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Mujahid Sarsur Helps His Generation Understand the Holocaust
[caption id=“attachment_4051” align=“alignleft” width=“194”] Photograph by Alyssa Goldstein[/caption]
For the past two summers, Bard College’s Palestine Youth Initiative (a project of Bard’s Trustee-Leader Scholar Program, which engages students in community service) has been creating summer encampments for Palestinian youth in Mas’ha, a West Bank village of 2,000 residents. Mas’ha is home to Mujahid Sarsur, 21, a Bard student who studies political science, education theory, and Hebrew, among other subjects. In addition to organizing the Youth Initiative (in 2010 with his fellow students along with Kendra ChupaCabra, Aaron Dean and Rosana Zarza Canova), Sarsur served as president of the Bard Muslim Students Organization, which he has led into collaboration with the Bard Jewish Students Organization to bring kosher and halal food to campus and to establish a kosher-halal residence hall. He came to North America four years ago to represent Palestine at the United World College of Pearson-Canada, a two-year program involving two hundred students from over a hundred countries. He has now completed two years at Bard, in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York. Still, Palestine remains his home and his dream — and the Youth Initiative is his educational and cultural laboratory.
The program is loosely based on Bard’s well-known Language and Thinking program, which involves intensive writing and discussion. This year, some twenty Bard students and twenty Palestinian college-age villagers joined together to help construct a children’s library in Mas’ha. Perhaps most newsworthy, however, were the first visits in history by Palestinian educational groups to Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem, which Sarsur helped to arrange both in 2009 and 2010. Unfortunately, the museum lacks Arabic signage, but their Jewish tour guide spoke fluent Arabic. “Each tour lasted five hours,” Sarsur notes, “including an hour before, in which we sat and discussed what we knew or didn’t know about the Holocaust, and an hour after at which we discussed what we had learned.”
“This genocide,” he continues, “is a very significant part of Israeli history and identity. Consequently, every Palestinian should be highly informed about it, and the Holocaust museum is a valuable resource to that end. Some might say we can go and learn about it from books, but a genocide isn’t just numbers — it’s fathers and brothers, sisters and aunts, entire families. And the emotions that surround genocide, and especially the Holocaust, are very present in the Holocaust museum.”
JC interviewed Mujahid Sarsur on the Bard campus in November.
Jewish Currents: The kind of activity you’re pursuing has brought trouble, even assassination, to Palestinian peacemakers in the past. What has been the response of the Palestinian Authority to your visits to Yad Vashem?
Mujahid Sarsur: I was told by members of the international relations department of the ministry of education that the trip provoked very serious discussion, since the policy of the current ministry is to boycott anything Israeli. Thank God, there were people in the ministry open-minded enough to offer some support anyway.
As you might imagine, there were many criticisms. The most common was that we are teaching Palestinians how to tolerate the occupation. In fact, the opposite is true: Students left the museum with a strong belief that the Israelis should be the last people on Earth to be oppressing other people.
A second criticism is that the trip enforces the belief that Israel exists because of the Holocaust, not as a result of Zionist premeditation. While this argument may have some truth to it, the question is: Should that prevent some Palestinian people from visiting the Holocaust museum? What the criticism does do is motivate us to put the trip into a wider context, to include seminars about Jewish history and Zionist history.
The third criticism is that by visiting the museum, we are encouraging normalization with Israel. It’s worth noting here that there is a great division among the Palestinians themselves when it comes to normalization. Even though some Palestinians are against normalization with Israel, I find that the working class, which is the biggest class in Palestine, is supportive of normalization because their lives depend on their business relation with Israel.
The fourth criticism is that Palestinians should not sympathize with their occupier, not until the occupier sympathizes with us and ends the occupation. This belief seems to come from a nationalistic view of our integrity, that Palestinians, as a nation, must not compromise our integrity by sympathizing with Israelis. There are Palestinians, however, who draw their beliefs from other sources — as I do, for example, from the Holy Koran. I read the Koran and find such teachings as: “Repel others’ evil deeds with your good deeds. You will see that he/she with whom you had enmity will become your close friend” (41:34).
I strongly believe this idea. When we were in the Holocaust museum — a few steps away from where there’s a heap of shoes from a death camp — a Jewish woman, an Israeli mom, approached us. She was in tears and told us through our tour guide that she was stunned to see Palestinians attempting to understand the tragedy of her people. We saw how the seeds of friendship were planted within this woman, and within us. That was probably more moving to us than anything we saw at the museum. For some of us, human sympathy transcends any political situation, and has the power to transform what is evil into goodness.
JC: Are there exhibits at Yad Vashem that make you think of the Palestinian struggle? Do you draw an analogy, for example, between the ghettos and Gaza today?
MS: When I first became aware of the Holocaust, coming to North America four years ago, I would do that. But now I think of the Holocaust as something by itself, something so huge that I’m more careful in making comparisons. But for other students who have gone to the museum with me, certainly, yes, in our discussions, people make that analogy. They say, “Why are you doing the ‘same thing’ to us?” This has been the main discussion after both trips.
