In this article, Professor Mohammed Dajani Daoudi explores the importance of reconciliation and normalization between Palestinians and Israelis.
Dajani also elucidates his rejection of the common accusation by Palestinian leaders who brand Israel an apartheid state demanding the severing of all ties with Israel. Dajani notes, “The Israeli policies in general are not similar to those practiced by the white regime that prevailed in South Africa during the Apartheid period, and thus the claim that Israel is an apartheid state does not hold. Israel does not claim ‘superiority of race,’ and does not practice ‘denial’ of basic human rights to a group of people because of their alleged racial and ethnic inferiority.” Rather, as Dajani has reiterated in public forums, “The problem is not apartheid, but occupation as part of a political conflict. Palestinians are not struggling to gain equality under the Israeli law. However, they are in pursuit of an elusive freedom, liberty, identity, statehood, and independence.” In the following essay, Dajani lays out the theory of Wasatia, the Arabic word for the middle path of moderation and dialogue, which Dajani insists are requirements to achieve peaceful, and good neighborly relations between Palestinians and Israelis.
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In the absence of an active peace process and without a sense of collective hope on the diplomatic horizon, the BDS and denormalization movements have sprouted and flourished among Palestinians. The Palestinian Human Rights Organizations Council (PHROC), which represents organizations such as The Palestinian Center for Human Rights (based in Gaza) and Al-Haq (based in the West Bank) issued a statement explicitly supporting BDS.
Palestinian supporters of the global boycott campaign and denormalization of relations with Israel do not encourage peace, reconciliation, and dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians. Rather, they have deepened the current political and diplomatic stalemate on both sides and have further entrenched Palestinian and Israeli negative conceptions of the “other.” Ironically, the Palestinian denormalization of relations with Israel has served as an obstacle to the establishment of a free and democratic Palestinian state next to Israel. The signing of the Oslo Exchange of Letters in 1993 and the Oslo Interim Accords in 1995 was meant to usher in a new era of mutual acceptance, understanding, and cooperation in a broad array of sectors; from security and agriculture to trade and commercial joint ventures.
However, the current Palestinian policies of BDS and denormalization contradict the 1995 Oslo Interim Agreement. The Oslo Accords called for the end of incitement and encouraged the process of normalization between Israelis and Palestinians.
Today, denormalization activists demand the severing all contact between Israelis and Palestinians, even though they realize that this is neither practical nor realistic.
Denormalization undermines the peace process and blocks the possibility of reconciliation and normalization. The better option is the path of wasatia, a religious term in Islam for the middle path of temperance and reconciliation. Wasatia is the only straight path forward for Palestinians to achieve state sovereignty and for Israelis and Palestinians to achieve peace, coexistence, prosperity, and good neighborly relations.
Palestinian students who joined me on a trip to the Auschwitz Nazi death camp in March 2014 were overwhelmed by the enormity of that catastrophe. Yet, when back in Palestine, those who never had that experience started to plant doubts in the minds of those who had just visited. Our students who had visited Auschwitz were pressured to believe that what they witnessed was not real, but staged just to gain support for the Zionist cause and the Jewish State.
Denormalization undermines the peace process and blocks the possibility of reconciliation and normalization. The better option is the path of wasatia, a religious term in Islam for the middle path of temperance and reconciliation.
Religious Sources of Moderation
As a Palestinian Muslim, professor and peace activist, I believe that according to the concept of wasatia, or middle ground, balance and moderation provide a path to peace and prosperity for both Palestinians and Israelis. The Middle East region has suffered tremendously in the last decade from violent extremism that I believe is a result of an “empathy deficiency” for the “other,” improperly characterized as the “enemy.” I am disturbed by political and religious violence in general, and specifically the present extremist discourse that exists among Muslims, which is fueled by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
To justify violence against Jews and Israelis, Palestinian extremists have misinterpreted the text and terms of the Koran. Likewise, some extremist Israelis have also misinterpreted the words of the Jewish Torah to commit violent acts against Palestinian civilians and to justify the continued occupation and confiscation of Palestinian lands. Yet, if you look at both texts, the Torah and Koran, it is evident that our respective religions have preached messages of love, mercy, kindness, cooperation, tolerance, and moderation.
