Arabs and Jews in Auschwitz

Stefan Wilkanowicz

17.05.2003/SW/TL www.forum-znak.org.pl

Stefan Wilkanowicz, the editor-in-chief of our FORUM, interviewed the archimandrite Emile Shoufani, the melchite provost of Nazareth.

Stefan 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 trip?

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 way.

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 you.

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.

Emile Shoufani

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.