Muslim opens first Arab Holocaust museum in Nazareth

Saturday, May 7, 2005

On the same day that the Yad Vashem Holocaust History Museum was opened this year, a lesser-known museum and educational center was opened by a Muslim man in the Israeli town of Nazareth. This unique museum, intended to raise awareness of past Jewish suffering in the eyes of Palestinians through historical photographs and Arabic-language educational materials, is believed to be the first-ever Arab holocaust museum.

Nazareth is of course well-known to Christians as the site where Joseph and Mary brought up the child Jesus. In modern times, Nazareth is the largest Arab town in Israel, having many self-proclaimed Palestinians, a Muslim majority, and a 35% Arab-Christian minority.

From the Buchenwald concentration camp

The museum's owner Khaleed Mahameed, a 43-year old lawyer, husband, and father of two, said that he learned about the holocaust during his time at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He spent about 20,000 shekels (US$4,500) of his own money in order to create the museum, despite the alienation of his own brother, the rejection of the Arab news media, and a public that is slow to accept his ideas.

Mahameed purchased about 80 photographs from the more well-known museum at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, site of Israel's national memorial to the Shoah (holocaust), located on the Har Hazikaron (Mount of Remembrance). The newly enlarged Israeli museum at Yad Vashem, opened March 15 with the attendance of President Moshe Katsav, replaced what was the world's first holocaust museum, established in 1972.

As part of his effort to educate Palestinians, Mahameed has printed 2,000 booklets in Arabic describing photographs of Nazi horrors, offered stipends to Arab students of the subject, and started a new museum website ( with some translations offered in English, Arabic, and Hebrew.

Mahameed believes contributions such as his are necessary to the Mideast peace effort. Said Mahameed:

"Understanding this and the fact that personal security is perhaps the major concern of Jews in Israel and elsewhere, as a direct outcome of the Holocaust and the feelings of persecution, is extremely important.

"If we, as Arabs, can dissipate these concerns and show understanding over what happened it will help create the climate for real dialogue in which Israeli Jews and especially decision-makers will be able to have a greater understanding of the suffering of Arab citizens and the Palestinians.

"This, in turn, would hopefully lead towards a peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and an end to discriminatory policies towards Arab citizens and the acceptance that they deserve equal rights."

Mahameed is not without his critics, not only among Arabs who say that Mahameed should do more to draw attention to the situation of present-day Palestinians, but also representatives of the Israel office of the Jewish Anti-Defamation League (ADL), who have stated without visiting the museum that they consider some of the attitudes expressed on Mahameed's website to be anti-Semitic.

According to an ADL press release dated March 20:

"The establishment of the first Holocaust museum for the Arabic-speaking public can be an important first step in educating the Arab world on the unique horrors of the destruction of European Jewry.

"Particularly now, at a time when Holocaust denial is rife both within and outside of the Arab world, the attempt to teach young Arabs about the Holocaust and to learn moral and ethical lessons from it is a worthy pursuit.

"If however, the Arab Institute for Holocaust Research and Education is, as noted on its Web site, ideologically grounded in the belief that it was the Palestinian people who paid the price for European guilt over the Holocaust by imposing what they believe is an illegitimate Jewish state in the heart of the Arab world then the institute will merely propagate the classic anti-Israel use of the Holocaust and promote anti-Semitism."

Friday was Yom Hashoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day in Israel, a day of solemn reflection on the loss of 5 to 7 million Jewish lives due to unprovoked Nazi aggression in World War II. Images, films and documentaries of the Holocaust are typically broadcast throughout the Israeli news media on that day, deeply affecting the survivors and their children.

However, these images do not typically reach a Palestinian audience, according to museum visitor Mufeed Khattib last month. "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."