One of the most important verses in the Koran that is misinterpreted as a call for enmity reads, “And thus we have willed you to be a nation of the middle way [Koran 2:143].” This verse is explained and preached linguistically by extremists to mean that Muslims stand in the middle between the Jews who killed prophets and Christians who declared Jesus to be God. Rather, Muslim moderates interpret it religiously in accordance to the Koranic message of peace and mercy as a call for Muslims to be just, tolerant, compassionate, forgiving, and moderate – wasatia. In addition to its linguistic meaning in Arabic of centrism, middle ground, and balance, wasatia in its religious context means tolerance, justice, and religious moderation. Therefore, extremists apply the linguistic meaning while moderates apply its religious meaning.
There are also those who have misapplied the Hadith (sayings of the Prophet) to justify anti-Semitism. These claims are false, including statements, the Hadith falsely attributed to Prophet Muhammad such as, “The Day of Judgment will not arrive until the Muslims fight the Jews and the Muslims will kill them. Even when a Jew hides behind a rock or a tree, the rock and the tree will speak saying, ‘O Muslim, O worshipper of God! There is a Jew behind me, come and kill him, except the salt bush [Gharqad], for it is one of the Jews’ trees.” In this fabricated Hadith, Prophet Muhammad purportedly tells the believers of the battle between Muslims and Jews. These gross distortions of Islam stand in clear contradiction of many Koranic verses, particularly the passages revering the sanctity of life, “Nor take life – which God has made sacred – except for just cause [Sura al Isra, 17.33].” As well as those passages asserting equality and harmony between the three heavenly religions, “Those who believe in God and His apostles are the truthful ones [Hadid Sura; 19].” In addition, a number of verses describes Jews warmly such as:
- “Children of Israel, remember the blessing I have bestowed on you, and that I have exalted you above the nations.” [Cow Sura; verse 47]
- “Children of Israel, remember that I have bestowed favors upon you, and exalted you above the nations.” [Cow Sura; verse 122]
- “O you Children of Israel! We delivered you from your enemy, and We made a Covenant with you on the right side of Mount (Sinai), and We sent to you mann (sweets) and salwa (quails). ” [Ta-Ha Sura; verse 80]
- “We did aforetime grant to the Children of Israel the Book, the Power of Command, and Prophethood. We gave them, for sustenance, things good and pure, and We favored them above the nations.” [Bowing Knee Sura, verse 16]
I hold that it is a solemn duty of the followers of Islam to correct these flaws and provide a religious, political, and social vision, one of compassion, justice, temperance and moderation.
Wasatia is the name of the movement I established in January 2007, to work toward intra and interreligious reconciliation. The focus of our work also extends to the political realm.
The problem of extremism has carried into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which has created political and religious discord and disengagement for both sides and the region for over half a century.
Our aspiration is not only to create a moderate Palestinian Islamic movement that calls for peace, mutual understanding and good relations among Muslims, but also set the climate for a peaceful resolution of the conflict with Israel. Wasatia also calls for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state that is democratic, secular, and committed to social justice, economic welfare, and the liberal values of human rights, equality, soft dialogue, pluralism, and free speech – values I believe are anchored in Islam. In short, Wasatia is rooted in the Islamic principles of charity, justice, volunteerism, cooperation, balance, and temperance.
Wasatia strives to foster a culture of religious, social, and political moderation and reconciliation to help lay the groundwork for Palestinian and Israeli children to grow up in peace, security, prosperity, and harmony.
