'Auschwitz is a living cemetery that cries out in pain'

Leading Arab Israeli researcher of the Holocaust says it’s ‘in my DNA’

Asfahan Bahloul, once tasked by Yad Vashem to educate Israel’s minority community about Nazi crimes, says she’s doing her part to resolve the conflict

Dov Lieber is The Times of Israel's Arab affairs correspondent.

Arab Israeli Holocaust researcher Asfahan Bahloul. (Doron Golan)
Arab Israeli Holocaust researcher Asfahan Bahloul. (Doron Golan)

It took Asfahan Bahloul, a leading Arab Israeli researcher of the Holocaust, quite some time to formulate how she feels when she sees Israeli jets soaring over Auschwitz. She had to think about it for weeks. And then a few more days. She finally sent her answer by email, to which this article will later return.

Bahloul’s deliberations, which she agreed struck at the heart of the identity struggle inherent in her work, are characteristic of both her approach to interviews and her research style — she’s modest and unwilling to give answers to questions she is not sure about.

The Hebrew University PhD candidate, who received a Mandel scholarship for outstanding doctoral students, is one of the country’s leading researchers into the oft-ignored question of how Arabs in Israel, where the Holocaust maintains a weighty presence in society, used to and currently do talk about the Shoah.

The Times of Israel first met up with Bahloul in September as she was speaking to a group of Muslim community leaders from Germany visiting the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial and museum in Jerusalem. The institution tasked her in 2016 with educating Israel’s Arab community about the Nazi crimes.

The German group, invited by the American Jewish Committee, was keen to learn about Bahloul’s experience in educating Israeli Muslims about the genocidal chapter of World War II, since in their own country they had experienced a lot of Holocaust denial.

Speaking to the crowd in exacting and technical terminology in a mix of English, Arabic, Hebrew and a bissel of German, Bahloul showed a cerebral yet passionate commitment to her field, rolling up the sleeves of her blouse as she described “how I attack my work.”

An illustrative image of Asfahan Bahloul lecturing at Yad Vashem. (Courtesy)

Much of her research is compiled by looking through old and current newspapers, though her work at Yad Vashem has allowed her more chances to directly engage those in her community and broaden her understanding.

She left her outreach position at Yad Vashem after a year in order to concentrate on her academic work and teaching. She also felt her Arab audience tended to perceive her as biased if she was coming from the museum, seen as a symbol of the Israeli government.

In her time studying and working with Arab Israelis, she said she found “regular folks are very open to [learning about] the subject of the Holocaust.”

However, she notes many Palestinians want to see Israel teach and understand the Palestinian narrative as well, particularly the history of the Nakba (“Catastrophe”) — the name Palestinians use to refer to the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who fled or were forced out of what is now Israel during the Jewish state’s War of Independence in 1948.

“We want the Ministry of Education to allow us to learn about the Nakba, the national memory that has befallen us, and not only the national memory of the other,” she said, describing the Arab Israeli attitude.

In an interview with The Times of Israel, the Palestinian Authority Education Minister Sabri Saidam said including Holocaust studies into the Palestinian curriculum is “being considered,” but demanded, however, that Israel take reciprocal action and teach about the Nakba.

Bahloul has knowingly placed herself at a rather perilous fault line between the two worlds she inhabits—her Israeli and ethnic Palestinian identities.

She is aware of the sensitive ground she treads or, as she is fond of calling it, “an exposed nerve.”

Yet, throughout her work and studies, she said she hasn’t raised the ire of anyone— perhaps an eyebrow or two — but rather has been met with respect and appreciation for her work.

Palestinian intellectuals see Holocaust’s ‘human lessons’

Bahloul’s work isn’t really about the events of the Holocaust in Europe between 1939-1945. It concentrates on how those bloody years have since been remembered, talked about and internalized by Arabs and Jews in Israel.

One trend she has noticed is that even discussion about the Holocaust in Arab Israeli media is intentionally limited. “I found that only intellectuals, authors, journalists and spiritual leaders can talk about the Holocaust, and that’s it,” she said.

This strict cap on who has the authority to talk about the Holocaust in the Arab Israeli community, she argued, has a lot to do with the sensitivity of the issue. They don’t want to aggravate the Jewish community and/or perhaps are afraid of alienating their Jewish advertisers in some cases.

This is why, she noted, editors often times seek opinions from Arabs abroad, such as the Lebanese author and playwright Elias Khoury, who can more safely engage with the sensitive subject.

Bahloul believes that the Arab Israeli and Palestinian intellectuals who did have authority to speak about the Holocaust “took the discussion a step forward.”

These intellectuals were by no means friendly toward the Israeli state. They included the scholar Edward Said, and the poets Mahmoud Darwish and Samih al-Qassem. Yet they all spoke out against Holocaust denial and urged Palestinians to recognize the “human lesson” of that dark period.

Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish seen during a signing for his new book in Amman, Jordan, February 23, 2008 (AP/Nader Daoud)

While the bulk of her work is recording and analyzing a tiny sliver of the ramifications of the Holocaust, she believes it can have an enormous impact on Israel, the Palestinians and the region.

“The Israeli-Palestinian conflict puts the entire Middle East in a bind, with no end on the horizon. The people, of course, are fed up with the conflict and its bitter and difficult consequences. It takes a heavy toll on both sides. We hear of various plans to formulate a document of understanding, but since the hopes that were raised during the days of Oslo, no political initiative from within or from outside has been able to stand the test of reality,” she said, referring to the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks in the 1990s.

“Knowledge about the suffering of the other,” she said, “can certainly serve as a key to treating the pains of the two peoples.”

