Palestinian Professor Confronts the Holocaust

(Jerusalem, Israel and Washington, D.C. ) — Growing up in East Jerusalem, Mohammad S. Dajani Daoudi was part of a society that blames the Holocaust for the Palestinian dispossession from their land. Like many of his neighbors, Dajani even denied that the Holocaust happened.   All of that changed when Dajani traveled to the Auschwitz concentration camp in February 2011.

For many Palestinians, the Holocaust caused the Nakba, or “catastrophe”, which Palestinians call the creation of the state of Israel. Without the guilt of the Holocaust, many thought, the international community would not have felt forced to allow for a Jewish state, and all of the land that is today Israel, would be part of Palestine.

Even after entering Western academia, Dajani’s views didn’t change. During his time spent earning two Ph.Ds in the United States, one in government from the University of South Carolina and another in political economy at the University of Texas, Dajani avoided contact with Jews – even with a colleague teaching Hebrew who had an office right next door.

“I kept a distance from Jews because I was under the stereotype image that they were my enemy,” he says in an interview.

 Then, in the winter in 2011, Dajani was invited to visit the Auschwitz camp by Project Aladdin, a UN-sponsored project in Paris that combats Holocaust denial and encourages Jewish-Muslim dialogue. Dajani says he was originally worried that the trip would offer propaganda and almost did not accept the invitation.

Professor Dajani visits in Auschwitz in 2014
Professor Dajani visits in Auschwitz in 2014. Photo courtesy of Professor Dajani.

“All I knew within the Arabic environment is that it[The Holocaust] is propaganda to have international sympathy for the Jewish cause. In this way it was more a lie rather than reality.” Dajani says that his curiosity for learning is why he decided to accept the invitation despite his suspicions.

During his visit, Dajani’s view of the Holocaust changed. He learned that during the Holocaust, six million Jews as well as five million non-Jewish political dissidents, homosexuals, handicapped, and others that the Nazis deemed as “inferior” were systematically murdered under Hitler’s Third Reich.

One of the things he saw on the trip was the sign “Arbeit Macht Frei” (Work Makes You Free), at the entrance of Auschwitz. This sign gave the prisoners the false hope that if they worked hard enough they would receive their freedom. The Nazis kept up this ruse up until the prisoners walked into the lethal gas chambers thinking that they were showers. The only way to leave Auschwitz was through the crematoria.

“This encounter encouraged me to think about why is it that we as Palestinians deny it[The Holocaust],” he said. “It[denying the Holocaust] is morally unacceptable and factually wrong.”

Upon his return, Dajani began planning a second trip to Auschwitz that took place three years later in March 2014, when he brought 27 Palestinian students to the Jewish ghetto in Krakow and the Nazi death concentration camp at Auschwitz as part of an interdisciplinary reconciliation study.  This trip was sponsored by the Friedrich Schiller University in Jena, Germany under the “Heart of Flesh Not Stone” Project funded by the German Foundation Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG) . The goal of the project was to foster cross-cultural understanding between Israelis and Palestinians by learning about the sufferings of the other that have contributed to their historical consciousness. As part of the project, Ben Gurion University also brought thirty Israeli students to Dheisheh, a Palestinian refugee camp located south of Bethlehem, to hear the refugees’ perspective of the events that occurred as Israel was created in 1948.

After returning from their trip to Poland, Dajani and his students faced a wave of criticism within their community and were accused of being traitors and normalizers (those who cooperate with Israelis). University officials distanced themselves from Dajani claiming they had nothing to do with his trip, as a result of outside pressure.

“The university administration made it look as if I did something wrong when this was an educational trip which did not violate any university rules or regulations,” says Dajani.

His membership at the teacher union was expelled, his car was torched, and the student organizations on campus demonstrated against him and issued a communiqué describing him as a ‘traitor.’ He also received death threats, which obliged the university to have security guards accompany him on campus. Soon after facing these events, Dajani decided he could no longer work under such “a poisonous environment” and resigned from his fifteen-year career as the professor and director of American Studies at Al-Quds University in June 2014.