BDS and Palestinian Denormalization
The coexistence, reconciliation and ultimately “normalization” of relations between Israelis and Palestinians on individual, community, organizational, and state levels are key steps in shaping our shared future. Although the 1995 Oslo Accords established a framework for sustainable peaceful relations between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), there emerged extremist activists, political actors, and groups on both sides who worked intensely to undermine the Oslo process.
Prior to 1993, the main protagonists of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were divided into two distinct camps; Jews, Israelis, and their supporters in one camp versus Arabs, Palestinians, and their supporters in the opposing camp. In the post-Oslo era, the nature of the two camps was transformed between those Israelis and Palestinians who believed in reconciliation, peace and sharing the land, and those Israelis and Palestinians opposed to it. To overcome these challenges, I believe even more strongly that the forces of moderation and reconciliation need to unify their resources and capabilities to overcome the heritage of hatred and enmity that have blocked the road for conflict resolution, peace, security, and prosperity.
There are those who argue that Islam and Judaism clash with each other to justify the brutality of the conflict. Yet, for the most part, this brutality does not target the “other” but ends up claiming a high price from one’s own people. This has been the case with the Palestinian leadership, civil society, and the body politic.
Regrettably, Palestinians lack a charismatic visionary leader with the status and embrace of political inclusiveness of South Africa’s Nelson Mandela. This was one of my primary motivations in launching the Wasatia movement in Palestine, so restraint and balance can enter our wider religious, social, and political discourse. In the Palestinian context, the adoption of the concept of reconciliation would require Palestinians to stop believing that violence and armed struggle could lead them to achieve their goals. On the other hand, Israel would similarly be advised to respect human rights parameters and to acknowledge the Palestinian right to selfdetermination, statehood, and freedom.
After building trust, we can resolve our differences and then head to the negotiations table to establish the foundations of a two-state solution, and finally resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Oslo’s Framework of Normalized Relations
The 1993 Oslo Exchange of Letters and the Interim Agreement of 1995 laid out a very different approach to the conflict – one of acknowledgment, recognition, reconciliation, normalization, and joint ventures. This approach has been replaced today by new leadership, now advocating walls and denormalization.
The first BDS “call” in 2005 demanded both the denormalization of relations with Israel and ending joint Israeli Palestinian-Israeli projects that do not “explicitly aim to expose and resist the occupation and all forms of discrimination and oppression against the Palestinian people.”1 Nonetheless, these efforts have failed to recognize that the Palestinian cause must be won inside of Israel and that dialogue, reconciliation and normalization are essential tools in the process to end the conflict. Israelis may have unfounded prejudices and misperceptions about Palestinians that cannot be corrected unless they meet and interact with them faceto- face. While boycotts and walls would intensify the conflict, diplomacy, dialogue and building bridges of understanding embody the solution.
The 1995 Oslo Accords laid out a very different approach to the conflict – one of acknowledgment, recognition, reconciliation, and joint ventures. This approach has been replaced today by new leadership, now propagating walls and denormalization.
The main hurdle for Palestinians to overcome is the false moral equivalence between the reconciliation of relations with Israel and the idea that those who espouse reconciliation and normalization are acquiescing and even collaborating with the Israeli military occupation in the Palestinian territories in Gaza, the West Bank, and east Jerusalem. By meeting Israelis face-to-face, Palestinians will have the opportunity to be acquainted with average Israelis and realize that though they may have served in the army, even in the occupied territories, they are not interested in destroying the livelihood, health, or safety of Palestinians. Israelis who may fear Palestinians and falsely characterize all of us as terrorists will no doubt have their misperceptions and misconceptions shatter. Thus, it is essential for both sides to break down these human and psychological barriers.
