JERUSALEM – Six decades after the Nazis murdered 6 million Jews, Israel's national Holocaust memorial has launched a new effort to educate the country's Arab minority — many of whom either deny the horror or undermine its scope.
Like their Palestinian brethren in the West Bank and Gaza, many of Israel's 1.2 million Arabs resentfully view the Holocaust as the catalyst of their own suffering. While studying the Nazi genocide is mandatory in Israeli schools, there's little empathy among Arabs for its Jewish victims.
In a new project, the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial is offering seminars to Arab teachers, hoping to wrest contemporary Mideast politics from the historical events of the Holocaust.
Organizers acknowledge it's a tough challenge.
"We have succeeded to have opened a window — not a door," said Dorit Novak, chief educator at Yad Vashem. "We have to open the door and start this dialogue."
The Holocaust by the German Nazis and their collaborators planned to wipe out the European Jewry. Many survivors became refugees and found a home in pre-state Israel. With the Holocaust fresh in its mind, the international community laid the foundation for a Jewish state in a 1947 United Nations vote.
The following year, in a war that followed Israel's declaration of independence, more than 700,000 Palestinians fled or were expelled from their homes in events they call the "Nakba," or catastrophe.
For many Palestinians and Israeli Arabs, the two events are forever linked, with recognition of the Holocaust widely seen as tantamount to acknowledging Jewish claims to the land.
A 2009 poll surveying 700 Israeli-Arabs showed some 30 percent didn't believe the Holocaust occurred. The poll had a margin of error of 3.7 percentage points.
Poll author Sammy Smooha, a Jewish sociologist who has researched the Arab sector for decades, said he believes the relatively high number is a reflection of unhappiness toward Israeli policies, and not overt Holocaust denial.
"They want to protest their treatment in Israel," he said. To Israel's Arabs, "the Holocaust is a means of legitimacy of the Jewish state."
Israeli Arabs form one-fifth of the country's 7.6 million people. Unlike Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, they are Israeli citizens. They have experienced decades of discrimination — most recently illustrated by calls from dozens of rabbis for Jews not to rent property to Arabs.
Arab educators said Yad Vashem's new project is likely to flounder without a wider effort to heal tensions between Israel's Jews and Arabs.
Many bitterly noted that Israel's education curriculum only briefly mentions the Nakba. Most teachers in Jewish schools skip it, education advocates said.
"When a student studies his own history and heritage, it makes it easier to empathize with another's history," said Yousef Jabarin, director of Arab think tank Dirasat.
Israeli Jews, who attend separate schools from Arabs, study the Holocaust from an early age.
In contrast, Arab students study it only in a mandatory history class, where most are just taught the basic facts to pass university acceptance exams.
Yad Vashem began its outreach years ago, and in 2008 launched an Arabic version of its website. But the memorial says the number of Arab visitors remains low.
Working with Israel's Education Ministry, it began its first-ever training course for Arab teachers last month. Some 150 educators elected to participate.
To build trust, lecturers break up classes into small groups.
During the 20-hour course, lecturers steer clear of politics. Teachers hear survivor testimonies and learn about the Holocaust from its beginnings in Germany.
Some of the Arab teachers try compare the Holocaust to the Israel-Palestinian conflict, Novak said. But she hoped the course would demonstrate the Holocaust's unique nature — an attempt to exterminate an entire people, not painful but less extreme forms of discrimination or mistreatment.
"I am always trying to ask — OK, there are similarities, but there are differences, too. Can you see the differences? It was the most extreme event of the modern world," she said. "We have to sensitize people."
Israel's Education Ministry didn't allow reporters to attend seminars or interview teachers.
Yad Vashem officials involved in the project said they were so far pleased with the teachers' enthusiasm, but acknowledged they wouldn't have quick success.
Past attempts at outreach had mixed results.
A week after Israel's three-week offensive against Hamas militants in Gaza in early 2009, Yad Vashem launched an exhibition of Muslim Albanians who saved thousands of Jews during World War II.
The timing was coincidental, but angered over the killings of Gazans, all but a few Arab teachers boycotted the exhibit — even though its message was to praise Muslim honor codes and reach out to the Arab community.
Over the years, some Israel-Arab politicians, community leaders and clerics visited Nazi death camps to learn more about the genocide and to try heal bitter relations with Israeli Jews. Those efforts have had little popularity with the public.
Another attempt at an educational center in Israeli Kibbutz Lohamei HaGhetaot in northern Israel, founded by Holocaust survivors, has had more success. There, 300 Jewish and Arab students undertake a yearlong program on the Holocaust. A separate second-year program involves learning about Israel's Arab minority.
Deena Hijazi, 20, who finished the two-year program, said it helped her understand and empathize with her fellow Jewish citizens. "When you know who you are, it's easier to know the person standing before you," she said.
Yad Vashem: http://www.yadvashem.org
(This version CORRECTS the year that Yad Vashem's Arabic version website was launched to 2008, not 2007.)