Using and abusing the Holocaust / the work of Khaled Mahameed

Posted: September 29th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: culture, guest post | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off
Mahameed giving a workshop in Askar Refugee camp

Mahameed giving a workshop in Askar Refugee camp

Harvey Stein is a filmmaker/journalist, originally from New York, who moved to Israel 3 years ago and now lives in Jerusalem. Harvey is working these days on a documentary called “Heart of the Other“, which follows the work of Khaled Mahameed. Just before Yom Kippur, he suggested writing something about it for Promised Land, and I was more than happy to agree, as I think that Mahameed’s is one of the most inspiring projects I’ve heard of in the last  years.

Besides working on “Heart of the Other,” Harvey has made short videos for Time magazine website, CNN, ABC, and other TV stations and websites in Europe and the United States. If you’d like to contact him, write me (my e-mail is in the “about” page), and I’ll forward your mail.

Since moving to Jerusalem from New York three years ago, I have been fortunate to spend considerable time with Khaled Mahameed (I’m making “Heart of the Other,” a documentary about his work, excerpts here: Mahameed is a Palestinian-Israeli citizen who has gotten notice for his “Holocaust education” for Arabs – both at his tiny museum in Nazareth, and in villages, towns, and refugee camps in the West Bank.

Mahameed is a lawyer by trade, and a complex “intellectual in action” by nature. Since at least age 18 (when his Jewish tutor at Hebrew University responded to his request to study more about Nazi Germany with, “Why would an Arab want to do that?”) he has basically been obsessed with the Holocaust – unpacking its meaning and its effect on both Palestinians and Israelis, and their fraught relationship.

I think Mahameed gets his contrarian nature from growing up in Israel (if you haven’t been here, Israeli Jews specialize in it) – he relishes confronting both Palestinians and Israelis – the former for their stubborn Holocaust denial/ignorance, and the latter with a challenge something like: “You who have experienced such great tragedy, why are you not more sensitive to the immense suffering you are now causing us Palestinians?”

And yes, he gets his hands dirty – he presents lectures in Palestinian refugee camps, armed only with 2’ x 3’ Holocaust photos he buys from Yad Vashem. He also takes the photos to face off with Israeli soldiers at the weekly tear-gassed demonstrations in West Bank villages whose land has been confiscated by the path of the infamous Wall (the most well known village being Bilin, which has begun to attract celebrity activists like “the Elders” — Jimmy Carter, Desmond Tutu, et al.)

I love Khaled’s work because, unlike so many passionate activists, his primary goal is not to prove the self-righteous rightness of any “side”, but to creatively provoke, confront, stimulate debate (and sometimes a bit of satyagraha-inspired shame) on both sides. I think he enjoys the angry confusion when Israelis sometimes freak out after drawing their guilty conclusions that he’s saying the Holocaust and the Occupation are similar (he would say, no they’re not, but the comparision is revealing, and seeing the connection between the two is important).

I think one source for his use of the photos as “evidence” is his work as a lawyer. Likewise his emphasis on strategy and dialectic: he asks his Palestinian audiences (after showing a photo of an emaciated, liberated Jew standing over a pit full of his brethren’s bodies) – “How can someone who experienced this have the mental space to think about our problems?” And then (often engaging with young stone throwers at West Bank demonstrations) he proposes that non-violent resistence to the Occupation is the only way: because of the Holocaust wound and countless wars, Israelis only respond to violence with 1000 times more in kind.

Mahameed’s non-ideological activism is courageous as well as intellectually challenging, and – especially in light of all the changing political landscape brought on by the Obama presidency – it needs to be seen and discussed more.

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