Dajani is saddened but not surprised by the negative public criticisms as well as the lack of (public) support from his colleagues at Al-Quds University. Many of the students who participated in the trip were afraid to publicly share their experiences.

“I paid the ultimate price and those who agreed with me [colleagues and students] kept silent because were afraid that what happened to me would happen to them,” says Dajani.

This trip affected students differently. One student, Zeina Barakat, told The Atlantic after the trip, “However degrading and unfair our situation in Palestine is today—and yes, it is degrading and unfair—it pales in comparison to the dehumanizing horror, depravity, and evil conceived and implemented by Nazis and their collaborators.” She also stated “Those who argue that we Palestinians should close our eyes to the reality of the Holocaust because it was the cause of our national tragedy are wrong,”

students
Professor Dajani visits Auschwitz in 2014 with 27 of his students from Al-Quds University. Photo Courtesy of momentmag

But others remained unconvinced that the Holocaust was a unique event. Mohammed (who asked not to use his real name) concluded that although Hitler’s Nazi regime was one of the prominent genocides of the twentieth century, the Holocaust is not distinct from other genocides other than the number of Jewish casualties and when and where it happened. “Massacre is massacre, blood is blood,” he said. “The way someone was killed doesn’t matter, it is all injustice.”

“We are the victims of the victims of the Holocaust,” Mohammed says, “The survivors of the Holocaust came here and created the state of Israel. The concentration camps reminded us of the Nakba and what is going on in this region.”

Both Dajani and some Jewish activists say that Mohammed’s reaction is more typical than Zeina’s.

“Mohammed’s response is typical of a comparative suffering that often occurs when Palestinians discuss the Holocaust and the Nakba. The Jewish people created the state of Israel after the Holocaust, so there ought to be a Palestinian state after the Nakba,” says Rabbi Ron Kronish in an interview, the founder of the Interreligious Coordinating Council of Israel (ICCI), an organization that facilitates interreligious relations between Christians Jews and Muslims. “If they can’t understand the distinctiveness [after traveling to Auschwitz] there is something very very wrong. Either something went wrong in their education or there is a mental block.”

Dr. Robert Rozett, director of the Yad Vashem libraries, is also weary of those who parallel the creation of the state of Israel and the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict with the Holocaust.

“The Holocaust was about the very existence of the Jews being considered to be dangerous to mankind, that is how the Nazi’s understood them, and a lot of other people buying into that idea if you murder the Jews it is good,” Rozett states during an interview. “Here we have a conflict of two people living in the same piece of land.”

According to the Holocaust scholar from Michigan State University, Kenneth Waltzer, Mohammad’s thoughts on the Holocaust are consistent with softcore Holocaust denial which “does not deny Auschwitz or six million, but moves in a similar direction by making false comparisons and pinning the Nazi label on the descendants of the Nazis’ former victims.  So the Jews in Israel commit genocide against the Palestinians, or use Nazi tactics; so Gaza is the Warsaw Ghetto and the summer Gaza War is another Holocaust,” Waltzer said in an e-mail.

Professor Dajani believes that most of his students had similar conclusions as Mohammad and moved from outright denial, denying that it happened, to what Waltzer describes as softcore Holocaust denial.

Graffiti in the West Bank
Graffiti in the West Bank. Photo taken by Lauren Zehnder

“The dangers of such softcore Holocaust denial is that–in everyday usage and understanding — what happened during the Holocaust is transformed, diminished, flattened of its distinctiveness and even intensity.  The broad Holocaust is itself relativized, demeaned…One student told me she used to be interested in the Holocaust but now — since the Jews are committing a Holocaust against the Palestinians — she is no longer interested. The danger is not the big lie — it’s rather the refusal to participate in making important distinctions,” says Waltzer.

Despite these challenges that arise when taking students to Auschwitz, Dajani views the trip as a success because “it raised national and local awareness, enabled students to accept it [the Holocaust], and show empathy.” Dajani emphasizes that whenever he is given the opportunity and funding, he will take more students to Auschwitz.

“It was very important to open their eyes to this tragic chapter of history in order for them to see the truth and to go and search for the truth.  I opened that door for them whether or not they want to go through it is up to them,” says Dajani.

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