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Dajani's Cave | 1970s Doctoral Graduate's Story Mirrors Complicated History of his Middle East Homeland

In 2014, Mohammed Dajani, longtime professor at Jerusalem’s al-Quds University, took 27 Palestinian college students to Auschwitz, the Nazi concentration camp near Krakow, Poland. He wanted them to confront the Holocaust, which he believes is downplayed in Palestinian schools, and to consider the complicated history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from multiple perspectives. The backlash, however, would cost him his job and endanger his life. It would also embolden his commitment to reconciliation.

Mohammed Dajani is a man without a country. Born in Jerusalem in 1946 but driven to Egypt in the Nakba, or Palestinian exodus, during the Palestinian-Israeli War of 1948. Educated in Quaker schools in Jordanian-controlled east Jerusalem and at the American University of Beirut. Banished from Lebanon for radical activity but welcomed by the United States. Graduate of not one but two Ph.D. programs, the first at the University of South Carolina.  

Dajani is also a complicated man. Secular Muslim well-versed in the Quran. Founder of the political science program at Jordan’s Applied Science Private University and of the Institute for American Studies at al-Quds University. Adjunct fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Co-director of the Wasatia Graduate School for Peace and Conflict Resolution at the University of Flensburg in Germany. Scholar. Philosopher. Activist. 

At heart, though, Dajani is a teacher. That’s evident from the start of our conversation, which occurs over two days in September via video chat — him at his Jerusalem apartment, me at home in Columbia, quarantining during the pandemic. I’m intrigued by the Auschwitz trip, which prompted a backlash in the Palestinian press and threats to his safety, but three minutes into the call he is delivering an erudite minilecture on the need for cultural education in a civil society. 

“If we look at history, when Plato was disappointed with Greek democracy, he did not reject it but started the Academy,” he says. “When John Dewey felt that democracy in America was faltering, he wrote Democracy and Education. I believe that is what we need here for reconciliation between Israel and Palestine.”  

Dajani is emphatic but polite, soft-spoken, professorial. He tents his fingers, smiles ever-so-slightly at the webcam. He’s not guarded but chooses his words carefully. “Part of our conflict is ignorance,” he explains. “Ignorance of ‘the other,’ lack of empathy for ‘the other,’ lack of knowledge of ‘the other’ — their culture, their history, their literature. I feel that education can play a significant role here.” 

But first, he says, Palestinian and Israeli schools need reform. He describes the current education model as “conflict education disguised as national education” and suggests, instead, a curriculum based on conflict resolution, negotiation, tolerance, dialogue — the basic tenets of Wasatia, an initiative he and his brother, Munther Dajani, started in 2007 to promote reconciliation. The word comes from the Quran, he explains, and means “middle path.” 

“ ‘Wasatia’ is moderation,” he says. “We would like to raise children within a moderate culture, within a democratic culture, for them to understand the elements of conflict, to understand ‘who is the other,’ ‘why is the other,’ and to appreciate the legitimacy of ‘the other.’ We want to change the mentality from ‘us or them,’ to ‘us and them.’ This is crucial to the existence and welfare of both peoples.” 

A history of conflict

Dajani understands the ‘us/them’ dynamic as well as anyone. Growing up, he blamed Israel for the displacement of more than 700,000 Palestinians, including his own family, during the Nakba, and he harbored doubts about the Holocaust. Such was the prevailing attitude, particularly for his generation. And while he arrived at American University in Beirut in 1964 an admirer of U.S. President John F. Kennedy, Dajani’s politics hardened during the Six-Day War in 1967, prompting him to join Fatah, a faction of the Palestinian Liberation Organization. 

And he wasn’t rank-and-file. Dajani never took up arms — thanks to his language proficiency, he worked in public relations — but Fatah became his identity, the so-called “Three Nos” spelled out in the Khartoum Resolution of 1967 his political mantra: No peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiation with Israel.  

“After the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, I shifted my total ideology,” he explains. “My hero became Che Guevara. I read Ho Chi Minh, Mao Tse-tung, Lenin. I read all the Marxists, although I was not a Marxist. I read all the revolutionary studies because that's what Fatah taught. That was part of the Fatah ideology, to teach about the revolutions of other countries.” 

