What happens when an Emirati entrepreneur connects with a Montreal educator to teach about the Holocaust and fight antisemitism

Heidi Berger, president of the Foundation for Genocide Education, presents Ahmed Obaid Al Mansoori with a copy of the teachers’ guide Studying Genocide.

Images of an American neo-Nazi in a T-shirt emblazoned with 6MWE, code for “six million wasn’t enough,” convinced a businessman in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) that he must do something to counter rising global antisemitism.

Ahmed Obaid Al Mansoori created the first and only Holocaust exhibition in the Arab world, undaunted by widespread skepticism.

In 2021, Al Mansoori, a former member of the UAE National Council who carries the honorific “His Excellency,” opened a permanent gallery devoted to the Holocaust and Jewish history in his private The Crossroads of Civilization Museum in Dubai, just months after the signing of the Abraham Accords between Israel and the UAE.

Al Mansoori, 51, was the guest speaker at a recent fundraiser in Montreal for the Foundation for Genocide Education, (FGE) established by Heidi Berger in 2014 to make genocide education compulsory in every high school in Quebec.

He was interviewed on stage by Kyle Matthews, executive director of the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies at Concordia University, a partner of the FGE.

Al Mansoori says he wants to combat Holocaust denial and distortion, and remind visitors that Jews and Arabs co-existed harmoniously in the Middle East for centuries. The legacy of Dubai, located at the nexus of historic trade routes between Europe, Africa and Asia, epitomizes that tolerance, Al Mansoori believes.

He calls the Holocaust “the biggest crime against humanity,” especially shocking because it “happened in the most civilized country on the most civilized continent.”

He downplays his authority, claiming his concern is our common humanity. “I am not an expert. I am a very simple, humble person, like Forrest Gump,” Al Mansoori said.

He admires the work of Berger and the FGE, saying he shares its values and hopes for future collaboration.

His museum’s Jewish section has already had an impact, enlightening Emiratis and those from elsewhere in the region, Al Mansoori said. They have heard of the Holocaust but many still wonder if it is exaggerated, he added.

“The narrative of the Holocaust in the region is very distorted,” he said.

When the exhibition first opened, he received negative reactions from some, but that has abated, he said. Attendance at the annual Yom ha-Shoah commemoration he organizes has grown significantly each year.

In November, the UAE government announced learning about the Holocaust would be compulsory in the high school curriculum. Al Mansoori stressed that such education must be “tailored” to Arabic culture.

Al Mansoori’s interest in the Jewish people long predates the exhibition’s launch, and, in fact, goes back to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s founding 30 years ago.

He started the museum in 2006 in his basement with the mission of illustrating how different cultures have enriched each other over the ages. It’s currently housed in a former royal house in a historic district. Al Mansoori is working toward the construction of a home of its own.

Al Mansoori collects Jewish artifacts, and among his prized purchases is a handwritten letter by Theodor Herzl related to the First Zionist Congress, which is on view in the exhibition. The items on display are curated by the museum’s chief operating officer, Israeli Yael Grafy.

He has observed that visitors, who usually enter the museum in an excited state, grow hushed when they reach the Holocaust exhibition.

Among the most awed are religious Muslims, he said, who are drawn to Jewish religious items, including Torah scrolls and prayer books, some rescued during the Holocaust. “They have heard about them but never seen them before,” he said.

Al Mansoori noted that Canada was the first country to support his project, through its then ambassador, Marcy Grossman.

“Everything is going in the right direction,” said Al Mansoori, a peace advocate. “We are one region, with one destination. COVID proved that we are one world with one destination.”

FGE communications director Marcy Bruck said the organization contacted Al Mansoori after reading about the new permanent exhibit on the Holocaust he created in his museum.

“It took a long time, but we finally connected, aided by our student intern who happens to be from Dubai. His Excellency was interested in our work, and we had a Zoom meeting in February with him to explore areas of collaboration. “

FGE asked him to be the speaker at their fundraiser event “as we thought that the story is so unique, and that there is a parallel between his work and our own, using education to combat hate and antisemitism,” Bruck said.

The two groups have plans to work together, she said. 

Berger may go to Dubai to give her presentation on the Holocaust to students there, and online talks by children of survivors may also be made available to UAE schools.

Another possibility being explored is a translation into Arabic of the guide Studying Genocide, the first pedagogical resource of its kind in Quebec, which the FGE initiated. This online guide was made available to any educator who wants it in French last year and in English this spring.

Al Mansoori gifted Berger a framed replica of a prayer bowl from the 1800s said to be used by Muslims and Jews and bearing Arabic and Hebrew inscriptions. The real one is on display in his museum as a symbol of a shared religious tradition.