WASHINGTON — Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas was “sincere and authentic” in his condemnation of the Holocaust, said Rabbi Marc Schneier, the American rabbi who garnered the historic statement from the Palestinian leader.

Schneier, who has met Abbas on numerous occasions, said that he has asked for the Palestinian leader’s cooperation before on sensitive issues. Schneier heads the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding which has, for almost a decade, focused on building understanding between Jewish and Muslim communities, and seeks to enlist Jews to combat Islamophobia and Muslims to combat anti-Semitism.

At one point, when anti-Jewish violence at the hands of Muslims in France had increased  and Abbas said that he was heading to the country, Schneier said that he asked Abbas to make a public statement in his capacity “not only as a leader of the Palestinian people but as a prominent Muslim leader who has a responsibility leading Muslims worldwide.”

“Ten days later I received a copy of a speech from the Palestinians’ UN ambassador, in which he did in fact speak out against anti-Semitism.”

Schneier said that this most recent initiative was born earlier this month, when he traveled to Israel around the Passover holiday. Even as peace talks faltered, Schneier claimed that he and Abbas share an understanding “that we are sons of Abraham, that we share a common fate and there are issues that transcend the political issues of the moment.”

Rabbi Marc Schneier meets with imams as part of his work to cultivate Jewish-Muslim dialogue. (Courtesy: Foundation for Ethnic Understanding)

Rabbi Marc Schneier meets with imams as part of his work to cultivate Jewish-Muslim dialogue. (Courtesy: Foundation for Ethnic Understanding)

In Israel, Schneier received a call asking if he would be willing to come to Ramallah on short notice to meet with the leader, who was embroiled in the collapsing peace talks. Bringing along two acquaintances, the three were hosted by both Abbas and Minister of Waqf and Religious Affairs Mahmoud al-Habbash.

First, Schneier said, he raised an issue of common concern, explaining that “the Foundation” is at the “forefront leading the effort combating the recent Danish regulations that would prevent Muslims and Jews alike from being able to ritually slaughter animals.” Abbas, according to Schneier, responded enthusiastically, saying that he would be happy to get involved in the opposition to the legislation.

Schneier also plugged his Weekend of Twinning of Mosques and Synagogues, expressing hope that two Israeli synagogues and two Palestinian mosques could trade spiritual leaders during the annual event.

But it was after an aide brought in pictures of Schneier and Abbas taken moments earlier that the American rabbi says he broached his third topic.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas at his office in the West Bank city of Ramallah on Wednesday, April 23, 2014 (photo credit: AFP/Abbas Momani)

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas at his office in the West Bank city of Ramallah on Wednesday, April 23, 2014 (photo credit: AFP/Abbas Momani)

“I said you and I have always discussed what it means to develop an empathetic imagination with each other,” he recounted, saying that he added his favorite maxim that “a people who fight for their own rights are only as honorable as when they fight for the rights of all people.”

He told Abbas that Yom Hashoah, the Holocaust memorial day, was coming and that acknowledging the Holocaust “has nothing to do with Palestine, with Israel” but rather with an event that was deeply significant to the Jewish people.

Abbas’s reaction, says Schneier, was immediate. “He says, Rabbi, I want you to know how I feel. I consider it to be the most tragic event in modern history,” Schneier recalled. “I found his sentiment to be heartfelt and genuine. He went on and on about how we need to understand the pain of the other.”

Abbas then told Schneier that he would issue a statement in which he expressed his sympathy, condolences and solidarity with the Jewish people on Yom Hashoah.

Schneier reiterated that he saw Abbas’s “expressions about the Holocaust and the way that he projected the magnitude of the tragedy to be sincere and authentic.”

The American rabbi chose not to press Abbas on previous comments that he had made regarding the Holocaust, including his 1983 doctoral thesis, later published as a book, in which he questioned the number of Jews killed and argued for the collaboration of Zionist leadership with Nazis in propelling Jews toward then-mandatory Palestine. Abbas backtracked from those statements as early as 2011, when he acknowledged that he had “heard from Israelis that there were six million” victims, and adding that he could accept that figure.

The rabbi said that he was familiar with Abbas’s earlier statements, but argued that “in my line of work people evolve, they grow, they expand their horizons, their interests and their sympathies. If I didn’t believe that, I wouldn’t be in the line of work that I’m in today. In Judaism we believe that it is human nature to change. So I chose not to look back.”

At the same time, Schneier expressed cautious disappointment with the way in which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu received Abbas’s statement, which was published Sunday in both Arabic and English. Speaking to CNN’s Candy Crowley on a weekly Sunday morning talk show, Netanyahu said that “President Abbas can’t have it both ways. He can’t say the Holocaust was terrible, but at the same time embrace those who deny the Holocaust and seek to perpetrate another destruction of the Jewish people.”

Drawing connections between Abbas’s statement and the announcement earlier this week of a unity government with Hamas that collapsed peace talks, Netanyahu accused Abbas of trying to do “damage control” and “placate western public opinion that understands that he delivered a terrible blow to the peace process by embracing these Hamas terrorists.”

“There are people who have difficulty with positive statements and positive rhetoric,” Schneier countered. “Netanyahu brushed it aside, but there were other members of his cabinet who called me last Tuesday to congratulate me.”

“We go through a process in Judaism which I think of as the three C’s – confession, contrition and change. The most important is change. The most important is being empathetic to the position of the other. Perhaps we need to take a step back and think about what it means for Abbas to become the first Palestinian leader to recognize the Holocaust, what it means for his position in the Arab world, even for his personal safety.”

Schneier believes that Abbas’s message was “a very courageous statement for him to make – particularly in his world and his circle this was not an easy step for him to take.”

The value, said the rabbi who has won multiple awards for his efforts toward interfaith dialogue, extends beyond mere symbolism. “I hope that his statement will inspire and encourage other Muslims and Arabs to recognize the horrors of the Holocaust and to use this statement as an opportunity to better understand the Jewish people and the many years of horror that we were subjugated to.”

Schneier says that his efforts to foster dialogue and understanding will ultimately facilitate the practical side of an inevitable peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

“As the Abbases and Netanyahus and Kerrys and Obamas are involved in this political peace process, we are heading up a spiritual peace process,” he explained. “One in which through the study of text, the understanding of our respective traditions, our shared experiences and shared histories we are building a salvation so that when the political peace process comes to fruition you will have a basis for implementing the agreement.”

“Right now, the majority of Jews don’t trust Muslims, and the majority of Muslims don’t trust Jews and the underlying cause is not the territorial disagreements but the ignorance that we have regarding each others’ texts, traditions, and historical experiences,” he added.

“We’re branding a whole new paradigm of Muslim-Jewish understanding. That was spirit in which I went to Ramallah. I will leave the political peace process to the politicians and political leaders. But in developing the spiritual peace process bringing the children of Abraham together, we are in the vanguard of that worldwide. I do not see how you can enact a political peace process if you don’t address the underlying bases for mistrust among Muslims and Jews.”