A few days ago, the world commemorated Holocaust Day with memorials, moments of silence, and time taken to remember the lives of loved ones lost. For years this day has been a source of internal conflict for me as a Palestinian, so this year my wife Marie and I decided to hold our own memorial by doing something I have put off for a long time: we watched the movie “Schindler’s List.” It was my first time seeing the movie, which tells the story of a German man who risked his life to save hundreds of Jews during the Holocaust. Although it may seem strange for a Palestinian to take time out to remember the Holocaust, I felt it was an important step for me. I needed to connect with the pain of those who suffered, and I needed to go beyond nationality to acknowledge the loss of human life.
I must admit that growing up I did not know much about the Holocaust. As Palestinians, we simply did not learn about it. There was a stigma attached to it, an understanding that Israel would use the Holocaust to lobby for sympathy, then turn and use the sympathy as a terrible weapon against the Palestinian people. So when I was asked about the Holocaust, I always felt that defensive urge to say “It was not my fault! I suffered for it too.” Deep down, I think I felt that by acknowledging their pain, I would betray or marginalize my own suffering. Also, some part of me feared that if I sympathized with “the enemy,” my right to struggle for justice might be taken away. Now I know this is nonsense: you are stronger when you let humanity overcome enmity. However, it took me time to learn this lesson.
Many years ago, I decided there is no way I can understand and communicate with my Jewish friends if I don’t learn their history, their narrative, and their story. I decided that the Holocaust Museum would be the place to start my journey. My heart was racing as I crossed the threshold of Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. I began looking at the pictures and reading the stories with the distinct awareness that I was the only Palestinian there. As I walked through the museum, however, my self-consciousness was replaced with shock. I could not believe how denigrated men could become to commit such atrocities. How could racism strip men of all humanity?
A few days later, I shared with some of my Jewish friends about my trip to the Holocaust Museum. Many were surprised, and wondered what had prompted me to make such a visit. As I explained my reasons, I could see the walls that divided us crumbling apart. Yacov, a Holocaust survivor, told me his personal story. As a young boy in Poland, he had been separated from his parents and forced to pretend to be Christian, praying the Catholic prayers and attending church. His father was murdered during the war. One of my best friends, Rami, described the horrors his father suffered in Auschwitz concentration camp. Again, my heart was gripped with pain and sympathy in hearing their stories.
Visiting the Holocaust Museum and allowing my friends to share their stories was pivotal for my relationship with them. I could understand where they were coming from. I could empathize with their feelings that the world is against them. The Holocaust had shaped their awareness of the world around them, and my understanding of this tragedy was important for them to successfully communicate with me.
This is why I decided to remember the Holocaust this year. Watching Schindler’s List, I was moved by the story to a degree that I cannot describe. It was impossible to fight the tears streaming from my eyes. The connection I made with those who suffered the Holocaust goes beyond nationality, religion or race; it was the connection of one man to another in the face of universally understandable pain.
At the end of the move, Oscar Schindler was given a ring inscribed with the words “If you save a life you save the world,” a phrase from the Talmud. Today this statement stands true for all of those men and women active in bringing an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But in my story, I want to deliver a message to the cynics, the hopeless, and the ones who have given up on the quest for peace. This message is also to the many people who have questioned the small grassroots initiatives, the meetings, the dialogue groups, the interfaith projects, the demonstrations, and protests against the killing of people, Arabs and Jews. If you can save one life, you are saving the world.
My challenge is this: Oscar Schindler regretted not doing more to save more people. He cried for not selling his car, his pin, and everything else in his possession just to ransom one more life. Governments, nations and even some religious groups donate billions of dollars for weapons, yet when it comes to promoting understanding, life, and coexistence, our governments and people are broke. I want us to consider, can we put a price on saving one life? Can we put a price on saving the world? It is vital to protect our values and humanity regardless of the cost we must pay for it. Oscar Schindler was able to save a thousand lives, and it was well worth it. How many lives can you save?
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Aziz Abu Sarah is a Senior Research Associate at the Center for World Relgions, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution at George Mason University and a regular contributor to www.Marcgopin.com