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Notes on a passionate Palestinian moderate

Film maker Harvey Stein is working on a documentary about Khaled Mahammed, the remarkable Palestinian citizen of Israel whose work on Holocaust education has been widely publicized.

Stein sent me the following description of Mahammed, and I immediately recognized a kindred spirit, the kind of truly passionate moderate that is hard to find in Israel and the territories, in the U.S., or –for that matter– anywhere. It takes no courage for a passionate moderate to pontificate on a blog, or to sign petitions and letters to Congress. It takes no courage to be Dan Fleshler. It takes a great deal of courage to be Khaled Mahammed. Here is Harvey Stein’s take, lightly edited:

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 that is 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.)

His primary goal is not to prove the…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….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 comparison is revealing, and seeing the connection between the two is important).

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 resistance 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…It needs to be seen and discussed more in the United States.

35 thoughts on “Notes on a passionate Palestinian moderate

  1. I read about Mahammed in an article in either the CSM or the J Post or somewhere in the press. I think it is interesting and very important. Arabs seem to have a very instrumental view of history–anything that is not helpful to our case we’ll either deny that it happened or that it is relevant or both (arguing like a lawyer). Maybe his individual streak is caused by spelling his first name with an “a” rather than an “o” or a “u.”

  2. I like his approach. If you’re going to take people to task…take both sides to task fair and square. I can live with that.

  3. It sounds like he’s a bit too easy on the Israeli Jews. “How can someone who experienced this have the mental space to think about our problems?” Well, a dwindling number of living people experienced the Holocaust. Their great grandchildren are now in college. It is imperative to think about other people’s problems because that is what makes us human.

  4. I didn’t mean to diminish the horrors of the Holocaust or efforts to ensure it doesn’t happen again. I just meant it should not be a pretext for ignoring the suffering of another people at the hands of Jews…

  5. Teddy–I thought the same thing for a different reason. I wasn’t sure why he was attributing the Israeli mindset to the holocaust.

    I think they have more immediate concerns.

    Israelis’ behavior is pretty much a result (or reaction) to current problematic Palestinian behavior–and by extension the larger regional Islamist threat.

    The holocaust only factors in as far as Jews wanting their own sovereign state.

    I’m not sure either how much blame he is willing to put on the Palestinians for their own demise.

    But regardless, it’s refreshing to finally see someone from the Palestinian camp hold both sides responsible for the current situation.

  6. Thomas-
    What you wrote reminds me of a discussion I saw at another site some time ago. A fellow who said he was a Japanese citizen mentioned that he travelled to the Arab states in the Persian Gulf a lot on business. When he would tell the local Arabs that he was Japanese they would all say to him “you Japanese must really hate the Americans because of Hiroshima”. He would reply “no, we started the war and now we are friends and allies of the US”. He said this was totally incomprehensible to them.
    This type of Arab mind-set is becoming clear to otherwise “liberal” and politically-correct Westerners. I recall the cartoon “Doonesbury” had a strip about an American and Iraqi soldier who were ordered to arrest another Iraqi. The Iraqi soldier told his American colleague that he would not take the man in custody, he would kill him on the spot. The American asked why. The Iraqi said “a member of that man’s family killed a member of my family”. The American asked when this happened. The Iraq replied “in the 14th century”. The American said “what’s with you people?!” WE ARE DEALING WITH A DIFFERENT CULTURE AND DIFFERENT MINDSET. Until this is understood, there is no possibility with really dealing with the Arab/Israeli conflict.

  7. A couple of comments about Harvey Stein’s piece.
    (1) I find the question about “why would an Arab want to study about Nazi Germany?” rather odd. A few months ago, the Jerusalem Post had a column by an American fellow who is getting a Ph.D. in Middle East studies. He was visiting bookshops in Cairo and he saw the “Mein Kampf” was very popular. He asked a young woman college student who was dressed in a way that showed she was NOT a religious Muslim and she said she was a “liberal” and that “Mein Kampf” was quite popular reading with liberals “because it teaches a lot about British and American imperialism, how a defeated country can reassert itself and how to deal with the Jews”. The writer concluded that Arab “liberals” are not like Western liberals. Khaled’s Jewish tutor obviously didn’t know much about Arabs.

