March 29, 2011
False Symmetry: Teaching Holocaust in Gaza Schools
A set of historical ironies arises from this absurd report. (UNRWA)
By Seraj Assi
Spring has turned red in Gaza with a new Israeli massacre. Late Monday night Israeli combat planes pounded Northern Gaza and murdered two children and three adults whose only crime was playing football in front of their house. At the same day Haaretz published a report complaining that Hamas protests UN plans to teach Gazans about the Holocaust. It was also the very day that the Knesset in Israel approved the Nakaba Law, an absurd legislation that bans Palestinian citizens from commemorating the Nakba.
This is no mere coincidence. Nor is it the first time that Israel’s massacring of Palestinian children is followed by absurd demands to teach Jewish victimhood in Palestinian schools, while working to prevent its Palestinian citizens from commemorating their tragedy at the same time.
The uproar against UN plan to teach the Holocaust in Gaza schools spurred in February this year after a UN official told a Jordanian daily that UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, would introduce the Holocaust history to Gaza students as part of its human rights curriculum for the next school year starting in September.
Haaretz also reported a series of statements by UN and Israeli officials accusing Palestinians for not fully understanding the tragedy that happened to the Jews, for divvying up facts, taking things out of context, and being reluctant to acknowledge Jewish suffering fearing it would diminish recognition of their own claims. The Israeli newspaper did not forget to remind Palestinians how the need to find a sanctuary for hundreds of thousands of Holocaust survivors contributed to the creation of Israel and that Palestinian recognition of the Holocaust is a necessary step toward peace.
A set of historical ironies arises from this absurd report. Most notable is that Israel’s billing of the Holocaust as a moral justification for the creation of Israel is historically refuted. Simply because it does not account for the fact that preparations for the creation of a Jewish State in Palestine had begun some half century before the Holocaust. Nor does it really tell us how many Holocaust survivors live in Israel today.
Yet this is not to suggest that we must accept this moral logic had there been a valid historical connection between the two events. For Palestinians are not responsible for the Holocaust and it is absurd to see their refusal to teach it to their children as accomplice, especially when they are being ethnically cleansed by Israel’s air forces on a daily basis.
Yet what does remain valid here is that linking the Palestinian Nakba with the Holocaust is still vital to understand how the latter has been always used to justify the former. The bulk of Gaza residents are themselves refugees whose dispossession was justified by Zionist misappropriation of the Holocaust tragedy.
Israel’s symmetry between the histories of the Holocaust and the Nakba is misleading for a simple reason. That is while the Holocaust is seen by Palestinians as part of European history and has nothing to do with Palestinian consciousness, the Nakba was generated by Israel and must be taught in its schools as part of its own history. Not to mention that for Palestinians the Nakba is an ongoing tragedy; that the refugee question is still unsettled and that Palestinians still live under occupation and ethnic suppression.
The question that persists is has Israel ever acknowledged Palestinian suffering and ongoing tragedy? The fact is that while countless books have been devoted in Israel and the West to denying Palestinian tragedy and distorting their history from Joan Peters’ notorious From Time Immemorial to this present day, there is no comparative Palestinian study on denying the Holocaust or challenging its scope.
I myself spent twelve years in an Arab school inside the so-called modern, democratic and liberal State of Israel and never heard of the word “Nakba.” The name Palestine itself has been banned in Arab schools for decades. We Palestinian students were never taught about the Islamic era in Palestine which lasted about thirteen centuries. Instead we were taught about Israel’s Independence Day, Zionist Peace Doves and Palestinian terrorism.
I vividly recall those moments when we were forced to stand still in memory of Israeli soldiers who had killed our own people. How else could we come to terms with the fact that many Palestinian Arabs in Israel continue to call Israel’s Independence Day the Independence Holiday?
Yes Palestinians are aware of the tragedy that befell the Jews. But they are also aware of the way it has been invested to justify their dispossession and displacement. They are aware of how by a strange change of fortune they became the victims of the victims; how the Zionist movement made the shift from victims to victimizers with terrifying ease; how Jewish suffering has been turned into political industry and discursive device for its colonial project in Palestine; how it has been used by Israel as political instrument and ideological weapon and seen as tantamount to the recognition of Jewish claims to the land.
To be sure, Palestinians do not refuse to teach or learn the Holocaust per se, but the Zionist perspective on the Holocaust. That is the way the tragic history of the Jews is being now turned into a modern version of civilizing mission in Gaza. Is there anything more absurd than besieging a people, ruining their life, slaughtering their children, destroying their schools and hospitals, and returning the next day to offer them lessons in multiculturalism?
Perhaps when Palestinians will have their full rights as a people, when they will live in freedom and justice and feel more secure in their homeland; they would be most happy to learn the history of the Holocaust, teach Jewish literature, and perhaps read Greek poetry.
- Seraj Assi is a PhD Student in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Georgetown University, Washington DC. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.