But by the mid-70s, Dajani’s hardline politics softened. He still believed in Palestinian statehood — he still does today — but he was questioning his allegiances and, yes, his resentments. And when his student activities led to his exile by the Lebanese, Jordanian and Israeli governments in 1975, he headed briefly to England, then to the U.S., where Munther was studying at Eastern Michigan University. Wanting to pursue a career in academia himself, Mohammed Dajani applied to the University of South Carolina’s Ph.D. program in government. 

We want to change the mentality from ‘us or them,’ to ‘us and them.’ This is crucial to the existence and welfare of both peoples.

He had visited the U.S. before — for one week in 1970, representing the Palestinians at a United Nations international youth conference — but this was different, a full immersion. He didn’t just take courses and complete his dissertation on the Arab oil embargo, a hot button issue at the time; he used his five years in South Carolina to study American culture from the inside out. 

“To be honest, I was dazzled by the democratic experience,” he says. “At the University of South Carolina, while I was doing my Ph.D. I was also teaching Arabic in the foreign languages department and meeting people, regular American people. I was mingling with them, getting to know them, how nice they are, how hospitable and warm.” 

He attended football and basketball games. He went to parties, restaurants, clubs downtown. He was a teaching assistant for political science professor and then-Democratic Party chair Don Fowler, who got him front row seats at speeches and debates. Another political science professor, Morse Blachman, invited him to dinner. It wasn’t simply the first time the former Fatah revolutionary had dined with someone of the Jewish faith; it was the first time he had set foot in a Jewish home. 

“It left a lot of impact on me, these experiences,” Dajani says. “It’s why I always imagine it like Plato’s allegory of the cave.” 

One of Plato’s most famous dialogues, the allegory of the cave describes a group of people imprisoned underground who perceive the outside world indirectly via shadows cast upon a wall. Freed by knowledge, however, a person begins to perceive the world not as its shadow but as it truly is.   

“When I was in Lebanon, there was a distorted view of America because of Vietnam, because of the Arab-Israeli conflict, because of U.S. support of Israel. We were carrying a lot of baggage during that period,” says Dajani. “Once I came to the States, I felt that I had liberated myself. I walked out of the cave and saw a totally different world in front of me.” 

'Big Dream, Small Hope'

Thanks to a pardon from King Hussein of Jordan, Dajani eventually returned to his homeland. He had by then completed a second Ph.D., this time in political economy, from the University of Texas. His radical past behind him, he founded the political science program at Applied Science Private University in Amman. Five years later, when his father became ill with cancer, he returned to Jerusalem, where he spent the mid-1990s training civil servants for the Palestinian Authority through the United Nations Development Programme.

Then, in 1999, he attended a meeting between Israeli and Palestinian religious leaders in Turkey, where he developed the “Big Dream, Small Hope” model for conflict resolution that would inform his efforts with Wasatia. When I ask him about the movement, he literally pulls back the curtain. The bright Jerusalem sun floods his apartment, washing out the face on my monitor. “There is a narrative here,” he says. 

“I was observing from here, which is my balcony,” he continues, pointing out over a street I cannot see. “There is a checkpoint down the road which separates the West Bank and Jerusalem. It was a Friday morning, it was Ramadan, and there were hundreds of people on the road pushing against the checkpoint in order to go to Jerusalem to pray. This was late 2006.” 

At the University of South Carolina, while I was doing my Ph.D., I was also teaching Arabic in the foreign languages department and meeting people, regular American people. I was mingling with them, getting to know them, how nice they are, how hospitable and warm.

The potential for violence was high, he explains. The checkpoint guards fired tear gas and used horses to push back the Palestinians, who lacked permits to enter the area. Dajani watched from his balcony, sure that the standoff would end in bloodshed. But then something unexpected happened. The crowd quieted, tensions cooled. A short time later, a line of buses pulled into view. 

