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Holocaust Museum Stirs Anger from Both Sides


In the Middle East, a recent series of diplomatic moves has raised faint hopes for renewed Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts. But one maverick Palestinian believes the key to Middle East peace lies in greater Arab understanding of the Nazi Holocaust. He's set up what is believed to be the only museum in the Arab world on the Nazi slaughter of European Jews. But as NPR's Eric Westervelt reports, the display has attracted the ire of both Arabs and Jews.

ERIC WESTERVELT: The Arab Institute for Holocaust Research and Education sits on a hilltop in a residential neighborhood overlooking the Jezreel Valley(ph) in the predominantly Arab city of Nazareth. Attorney Khaled Mahamed used thousands of dollars of his own money to turn his law office into a kind of makeshift museum, with some 50 pictures of the Holocaust.

Mr. KHALED MAHAMED (Attorney): We see prisoners here.

WESTERVELT: Where is this?

Mr. MAHAMED: Mauthausen. Escorting an inmate to his death.

WESTERVELT: This 44-year-old Muslim says that if more Arabs studied and understood the devastation the Jews of Europe faced under the Nazis, it would help foster nonviolence and perhaps even peace between Arabs and Jews.

Mr. MAHAMED: I'm very sure if Palestinians would be exposed to pictures of the Holocaust, then they would come to the conclusion there's no benefit for the Palestinian national rights to use violence against the Israelis. And by this we have a circle here; when the Israelis see that the Palestinians are choosing nonviolent (unintelligible) methods, then they will act accordingly.

WESTERVELT: Mahamed's museum is unique in the Arab world, where denial that the Nazi genocide took place is not uncommon. Mahamed tried unsuccessfully to get a visa from Iran to attend the recent Holocaust denial conference there, where he had hoped to confront those who deny the Holocaust occurred or question its scope. These days, after a flurry of attention surrounding that conference, his museum is a forlorn and idle place. Almost no one visits. He approached Arab-Israeli educators and principals to try to get school groups to come; they all turned him down. The same thing happened with local Arab media, politicians, and even his neighbors. He's received angry letters and e-mails from Arabs who call him an Israeli lackey. And he's paid a high personal toll as well. One of his own brothers now refuses to talk to him. His mother died just over a week ago and at the funeral mourning tent, he says, another relative verbally attacked him about his museum.

Mr. MAHAMED: And he was cursing me, shouting, where there were 200 people, and he was shouting. He's my relative and I tried to talk to him. He refused to talk. He's just shouting at a time when he's supposed to keep silent. But the thing that he didn't listen is making me think, how can I make him listen?

WESTERVELT: While he faces anger on the Arab side, many Israeli groups are also deeply skeptical of his motives, methods and goals. On one wall of the museum, Mahamed has a Palestinian flag and half a dozen photos and posters of what the Palestinians call the nakba, or catastrophe, in 1948, when Arabs fled or were driven from their homes as the Jewish state was founded. Yad Vashem, the Israeli museum to the Holocaust, initially praised Mahamed's efforts. He met their staff and got some material to display.

But the Israeli museum now says it appears he is, quote, "conflating the Holocaust with other events and contributing to the misappropriation of the Holocaust as a tool against Israel," end-quote. The Anti-Defamation League lauds Mahamed's educational efforts, but they're also troubled by what Arieh O'Sullivan, the ADL spokesman in Israel, says is an attempt by Mahamed to imply that Palestinians are paying the price for European guilt over the Holocaust.

Mr. ARIEH O'SULLIVAN (Anti-Defamation League): At the museum he has pictures of Nazis killing Jews and next to that he has pictures of Palestinian refugees and he has a PLO flag and he has signs about the land confiscations in Israel. Those two things juxtaposed do not go together. And that really bothers us. And he's politicizing the Holocaust, the memory of the Holocaust.

WESTERVELT: Mahamed contends that he's misunderstood by the ADL, that he has those posters up as teaching tools and that he's not claiming any moral equivalency between the Holocaust and the plight of the Palestinians. Our catastrophe was one tree, he says; the Holocaust was an entire forest.

Mr. MAHAMED: I'm feeling that the conflict between the Jewish people and the Palestinians it's not about land. It's about the gap between the understanding of the Jewish people and the Palestinians about the Holocaust.

WESTERVELT: But if the attendance at the museum is any indication, it appears few Arabs so far are listening. Khaled Mahamed says he'll keep the museum open anyway and keep putting out his message despite the icy reception from both sides.

Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Nazareth. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eric Westervelt is a San Francisco-based correspondent for NPR's National Desk. He has reported on major events for the network from wars and revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa to historic wildfires and terrorist attacks in the U.S.