JC: Perhaps there is a naiveté in believing that oppression should yield empathy and idealism...
MS: Many people from the Israeli peace movement whom I have met on the West Bank have this belief, that if you’ve experienced great oppression yourself, and you see someone suffering under your hand, you should quickly remove your hand. But the rest of the Israeli community, which is, unfortunately, the majority, has not realized that yet. I hope they will, more and more.
JC: It seems hard for Israelis, given this history of genocide, to recognize themselves as victimizers rather than victims. The Palestinians are an unfortunate people in many ways, but one misfortune is having a people with such a history as their enemy. The historic Arab response to Israel — “you can’t be here, period” — has created a very stubborn determination on the part of Jews in Israel not to be victimized again.
MS: Statements such as “you cannot be here, period” would have probably been the case during the peak of Arab nationalism, but now most Arab countries are modern states with mostly modernized youth who are open to the world of television and media. Also, more and more of the Palestinian people have also come to understand international law, which supports the existence of Israel, but supports their right to a state, too. Most of them understand the basics: two states, 1967 borders, simple stuff. In my village, you’ll meet hardly anybody who says, “No, no, I want the whole thing.”
To eliminate Israelis’ stubbornness, and to increase the level of trust between the two people, I believe both Arabs and Israelis should make greater effort to meet. Simple grassroots meetings between Israelis and Arabs have great value. But they are, unfortunately, very lacking. What I found astonishing in North America is the magnetism between the Arab and the Israelis students. All that separates them, sometimes, are the pro-Palestine and the pro-Israel political groups on campuses. Otherwise, amazing friendships are formed. This should be transferred to the Middle East. I’m a huge supporter of the coexistence movement that promotes any kinds of human interactions and meetings.
I’ll say it again: Most of the working people I have met in Palestine want, no, love normalization with Israel. Their lives are much, much better during periods of normalization. Open borders, stronger business ties — they look very favorably upon this. Most of their villages are close to the borders of Israel and they want to be able to cross. My village is exactly on the border — in fact, 95 percent of our farmlands are now on the wrong side of the Wall.
JC: When you were in Palestine last summer, how were people in the West Bank viewing Gaza?
MS: Despite the blockade, many on the West Bank say to me that they actually wish they were in Gaza. Since the whole world seems to be against them in Gaza, the family relationships and the community relationships have been strengthened so, so much. Everyone is so kind and friendly to one another in very unusual ways. Food is shared — you can live on olives and bread, and as long as everyone is sharing their food, no one is going to starve. You have to love if you want to survive in Gaza.
JC: Do you expect the Palestinian state to first be established in the West Bank?
MS: Certainly not. Establishing a Palestinian state in the West Bank will cause greater disunity among the Palestinians. Thankfully, I did not hear the Palestinian Authority suggesting that, and in the rhetoric of Hamas and the PLO leaders, they all preach one united state.
For an electoral democracy to work, it needs sufficient democratic institutions to support it. And that is why I support Prime Minister Salam Fayyad for his great effort in constructing civil society projects that will eventually help an electoral democracy in Palestine succeed. I believe that most of the international efforts should be focused on helping him support schools, universities, health institutions, and local projects that are necessary to sustain a future Palestinian democracy. Also, if people want to support civil society projects in Palestine, please support our Youth Initiative which hopes to establish a children library in every Palestinian village!
JC: Netanyahu has similarly emphasized economic development over political independence.
MS: When you talk with Palestinians, many tell you, surprisingly, that when the left comes to power in Israel, their promises of a state are many, but their checkpoints are more. When the right comes to power, they don’t promise a state, but neither have they placed checkpoints, so life gets a little easier.
Even though I don’t support all the aspects of Netanyahu’s economic peace plan, I do want to see the Palestinian territories thrive economically. Given how poor Arab countries spend most of their budgets on unused and rusted weapons, I think Netanyahu is doing a huge favor by promoting Palestinian demilitarization. What is wrong with having a demilitarized country like Monaco, a tax haven? Why should we not have Palestine as the tax haven of the Middle East?
JC: Given the success of the Wall at stopping suicide bombings — or whatever other factors have stopped suicide bombings — you would think that the Israeli public would be less afraid and more liberal now. Instead, Israel has one of the most rightwing governments in its history, and public opinion is very conservative. Why do you think that is?
MS: People were very, very frightened by the suicide bombings. The trust level between Israelis and Palestinians has decreased drastically. It’s very, very unfortunate.
But I don’t really believe the Wall was erected to prevent suicide bombings, and I don’t think it’s the reason why the suicide bombings have stopped. There are still a million and a half Arabs living inside of Israel, and some of them participated in suicide bombings. And there are many parts of the Wall that are not erected yet — it can be crossed. I think the Palestinians have decided for now that this is strategically not the right thing to do.
I think two wars in the last four years, and Israel’s growing international isolation, has turned the public towards conservatism in the name of security. The global boycott movement has also made them feel threatened. While its initiators hoped that a boycott would make the Israeli population aware of their country’s oppression of the Palestinians and make them pressure their government to stop it, the movement is having a counterproductive effect.
