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Suffering 101

Palestinians and Israelis take an eternal debate into the classroom, leaving the UN stuck in the middle.

Palestinian students ride on a donkey cart as they return home from a United Nations school east of Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip, Aug. 31, 2009. Hamas condemned the U.N. on Sunday, saying it planned to teach Palestinian children in the Gaza Strip about the Holocaust — but the U.N. agency which runs schools in the enclave refuted such claims. (Ibraheem Abu Mustafa/Reuters)

JERUSALEM — In the Book of Lamentations, the people of Jerusalem cry out against the destruction of the city: “Is any suffering like my suffering?”

The answer, of course, is: No. Ever since, Jeremiah’s phrase has pretty much been the catchphrase of the entire Middle East.

On a recent Sunday, the Israeli Education Minister Gideon Saar told the cabinet that the word Arabs use to describe the foundation of Israel — “Nakba,” or catastrophe — would be removed from Arabic-language textbooks in the schools of Israel’s Arab minority. His contention: it wasn’t a catastrophe for him or the government that pays the schools’ bills, so out with “Nakba.”

The same day, Hamas lashed out at the U.N. agency that educates Palestinian refugees. The agency, Hamas alleged, was planning to change its textbooks to teach Palestinian children about the Holocaust. Hamas’s contention: the Holocaust didn’t happen, and teaching about it would legitimize the State of Israel which, in the opinion of most Palestinians, was foisted on them as payback for the Holocaust by guilt-ridden Europeans. Recognizing the sufferings of the other side is generally the first step in conflict resolution. It makes the enemy seem human. It’s something Israelis and Palestinians find particularly hard to do.

In a letter to the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, the Hamas-affiliated Popular Committees for Palestinian Refugees called the Holocaust “a big lie that was fabricated by the Jews and a big campaign of propaganda.” The U.N., the letter says, should “erase the subject of the Jewish Holocaust from the curriculum, and stop future attempts to insert strange concepts which contradict Palestinian values and principles.”

Hamas claimed to have uncovered plans to teach about the Holocaust in a human-rights course. There are 200,000 Gazan children in U.N. schools.

U.N. officials tried to set the record straight. Karen Abu Zayd, the UNRWA commissioner-general, said Tuesday that she could "refute allegations that the U.N. school curriculum includes anything about the Holocaust."