While the current Israeli-Palestinian peace talks are in danger of collapse, a Palestinian university professor brought his students to Auschwitz to encourage their empathy and tolerance. He wanted to counteract the Palestinian concept that “the Holocaust is used as propaganda for Jews to gain land and sympathy for Israel.” The response from the Palestinian community was expected to be negative, but the professor, Mohammed S. Dajani, did not expect that the trip would be called treason and worse.
Professor Dajani brought 27 college students to the death camp a few weeks ago. He made this effort to bring further understanding to the next generation of Palestinians, to ameliorate conflict, at least in the hearts of a few. This follows along with those individuals and organizations on both sides of the Palestinian-Israeli divide, who are seeking peaceful solutions to the schism.
For many years, Shalom Achshav (Peace Now) has worked towards a resolution to the conflict with the belief that the only solution is the creation of a Palestinian state in the territories adjacent to Israel. In 1967 those areas became occupied. Shalom Achshav believes in a Two-State Solution, saying that continued occupation of the territories is harmful to Israel economically and politically. They say it is also damaging to the values and fabric of the society of Israel. The way they hope to accomplish peace and democracy is through public education for Israel and the world, towards the development of supportive initiatives for long-term peace.
One U.S. organization, J Street, is Pro-Israel and Pro-Peace. Their mission is to support Israel and its desire for security as the Jewish homeland, as well as the right of the Palestinians to a sovereign state of their own. Another U.S. group, Seeds of Peace, helps teenagers from regions of conflict to learn the skills of making peace. (See video below.)
Empathy between Israelis and Palestinians has already occurred on many fronts. The reality is that Palestinians and Israelis are cousins – distant cousins, but family nonetheless. It started during the time of Abraham (Avraham in Hebrew; Ibrahim in Arabic). Abraham’s wife, Sarah, could not bear a child and so she sent her handmaiden, Hagar, to her husband. Shortly after Hagar’s son, Ishmael, was born, Sarah was able to get pregnant, and soon after, gave birth to Isaac. Sarah got jealous and asked Abraham to banish Hagar and Ishmael. God replied that he would make a great nation unto them. From this, Palestinians understand that they should have the land of Israel, or Palestine.
Of course, there are plenty of detractors and 5,000 years of history to wade through. For example, the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas refuse to see one another’s perspectives. Of course, it is hard to have empathy when feelings are so raw, yet the term treason for seeking understanding might seem extreme. The land of Israel has changed hands multiple times over the years. In 1948, after the Holocaust, 100,000 Jewish displaced persons needed a safe place where they would not be persecuted. Palestine was in Great Britain’s control and it was decided by the United Nations Partition Resolution that the former Palestinian mandate would be divided into Jewish and Arab states. This took place in May 1948 at the end of the British mandate.
In 1948, there was a civil war in Palestine, followed by an Arab-Israeli War. At the end of the war, Palestinians had to leave in mass exodus, known in Arabic as the Nabka, in which over 700,000 Palestinian Arabs (80% of the inhabitants) were forced to leave their homes. Israelis call the event the War of Independence and this led to the state of Israel.
The events that preceded Israeli independence are World War II (1939-1945) and the Nazi Holocaust, in which six million Jews, as well as others deemed inferior (Roma (Gypsies), the disabled, political dissidents, Socialists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and homosexuals) were brutally and systematically murdered. The number of Jews killed represented two-thirds of the Jews in Europe prior to the Holocaust. The Auschwitz concentration and elimination camp complex, numbering three main camps, was the largest in scale of those established by the Nazi regime. Nearly 1,000,000 Jews were killed in Auschwitz. Other victims numbered 123,000.
The Palestinian trip to Auschwitz was not one-sided, however. At the same time, a group of Jewish Israeli college students went to Bethlehem to hear the stories of Palestinians from the Dheisheh refugee camp. Prof. Dajani is a theologian who writes about dialogue, reconciliation, and tolerance. He supports a Two-State Solution and thinks that Jerusalem should be shared between Israelis and Palestinians. One Palestinian student returned home and reported that he felt changed by the trip, and deeply sensed the humanity and sympathy for the loss of so many due to race or religion. The student added that it did not change his desire for a Palestinian state.
The trip that Palestinian Prof. Dajani took was paid for by the German government. Upon his return, his college said the trip did not represent the university, and his fellow Palestinians called him a traitor. Clearly they felt betrayed by his actions. His friends advised that he take a quick vacation abroad. Prof. Dajani, whose goal was to teach the youth empathy about the Holocaust, believes that the trip may be the first of its kind. He did not conceive that reaction would be stronger than mild criticism. However, he said that, despite his strong desire for the end of Israeli occupation, he would not be a bystander to suffering, and he has no regrets about having taken the trip.
Opinion by Fern Remedi-Brown