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Muslim opens Holocaust museum in Israel

NAZARETH, Israel -- The photographs in a new museum here are among the best-known icons of the Holocaust: Germans executing a group of naked Jewish women; a little boy with a yellow Star of David on his jacket raising his hands in fright; a grandmother and four children shuffling dejectedly along a barbed-wire corridor.

Such images were everywhere in Israel yesterday as movies, documentaries, and newspapers marked Yom Hashoah, the annual day of remembrance for the 6 million Jews murdered by the Nazis and their allies.

But such a display in the museum in Nazareth represents something different.

The citizens of Jesus' hometown are Arabs -- 35 percent Christian, 65 percent Muslim -- and many identify themselves as Palestinians. The museum, opened in mid-March by a Muslim lawyer, is believed to be the first to present the story of the Holocaust in Arabic. It is part of the cutting edge of new thinking among some Palestinians that it is vital to understand the Holocaust if Israeli-Arab conflicts are ever to be resolved.

''Jewish people everywhere, not just in Israel, have a feeling of persecution" because of centuries of anti-Semitism that culminated in the Holocaust, said the museum's founder, Khaled Kasab Mahameed. ''This feeling of persecution shapes their consciousness. . . . Every aspect of life is affected by this feeling of persecution, which is very deep in the Jewish soul."

The efforts of Mahameed and a small but growing number of like-minded people are offensive to many Arabs and Jews. Arab critics see Mahameed and people who think like him as traitors who should limit their attentions to the suffering of their own people. Jewish critics say that Mahameed and others are attempting to legitimize the widespread view among Arabs that the hardships caused for Palestinians by the creation of Israel are the equivalent of Jewish suffering in the Holocaust.

But Mahameed answers that the masses of Arabs who deny or minimize the Holocaust must understand that ''we are not talking about 20,000 Israelis or 30,000 people killed in the conflict here -- we are talking about 6 million people killed in cold blood." He said during an interview in the museum, known officially as the Arab Institute for Holocaust Research and Education: ''This is very important. This affects the policies of the Israeli government toward the Palestinians, toward the land, the budget, settlements -- everything.

''If Arabs really understand this, they should understand that they must act with all their force to protect Israel and defend Jews against Nazis and other killers," he said. ''And when the Jewish people see that the Arabs understand, they will be able to give the Arabs their rights."

Like other Arabs who are trying to understand the Holocaust and communicate with Jews about it, Mahameed steers clear of expressing opinions on specific solutions to political problems.

''I am not talking about borders," he said. ''I leave this to Mr. Abbas and Mr. Sharon. I am talking about changing the environment and giving people the opportunity to live peacefully. One state, two states, four states -- this does not concern me."

Nazzir Majali, another Nazareth resident, was one of a group of 260 Israelis -- evenly divided between Arabs and Jews -- who traveled to the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz two years ago in an attempt to build mutual understanding. He is a commentator for the London-based Asharq Al-Awsat, a leading Arabic newspaper, and is writing a book to be titled ''An Arab in Auschwitz."

''We see this war between our people and our state," he said following an appearance before an international mayors' delegation that visited Nazareth recently. ''We are living together and we want to make peace. But how, if we don't know who are they, and from where they came, and what is the source of their pain?

''We were not part of this Holocaust as Arabs, but as Arabs now involved in conflict with Jews, we have some kind of responsibility to say 'Jews, we are with you,' " Majali said. ''They want security. . . . We want an independent Palestinian state, but aside from this, we have to do something so that Jews feel security."

Members of the group that went to Auschwitz believe they must ''give the Arab nation an idea about the pain of the Jews," and they are talking with people in the occupied territories and neighboring Arab countries to accomplish this, Majali said. ''We do this for ourselves, for our humanity, for our culture as Arabs."

Mahameed is paying a heavy price for his views. He says he has been ostracized by his brother, a Palestinian writer living in Italy, and shunned by the Arabic-language media in the region.

Tawfiq Jabarin, editor of an Arabic newspaper in Umm al Fahm, Israel, said Mahameed ''is talking nonsense. His ideas are strange and unacceptable to most Palestinians." He suggested that Mahameed has a mental problem.

Majali said members of his group, too, were criticized by Arabs in Israel, the West Bank, and neighboring Arab countries.

The Anti-Defamation League blasted the new museum in Nazareth for what it said was an anti-Israel theme that undermined the museum's educational message. Laura Kam Issacharoff, codirector of the Israel office of the League, who issued the critical statement, said she had not visited the exhibit and based her assessment on Mahameed's website.

Issacharoff said in a telephone interview that Mahameed, with whom she has talked at length, ''is not a bad man. The fact that he is coming from the community is amazing." But, she said, his perspective is grounded in the idea Israel is not a legitimate state and that its creation, at the expense of Palestinians, was enabled by European guilt over the Holocaust.

This, she asserted, feeds into a widespread belief in the Arab world that ''because of what happened to the Jews in the Holocaust, the all-powerful Jew-Israeli is willing to do anything to anyone to maintain his country."

Critics notwithstanding, Majali, Mahameed, and their colleagues say they are seeing positive results.

In the museum one day last month, Mufeed Khattib, a businessman, was the sole visitor. He argued with Mahameed that there should be pictures of massacres of Palestinians displayed as well. But he praised Mahameed for opening his eyes to things he had not realized before.

He said he had heard about the horrors but had never seen such pictures, despite the saturation of Israeli media with Holocaust movies and documentaries every year on Yom Hashoah. ''Perhaps I didn't see it well because it was on Israeli TV," he said. ''But this affects me. It is different for me that an Arab man did this."

Charles A. Radin can be reached at radin@globe.com.

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