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'Arabs should not only respect this day but elevate it too'

Group seeks to mainstream Holocaust commemoration in Arab community

While coronavirus scuttles plans to hold 20 Yom Hashoah events, grassroots organization moves to Zoom, where participants hear testimonies of survivor, former neo-Nazi

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

Participants logged onto a Holocaust Remembrance Day event organized by the "Together - Vouch for Each Other" group on April 20, 2020. (Courtesy)
Participants logged onto a Holocaust Remembrance Day event organized by the "Together - Vouch for Each Other" group on April 20, 2020. (Courtesy)

Growing up in the Arab Israeli town of Nazareth, Yoseph Haddad was not accustomed to standing in silence during the Holocaust Memoriay Day siren.

“This wasn’t out of disdain. It was simply the natural custom,” he explained.

Haddad didn’t learn about Holocaust Memorial Day until he joined the army and didn’t meet a survivor until he was 30.

Now 35, Haddad has served for the past two years as CEO of “Together — Vouching for Each Other,” an organization aimed at connecting Arab citizens to broader Israeli society.

Among the organization’s efforts is bringing a greater awareness to Holocaust Memorial Day, which Haddad says is rarely marked in any official capacity in the Arab sector.

“Arab Israelis learn about the Holocaust in schools, but it’s more in the context of World War II,” he explained. “Unlike in Jewish schools, Arab students are not taken to [the] Yad Vashem [Holocaust museum] or to [concentration camps in] Poland.”

Yoseph Haddad. (Courtesy)

However, Haddad said that education on the issue has improved over the years and that a majority of the sector is “respectful” of the day, “even though people still lack enough information on it.”

But according to Haddad, the experience of Israel’s Arab citizens places them in a unique position to draw meaning from Holocaust Memorial Day.

“Anti-Semitism and hatred specifically toward Jews is what caused the Holocaust, but a more general racism also played a role, and this is something Arab Israelis can relate to,” he said, while trying carefully to avoid drawing too direct a connection between the two experiences.

“Exactly because of the fact that we experience racism in this country, we should be among the first to commemorate Holocaust Memorial Day,” Haddad continued. “We as Arab Israelis should not only be able to respect this day but elevate it as well.”

In cooperation with Zikaron Basalon, which brings people together in homes, workplaces, and other more intimate environments to speak with survivors, “Together — Vouching for Each Other” held its first Holocaust Remembrance Day event last year in the northern town of Kisra-Sumei with 30 young people in attendance.

The group had planned to expand its activities to 20 different events this year with between 15 and 20 people at each. But due to the coronavirus, organizers were forced to move their plans to Zoom where one virtual gathering took place on Monday evening to be followed by two others on Tuesday, for roughly 100 participants in total.

Participants at a Holocaust Remembrance Day event organized by the “Together – Vouch for Each Other” group on May 1, 2019. (Courtesy)

“We wanted to keep things relatively small because while numbers are important, we also want it to be a discussion,” Haddad explained.

This year’s events are being held in a slightly different format than typical Zikaron Basalon gatherings. A Holocaust survivor spoke at the group’s first event last year, but a decision was made to instead read the testimony of a survivor in Arabic at this week’s events. “It’s important that we hold these conversations in our mother tongue,” Haddad explained.

After the testimony was read out, the group heard from Yonatan Lutz Langer, a former neo-Nazi from Berlin who converted to Judaism and moved to Israel.

“I chose to have him speak so people could hear how so much of what happened was caused by ignorance,” Haddad said.

After Langer’s speech, organizers opened up a discussion between the 35 participants that had logged on to the conference call.

“The conclusion drawn was that no matter if you are Jewish or Arab, right or left-wing, religious or secular, we are all human beings, and we must work together out of mutual understanding to eradicate hatred and racism from within us,” Haddad said after the event.

Participants at a Holocaust Remembrance Day event organized by the “Together – Vouch for Each Other” group on May 1, 2019. (Courtesy)

The group’s project manager Lorena Khateeb said that the young participants “represented a symbol of mutual responsibility that reflects solidarity, empathy and compassion for the Jewish people and all humanity.”

“We decided not to be indifferent and to bring the issue of the Holocaust to the forefront in the Arab sector because its remembrance is first and foremost a human concern, [not just a Jewish one],” Khateeb added.

Haddad said that next year he hopes to expand the project beyond the 20 events that had been slated for this week and to even obtain co-sponsorships from Arab municipalities.

“Our goal is for such events to no longer be considered unique in the Arab sector,” he said.

“It’s Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Day. It’s not just for Jews to commemorate.”

Participants logged onto a Holocaust Remembrance Day event organized by the “Together – Vouch for Each Other” group on April 20, 2020. (Courtesy)
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