Moderate Islam meets Auschwitz

It’s hard to think of more divisive activities in Palestinian society today. Regardless of whether one agrees with his actions, it is exceedingly rare to see someone publicly buck the fiercely dominant trends in Palestinian discourse.

For nearly 40 years, Mohammed Dajani Daoudi has felt that something was wrong with Palestinian politics. In 1975, while studying at the American University at Beirut (“doing everything except studying”), he was deported to Syria for political activities. Fatah operatives supplied him with a fake passport to get back. But they mistakenly put a Syrian exit stamp into the passport rather than an entry stamp; which looked odd when Syrian passport control moved to give him an exit stamp. The officer went to check with a superior, and Dajani says he grabbed his documents and fled back to Lebanon.

The incident made him feel like he was “fighting Israelis and fighting Palestinians, and it’s too much for me,” he told +972 Magazine in an interview in Jerusalem. After eight years in Fatah, he saw the organization as full of corruption, nepotism, mis-governance. That was when “I divorced politics and married academia.”

Mohammed Dajani Daoudi (Photo: Dahlia Scheindlin, 14 April 2014)
Mohammed Dajani Daoudi (Photo: Dahlia Scheindlin, 14 April 2014)

Decades and two American doctoral degrees later, his criticism has spread from politics, to religious life, to Palestinian society itself. Palestinian society was traditionally characterized by moderate Islam, he says; now it has been hijacked by extremism, the Quran has been misinterpreted for cynical political gain, and ignorant people fall for it.

His response, in 2007, was to found Wasatia – “moderation” – a framework through which he promotes values of moderation in religion and society.  Drawing liberally on Quran, he advances his ideas in lectures, booklets and articles. He brings them to his classroom as a professor at al Quds University, where he founded American Studies.

But his credo goes beyond calmer religious interpretations. It extends into embracing diversity, cooperating with, learning and accepting the narratives of the other, even enemies. Even Israel.

He has supported the broadest possible negotiation concessions, such as advocating the recognition of a Jewish state. Most recently and controversially, he took a group of his students on a trip to Auschwitz.

It’s hard to think of more divisive activities in Palestinian society today. Regardless of whether one agrees with his actions, it is exceedingly rare to see someone publicly buck the fiercely dominant trends in Palestinian discourse: “anti-normalization,” and the desperate struggle for recognition of Palestinian history and present suffering.

Dajani’s own complex personal political evolution may contribute to his resilience. He was a firebrand propagandist for Fatah during those student years and got himself not only deported from Lebanon, but banned from Israel, before his disillusionment caused him to leave politics. Moreover, Fatah of the late 1960s was all about creating a secular democratic Palestine for all; there was no one-state or two-state discourse. The idea of a 1967-based Palestine was anathema, especially in the diaspora. They called it “treason,” he says, and typically doesn’t spare them his criticism: “diaspora Palestinians were very hardline, they would not allow anything related to compromise or negotiations…They were enjoying themselves in Kuwait and wherever, they could afford it.”

Now he embraces two states, and advocates for religion in politics, in his moderate version.

As a result, he was already becoming a darling of some conservative circles even prior to the Auschwitz story. He had earned praise from center-slightly-right leaning MK Einat Wilf, formerly of Labor, who broke away with Ehud Barak to form the Independence Party. He was a visiting scholar and publishes frequently with the generally Israel-tilted Washington Institute for Near East policy.  He spoke at the Presidents’ Conference in Israel in 2013, the heart of the Israeli establishment.

The Holocaust theme has caught the attention of Israeli media. Haaretz, Yedioth Ahronoth and even the right-wing Israel Hayom wrote about the trip, although the latter seem mainly interested hand-wringing over the Palestinian criticism.

Among Palestinians, his advocacy of Holocaust education for Palestinians is deeply fraught. It is pointless to dismiss this as stalwart Arab anti-Semitism. Jews and Jewish Israelis, too, are almost totally incapable of considering the Palestinian Nakba, because they fear it is primarily a justification for right of return. Similarly, Palestinians encounter the Holocaust first and foremost as the justification for their modern-day oppression – and only secondarily as a matter of history and human suffering.

The Auschwitz trip unleashed a bitter backlash. Student groups called for him to be sacked and to have his students suspended. Some pressured the students to say that he forced or coerced them to go – “but they don’t budge,” he says, although they are reluctant to talk or post pictures about the trip on Facebook. His colleagues have reportedly called him a traitor and the most common response is that he should be teaching about the Nakba instead. Dajani simply responds, “there are so many Palestinians teaching about the Nakba, but nobody teaching about the Holocaust.”

“I think it would be much better if he spent this time teaching those students about the Palestinian issue and the injustice of daily life that we live,” wrote Hatem Dawabsha, an undergraduate from Nablus currently studying abroad, in an email. “We all know how the Israeli media uses the Holocaust to get the sympathy of the international community and the international public opinion. For me Dajani is part of the Israeli media now, by this action.”

Munther Fahmi, the avuncular owner of the bookstore at the American Colony Hotel in East Jerusalem, expressed respect for Professor Dajani but bristled when asked about the Holocaust education activity. “At least Palestinians are taking the lead on teaching the Holocaust, when Israelis are still filling their children with hate and propaganda,” he said.

Al Quds University has distanced itself from the trip, saying the activity had no formal backing. Anti-normalization policies resist cooperation with Israeli schools; the trip was part of a program together with Ben-Gurion University.

Palestinian critics may not know that Israeli students from Ben-Gurion University in the program are being taught about the Nakba; they visit sites of massacres and Palestinian refugee camps, and receive lectures from Palestinians, including Dajani. Their responses range from angry, to aloof, to skeptical – that his ideas of a moderate and humanist Islam have any traction.

Dajani observes: “The reaction is always, how many feel that way? They always feel I am not representative of Palestinians, they want to talk to other people to see if others feel this way too.”

Indeed, between the evolving bear-hug of Israel-conservative circles and the anger he is causing among many Palestinians, his influence is unpredictable. Dajani’s language has a naivete that is out of fashion in the post-second Intifada, post nth negotiation-breakdown environment: he talks of building bridges instead of walls, and praises the Oslo accords as a psychological breakthrough. He blithely supports two states, because both societies need national and identity realization, he says, as if realities on the ground have not changed over the last 20 years.

Wasatia has no staff, no funding and no membership, just a few volunteers. But Dajani prefers that for now. When it was founded in 2007, established Palestinian parties immediately set about attacking it. He shifted goals: “I wanted each one to receive the message and pass it on, without being affiliated with Wasatia, so people will not think of this as propaganda.”

Dajani elaborates.

I thought instead of [letting them] crush it in the bud I should allow people to hear me now, and when I have a base, and when people understand the concept of what I am saying and it is part of the culture, then we can talk about promoting it as a political entity in order to serve the Palestinian people, if the Palestinian people want that.”

For the meantime, he would be happy for existing parties to adopt the general ideas. “I  would like the culture to be part of the ideology of the 50 other [parties]. I would like the idea of moderation to be within Fatah and Hamas –  all political parties.”

That may be a more realistic goal in the brutal landscape of Palestinian politics. Others before him, like former Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, have failed to break the two-party hold with a third alternative, though he tried. Dajani believes Fayyad was unsuccessful because Palestinians do not want a fully secular party. That’s why he hopes a moderate political Islamic movement will become their “address.”

When will the ideas of Wasatia be strong enough to rally supporters and win political and social influence? “Not in my lifetime,” he says.