In addition to the BDS movement, another obstacle to reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians, and eventually peace, stems from our own governments. Neither the Palestinian Authority, its Fatah ruling party, nor the Israeli government have invested seriously in sufficient “top-down” peacebuilding efforts. During the period of 1990-2000, fewer than 30 million USD was spent on peacebuilding efforts by the Israeli government, while the cost of building the Separation Wall cost more than 4 billion USD. However, it is true that the Israel government and the Palestinian Authority have maintained security cooperation against extremists for the benefit of their own peoples, and some coordination on water and employment is taking place. For instance, more than 100,000 Palestinians work in Israel and in West Bank industrial zones. However, though increased Palestinian employment in Israel may help build trust, it does not sufficiently advance the cause of Palestinian independence or mutual political and economic normalization.
During the 1990s, particularly in the years following the Oslo Accords, the international community invested heavily in peacebuilding and people-to-people projects, events, and activities. As the Israeli and PA’s Fatah leadership addressed differences via negotiations, they implemented more informal measures for their citizenry, such as joint sports events, children’s activities, and mediation workshops. However, following the Second Intifada from 2000 to 2004, these funds were diverted to security. Some non-government organizations such as Yalla Young Leaders, Seeds of Peace, Tiyul-Rihla, and of course Wasatia have tried to fill this void, but they do not have the resources or capacity of a government-funded effort nor the authority to implement a national educational curriculum that encourages peace building among Israeli and Palestinian school children.
While security is a fundamental concern and need, it will not solve these problems of hatred, enmity, and negative stereotyping that Israelis and Palestinians feel and practice towards one another.
Violent Intimidation Tactics “Impose” Denormalization
In the last few years, Palestinians who have met face-to-face with Israelis and Palestinian scholars cooperating in joint academic and educational projects have encountered threats, intimidation, and outright violence at the hands of BDS and denormalization activists.
My personal experience with Palestinian efforts to denormalize relations with Israelis demonstrates how this movement is ideologically bankrupt, bellicose, antagonistic, and even anti-Semitic in nature. In March 2014, I took 27 students to Poland for an educational experience about the Holocaust. We also brought 30 Israeli students to the Dheisheh refugee camp in Bethlehem for an educational experience about the Nakba, the Palestinian “catastrophe” stemming from the 1948 war. Both trips, co-sponsored by Wasatia, a German university, and two other Israeli universities, entirely funded by a German research institution DFG. The objective was to study the impact of empathy when one encounters the suffering of the other in efforts at reconciliation in midst of conflict.
The feedback from our participants and supporters about the trip to the concentration camps in Poland was tremendously positive. Significantly, my students developed an understanding of Zionism and the necessity for a Jewish state. Prior to the trip, many of my students believed the Holocaust was grossly exaggerated to justify the creation of the State of Israel and Jewish colonization in Palestine. One student told me that he thought the concentration camps only existed so Hitler could gather Jews and ship them to Palestine.
Another told me that the concentration camps were death camps, but that they were justified because the Jews were dominating the German economy and therefore had to be stopped. Other students of mine were misinformed about the Holocaust simply because it is a taboo subject that is not studied or even mentioned in Palestinian public discourse.
When we do discuss the Holocaust, it is only examined as a parallel historical event to the Palestinian Nakba. As referenced above, Nakba, meaning “disaster” or “catastrophe” in Arabic, represents the suffering Palestinians experienced during Israel’s 1948 War of Independence, resulting in the displacement of hundreds of thousands of refugees from their homes to neighboring countries. One of the Palestinian students remarked, “visiting Auschwitz and learning about the Holocaust did not make us less nationalistic, but more humanistic.” Another student wrote on his Facebook page, “visiting the concentration camps was an awakening educational experience for me. It changed my views about the Holocaust, especially the concentration camp Auschwitz. Prior to going to Auschwitz, I didn’t really know what the Nazi concentration camps were all about.” One female student who had spent nine years in Israeli jails started to impose her experience as a prisoner to that of those imprisoned in the camp. Upon entering the camp, she noticed the sign above the gate: “Arbeit Macht Frei/Work Sets You Free.” She inquired about it and I advised her to do some research on its goal.
