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Muslim's Holocaust exhibit fires controversy

Lawyer Khaled Mahameed opened his modest Holocaust museum a year and a half ago, tacking up 80 historical photographs, with captions that he translated into Arabic, at his law office in downtown Nazareth.

Attendance has been sparse.

Mahameed, a 44-year-old Muslim, says the exhibit aims to break down what he sees as a tendency among Arabs to ignore the Holocaust at the cost of understanding a defining experience of their Jewish neighbors. Only when Arabs understand the dimensions of the Holocaust is real peace possible, he argues.

"They don't want to know," Mahameed said in English, surrounded by black-and-white photographs of cramped Jewish ghettos, scowling Nazi soldiers and ghastly stacks of emaciated bodies. "It's not that they don't understand; they understand. They don't want to talk about it."

But the museum, called the Arab Institute for Holocaust Research and Education, is proving controversial on all sides. Mahameed said his efforts have left him ostracized by friends and snubbed by his own brother.

At the same time, Jewish leaders who at first praised his plans say the exhibit may do more harm than good by including a Palestinian flag and images of Arab refugees who fled or were expelled from their homes before and during the war that broke out with Israel's creation in 1948.

The Anti-Defamation League last week said Mahameed had based his museum in part "on the false premise that the Palestinian people are paying the price for European guilt" about the Holocaust.

By including emblems of the Palestinian political cause, Mahameed is making "a wholly inappropriate connection between the plight of the Palestinians and the Jewish Holocaust victims," the ADL said in a statement.

Mahameed has attracted media attention in Israel after he received an invitation to a two-day conference on the Holocaust in December in Iran, whose president frequently calls for Israel's elimination and has labeled the Nazi genocide a "myth" that justified Israel's creation.

If granted permission to attend from the Israeli government, he said he will tell participants that the Holocaust is a historical fact and that the deaths of 6-million European Jews should not be denied.

Mahameed says Arab citizens of Israel, and in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, would benefit from a greater appreciation of the magnitude of the Holocaust.

But he adds Palestinians to the roster of victims, saying Israel was formed on their land largely as a result of the Holocaust, a viewpoint held by many Palestinians. That reasoning is roundly rejected by Jewish leaders, who say it ignores decades of earlier efforts to form a Jewish homeland in Palestine and appears to deny the legitimacy of Israel as a state.

Mahameed said giving Arabs a fuller understanding of the Holocaust might soften the tone of their interactions with Israel. A change in attitudes by both sides, he said, could inspire Israel to adopt policies friendlier to Arabs, including, perhaps, allowing them to return to homes they left nearly 60 years ago.

"Palestinians have to talk through the values of the Israeli people, and Israelis have to talk through the values of the Palestinian people," he said. "This is the method of the prophets."