JERUSALEM — Professor Mohammed Dajani expected criticism when he took Palestinian students to Poland last month to visit the site of the Auschwitz concentration camp. But he wasn’t prepared for the uproar that followed.
In online posts and comments, Palestinian critics denounced the visit as treason. Acquaintances counseled the professor to keep a low profile, stay away from his university campus and consider taking a vacation abroad, he recalled.
“People said we were giving support to Zionism and promoting its propaganda, as if we were giving up on our rights,” Dajani said in an interview in East Jerusalem, the city’s Arab side, which Palestinians claim as the capital of a future state.
He’s no stranger to controversy. The director of the American studies program at Al Quds University, Dajani heads an organization called Wasatia, whose declared aim is to promote a culture of moderation and reconciliation among Palestinians _ values that often seem in short supply in the festering conflict with Israel.
Dajani said the idea of taking students to Auschwitz took shape after he made a journey to the site three years ago on a visit sponsored by The Aladdin Project, a Paris-based organization that promotes understanding between Muslims and Jews.
“In my community you see a lot of ignorance of the Holocaust, denial of the Holocaust. People don’t want to recognize the suffering of the other,” Dajani said. “I felt that I did not want to be a bystander, and wanted to bring more awareness and consciousness among Palestinians of this issue.”
Because of its crucial role in the creation of Israel, the Holocaust is freighted with political overtones in Palestinian society, where many think that their people have paid the price for the persecution of the Jews in Europe. Palestinians consider their mass displacement and expulsion in the war that followed the establishment of Israel a “catastrophe” of similar magnitude, and they recall it in annual commemorations just as Jews will mark Holocaust Remembrance Day this year beginning at sundown Sunday.
“The Holocaust is not taught in Palestinian schools and universities,” Dajani said. “It is a history ignored, mentioned as part of a plot to establish a Jewish state in Palestine, or as Zionist propaganda with exaggerated figures.”
Dajani has advocated publicly for Holocaust education among Palestinians and has devoted part of his own classes to the subject. The trip to Auschwitz was arranged as part of a reconciliation research project sponsored by the Friedrich Schiller University in Jena, Germany, which also included a visit by Israeli students to Deheishe, a Palestinian refugee camp in the West Bank.
The project was funded by the German Research Foundation, and the Israeli students and faculty, some of whom accompanied the Palestinians to Auschwitz, are studying conflict resolution at Ben Gurion University in Beersheba.
Organizing the Palestinian visit to Auschwitz was a sensitive undertaking. Thirty people were selected from some 70 applicants, though three students from Birzeit University in the West Bank withdrew under peer pressure, Dajani said.
“We didn’t want to jeopardize the visit, so we kept it very quiet,” he added, noting that applications were sought “by word of mouth,” and there was no prior announcement of the trip, thought to be the first of its kind by Palestinian students.
The itinerary included a trip to Krakow, where participants learned about Jewish life before the Holocaust, visiting former Jewish neighborhoods and synagogues. In Auschwitz, the group heard from two Holocaust survivors brought by the Israelis, and a Polish guide.
“I visited the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem three years ago, but here it was different,” said Salim Sweidan, a former graduate student at Al Quds who joined the trip. “When you step on the soil where millions were killed, it leaves a big impression.”
“People accused us of showing sympathy with the occupier, but I say no, this was sympathy with the human beings who were killed there,” Sweidan added.
Nasser al Qadi, a master’s degree candidate in American studies at Al Quds, said he’d joined the trip because it was “our humanitarian duty, regardless of our rift with the Israeli side.”
“We went there for education, and we believe that there are no restrictions over education,” al Qadi added. He said Israelis should recognize in similar fashion the Palestinian trauma of displacement and expulsion that accompanied the creation of Israel.
Al Quds University, which used to promote joint academic ventures with Israelis but changed its policy, issued a statement dissociating itself from Dajani’s trip and warned him that he should make clear to students that the visit was not a university activity.
Abdullah Dweikat, a columnist, wrote on the Palestinian news website Watan: “We reject the extermination of any human being because of his religion, nationality or political views, but our humanity also rejects disregarding the wounds and pain of our people, who are being slaughtered every day at the hands of the occupiers. Wouldn’t it have been more appropriate for our professors and students to visit the Yarmouk refugee camp (in Syria) . . . or refugee camps in Lebanon to see the real suffering?”
Sweidan said that despite the public condemnations and disavowals, many people privately expressed support to participants, calling their visit a brave step and acknowledging that the public atmosphere had kept them from speaking out.
Dajani, a scion of a prominent Palestinian family from Jerusalem, was active in the Palestinian Fatah movement in Lebanon in the 1960s and ’70s, studied later in the United States and was allowed back by Israel to his native city in 1993 to care for his father, who was ill with cancer.
He said the treatment of his father and other Arab patients at an Israeli hospital was a turning point in his attitude toward Israelis, whom he’d viewed solely as representatives of an oppressive occupation.
“The conflict with Israel has poisoned the whole attitude toward” the Holocaust, Dajani said, adding that Palestinians perceive acknowledging the event as “undermining the national narrative.”
The professor said he hoped the controversy surrounding the Auschwitz visit would boost his efforts to include study of the Holocaust in the Palestinian educational system.
His response to the critics was straightforward. “I’m doing it because it’s the right thing to do,” he said. “I would do it again.”
Greenberg is a McClatchy special correspondent.