She came back to me with a book, which quoted the commander of the camp as welcoming new prisoners by suggesting that they lose hope since the only way out was through the chimney of the crematorium. This helped her comprehend the depth of Jewish sentiments to the Holocaust in viewing it as the Final Solution to them as a people, a civilization, a culture, and a religion. One student wrote an article in in The Atlantic in English defending the trip.
Another wrote a passionate plea in defense of the trip in the local al-Quds daily newspaper.
As an educator, the Holocaust-Nakba parallels are difficult for me to overcome. Many of my students argue, “Why should we learn about the Holocaust when it is illegal for Israelis to learn about the Nakba?” In reality, Israeli schools opted not to teach about the Nakba because this loss for Palestinians diminishes the gains Israel made in the War of Independence.
Furthermore, Palestinians try to equate their own tragedy with that of the Jews.
Although it is tempting to draw this moral equivalence, it is preferable to view both tragedies separately, and not equate the two. At school, Palestinian students learn from their teachers the slogan, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” However, at Auschwitz, they learned, “the enemy of my enemy is not necessarily my friend.” One important lesson learned by both Israeli and Palestinian students is the significance of the Jewish Holocaust and Palestinian Nakba to each community and the deep impact these two tragic events have left on the other’s psyche. Both Israeli and Palestinian students realized they have nothing to fear from opening their eyes to these chapters of human history.
Significantly, the students learned that the Nazi cruelties and atrocities were not committed by psychopaths and criminal minds, but by nice ordinary people against colleagues, neighbors, and foreigners. The perpetrators were just ordinary people who celebrated Christmas and Easter with their families, loved their children and played with their dogs.
The Palestinian participants left with unforgettable sad memories. The visit taught them that the impact of the Holocaust continued after liberation; that it is still part of the fabric of Jewish society, history, thought, and psychology.
However, not all the student participants felt similarly and one who was a BDS and antinormalization activist insisted on spreading the “conspiracy theory” that the trip was a Zionist plot to undermine the Palestinian collective narrative that aimed at promoting normalization with Israel while under occupation.
No Good Deed Goes Unpunished
Unfortunately, the positive reaction to the trip from my students, friends, and colleagues was overwhelmingly overshadowed by the influence of the BDS and denormalization activists and movements. Shortly after we returned from the trip to Poland, a Palestinian website reported in Arabic that our trip was funded by Zionist organizations and sponsored by Israeli universities. My initiative was portrayed as Zionist propaganda, and I was labeled as a “collaborator” and “traitor,” two highly emotional terms in the Palestinian lexicon.
Instead of correcting this mistake or declaring public support for my initiatives, the workers, staff, and faculty syndicate at Al-Quds University responded by issuing a public statement firing me from their membership, even though I was not a member. Nine political student organizations on campus issued a public statement against me titled “Normalization = Treason.” Students demonstrated against me on campus and delivered a letter to my secretary threatening to kill me if I returned to teach at the university. The social networks buzzed against me. My car was torched. The only possession of mine to survive the torching was my personal copy of the Koran.
I felt that I could not continue to work under these conditions and submitted my resignation to the university president, in the hope that he would reject it. This would have created a powerful message to the public that I organized the trip within the jurisdiction of my academic freedom. Sadly enough, a few days later I received his response accepting my resignation.
The violent reaction at home in Palestine to our educational trip to Poland stood in stark contrast to the trip’s transformative effect on my students. The preconceptions and prejudices that had characterized my students’ views about Jews and the Holocaust were shattered. The trip transformed the previously anti-Semitic views of some participants who had been influenced by the anti-Semitic book “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” which enjoys popularity in the Arab world. They came to understand the harmful effects of anti- Semitic propaganda and how it can produce genocidal actions.
The Importance of Palestinian Holocaust Education
There are many reasons to impel Palestinians to learn about the Holocaust. To start, it is the right thing to do. Being criticized for it should not discourage us from doing it.