Holocaust study ‘a part of my DNA’

Bahloul’s interest in the Holocaust began in elementary school. Unlike the vast majority of her Arab peers, she attended Jewish schools both in Jerusalem and in Acre.

Her father, Zouheir Bahloul, is a lawmaker in the Zionist Union party, and her mother is a teacher at Jewish elementary schools. She said that her parents thought going to a Jewish school would help her “integrate” into the wider Israeli society.

On the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, seven-year-old Asfahan Bahloul eats a pita in the city of Acre, where she grew up. (Courtesy)

In Jewish schools, she attended what most Arab Israelis never do: Holocaust memorial ceremonies.

She recalled one ceremony in elementary school.

“A few students were standing on the stage at school. They were reading the names of victims, one after another. I was very emotional and very nervous. As a child, you cannot grasp the moment as you do when you’re grown up.”

“It wasn’t obvious for me to hear the whole story and the history of the Jewish people, to know that six million people were killed just because of their identity,” she said.

At the University of Haifa, Bahloul began her studies in Hebrew literature and history, but at one point switched over to communications.

As a young college student, younger than most of her Jewish peers because she did not have to go to the army — Arab Israelis are exempt from the draft — she was accepted to join the team of Channel 2, one of Israel’s premier TV news channels. In this way, she followed in her father’s footsteps, who before becoming a politician, worked as a television sportscaster.

Soon after starting her journalistic career, the bloody Second Intifada broke out. She took a break from her studies to invest in her work covering how the events were playing out in Israel’s north, where the vast majority of Arab Israelis live.

When she began her master’s degree years later at Haifa University, she said her decision to study the Arab discourse of the Holocaust was “a process.” She couldn’t point to a single event that had caused her to take what she herself describes as a baffling decision. It was something there, swimming around in her consciousness since the days of school Holocaust ceremonies.

At the same time, she said, studying the Holocaust is “part of my DNA.”

Her parents, she said, easily accepted her decision. As she put it, they knew there would be a “price” for sending her to a Jewish school. Her friends, she says, come from “both sides — they love me because of my courage to choose an unexpected direction.”

Asfahan Bahloul standing outside Warsaw University. (Courtesy)

During her time at Haifa University, she was given the choice to study for a semester in Poland or Germany.

“I chose Poland because of Auschwitz,” she said.

“I don’t even know where to begin to tell you what happened to my body, my soul even, when I traveled to Poland,” she said.

The Holocaust had etched itself into most of her waking hours. She was doing her academic studies in the daytime, and at night reading histories and novels about the tragic events.

She went to Poland, she said, “to face the history.”

“To face the history, it’s not so easy,” she added. “It means dealing with the collective memory of yourself, of the other (the Jewish people), the collective memory of academic research, and the collective memory of history.”

‘In a cemetery, one walks on their tippy-toes and cries’

In her answer to the question of her feelings when she sees Israeli jets flying over Auschwitz, she seemed to be harkening back to her visit to the death camp.

“Auschwitz is a living cemetery that cries out in pain, grief, and mourning in an almost incomprehensible way to what the eye sees but refuses to believe,” she wrote.

She noted that the decision to fly Israeli warplanes over Auschwitz, which first began in 2003, has “stirred controversy in Israeli society” about the ways in which the Holocaust is commemorated.

She says she agrees with the words of Israeli historian Yehuda Bauer, who wrote:

“One does not fly flags in a cemetery, and one does not carry out exhibition flights over it. In a cemetery, there are also no coordinated performances between a flyover and a ceremony on the ground. For this, there is theater. In a cemetery, one walks on their tippy-toes and cries.”

Do I have to wear a Skullcap at Yad Vashem?

In her time working with the Arab Israeli community, Bahloul noted that the subject of the Holocaust and Yad Vashem had become inextricably linked to Israeli state ceremonies for the minority group.

As part of her work with Yad Vashem, she toured Arab towns trying to convince school principles to visit the Museum — a task she said she performed with significant success. Although she did not find much opposition to the idea, there was, she says, a lot of confusion.

Once, she said, while speaking to a “prominent” school principal about the importance of the museum and teaching the history of the Holocaust, the educator interrupted her.

“Please, Asfahan, I feel confused. Do we have to wear a skullcap when we visit Yad Vashem?” he asked.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at a ceremony at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Museum in Jerusalem April 15, 2015. (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“This story shows there is a gap in understanding in the Arab population. The media constructs certain images on television, and when the average person sees these images on Holocaust Memorial Day, when they see the prime minister, the president or the US president lighting the eternal fire, they come to understand that’s what Yad Vashem is about,” she explained.

“They are less informed about the idea that Yad Vashem is an institution that has a mission to pass lessons that are beyond the ceremony,” she added.

‘New approach’ needed, for Arabs and Jews

Bahloul is fond of quoting the late Arab Israeli intellectual Salim Joubran, who called for “a new approach to the Holocaust, on the parts of both Arabs and Jews” in the quest for peace.

When asked what new Jewish approach there must be, she argued it meant that the dominant population of Israel must learn to accept another narrative in its midst.

“This conflict, to my great discontent, seemingly will not be solved without Jewish-Israeli society trying to give legitimacy to another narrative within it,” she said.

“I’m trying to do my duty…to speak about the Holocaust from different perspectives. But there is another collective memory within the Israeli-Palestinian society—the collective memory of the Palestinian people. It has no space. It is threatened by the dominant society…and therefore, in many cases, it is erased,” she said.

An event marking “Nakba Day” at Tel Aviv University on May 20, 2015. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

She argued the way Jewish-Israeli society relates to the Arab minority is complex, because it is influenced by many factors, including regional politics. She offered no magic solution but hoped for a new approach.

“Only time will tell what Israeli society will learn from all this,” she said.

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