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Interview with Professor Mohammed S. Dajani Daoudi:
Setting the Record Straight
Palestinian professor Mohammed S. Dajani Daoudi gained the respect...Interview with Professor Mohammed S. Dajani Daoudi:
Setting the Record Straight
Palestinian professor Mohammed S. Dajani Daoudi gained the respect of many Jews when he took his students on a visit to Auschwitz and lost his job as result. However, a comment he wrote on a Facebook post after the horrific murder of Hallel Yaffa Ariel (a thirteen-year-old Israeli girl) in her sleep has raised questions in the minds of some people who previously supported him. An article was written about it in Israellycool. Professor Dajani was asked if he would kindly answer some questions, and he gracefully agreed.
Some background on Mohammed Dajani
Dajani, who now lives temporarily in the United States, comes from a prominent Muslim Jerusalem family. He was born in Jerusalem before Israel’s declaration of independence, but his parents fled to Egypt during the 1947/48 war. They later returned to Jordan-controlled East Jerusalem. Dajani studied in Lebanon and headed the student branch of the Fatah guerilla movement, but the Lebanese government deported him to Syria in 1975. He obtained an Algerian passport and went to study in England then to the United States. In 1990 he took a job at a university in Jordan. In 1993 he returned to Jerusalem.
Dajani became well-known among Israelis and friends of Israel when in May 2014 he was forced to resign from his post as professor at Al Quds University in Jerusalem after he took some of his students to visit the Auschwitz Nazi death camps. He was vilified by students, colleagues, and other Palestinians as a “normalizer” (someone who wants to normalize relations with Israel) as well as a "traitor" and a "collaborator". He was abandoned by the university administration who appeared relieved to receive his resignation.
Dajani describes himself as a “peace activist”. He takes stands that place him well outside of the Palestinian mainstream. He argues against the common Palestinian misconception of equating the Nakba with the Holocaust, and he argues for “reconciliation”. He believes that “the Palestinians had made a mistake when they rejected the partition in 1947, and that they should have recognized that Palestinians had to share the land”.
Dajani made the insightful observation that, “the only way for Palestinians to advance is to acquire the skills of critical thinking, entrepreneurship, and risk-taking that characterize their neighbors [Israelis]”. His goal is “a Jewish state, Israel, and an Arab state, Palestine”. He even adds that, “Both [states] should accommodate minorities of the other people”, whereas PA President Mahmood Abbas has stated that there would be “not a single Israeli in future Palestinian state”.
Dajani has received death threats and his car was torched in January 2015 outside his East Jerusalem home in what appears to have been an attempt to kill him or at the very least intimidate him. Dajani could have done his job quietly at Al Quds University, but he chose not to take the easy path. He took a risk and the result demonstrated that, in his words, “We say we are for democracy and we practice autocracy, we say we are for freedom of speech and academic freedom, yet we deny people to practice it”.
Dajani appears to genuinely want peace with Israel. He has come a long way from a Fatah-trained guerilla fighter to a professor who preaches moderation and reconciliation. He explains that his exposure to the real Israelis, such as the Israeli medical staff who tried to save the life of his mother, contributed to the evolution of his thinking and led his outlook about Israelis to change from “It is us or them” to “It is us and them”.
Question: You have written a response to the Israellycool article in which you said, “If this means that I am anti Occupation then it is true. If it means that I am against injustice, then it is true”. However, the author of the article did not say that you were expected to support the occupation or any injustice. What he said is that when you wrote “it is about the occupation”, you appeared to justify the murder of a young girl on the grounds of the occupation. Do you believe that the killer was any less guilty than any killer of a sleeping child anywhere else in the world?
Answer: Not at all. Nothing I wrote "justified" terrorism and the quotes cited in the mentioned article support this. The idea that if I do not see things exactly the same way they do then that means I am ‘justifying terror’ is a distorted thinking process that extremists on both sides use. They fail to mention that I published posts expressing my deep sympathy with the bereaved family of the unfortunate victim 13-year-old Hallel Yaffa Ariel. Had there been no occupation would this Palestinian youth have committed this crime thinking he is doing a ‘heroic act’? Had there been no occupation, would his family been pressured by the community not to condemn his act? This does not imply that “the killer was any less guilty than any killer of a sleeping child anywhere else in the world” but if it would have happened anywhere else he would have been diagnosed as “disturbed” or “mentally sick” and then they would have studied what caused him to do what he did. In analyzing what pushed this Palestinian kid to do what he did does not mean justification of terrorism.