Holocaust denial and distortion are morally unacceptable, historically incorrect, factually wrong, and constitute a major threat to ethics and human dignity, as well as to the prospect of reconciliation and peace between Palestinians and Israelis. Holocaust education is a sign of respect for the truth; when truth is denied or ignored, it destroys those values one cherishes. Moreover, the need to learn the tragic lessons of the past is essential to avoid their recurrence in the present and future.
Showing empathy and compassion for the suffering of others, even if relations, friendship or love doesn’t bond you, would make this world a better place to live in.
As a Muslim, the Koran as well as the Prophet encourage us to seek knowledge and learning, “My Lord, advance me in knowledge (Taha Surah, verse 20).” The Prophet is also quoted, “Seek knowledge from cradle to grave. Seek knowledge even in China.” This impels us to seek knowledge. The Prophet also says, “I do not know but I want to know.” As the wise have argued, without knowing about evil, we cannot understand the meaning of good.
Holocaust denial and distortion are morally unacceptable, historically incorrect, factually wrong, and constitute a major threat to ethics and human dignity, as well as to the prospect of reconciliation and peace between Palestinians and Israelis.
Another incident attacking those calling for reconciliation took place in May 2015, when participants in the “Jerusalem Hug,” an event between Jewish and Arab Jerusalemites, were beaten by Palestinian denormalization activists. The violent extremists were hailed by the Arab media for trying to “prevent the establishment of effective normalization near Damascus Gate and the Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem.”2 In June 2016, Israeli members of the group “Two States, One Homeland,” which calls for a confederation between Israel and Palestine, had their car set on fire in Ramallah. They were also pelted with rocks by denormalization activists as retribution for joining Palestinian partners for an iftar meal there.3 Likewise, in October 2016, four Palestinians from the village of Wadi an Nis were arrested and detained by Palestinian police. Their “crime” was visiting the “Sukkah of Peace” in the Jewish settlement of Efrat at the invitation of mayor Oded Ravivi.4 In early March 2017, I was invited to deliver a lecture titled “Wasatia/Moderation in the Islamic Tradition” at the Abrahamic Reunion conference held in Jericho’s Touristic Village.
The conference aimed at building bridges of understanding between various faiths and its motto was “Religion as a Force for Peace.” The university union brought a busload of students to the hotel in Jericho where the conference was held. The students forced conference organizers to shut down the meeting. The union issued a statement saying they disrupted the conference, forcing it to shut down because it was a “normalization conference” attended by the “deposed” Dr. Mohammed Dajani. I do not know what they meant by “deposed,” since I resigned my posts as Director of the Graduate American Studies Program and the Director of Libraries at al-Quds University. My resignation was in protest of the lack of respect for academic freedom by the university administration, and not because they incited the community and the students against me.
Three years have passed and still the fire of hatred and envy is still burning in them.
My resignation was in protest of the lack of respect for academic freedom by the university administration, and not because they incited the community and the students against me. Three years have passed and still the fire of hatred and envy is still burning in them.
Although the actions of the antinormalization and BDS movements and the backlash I personally faced after I took Palestinian students to Auschwitz would indicate a setback, I believe that we are progressing toward peace. We are working on having the Holocaust be introduced into the Palestinian educational curriculum, so Palestinians may understand the severity of the world’s worst genocide. We must not compare, diminish, obscure, or deny heinous crimes, such as the Holocaust, to serve political agendas.
Wasatia (moderation) is critical not only as a fresh interpretation of the Koran, but also as a new course for Palestinian political leadership and civil society. Wasatia is the best road for Palestinians to create peace with Israel, and not denormalization and boycotts. Pursuing this path would result in a moderate Palestinian state and a thriving civil society that would accept Israel as a good neighbor and partner in economic, social, and civic development.
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1 http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/fikraforum/view/why-palestinians-should-supportnormalization- with-israel
4 http://www.jta.org/2016/10/25/news-opinion/israel-middle-east/palestinians-arrested-for-visitingsukkah- of-west-bank-mayor-released