Today we remember the Holocaust. The term derives from a Greek word used in the Septuagint translation of the Mosaic Torah for a type of sacrifice that was entirely consumed by fire and went up in smoke (to holocautoma; Hebr. 'olah). In Hebrew, this day is called Yom HaZikaron laShoah ve-laGvura and it is timed to fall half way between the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising and Israel's independence day. It is thus a symbolic date, recognizing a large-scale catastrophe, the destruction of European Jewry at the hand of the Nazis and their helpers in Germany and many other countries. When speaking of the Holocaust, images of emaciated bodies and gas chambers come to mind. By means of visual evidence and survivors' accounts, the generations of those too young to remember themselves have acquired a sense of what happened.
We've heard that it is our duty to remember but how can you remember what you have not experienced? You can only remember what you have not experienced if you care about those whose lives have been directly touched by what happened then.
President Abbas, the head of the Palestine National Authority and of the PLO, has joined the ranks of those who care. This was a courageous thing to do. To recognize the suffering of the Jews at a time when Jews are inflicting pain on the Palestinian people is a heroic act, no matter how calculated the timing. Abbas, who once belittled the destruction of European Jewry and questioned its scope, is now cited as recognizing the Holocaust as the "most heinous crime" of modern history. What makes this recognition courageous is that it defies the Palestinian, his own people's, narrative, wherein Holocaust and Nakba are equated. The Nakba, which roughly means the same as ha-Shoah, refers to the expulsion of three quarters of a million of Arabs in 1948 and 49 from what became the State of Israel and the beginning of the plight of the Palestinian refugees. What Abbas says when he recognizes the monstrosity of the Holocaust is that he recognizes the Jewish historical memory as based on something real that defies the imagination. He understands that the trauma of the Jewish past is real and that it fuels Jewish fears today.
We should not dismiss what Abbas has done here as a mere political maneuver, attempting to have it both ways, seeing that he just initiated a reconciliation with Hamas, an organization Israel and the US regard as a terrorist group bent on the destruction of Israel. What Abbas is trying, and it is worth considering it seriously, is to uncouple the past from the present, Jewish victimhood from Jewish statehood. What he says is that one can recognize that Jews suffered beyond measure, while denying that past suffering entitles the Jews today to oppress others. Abbas thereby admonishes us not to politicize the Holocaust but to honor the victims, no matter our current quarrels. But it also says something else. It says that Abbas understands that Israelis and Jews world-wide are hesitant to engage in serious negotiations with the Palestinians because their past is always before them. Palestinians realize that for Israel to trust the them requires for Israel to leave its past behind, to remember the past without being dominated by it, to honor the victims without projecting the names of their killers onto the faces of their current adversaries. What Abbas is asking of us is to distinguish present from past, Arabs from Nazis, and the Israeli state from the European Jews who were deported, ghettoized, worked to death and exterminated without state-protection and deprived of neighborly solidarity. Abbas understands that he has to face the Israelis as they are, not as the figment of Arab imagination and invective. He is fighting a civilized fight for a dignified and mutually respectful future that no longer denies the other's past. How successful this initiative will be depends on how it will be received on both sides. I think we should welcome it as a step in the right direction.