Question: The article mentioned above reached the conclusion that you justified terrorism when you said that the terrorist attack “is about the occupation”. Regardless of what one may think of the website where the article was published, I know that other Jews have made that same interpretation of your comment, and some have said it to me directly. I would like to believe that the interpretation is incorrect, but when you ask, “Had there been no occupation would this youth have committed this crime?”, you appear to confirm that interpretation even further. Do you now regret making that comment, and do you retract it?
Answer: No, I don’t regret making that comment and I do not retract it since I do believe that the occupation is the source of most evil taking place feeding enmity, hatred, hostility, and violence on both sides. Let us not forget that there was a Palestinian youth and a Palestinian family on the other side burnt to death by Jewish extremists. I condemn all acts of terrorism committed for whatever cause. On both sides, these evil acts are symptoms of a deeper disease. Let us not remain in denial for what causes these evil actions in order to put an end to them.
Question: You appeared to recognize the moral imbalance between Israelis and Palestinians when you said, “Jews know more about the Palestinians than the Palestinians know about the Jews”, but you added, “Because there is an asymmetry of power it is easier for those with power to show empathy than it is for the occupied, who are powerless. It is harder for the victims to feel empathy when they are suffering on a daily basis. On their side they don't face the same pressures”. In saying this, you seem to imply that Palestinians should be judged by a lower standard than Israelis. Isn’t this a dangerous approach because it could be used to excuse just about anything?
Answer: In saying, “Jews know more about the Palestinians than the Palestinians know about the Jews”, I do recognize the imbalance in knowledge between Israelis and Palestinians about each other. Palestinian education ignores teaching about Jewish history and culture. Jews were victimized by the Holocaust during the Second World War, and the Palestinians were victimized also by the 1948 Nakba but are still traumatized by the ongoing occupation. Thus, it is hard for them to express empathy with Jewish past agonies when they are presently occupied with their own pain on a daily basis.
When Israel clamps down on Palestinian travel, exports and imports; this is occupation. When Israeli checkpoints delay people and those seriously ill patients travelling from one Palestinian city to another; this is occupation. When it takes hours for Palestinians to drive from Ramallah to Jerusalem or from Nablus to Hebron; this is occupation. When you hear the cries of bereaved parents; this is occupation. When you waste your life sitting in a jail cell for a crime you did not commit; this is occupation. When you look at me and do not see me or hear me; this is occupation. These things are what the occupation means to Palestinians.
Question: It was reported that you believe that “the Palestinians had made a mistake when they rejected the partition in 1947”. This seems to imply that you recognize that Arab violence against Jews is the root of the conflict and therefore the reason for the Israel-Arab wars and the resulting occupation that you oppose. Given this, aren’t the Arabs responsible to stop the violence against Israel in order to convince Israelis that Palestinians really want peace before the occupation can end?
Answer: I do believe that the Palestinians pressured by Arab governments made a historic mistake by rejecting the UN partition plan in 1947, but this in no way implies that “Arab violence against Jews” is the root of the conflict and the reason for the Israel-Arab wars. During the 1947-48 state of conflict there was violence from both sides against each other which made compromise, reconciliation, and peace hard to achieve. Meanwhile, Palestinian and Jewish voices of moderation had been silenced by extremists in their camps. Given this, moderates on both sides are calling for end of violence and are working to achieve a comprehensive just settlement that would end the occupation.
Question: It is a widely accepted fact that the Arabs started the war of 1947-48 after refusing the UN partition plane which Jews had accepted. It is also well-known that Arabs decided to go to war against Israel in 1967. How can you say that Arab rejection of the UN partition plan is not the root of the conflict?
Answer: There are two sides to each coin and here we have two clashing narratives on most issues among them who started the war of 1947-48 and the 1967 war. Let us leave it to historians to write about roots of the conflict. My real concern is not the past but the future and not conflict but reconciliation.
Question: You said that Israel has “a right-wing government with no interest in making peace”, yet you are clearly far more moderate than mainstream Palestinian politicians, not to mention extreme Palestinian politicians like Hamas. Do you agree that the main reason that the Israeli government, whether right or left, is reluctant to support a Palestinian state is because of Palestinian extremism, and that in fact, Palestinian extremism has pushed Israelis voters towards the right?