“I realized that the officer at the checkpoint made a deal,” Dajani explains. “He brought buses, and they checked the Palestinians that they have no weapons, then took them to Jerusalem to pray, then brought them back. Both sides got what they wanted. This happened for the next three Fridays.” 

It was a “win-win,” he says. Yes, it was but one episode in a long and contentious feud, but it stood in stark contrast to the “Three Nos” that had defined the younger Dajani’s philosophy and that continued to dominate the anti-normalization attitude of many Palestinians.  

“The Israelis were worried about security and terrorism, and the Palestinians were worried about missing their prayers at Al-Aqsa mosque, which on Ramadan is considered very blessed,” Dajani explains. “In my mind was the thought, ‘These are Palestinians, they are Muslims, they are religious, and yet they are not extremists.' The question was, ‘Who represents them?’ That's where I started this movement, this path, to represent moderate Islamic people.” 

The door of knowledge 

Dajani’s decision to take 27 Palestinian university students to Auschwitz did not happen in a vacuum. By March 2014, when the trip occurred, he had been a professor at al-Quds University for 12 years. He was rector of university libraries and founding director of the university’s American Studies Institute, the first such program in the Middle East. He was also deeply committed to Wasatia, which led to his participation in a multi-university study on empathy and its impact on reconciliation between cultures in conflict.

As part of the project, plans were made not only for the Auschwitz trip but also for a group of Israeli students to visit a Palestinian refugee camp. Dajani was advised by his administration that the Auschwitz visit should not be billed as an officially sanctioned al-Quds University trip, and Dajani did not argue. “That was what we had already told the students,” he says.

But as the trip approached, tensions mounted. Dajani was warned by one student not to go. Two others backed out, citing outside pressure, and just prior to their departure another student was discovered to be a member of Hamas and denied a travel permit by the Israelis.

It is, again, like the allegory of the cave. I said, ‘I am opening the door of knowledge for you. Whether you want to lock your mind or whether you want to learn from your experiences, that is up to you.’

And then the real drama started. An Israeli professor from Ben Gurion University, who was part of the program, had brought along two daughters of Holocaust survivors. On the second day, as the group toured the concentration camp, some of the Palestinian students interpreted comments made by the Israelis as rationalizing the Nakba. The organizers quickly defused the situation, but news travels fast in the digital age.

The very next day, a story appeared in Haaretz, an Israeli newspaper based in Tel Aviv: the controversy had spilled onto social media, particularly in Gaza and the West Bank. Next, a Palestinian newspaper, Al-Quds, re-ran the Haaretz article in Arabic. According to Dajani, though, the translation misrepresented a few key facts, suggesting the trip was funded by a Zionist organization and sponsored by Israeli universities, something Dajani refutes. The article also neglected to mention that the same program had brought Israeli students to Palestinian refugee camps.

“This article caused a lot of anger among Arabs and Muslims throughout the region, not only in Palestine,” says Dajani. The faculty union issued a statement condemning the trip and expelled Dajani from their ranks. The student union issued a statement declaring that “normalization is treason.” He received death threats. His car was firebombed.

Ultimately, Dajani submitted his resignation, citing insufficient support from the university and a lack of academic freedom. It was a political gambit — “I wanted them to reject my resignation,” he admits — but he does not regret the outcome. And while he would receive praise in the international press, including a hat tip from CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, Wasatia has never been about Mohammed Dajani.

As we approach the end of our second interview, which just happens to occur on the morning of Sept. 11, he stops, tents his fingers, smiles ever-so-slightly at the webcam. “This is the lecture I gave to the students on the bus going to Auschwitz,” he says. “I said to them, ‘Look, I know that this is a very traumatic experience, but I would like to stress to you, as a teacher, I am taking you on this trip for you to learn. It is up to you to decide what is true, what is false.’ ”

He pauses again. He is a teacher, always a teacher, but still, in his way, a revolutionary. His throat is hoarse with so much history. “It is, again, like the allegory of the cave,” he says. “I said, ‘I am opening the door of knowledge for you. Whether you want to lock your mind or whether you want to learn from your experiences, that is up to you.’ ”

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