Arabs and Jews in Auschwitz
Stefan Wilkanowicz, the
editor-in-chief of our FORUM, interviewed the archimandrite
Emile Shoufani, the melchite provost of Nazareth.
Wilkanowicz: In a few weeks you will visit
Auschwitz accompanied by a few hundred Arabs and Jews.
Where did this idea come from? What is the goal of this
Emile Shoufani: Arabs should
get to know the suffering and history of Jews. Otherwise
they would never understand them. I am an Arab, a citizen
of Israel, one of a million Arabs and fifty thousand
Christians living in that country. The second intifada
lead to breaking almost all relations between the Jewish
and Arab communities, and also between the Arab community
in Israel and the state itself. We see fear and the
spreading conviction that these old relations can no
longer be restored.
However this fear originates
not only from current events. Its sources are embedded
in the history of the suffering of Jews. One has to
get to know them. In order to reach peace negotiations
are insufficient; there has to be peace among people,
between the two societies. First peace is necessary
in the domain of memory; one has to work on the interpersonal
relations - leave the area of conflict of political
opponents and enter the ground of ordinary people's
relations: in order to understand each other through
suffering and to perceive the co-existence in a new
Who will participate in that trip?
Mostly Arabs and Jews from Israel,
the believers of Judaism, Muslims, Christians... Also
a few celebrities from the Autonomy and many people
from a number of countries. We have to keep in mind
that the Arab knows almost nothing about World War II,
about Shoah, the suffering of Jews and other nations.
The Arab world does not know the history of Jews, is
unaware of the fact that this nation was denied the
right for existence. In the world of Islam there were
practically no religious persecution, the Koran recognized
the rights of Jews and Christians. Hence there were
only sporadic cases. Obviously, this does not mean that
they had full citizens' rights in our present-day fashion,
however the practicing of religion was allowed and live
within the society.
In Saudi Arabia - as well?
Saudi Arabia and the Emirates
are exceptions, since for a long time in those countries
there had been no Jewish or Christian communities. In
addition Mecca is a holy city the believers of other
religions may not enter. In larger cities there are
only small groups. Our plan of an Arab-Jewish meeting
in Auschwitz is meant to overcome the vicious circle
of mutual accusations, in order to allow for a deeper
reflection upon the past, in order to reach a new level
of mutual interpersonal relations. We want to create
the bonds of solidarity through the "mercy of understanding"...
How have you reached this amazing
agreement: a few hundred Arabs and Jews who whished
to travel to Auschwitz together?
This was a long way. For quite
a long time I have thought about building a world with
space for a common life and understanding - even before
the dialogue may start.
The first experiences were derived
from the school that I manage of 1,300 Christian and
Muslim students. (In Nazareth we have 60 percent of
Christians and 40 percent Muslims). For the last 15
years our school has been cooperating with a Jewish
school in Jerusalem. The meetings took place even during
the intifadas. Last week we were visited by 137 Jews,
who mostly stayed in Arab homes (for the first time
in three years). They wanted to overcome fear, to be
together, to experience something jointly and reach
some level of brotherhood. This is important for them
and others; and there are results.
My appeal to travel to Auschwitz
and to start a new dialogue was signed by many important
representatives of the Arab community in Israel. We
also carried out an extensive information campaign among
Jews - also directed at the extreme right. About 700
hundred candidates wanted to participate in that trip
that was not meant to be a one-time event. This should
be a beginning of a process, a way of personal change.
I would like to return to the
Jewish youth. The first two days were already exceptional
- it was hard to imagine that two days were sufficient
to overcome walls and stereotypes - in order to create
a real community.
This sounds very optimistic, however
it is known that - in general - the relations between
Arabs and Jews constantly degrade. You have described
this phenomenon in your last book...
My optimism is realism. Among
the Palestinians the suffering is growing, there are
too many victims... And within the Jewish community
the fear is growing, and the necessity for a more effective
defense - hence the necessity for some kind of a solution.
First we need to achieve a "peace
of memory", to work on the mutual relations between
the Jewish and Arab communities on the level of interpersonal
relations - and not in the face of conflicts. We have
to leave the ground of conflicts between political leaders
and step into the domain of interpersonal relations.
We have to understand each other through suffering and
perceive our lives in a new way. I believe more and
more in the possibilities of man, I believe in man...
I am a priest of the Catholic Church and my personal
faith - my faith in God and my faith in man - gives
me the strength... My faith allows me to say that we
are capable of changing people; we may change hatred
and the desire for revenge into compassion and the will
to heal... When I look at people I do not want to see
them as "analyzed object"; I want to see the
image of God in them, an image that is present within
every human being that I can join in compassion and
solidarity, that I feel co-responsible for. This is
why I believe in my mission...
Thank you very much – and see
Emile Shoufani was born in Nazareth in 1947. He grew
up as part of the Arab minority that remains in the
new State of Israel. After graduating form St. Joseph
Seminary and High School he decided to become a priest.
Whilst studying philosophy
and theology in Paris between 1964 - 1971 he read "Treblinka"
(by Jean-Francois Steiner). The work led him to learn
more about the Shoah and to visit Dachau. He returned
home having experienced a spiritual transformation and
a completely new perspective.
At his ordination as priest
in the Greek Catholic Church in 1971 he declared during
his first sermon: "I feel within me a life in Christ
that cannot be vanquished and this life I want to share
it with all... I want to be everyone's priest."
Very early in his ministry as a pastor in different
villages of Galilee, Abouna Emile became known as a
mediator for the settlement of disputes between religious
communities of Christians, Moslems and Druze and also
as a strong advocate for true coexistence, not only
in the sense of living side-by-side, but for truly sharing
a common life.
In 1976 the bishop entrusted
him with the direction of St. Joseph Seminary and High
School. His goal was to attract a vibrant body of qualified
staff who would share his vision of a school, concerned
not only with instruction, but with developing the whole
person: "The pupil, as a person, comes first."
His second revolutionary
achievement was, turning the school into an institution
of different religions, sexes and cultures: "St.
Joseph's is not a Christian school that accepts Moslems
and Druze but a school, where Christians, Moslems and
Druze live together."
He was ordained Archimandrite
in 1989. In the same year, having established St. Joseph's
academic strengths and reputation, Fr. Emile decided
to pursue another goal: a pioneer project of dialogue
with "Lyada", a leading Jewish school attached
to the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, in order "to
give our youth the tools for full integration in the
State of Israel while retaining their identity."
A three year program of exchange between Arab and Jewish
youth was introduced to teach the pupils "to meet
the other, to erase prejudice, to learn to discuss their
rights democratically and work together for peace."
As an Arab Christian in
the State of Israel, the life and work of Emile Shoufani
is a testimony to the peaceful coexistence of Jews and
Arabs (both Christians and Moslems) in a region which
desperately needs a model of peace and reconciliation.