MILWAUKEE – If only Jews could see the Nakba as Palestinians do. If only Palestinians could see the Holocaust as Jews do. This is one Palestinian’s dream.
Part of the problem in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a lack of mutual understanding and education, said Professor Mohammed Dajani, in a speech to about 100 people at University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee on June 1. Dajani gained notoriety in 2014 when he resigned from his East Jerusalem university position while under criticism for taking Palestinian students abroad to see Auschwitz.
“We do not know much about each other,” Dajani said, referring to Jews and Palestinians. “I believe in education. I believe that part of the problem is this ignorance.”
“When I took the students (to the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp in Poland) it was a very emotional experience for them,” he said. “First of all it was an educational experience. One of the students thought that the Jews were in concentration camps because they wanted to ship them to Palestine.”
When Palestinians look at the Holocaust they see a small picture, he said. They see wires at the camp and think of Israeli jails and guards. Israelis see a larger picture, an effort to annihilate a religion, a people and a civilization, he said.
Thus, as a teacher, Dajani sought to “make one stand in the shoes of the other.” He sought to have his Palestinian students see the Jewish perspective. “At the same time it is important for the Jew to put himself in the shoes of the Palestinian and look at the Nakba,” he said, referring to the Arabic word for “disaster” that’s used to describe the exodus of Palestinian Arabs from their homes in 1948.
“I strongly believe that part of the solution for this conflict is to resolve part of what I call the empathy deficiency,” he said. He acknowledges it’s more difficult to feel empathy for an enemy.
“There is nothing to fear from learning about what has happened,” he said. “It is so important for us to train people to become experts in reconciliation,” he said, so that they can return to their communities and spread that openness.
Dajani took students to Auschwitz-Birkenau in 2014, as part of a program called “Hearts of Flesh – Not Stone” organized by Friedrich Schiller University in Jena, Germany and funded by the German Research Foundation, according to Haaretz. There was an incorrect report in Palestinian media that the trip was funded by Israelis, Dajani said during his talk, and this put pressure on Dajani and the students who went on the trip.
After the trip, he was labeled a traitor and expelled from the Al-Quds University workers’ union, even though he was never actually a member, according to the Israeli newspaper. Dajani’s car “was torched,” he said.
Two months prior to his UWM speech, a second trip for Palestinian students was planned, but “unfortunately we did not get the funding,” Dajani said.
There was hearty applause at the end of the speech, though during a question-and-answer period, one man turned angry and raised his voice, claiming that Dajani was avoiding discussion of the “ethnic cleansing of 1948.”
Dajani said he sometimes gets different kinds of objections to his talks, adding that “we have to learn to live with each other even if we have different views” and that he didn’t have time to discuss everything in a 40 minute speech.
Dajani said he favors a two-state solution, viewing a single-state solution as unrealistic because of enmity and a lack of trust. “I feel the people in the street, that’s what they want,” he said.
“We have so much in common, in our values, in our culture,” he said. “We have similar history. When a Muslim talks about a Jew, he can say cousin.”
“Hopefully there will come a time when we have peace.”