OSWIECIM, Poland — Walking the gravel path between the faded brick barracks at the former Auschwitz concentration camp, Rawan Osman says that the first time she saw a Jew, she had a panic attack.
The daughter of a Syrian father and Lebanese mother, Osman, 38, was raised in the Bekaa Valley in southern Lebanon — a stronghold of the Hezbollah terror group. She lived in Saudi Arabia and Qatar before moving to Strasbourg, France, for university in 2011.
“I never met a Jew until I moved to Europe,” Osman says. “I lived in the Jewish quarter in Strasbourg next to the Synagogue de la Paix. The city has a diverse community, but I didn’t realize that Jewish quarter meant that Jews actually lived there, because the Jewish quarters in Lebanon and in Syria are abandoned.”
Osman is in Poland with Sharaka, a grassroots organization looking to strengthen the bond between Israel and the Arab world following the Abraham Accords. Sharaka is participating in the International March of the Living, one of the world’s largest annual Holocaust commemoration events, held on Yom Hashoah, Israel’s national Holocaust Remembrance Day, which this year falls out on April 28.
With a smaller footprint this year due to the pandemic and the war in neighboring Ukraine, this March of the Living will see 2,500 people make the 3.2-kilometer (two-mile) trek from Auschwitz I to Birkenau. Participants in past years have numbered in the tens of thousands.
This year also marks the first time in the March of the Living’s three-decade history that the United Arab Emirates is sending an official government delegation to participate in the event. That delegation is not officially linked to Sharaka, but the timing of the two delegations reflects the changing political reality in the Middle East.
Sharaka was founded in December 2020 just a few months after Israel signed the historic Abraham Accords with the Emirates and Bahrain. The group aims to build on the newly established diplomatic and economic ties to establish real connections on the person-to-person level. This is something that Dan Feferman, Sharaka’s director of communications and global affairs, says is lacking in countries such as Egypt and Jordan, which formally have peace agreements with Israel but whose populations are largely hostile or indifferent to the Jewish state.
“For too long because of the conflict, the Arab world has either minimized, downplayed, ignored, or denied the Holocaust, claiming it’s a conspiracy, claiming it’s something used by the Jews to justify things related to Israel,” Feferman says.
“This is really meant to be an eye-opening trip. All of these people through their various platforms — traditional media, social media — are going to relay this and use this as a platform to start a wider movement of educating the Arab and Muslim world about the Holocaust,” says Feferman.
Sharaka’s efforts are not limited to Gulf states alone; together with Osman are other delegates from Syria and Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, Morocco, Turkey and East Jerusalem, in addition to the delegates from the Emirates and Bahrain. Their number include authors, activists, social media influencers and politicians — in short, people who are capable of sharing their experiences in Poland with an audience willing to listen.
For many, finding that willing audience has been a journey in itself: Lebanon-born Osman currently lives in Stuttgart and attends the University of Heidelberg, where she is learning Jewish studies and Modern Hebrew. She says, however, that when she initially saw ultra-Orthodox Jews in her Strasbourg neighborhood, she was afraid. Not because she thought of Jews as the enemy, but rather because strict anti-normalization laws made any contact with Israelis — in her mind, “Jews” — strictly forbidden.
“We’re not allowed to talk to Jews, to Israelis. I was afraid that there would be legal consequences when I go back to Lebanon and Syria,” she says. “And I was afraid that the Jews would hurt me if they know I’m an Arab, because they hate me automatically.”
But, she says, “After a few days I started asking myself that if they didn’t even look at me, why was I scared. I started reading about the history of our region and the history of the acts of resistance — I was a big fan of Hezbollah — and when I read about them, I realized that the situation is the other way around. It’s not the Jews who are necessarily the assailants, but we are in a war, and it’s a war of narratives. So if you listen to the Jewish story, you can come to a solution.”
Osman says that since her initial awakening, she has met many Jews, and she works and studies with Israelis.
“I think we have hope, we can reach peace someday, but we have to work on it,” Osman says. “I was working with the Center for Peace Communications (CPC), and a friend connected me with Sharaka. So this is my first trip with them, but this will not be the last. I appreciate what they are doing.”
‘I always heard that the Holocaust didn’t happen’
Aysha Jalal works at Bahrain’s National Commission for Education, Science and Culture for UNESCO. She visited Israel with Sharaka this past October and had the opportunity to visit Yad Vashem, Israel’s national Holocaust memorial and museum. Jalal says that after visiting the museum, she wanted to come and see the extermination camps for herself.
“It’s mind blowing, actually, what we have seen here,” Jalal says. “It’s a very hard experience, but we have to see it to ensure it will not happen again and to educate the people of our community to see the real story, not the story given to us by the media, because the media tells a lot of lies. It’s a totally different story – I always heard that the Holocaust didn’t happen.”
Sharaka’s Gulf affairs director, 30-year-old author and peace activist Fatema Al Harbi, was excited about the Abraham Accords signing and looked forward to the warmer relations between the countries.
“One of my friends actually invited me with the first Sharaka delegation in December 2020 to go and visit Israel,” says Al Harbi. “I’d always dreamed of going to Israel, but I never thought it would be a reality anytime soon. So when that happened, I was like, of course I’m going.”
Al Harbi ended up leading Sharaka’s first Bahraini delegation to Israel this past October.
“When I went to Israel and visited Yad Vashem [with the Bahraini delegation], people asked questions and were curious to know more, so I knew coming here to the origin of the story would raise awareness more and hopefully I will educate more people about the Holocaust,” Al Harbi says.
“It’s necessary because in the Arab region, most people are denying and saying it never happened. They don’t want to talk about it at all. So I think it’s important for them to see one of their own talking about it openly,” she says.
Al Harbi says she began posting about Israel on social media since her first visit to the Jewish state in December 2020 – with mixed results. “But I noticed that I was getting a lot of attention, and people started asking questions, so I continued doing that,” she says. “Hopefully it will get the positive change I’m looking for.”
“It’s an historic achievement to bring this courageous group of influencers from around the Middle East to learn and witness the history of the Holocaust and spread the awareness of it to their countries and societies,” says Sharaka co-founder and CEO Amit Deri. “It is through such engagements that we can truly build warm peace and understanding.”
In our educational system, this part of history is nonexistent — one of the worst historical events is not taught in our curriculum
Osman agrees. “It’s very interesting to see Arabs coming together with Israelis voluntarily to discover this part of history,” she says. “In our educational system, this part of history is nonexistent — one of the worst historical events is not taught in our curriculum. So for Arabs to want to know voluntarily is very touching.”
Between the clouds, Osman sees a ray of hope.
“Speaking to the younger generations, I find it very easy to convince them. Unlike talking to older people who think they know better, the younger ones are open, believe it or not, and they’re very attracted to at least speaking to an Israeli, and that’s something we can do, and that’s what makes Sharaka’s work even more interesting,” she says.