and the other Palestinians who were captured during the Lebanon war were eventually released from the Ansar prison camp. A decade later, when Israel agreed to allow PLO officials to enter and govern parts of the occupied territories, Taamri was permitted to return to the West Bank, where he became a member of the Palestinian legislature and chairman of its Lands Committee. Cordelia Edvardson met him by chance at some event, was able to speak with him only briefly, and then called him a couple of times in an attempt to sit down with him once again. He did not return the calls, she said, and she concluded that he did not want to see her. She held no grievance over this, but I thought that perhaps he did not wish for another conversation, knowing now that she was a survivor of the Holocaust, of which he had made such facile use.
When the intifada exploded in the fall of 2000, Taamri helped lead the manipulation of religious shrines and symbols. He hailed the Palestinian takeover of Joseph’s Tomb, which mobs burned and demolished so grotesquely that the Palestinian Authority felt obliged to restore it. Then, speaking of Rachel’s Tomb, which the Palestinian press claimed as a mosque, he declared, “Now we have to kick the soldiers out and restore the site to the city of Bethlehem.”
Along with Temple denial, Holocaust denial became a vehicle of Palestinian rage in the course of the frustrating peace negotiations. It was as if the Palestinian victims could not bear the thought of Jews as victims too, observed Itamar Marcus, an Israeli settler who ran the monitoring service Palestinian Media Watch. That claim to victimhood, cherished and despised, formed the climax of a statement by Issam Sissalem, a history lecturer at Islamic University in Gaza. “Lies surfaced about Jews being murdered here and there, and the Holocaust,” the Israelis quoted Sissalem as saying on Pages From Our History, a Palestinian television program. “And, of course, they are all lies and unfounded claims. No Chelmno, no Dachau, no Auschwitz!” Those camps, he claimed, “were disinfection sites.” He continued: “They began to publicize in their propaganda that they were persecuted, murdered, and exterminated.... Committees acted here and there to establish this entity, this foreign entity, implanted as a cancer in our country, where our fathers lived, where we live, and where our children after us will live. They always portrayed themselves as victims, and they made a Center for Heroism and Holocaust. Whose heroism? Whose holocaust? Heroism is our nation’s, the holocaust was against our people.... We were the victims, but we shall not remain victims forever.”86 On February 18, 1999, the denial made its way into a crossword puzzle in the Palestinian Authority’s official paper, Al-Hayat Al-Jadida. The answer to seven across was “Yad Vashem,” Israel’s somber, reflective memorial and museum. The clue: “Jewish Center for eternalizing the Holocaust and the lies.”87 During the intifada two years later, the same paper published an approving article on the western phenomenon of Holocaust denial. “The Zionist movement cannot tolerate inactivity in any facet of the holocaust profession,” the article declared, “especially since intelligentsia from around the globe have begun addressing the corresponding holocaust, that is the one the Hebrew State is bringing upon the Palestinians. And so the Jewish holocaust defenders themselves are on constant alert, apprehensive of the shift of attention from the fable of the holocaust to the specific, historic holocaust.” The headline on the piece read: “Marketing Ashes.”
Not long after Cordelia and I met Salah Taamri in the Ansar prison camp, she published her memoir, an account of her imprisonment and her assignment, as an assistant to Dr. Mengele, to write down the numbers tattooed on the arms of women he selected to die. The book, done in the third person, became a best seller in Sweden and Germany.
Cordelia recounts that years after the war, living in Sweden, she received a letter from her half-Jewish mother, who had avoided arrest in exchange for Cordelia’s signed acknowledgment that she, a fourteen-year-old girl, was Jewish. Her mother, back in Germany, was now writing a novel and wanted advice on one character-a young woman who had survived Auschwitz. She asked Cordelia for details on daily life in the camp.
“The daughter answered,” Cordelia writes of herself, “describing her memories as well as she could. Later, when she read the mother’s novel, she did not recognize them. It was both too much and too little. There was talk about fire, and no mention of ashes. How could it have been otherwise? It was written by one of the living.”88
*His name has also been rendered as Tamari. * Tefillin are the leather thongs and other phylacteries worn by Orthodox Jews during prayer