Answer: The Israeli government, whether right or left, is reluctant to support a Palestinian state in fear of Palestinian extremism which has pushed Israelis voters towards the right. When Palestinians call for end of occupation, Israelis interpret it to mean 1948 and not 1967. Many Israelis believe the Palestinian leadership of Hamas in Gaza and Fatah in the West Bank seek to build a state not as a neighbor to Israel but on the ruins of Israel. When Israelis look at the current Palestinian leadership, they conclude that a Palestinian state ruled by such “leaders” will be a threat to the national security of Israel. This is confirmed by Palestinian leadership refusal to recognize Israel as a Jewish state. Israelis believe that the percentage of Palestinians who believe in peace, reconciliation and two states solution is very low and are convinced that only few Palestinians are willing to give up the dream of Mandate Palestine to co-exist with Israel as peaceful nation. Here, the rise of radical Islam among Palestinians make Israelis worry about having the next caliphate rise on their borders. Looking beyond their borders, the regional political instability pushes Israelis to circle the wagons and oppose making any concessions to the Palestinians.
That is why the Wasatia movement I founded in 2007 aims among other goals at promoting a moderate culture within the Palestinian community in order for the Israeli public to feel safe and secure in supporting a democratic secular state for the Palestinians. The Wasatia Academic Institute in partnership with the Jena Center for Reconciliation at Friedrich Schiller University in Germany, are jointly implementing a doctorate program specialized on reconciliation to have qualified and skilled Palestinian educators in this field to establish a solid foundation for a peaceful future.
Question: Even though you want peace and not violence, it has been reported that you still think of Israel as the “enemy”. Do you still feel this way?
Answer: I do not think of Israel as the “enemy” but as “peace partner”; I encourage both Palestinians and Israelis rather than blindly be pro-one side or the other, to be pro-reconciliation and pro-peace and in this way to be pro-both. Thus I do not support the boycott against Israel since it makes no distinction between Israelis for peace and Israelis against peace, nor the anti-normalization campaign since normalization opens the door for reconciliation, which in turn paves the way for conflict resolution and peace. However, I do publicly oppose those Israeli policies which may promote racism or aim to empower the occupation or to deny Palestinian rights and existence.
Question: US News reported that “The government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has prioritized economic development in Arab towns and allocated funds for joint industrial parks in Arab and Jewish towns. Subsidies help firms hire Arab labor, and transportation infrastructure allows Arabs to reach employment sites. These ventures have been so successful that the government has begun setting up industrial parks and employment offices exclusively in Arab towns. In addition, the Israeli government developed a five-year plan for Arab education and established a special unit in the prime minister’s office to promote economic development in the Arab community”. So what do you mean when you say that Israeli policies promote racism?
Answer: Allocating funds is not the same as spending funds. Historically speaking, there has been a wide gap in the percentage of the Israeli government budget spending to develop the Arab towns as compared to funds spent to develop Israeli towns. Driving from Tel Aviv to any nearby Arab Israeli town will illustrate this gap. Similarly, the Municipality of Jerusalem collects more than 30% of its budget from the Palestinian residents of the city yet spends only 2% of that budget to develop Arab East Jerusalem neighborhoods. Palestinians take part of the blame because they refuse to be represented in the municipal council but such may not be the case for the Arab Israelis.
Question: What do you mean by “empower the occupation”? Your comment seems to imply that Israel could end the occupation whenever it wished, but you have said yourself that “the Israeli government, whether right or left, is reluctant to support a Palestinian state in fear of Palestinian extremism”, and you explained why. How can you blame Israel for the occupation when it is clear that Palestinians have not created the conditions necessary for an end to the occupation?
Answer: “Empower the occupation” policy means building new settlements and expanding old settlements in the West Bank and Jerusalem, denying Palestinians free movement, demolishing of homes, etc. I believe that ending the occupation through a negotiated settlement and not by a unilateral action as what happened in Gaza, will undermine the radical reach on both sides and will usher a new era of reconciliation and peace. It is true that we need to create the proper conditions necessary for an end to the occupation but it takes two to tango.
Question: You said, that, “Palestinians cannot begin to understand Israelis unless they learn about the impact of the Holocaust”, but the reality is that Israelis do not see the Holocaust as the reason for the existence of Israel. In fact, the claim that Israel was created due to the Holocaust is a common accusation made by Arabs to delegitimize Israel based on the narrative that Israel was created by Europeans out of out of feeling of guilt for the Holocaust. Jews believe that Israel is their home and has been their home for over 3000 years regardless of the Holocaust. What are your thoughts on this?