    (2) His statement about “Israelis having a contrarian nature” is very oversimplistic. I once drove with a another fellow who was driving. He put his seatbelt across his shoulders but didn’t buckle it. I asked him why he did that, it wouldn’t be very effective that way. He said that they had recently passed a law requiring seat belts, and if a cop looked in he would think that he had the belt attached but he didn’t want to attach it “because they aren’t going to tell me what to do!”. Okay, we can call that “contrarian”. Israelis like to argue a lot about things. But, after having lived here in Israel for 23 years, I have come to realize that Israelis are actually VERY docile and not willing to stand up for their rights. They accept the lies their political leaders tell them and whenever confronted with a need to take action to stop some injustice, over and over I hear “there is nothing that can be done with it”. The concept of grassroots organizing for some political or social goal in the way the Americans or British do it is practically unknown here. The extremely-centralized MAPAI socialist system worked hard to suffocate individual initiative and taught people to rely on the state to do everything. There is some, gradual change in this, but it is slow in coming.

    (3) The official line among Arabs is there was no Holocaust, so what does Khaled think he is trying to accomplish? The fellow who wrote the column I mentioned in the first part of this comment asked the woman student in Cairo about this. She also said there was no Holocaust. He then pointed out all the films and eyewitnesses who said there was. She admitted a lot of Jews may have died, that is what happens in wars, but there was no Holocaust. To put it bluntly, this is a classic example of Orwellian “double-think”-the ability to believe two contradictory things at the same time. In other words, to the Arabs, there was no Holocaust, but the Nazis really did murder all the Jews they could get their hands on, and for good reason.
    The irony is that the fellow who wrote the column saw a lot of Arab propaganda comparing Israel to the Nazis. But they say at the same time that there was no Holocaust and that Hitler was a great man! So are they saying that Israel is not really so bad? I doubt it. This is another example of “double-think”. It may also be a remnant of the old days when the “progressive” Arab states like Egypt and the PLO were aligned with the USSR, and they could simply have been parrotting Soviet propaganda, because Nazism certainly has negative associations in Europe, but not in the Arab Middle East. Go and figure it!

  8. The obvious significance of Khaled’s efforts is to change what you observe. Anyone that has discussed with him, cannot say “there was no holocaust”.

    It does infuse compassion, which is the point. I understand your experience. Please understand mine. Then, lets reconcile specific differences and issues.

    It is NECESSARY for Israelis to understand the present condition of Palestinians, and how that transpired.

    And, it is necessary for Palestinians to understand the present condition of Israelis, and how that transpired.

    Peace is constructed by compassionate but assertive negotiation.

    Khaled’s work is a voice of Moshiach on the planet.

  9. Richard–THAT is a really good point.

    It brings me back to something I was going to write earlier but decided not to (in order not to get sidetracked on other issues)

    I don’t know how Israelis collectively feel about the plight of Palestinians. I know that I’m very uncomfortable with their current state of being–I cringe when I hear about it and see it.

    They are stuck in limbo and that’s just wrong.

    Which leads me to ask…how much compassion are they capable of when they are so screwed up and dysfunctional?

    Israel is stable–they can afford the compassion.

    But Palestinians have internal problems that make them not quite so ready for Mahameed’s approach.

    And yep…I’m coming from the standpoint that you can lift the Israeli roadblocks and other restrictions…and at the end of the day, the Palestians still have heavy societal demons to deal with.

    They need to change collectively. I’m not sure a good economy is going to precede that.

  10. Richard said:

    Peace is constructed by compassionate but assertive negotiation

    For the record, peace between Germany and the rest of the world, and between North and South in the US Civil War was achieved NOT by the way you stated but rather by


    AFTER victory, AFTER the enemy is totally defeated THEN there can be time for magnanimity.
    Of course, the situation of the Arab/Israeli conflict is not the same as World War II or the Civil War, but there is food for thought there.

  11. And you are willing to pursue total war, when you and those that you listen to, have pursued peace in earnest?

    How do you justify that ethically?

    How does that square with your interpretation of “keeping my commandments”?

    If its not the same, then how is a parallel relevant at all?

  12. Yaakov’s point is hard to swallow, but it’s pretty much historically true. It’s arguably a lot less cruel than letting people fester for 40 years in limbo.

    In fact, it’s common knowledge the economic policy we used to rebuild Germany & Japan was successful…but they needed to be brought to their knees first.

    It seems to me the window of opportunity for that kind of total victory is lost for Israel. No one has the stomach for it.

  13. This man’s work is truly courageous and admirable.

    Suzanne, when you say that most Palestinians are screwed up, you may be right in a way. For instance, it’s a safe bet that most Gazans have PTSD, and we know they’re economically ruined and kept from starvation only by the U.N. But if you ignore Israel’s primary role in that state of affairs–or worse, assign significant blame to the Palestinians themselves–that’s a cruelly dishonest (and unproductive) abdication of responsibility.

    The Palestinian dilemma is precisely that they have almost no control over their own lives, and that they live day-by-day at the mercy (or lack thereof) and the commands of armed Israelis. I think is something you would understand if you listened to more Palestinian perspectives.

