(JNS) A Muslim group including participants from across the Arab world took part for the first time in the International March of the Living, the annual 1.9-mile walk from the concentration camp at Auschwitz to the extermination camp of Birkenau in Poland to commemorate the victims of the Holocaust. The precedent-setting move was the brainchild of Sharaka, an organization of young Israeli and Gulf State leaders formed in the wake of the Abraham Accords. The 18-member delegation, including social-media influencers, professors and journalists, came from Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Syria, Lebanon, Morocco, Turkey and Israel, said Amit Deri, founder and CEO of Sharaka.
Deri said the idea to participate in the March of the Living, which takes place annually on Israel’s Yom Hashoah, or Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Day, came to fruition gradually, starting with a trip in December 2020 for young Arab influencers to Israel, in which they visited Yad Vashem, Israel’s official memorial to the Holocaust.
“After that visit, they said they wanted to listen to a Holocaust survivor, who would tell them the story. So last year, we held a Zoom event with more than 250 people from all over the Arab world. It was during COVID-19, and we couldn’t come here,” Deri told JNS on the grounds of Auschwitz. “We promised that the next time it would be possible to be here on Holocaust Remembrance Day, we would come,” he said.
Deri attributes the timing of the visit to the Abraham Accords agreements signed between Israel and several Muslim states in the fall of 2020. “It has allowed people to express themselves. They feel more comfortable than they did three or four years ago,” he said, adding that the Muslim participants are “definitely” taking a risk and could face backlash in their home countries. “They’re brave to do it, and we appreciate them for doing so.”
One delegation participant, Rawan Osman, told JNS of her own dramatic transition, from having a “panic attack” when she first saw religious Jews after moving to Germany to becoming the only Arab at the Center for Jewish Studies at the University of Heidelberg. Originally from Damascus, Osman grew up in Lebanon, the child of a Syrian father and Lebanese mother. She was taught that Jews are the enemy. “It took many years of reading and not necessarily sharing what I thought with my own family, especially on my mother’s side, who are Shi’ites and influential in Lebanon,” she said.
She said anti-normalization laws exist in Lebanon and Syria where even person-to-person relations with Israeli Jews are criminalized.
Main Photo: Participants on the annual 1.9-mile March of the Living walk from the concentration camp at Auschwitz to the extermination camp of Birkenau in Poland to commemorate the victims of the Holocaust, April 28, 2022. Photo by Aloni Mor/MOTL.