Palestinian students visit Auschwitz in first organized visit
Visit is part of program that aims to teach Israeli and Palestinian students about the other side’s suffering in effort to study how empathy could facilitate reconciliation.
By Matthew Kalman | Mar. 28, 2014 | 12:24 AM |
A group of 30 Palestinian students arrived at Auschwitz-Birkenau on Thursday, in what is believed to be the first organized visit by Palestinian students to a Nazi death camp.
The students are spending several days in Kraków and Oświęcim guided by two Jewish Holocaust survivors.
A news blackout on the trip was requested by the organizers. The presence of the Palestinian group at Auschwitz-Birkenau is being reported here for the first time.
The students from Al-Quds University are participating in a joint program on Reconciliation and Conflict Resolution with the Friedrich Schiller University in Jena, Germany, and Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.
The program’s aim is for Israeli and Palestinian students to learn about the suffering that has helped shape the historical consciousness of the other side.
Last week, a group of Israeli students visited the Dheisheh refugee camp, located south of Bethlehem, to learn about the Palestinian experience of suffering during the founding of Israel in 1948 – known to Palestinians as the Nakba (“the catastrophe”).
The reactions of each group will be studied by a group of PhD psychology students to see whether exposure to the conflicting historical narrative helps the students to understand their enemy, and facilitates efforts toward reconciliation and coexistence.
The Palestinian side of the program is directed by Mohammed S. Dajani, professor of American Studies at Al-Quds. Because of the Palestinian freeze on joint projects with Israeli universities, the Palestinian students are participating under the banner of Prof. Dajani’s Wasatia movement of moderate Islam.
Israeli groups regularly visit refugee camps in the West Bank searching for cross-border understanding, but the Palestinian visit to Auschwitz is unprecedented. It grew out of a visit by Prof. Dajani as part of a large Jewish-Muslim-Christian delegation in 2011, after which he coauthored a New York Times op-ed entitled“Why Palestinians Should Learn About the Holocaust.”
Since then, Prof. Dajani has written what he believes to be the first objective introduction to the Holocaust for Palestinian students in Arabic, which he hopes will become a textbook used in Palestinian schools and universities.
“Basically, we want to study how empathy with the Other could help in the process of reconciliation,” Prof. Dajani says. “I feel I would like Palestinians to explore the unexplored, and to meet these challenges where you might find that within their community there will be a lot of pressure on them not to do it or questioning why they are doing it, or that this is propaganda. I feel that’s nonsense.”
Prof. Dajani says more than 70 students applied for the 30 places on the Poland trip, but five later dropped out because of peer pressure. He says the choice of Dheisheh for the Israeli students was not meant to suggest there was an equivalence or even a direct link between the Holocaust and the Nakba. They were chosen as the symbolic events that have deeply affected the psyche on both sides of the conflict.
“We are seeking knowledge,” he says. “We are seeking to know what has happened; why did it happen; how can it be prevented from happening again? I believe it is very important to break this wall of bigotry, ignorance and racism that has separated us from crossing over to this new realm.”
“One of my students asked me why we should learn about the Holocaust when the Israelis want to ban even the use of the word ‘Nakba,’” he adds. “My response was: ‘Because in doing so, you will be doing the right thing. If they are not doing the right thing, that’s their problem.’”
Prof. Dajani, who was banned from Israel for 25 years for his activities for Fatah in Lebanon in the 1970s and ’80s, says the student program is a practical expression of his belief that Israelis and Palestinians can settle their differences through compromise, moderation and human contact. He says his own visit to the Nazi death camp had a profound effect that he wishes to share with his students.
“I was also raised in the culture of denial, so for me, to go and see and look and be on the ground – it was a very sad experience for me. It had a lot of impact,” he admits. “I was shocked about the inhumanity of man to man. How can this happen? Why did it happen? Why would man be this cruel?
“It was shocking for me, because it showed me the deep, deep, dark side of human evil,” he adds.
Prof. Dajani has a track record of espousing views that are unpopular with the Palestinian academic mainstream. He is one of the few Palestinian professors to openly oppose the call for Palestinians and others to boycott Israeli universities.
Hanna Siniora, a veteran campaigner for Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation, says Prof. Dajani’s initiative should be welcomed.
“It’s very important for people to see the viciousness of such acts,” he says. “It should touch them in their humanity, in their sense of understanding that human beings don’t do evil things like that. This has caused a major problem in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, because the psyche of the Israelis is so tormented by what happened to the Jewish people that they cannot trust anybody.
“This is an educational trip. It opens the eyes and minds,” he adds. “If there is an empty place, I’d like to come along,” he says.
