Rabbi Marc Schneier, spiritual leader of the Hampton Synagogue on Long Island and president of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, was in Israel for Passover when he was invited to meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah.
As a result of the meeting, Abbas issued a statement calling the Holocaust the “the most heinous crime against humanity in modern history.” He also extended condolences to the “families of the victims and the innocent people who were killed by the Nazis, including the Jews and others.”
Q: Had you planned to discuss Holocaust Remembrance Day?
I wasn’t even thinking about it. My work is to try to offer a new paradigm of Muslim-Jewish relations around the world. Since March we have been in the forefront in combating the recent ban by the government of Denmark on ritual slaughtering by both Jews and Muslims. I wanted to ask Abbas to lend his voice to this effort.
I have had an ongoing conversation with Abbas for the past five years, and remind him how he has a responsibility to develop a sense of empathy for the other. … Then I had this epiphany on the spot. I said the three of us [Rabbi Schneier and two friends accompanying him] are children of Holocaust survivors and a week from tonight the Jewish people will be observing probably the darkest day on our calendar, Holocaust Remembrance Day. How meaningful and significant it would be for you to express your sympathy, your condolences to world Jewry on the anniversary of this terrible tragedy and the loss of so many innocent lives.
Before I could complete my sentence, he said: “Rabbi, let me tell you how I feel. … I see the Shoah as the greatest tragedy of humankind in the modern-day era.”
Was he equivocal in any way?
He was unequivocal in describing the magnitude of the tragedy, and he did not link the Holocaust to the suffering and persecution and oppression of other peoples or nations. He spoke of it as being the greatest single tragedy of the modern era and of the millions of lives lost.
He then turned to his cabinet secretary and said that as a response to Rabbi Schneier, I will offer a message of condolence and sympathy and solidarity with the Jewish people before Yom HaShoah. He is the first Palestinian leader ever to acknowledge and recognize the Holocaust. Hopefully his words will inspire other Palestinians and other Arab leaders to follow suit.
What is the import of his words?
I’m not going to represent to you that we have reached the Promised Land in Muslim-Jewish reconciliation, but I remind you it took 40 years to get here. We have made significant strides in the seven years since the foundation started this international campaign of Muslim-Jewish reconciliation. President Abbas’ statement is a significant benchmark along that journey.
Were you aware that in his doctoral dissertation Abbas minimized the scope of the Holocaust?
In my line of work I have to believe that people evolve, that an individual can grow and develop and broaden his or her horizons and expand his sympathies. I also know that a tenet of Judaism is that it is human nature to change human actions, so I do not look back.
Are you satisfied with his statement?
I’m satisfied that there was an acknowledgment and recognition of the Holocaust, which has become the subject of concern in many Palestinian and Arab circles because of those who are engaged in Holocaust denial. I think it took some courage on his part to speak about the Holocaust within his own circle — even at the possible risk of his own safety and security.
How do you explain that just a few hours after Abbas’ statement, the Palestinian Central Council issued a hardline statement on the renewal of peace talks with Israel?
In my own experience that day I witnessed the internal conflict within the Palestinian camp. As we were leaving Abbas’ office, one of his deputies said, “This is the compound where we greeted President Obama.” Another then said, “This is where the Israelis held Arafat.” The first then said, “Let’s not look back; let’s look forward.”
How do you see your role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
When the Palestinians and Israelis arrive at an agreement, how will it be executed when a majority of Israelis and Muslims don’t trust each other? I believe the underlying reasons for that mistrust are misunderstandings and misperceptions about our respective texts, traditions and historical experiences. … Abbas and I discussed this. That is why I said it is so critical to have an empathetic imagination and to put oneself in the place of the other, and understand their fears and concerns. It was in this spirit that Abbas responded so sensitively to my request.