    And we REALLY want to avoid the self-fulfilling prophecy that says “the Palestinians are so screwed up from occupation that they’ll never make peace, so Israel has to keep occupying them.” You may think that occupation doesn’t have much to do with what you see as their “problems”, but that’s not really a fair judgement to make as long as occupation exists, is it? How about we give them a chance to show what they’re like under more dignified conditions? Of course, we’re obligated to do so by morality and the principles of human rights.

    And I think you would be surprised at Palestinians’ capacity for compassion. Many are justifiably angry, but most are not inhumane, despite all that has happened to them.

  14. Robin

    I have no doubt PTSD is prevalent in the territories–nor do I doubt they’re depressed and demoralized too.

    However, I do not think occupation fully explains their mindset and negative character traits which are also found in other Arab states.

    It’s a combination of factors–and not all of them are Israel’s doing.

    I don’t happen to think Israel is blameless. But–at the end of the day, unless Palestinians change DRASTICALLY from within–and ummm…no, it’s not going to happen because Israel de-occupies and the olive trees are allowed to grow–they are not going to get out of their self-defeating victim mindset.

    I’m not interested in the ambulance chaser/coddle-the-weak approach because that keeps people weak and vulnerable.

    You’re going to have to meet me in the middle, Robin, because I’m not interested in the weepy pity-the-poor Arabs argument. That does no one any favors–and I will never be sold on it. Try another tact.

    And P.S. I’m well aware that Palestinians are capable of compassion. No need to patronize me–or the Palestinians, for that matter.

    I’m more interested in their collective state of mind–which is–sorry to say–not very healthy right now. And I’m not interested so much in what Israel is going to do about their collective state of mind–I want to know what THEY plan on doing about it.

  15. Lets talk about Khaled and Harvey.

    I’ve had dozens of orthodox tell me similarly to what Yakov is saying, “there is no point in talking. The Arabs will never change.”

    They tell me that Khaled is a dangerous man (not because he personally will willingly harm others), but because Jews then become weak, gullible, in trusting, that the relationship is only “at war”, permanent, a one way heart valve, NEVER AGAIN a dialog.

    And, similarly for individuals like Harvey.

    When all along, the honest story is “we won’t change, we won’t learn”.

    How do you know how to dress, if you don’t engage the weather? “Its fall in London, so it must be wet and cloudy. I’ll wear a protective raincoat.” Yet, today and tomorrow and all this week, its clear and warm. But for seven days, I wear a raincoat and get sick from overdressing.

    “Torah says that the land belongs to the Jews. The rabbis confirm it. No, IF’s, and’s or but’s.”

    How about “IF you keep my commandments, I will give you the rain in its time… and if you don’t I will scatter you like grains of sand.”

  16. Well, I think Khaled is on the right track…and if the settlers are the last to come to the table–then so be it.

    I’m pretty skeptical of the Arabs, myself (in case you didn’t notice), but that’s subject to change. If I see a thaw in their bellicose mindset then I’m willing to change my opinion. I’m going to guess most pro-Israeli moderates hold this view.

  17. Arabs are diverse.

    There really isn’t a “The” Arabs. There are some common attitudes though. Nearly all regard Zionism as an interloping influence. Some accept change, and accept Israel as neighbor. Others don’t.

  18. Richard-
    Before the 1987 intifada started, the “settlers” had FAR MORE contact with Arabs on a day-to-day level than your average “progressive” Leftist Israeli. I NEVER said “don’t talk to the Arabs”, I said there is not point in making grand “peace negotiations”.

  19. In 1986, when I was last in Israel, I could travel throughout the West Bank (which I did), and Palestinians could travel throughout Israel (which they did).

    Israel provided electricity, health care, other social services consistent in policy with its offerings to its own citizens (I’m certain at a lower scale).

    There was considerable social and economic interchange between Palestinians and Israelis. My third cousins were folk singers in Arad, and we went to Beersheba to sing with a Palestinian group, and spent the evening with them after.

    The 1987 intifada was an assertion, “We are not children. We want to self-govern, and independantly.” Correspondingly, Palestinians and Israelis grew more isolated, with more animosity for informal interaction with the occupier.

    And, as a result of the intifada, Israelis got the message that Palestinians wanted to self-govern.

    “OK, fine. Lets work it out. You’ll have to drop terror in all forms, permanently”

    “Sure, but…”

    The 1987 intifada was 22 years ago.

    How can you conclude that there is no point in negotiating an actual peace treaty, that grants Palestinians the actual self-governance that they assert they want?