This article was amended on April 1, 2014, to reflect that fact that no students from Bir Zeit University took part in the visit.
I.H.T. OP-ED CONTRIBUTOR
Why Palestinians Should Learn About the Holocaust
By MOHAMMED DAJANI DAOUDI and ROBERT SATLOFF
Published: March 29, 2011
Should Palestinian and other Arab schools teach their students about the Holocaust?
This is not an academic question. Many Palestinian and Arab political organizations recently pounced on reports that a new human rights curriculum being prepared for use in Gaza schools operated by Unrwa, the United Nations aid agency for Palestinian refugees, might include historical references to the Holocaust. Their reaction underscores the urgency of answering this fundamental question: Should Palestinians (and other Arabs) learn about the Holocaust? Should this historical tragedy be included in the Arab curriculum?
We — a Muslim-Palestinian social scientist, and a Jewish-American historian — believe the answer is yes. Indeed, there are many reasons why it’s important, even essential, that Arabs learn about the Holocaust. And much of this has nothing to do with Jews at all.
One of the sad realities of many modern Arab societies is that Arab students have been denied history, their own and the world’s. For decades, millions of Arabs have lived under autocrats resentful of the legacy of the leader they replaced and fearful of the leader-to-come. Although Arabs revere the study, writing and teaching of history, and have produced many famous historians, their rulers often tend to view history as a threat. The result is that many historians in Arab countries are more like the court chroniclers of long-dead dynasties, and entire chapters of history have been expunged from the curricula that Arab governments teach their students.
This is particularly true of the Holocaust. A world that has known terrible atrocities has seen none greater than the effort by Nazi Germany and its allies to exterminate the Jewish people. So methodical, so vicious and so exhaustive was the Nazi effort that a new word was coined to describe it — “genocide.” All genocides before and since are judged against the Holocaust. To the extent that we can prevent genocide in the future — an uphill task, given the record of the last few decades — understanding what gives rise to it is essential. Without discussing the Holocaust, discussing genocide is meaningless.
But Palestinians, and Arabs more generally, know little about the Holocaust and what they do know is often skewed by the perverted prism of Arab popular culture, from the ranting of religious extremists to the distortions of certain satellite television channels to the many ill-informed authors. What happened to the Jews during World War II is not taught in Arab schools or universities, either as part of world history or as a lesson in genocide awareness or as an atrocity that ought not to be repeated. Arabs have nothing to fear from opening their eyes to this chapter of human history. As the Koran says: “And say: My Lord, advance me in knowledge.” If Arabs knew more about the Holocaust in particular and genocide in general, perhaps Arab voices would be more forceful in trying to stop similar atrocities.
Palestinians have more specific reasons to learn about the Holocaust. We do not urge Holocaust education just so Palestinians can understand more sympathetically the legacy of Jewish suffering and its impact on the psyche of the Jewish people. While it is important for both Palestinians and Israelis to appreciate the historical legacies that have shaped their strategic outlook and national identities, teaching Palestinians about the Holocaust for this reason alone runs the risk the feeding the facile equation that “the Jews have the Holocaust and the Palestinians have the Nakba.” We urge Palestinians to learn about the Holocaust so they can be armed with knowledge to reject the comparison because, if it were broadly avoided, peace would be even more attainable than it is today.
With all the suffering Palestinians have endured, their struggle with Israel is still, at its core, a political conflict, one that can end through diplomacy and agreements. Today diplomacy is deadlocked, yet the nature of politics is that tomorrow that reality may change. The Holocaust was not a political conflict: the very idea of a “Nazi-Jewish peace process” is absurd. Teaching the Holocaust to Palestinians is a way to ensure they do not go down the blind alley of believing their peace process with Israel is as hopeless as one would have been between Nazis and Jews. Discussion of the Holocaust would underscore the idea that peace is attainable.
Almost two years ago millions of Muslim Arabs listened carefully when President Barack Obama, speaking in Cairo, respectfully recited sentences from the Koran and proclaimed America’s endorsement of a two-state solution to achieve a durable Israeli-Palestinian peace. Few, however, remember that he also condemned Holocaust denial. Now that the Arab masses are applying the universal lessons of democracy, human rights and the rule of law in taking down their authoritarian governments, it is time they take back the learning of history, too. That includes teaching their children the universal lessons of the Holocaust.
Mohammed S. Dajani Daoudi is the founder of the Wasatia movement, which promotes moderation in Islam, and the director of the American Studies department at Al-Quds University. Robert Satloff is executive director of the Washington Institute and the author of “Among the Righteous: Lost Stories from the Holocaust’s Long Reach into Arab Lands.”