JC: What’s your view of Hamas?
MS: In my own village, which was dominated by Fatah and the communists throughout my childhood, 80 percent or more of the people voted for Hamas in the last election! We didn’t even have an office for Hamas in Mas’ha, yet people identified them with the delivery of services, with the removal of Israel from the Gaza Strip, and with their speeches, their rhetoric. Hamas has the best speakers in the country, and they are very smart about the media and public relations. For the Palestinians, Hamas leaders seem very honest and very fair.
Hamas fought for five years and got the Gaza Strip. Fatah has negotiated for twenty years and gained only international recognition, nothing on the ground yet. Hamas also seem to be the only one that can avenge Israel’s crimes. Obviously, the circle of violence is horrible, but the circle, unfortunately, sometimes heals the anger of the oppressed.
At the same time, I hate the religious militant groups’ use of the Koran to support their violence and strengthen their power. I have read the Koran many times; the study of my religion and of religion in general is very important to me. Of course, you can find support in the Koran for violence if you are good at contextomy. It is important for those with the knowledge of the Koran to preach the verses of justice without dehumanizing anybody. It is also crucial for all of us to learn the verses that preach human sympathy and compassion and the importance of coexistence.
JC: You really grew up during the intifada. What was your attitude then towards martyrdom?
MS: There were some points in my childhood when I hated Israel, because we endured many indignities. For example, at one time, a cousin of mine, my age, who was an Arab Israeli, died of leukemia. Our family was not allowed to come to the funeral. All they would allow us was to mourn her at the checkpoint. The inhumanity really makes you feel that there’s something wrong with those people!
Other times, Israeli settlers would come to our village and break windows or even shoot live ammunition. Sometimes Israeli activists would come to give us their solidarity, and those were the times when you’d feel there’s still some hope.
Do you remember Mohammed al-Durrah, the Palestinian child who was shot by Israeli soldiers in 2000 while he was ducking with his father behind a stone wall? I was almost exactly his age when that happened. He became a symbol of the intifada during that period. The occupation was really brutal then. At one point, we were sitting on the roof of our house, watching the news about Mohammed, and I said that I wish I could be a suicide bomber. My father slapped my face, like: Don’t ever think about that again.
JC: What were you taught about the Holocaust as a child?
MS: I spent five grades under the Jordanian system -— and then that was demolished and the Palestinians developed their own educational system. The Palestinian system was more liberal, because of the liberalism of Fatah and because the organizations that help fund Palestinian education come and look at the content of it. Still, some teachers, even in the Palestinian system, were attached to the idea of trying to control everything that the child is learning. I never encountered one teacher in Palestine who would look at me and simply say, “The Holocaust happened, and you have to learn about it.”
When I first arrived at the United World College of Pearson, there was an Israeli female student, amazingly beautiful, whom I avoided. During the third month of my experience, she performed at Pearson’s European National Day (a day among six other days when students from different continents present their cultures). She portrayed the suffering of a Jewish mom during the Holocaust. Looking at her on the stage, contemplating her tears, I was struck to the core of my heart. She deeply felt the tragedy. After the play was finished, I hurried behind stage. I felt like saying sorry to her, so I said it.
JC: What do you make of North American culture, now that you’ve been here for four years?
MS: I’m very privileged to be here, and I feel that every single day. There is so much respect among people here at Bard, so much appreciation for the individual and what he or she can do. I love the striving, which is also a big part of Islam: that we should be building and structuring and doing stuff as if this were our one and only life. I admire all of that, and I’m trying to insert some of these ideas into my culture through the project we’re doing on the West Bank. Our program very much emphasizes self-expression, which is something I did not experience fully in a Palestinian classroom.
To be honest, though, I don’t appreciate America’s alcohol culture. Whenever there’s a party, with people getting drunk or smoking pot, I avoid it. It feels so strange in my heart, and it’s a huge part of this culture, at least for young people. The weekend comes and some do nothing but drink and get drunk — many of them. In my culture, people finish their week with prayers, family visits, and friendly entertaining.
Also, there is so much backbiting and gossiping around. I believe most unhappiness emanates from that. And finally, I hate the way some males look at females here, as sexual objects. Is she hot, is she not? This has to be fixed, somehow. But if these three things did not exist here, people in America would be experiencing a form of utopia.
JC: When you graduate, do you plan to go home?
MS: Certainly. It’s my hope to establish in the village an office, with some Israeli friends, about the Holocaust and the Nakba, together [Nakba, “the catastrophe,” that is, the expulsion and flight of Palestinians from Palestine in 1948, which is commemorated in Palestinian communities each May 15th —Editor]. It would be my hope to bring Palestinians to see the Holocaust museum and to bring Israelis to the West Bank. This would be greatly meaningful and useful to us all.
Secondly, I envision a children’s library in every Palestinian village, and I will devote my life to making that happen.
Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.