  20. I was speaking strictly about common Arab attitudes. Holocaust denial being just one of them.

    If they insist on acting like backwater idiots I will perceive them as such.

  21. Richard, we just covered it on this thread.

    But aside from that…it’s no secret that Arabs (not just Palestinians) make up all sorts of weird stuff to defame and dehumanize Jews–you can see it in Saudi textbooks, and you hear it in their crazy conspiracy theories (i.e. “Jewdanians” and Israeli organ harvesting).

    Even the most anti-Islamic conspiracy theories I’ve heard don’t come close to this. Maybe I’ve only heard from mild Islamophobes.

  22. I don’t see it Suzanne.

    I agree that there is *some* holocaust denial in the intentional efforts of *some* Arabs.

    I’ve known too many Arabs that have incorporated awareness of the holocaust and respect for its significance in their political math, to generalize “the” Arabs.

    Even Ed Said spoke at length of the his sympathies, respect and significance of the holocaust.

    Its a dismissive attempt. And, even if it is partially true, which it certainly is, the way to remedy it is to educate, not to isolate in condemnation.

  23. Suzanne, I’ve tried to be very diplomatic with you. But at this point I have to say that your views about Palestinians and Arabs in general (who you often fail to differentiate, by the way) are very prejudiced and, in my view, unacceptable.

    When you say something like this, “their mindset and negative character traits which are also found in other Arab states,” I have to challenge:
    -your ABILITY to make such a judgement about the thoughts of an entire group of millions of people
    -your RIGHT to make such a judgement about a people brutalized not only by horrific violence, but continuous occupation
    -the constructiveness of even attempting to make such a judgement about a people facing real, tangible human rights abuses from a powerful state and U.S. ally

    How about the Darfuris, Suzanne? Are you satisfied with their mindset, or is that the cause of much of their problems too?

    My advice to you is to think and speak about Palestinians with the same sensitivity and nuance that you would hope others apply when Jews are involved. And actually LISTEN to some Palestinian voices (experiencing for yourself their diversity), as a substitute for constantly talking about–and denigrating–their “mindset”.

  24. Richard–if you don’t see it–then it’s because you don’t want to.

    I fully accept there are moderate Arabs–including among Palestinians–but they are a minority.

    If you want to ask me to focus more on the reasonable minority than the wacko majority–that’s one thing.

    But to suggest there is no rampant culture of conspiracy theories and defamation of Jews (not just Israelis) in the Arab world –is basically asking me not to trust my own ears and eyes.

    I already told you that I have let Arabs (namely Palestinians and Lebanese) express their views to me without indicating my own position (indeed, at one point my views were pretty sympathetic to them & more critical of Israel).

    They either make stuff up because oral storytelling is a talent–or they are gullible and misinformed.

    I’m not going to cut them any slack, Richard…by pretending not to see it. They are going to have to change or live with the status quo.

    I ask you this…am I supposed to cut the radical right birther movement some slack because most quietly believe it but just a few are loud about it?

    I don’t think so.

  25. Suzanne,
    You’ve made statements like “THE” Arabs don’t acknowledge the holocaust.

    That conflicts with my experience, including meeting Arabs in the West Bank.

    It is true that they interpret the question through the lens of their own experience. So, it may be true that they minimize the importance of the holocaust (instead referencing their own pains).

    The problem I see with generalization is that even if accurate in a present poll, it imprints the generalization to be permanently accurate.

    So, even if a majority of Arabs are not as aware of the holocaust or significance as I, that Khaled is undertaking that effort is a great work, a great assertion of compassion in the world.

    And, by his work, your generalization becomes as accurate as active holocaust denial.

    Lets let it change, lets help it change.

  26. ok. For now on I’m going to qualify what I say with “a disturbing number of Arabs seem to think that…”

    BTW–great post you made in the one-state solution thread.

  27. BTW Richard…the fact that Khaled felt compelled to take on this effort pretty much proves my point that “a disturbing number of Palestinians” appear to need to rectify their thinking.

    He’s de-propagandizing them.

  28. He’s informing them of a significant and psychologically formative event in their collective lives, and that compassion is the best means of self-assertion.

    Who will fail to listen to someone that is sincerely sympathetic with your history and condition?

    Both a thing for its own sake, and an effective tactic.

    It differs from BDS, which is promoted primarily as an effective tactic (by Hamas).

  29. You know the comments are not fair …. I read about this man I watched vidios about him , he seemed a very peacful guy try gol

    Going to “nillin/khaled kasab” on YouTube and then you’ll relaese that what he is doing is peacful and it’s his ideas and not the isrealy people ideas or the goverment or any one else

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