Answer: In urging the Palestinians to learn about the Holocaust I was hoping Palestinian empathy for Jewish suffering may help pave the way for reconciliation. Understanding Jewish psyche, this would address the insecurity and fear Jews have of potential future holocausts reflected in the slogan “Never Again”. I did not imply in any of my writings that the Holocaust was the reason for the existence of Israel. In fact, this is one reason why Palestinians attacked me for taking the students to Auschwitz to learn about the Holocaust. It is their false perception that Israel was created in consequence to Western sympathy and guilt feelings due to the Holocaust and thus they think acknowledging the Holocaust constitutes a moral justification for the creation of Israel and their expulsion from Palestine. They feel that learning about the Holocaust and expressing empathy with the Jewish victims of the Holocaust would justify the Zionist narrative at the expense of the Palestinians who had nothing to do with the Holocaust. Palestinians vehemently reject “Jewish belief that Israel is their home and has been their home for over 3000 years” for fear of its implication to justify land colonization, ethnic cleansing, mass deportation, and denial of human rights.
Question: You answer leaves some ambiguity. Are you saying that you believe that Israel is engaged in “colonization, ethnic cleansing, mass deportation, and denial of human rights”?
Answer: Yes I do believe that Israel is engaged in illegal expropriation of Palestinian lands, ignoring international laws, and denial of Palestinian human rights. But it is not about what I think and believe or about what perceptions Palestinians have but this is the reality on the ground.
Question: You have stated that, “The United Nations have not made Israel its sole concern but Israel has made the United Nations make Israel its sole concern”. Was this said in a moment of anger, or do you honestly believe that Israel’s record on human rights is so much worse than (for example) Syria, Egypt, Gambia, Kenya, and Saudi Arabia that the UN would be justified in spending so much time criticizing Israel while ignoring other countries?
Answer: I believe that the United Nations for the sake of moral justice should look into violations of human rights in all its member states without any discrimination. At times, the arrogance of power and the perception that “the world is against us” make Israel commit flagrant human rights violations without any consideration for public opinion which pushes the United Nations to target Israel in its criticism more than other state members whose violations of human rights may be worse than Israel. Countries not claiming to be democracies are not to be judged as Israel which describes itself as the only democratic island in the region and thus it is being judged by higher standards than other authoritarian regimes.
Question: You said, “The Palestinians living in Gaza voted extremist Hamas into power and the Israelis in Israel voted for extremist right-wing parties into power. Bad choice for peace but they call it democracy”. Your wording seems to imply equivalence in extremism between Hamas and the Likud. Do you believe that?
Answer: I see some equivalence between Hamas and right-wing parties in Israel in the sense that both reject the national aspirations and historical heritage of the other. Palestinian extremists holding to the ideology of Hamas and Israeli extremists holding to the ideology of right-wing parties both refuse to acknowledge the legitimate claims, aspirations, and rights of other, and they call for an exclusive sovereignty over the land at the expense of other. Both spread fear of other and teach enmity and hatred of other and use religious text to legitimize their use of violence against other.
Israelis and Palestinians should end this protracted enmity and hostility toward each other. Reconciliation begins with both Palestinians and Israelis speaking well of each other and not de-legitimizing, isolating, and demonizing each other. Both should stop agitating and committing violent acts against each other. It proceeds with acknowledging and respecting each other. Then it moves ahead with dialogue and cooperation. Israelis and Palestinians should be connected through business, sports, tourism, education, art, music. Peace is the goal; Two-State solution with an economic and security collaboration umbrella. The promotion of reconciliation, peace, and democracy are most honorable aspirations to be achieved. Show more
A Learning Moment: Arabs, Palestinians, and the Holocaust
Mohammed S. Dajani and Robert Satloff
October 28, 2015
While in Auschwitz we stayed across the street at the Prayer and Dialogue Center where Rev. Dr. Manfred Desalears is Program Director. His book is a...
I did not vote for Netanyahu and I have a lot of problems with the guy, but I have also not judged him harshly. Now I understand why I have been...I did not vote for Netanyahu and I have a lot of problems with the guy, but I have also not judged him harshly. Now I understand why I have been holding back on both praising him and condemning him after reading this short piece by Dr Einat Wilf: Show more
an excellent article. but i do not see any peace deals between the Palestinians and the Israeli emerging anytime soon.