Reaching higher for Palestinian academics

Former Al-Quds University professor Mohammed Dajani Daoudi opens the first Palestinian PhD program in cooperation with German universities.

The inaugural class of Palestinian PhD candidates and the German professors embarking on the program. Prof. Mohammed Dajani Daoudi is bottom, second from left. (photo credit: Courtesy)
The inaugural class of Palestinian PhD candidates and the German professors embarking on the program. Prof. Mohammed Dajani Daoudi is bottom, second from left.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Prof. Mohammed S. Dajani Daoudi made headlines last August as an unlikely Holocaust educator. Taking his Al-Quds University students on an educational trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau, Dajani Daoudi received a hailstorm of negative feedback; with the university distancing itself from the trip and prominent Palestinians condemning it outright.
The trip was part of a number of initiatives Dajani Daoudi’s NGO Wasatia takes part in; started in 2007, Wasatia prides itself on being “the first Islamic movement to advocate achieving peace and prosperity through the promotion of a culture of moderation.”
But Dajani Daoudi is no saint, and describes his past activities and time at the American University in Beirut as that of a “radical Palestinian activist.” He was a member of Fatah into the mid-’70s before moving to an academic worldview, earning multiple graduate degrees and teaching in a number of universities while developing Wasatia and its quest for moderation.
He resigned from his position at Al-Quds University following negative feedback from the Auschwitz trip, but is about to embark on an exciting new venture – opening the first PhD program for Palestinians.
You are about to inaugurate the first PhD program for Palestinians. Why is it that such a program never existed for this group?
The Palestinian universities did not feel they were qualified to set up PhD programs, so there haven’t been many. There are some in Arabic and some in religion; however, there isn’t any single PhD program on reconciliation, on comparative religion, on empathy – topics that are so important for dialogue with the other, and understanding the religion of the other.
For instance, most who study Islam in Palestinian universities never study Judaism, Christianity or other religions around the world; as a result, they have misperceptions about the other. That’s why I believe this program is so important.
We have signed a memorandum of understanding with Friedrich Schiller University in Jena, Germany, in which Palestinians, Israelis and international [students] can study here for two years before going to Jena for a year, where they will develop their thesis and dissertation with the German professors, then receive their degree from Friedrich Schiller University.
Where will the students come from, and how many students do you anticipate in the first year?
We would like to pull students from the Palestinian community. Israeli students are also welcome, as are international students; maybe [we will get] some German students, too. We are open to recruiting 20 students in the first year.
The Israeli-Palestinian environment is currently very toxic. Won’t it be very difficult to get Palestinians to come – let alone learn about reconciliation – and beyond that, to get Israelis to come sit with them? How will you accomplish that?
We’ll wait and see. I believe in education, I believe this is the role of the universities – to help build bridges, and not walls. Walls are separation. That’s why I believe the university is a place where all these ideas can clash, and one can talk about them civilly. Dialogue can be the methodology used, and that’s why I believe that if we leave politics outside and allow education to take over, we can achieve what we want to achieve.
There is also a lot of irrationality in this environment. For instance, there is the issue of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement against Israel; how will you be able to work against that?
I don’t believe in anti-normalization, because I believe we need to empower peace-loving Israelis and the Israeli community; we also need to empower the peace activists within the Palestinian community. We have to create dialogue and build bridges between them, so they can find common ground.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask: You took Palestinian students to Auschwitz to a great deal of negativity, and now, you’re again embarking on something that’s never been done… and your car was torched. How do you plan to deal with future negative reactions?
Well, if we keep the negative thoughts in our minds, we will never achieve anything. We need to move on and the caravan should continue on its way, and whoever wants to join can join; whoever does not, let them not come on. We are not obliging anybody to follow our position or our road or to take the same road we are taking, but what we would like is for them to allow us the freedom to express ourselves. We don’t have to agree, but we have to have respect.
You said earlier that there are other Muslims who believe as you do, but the world is claiming it is not seeing enough people like you coming out; that they have been cowed into silence. Can you pinpoint some of the people out there who are vocal in talking about moderation and reconciliation?
I was just in Rome attending a conference at the Pontifical Urbaniana University, about teaching the religion of the other; there were more than 200 scholars in the room who believe the way I do. That’s why I’m optimistic.
People are afraid to speak out because radicals try to use violence against them. Some speak out and some don’t, but that doesn’t mean it is not in their hearts or minds. Once we stand up to the radicals and are no longer the bystanders, I think others will join in. But if I say I’m afraid and he says he’s afraid – “Let others do it!” – then we will never do it.
Someone has to stand up and not be a bystander, so others will follow and have the courage to speak out.
We would like to see those voices get louder and louder.
How did you get to the point where you are today?
I was born in Jerusalem, actually in a neighborhood not very far from here, and was raised in the Old City.
Then I studied with the Quakers and my Ramallah friends for 12 years; I think the Quaker theology has affected me a lot. However, 1967 was a time of radicalism – and I became a radical student at the American University in Beirut and joined Fatah. Between ’67 and ’75, I remained the radical young Palestinian student activist.
However, in 1975, I decided to divorce politics and marry the academy, and study much more than politics.
Since then, I earned two PhDs and taught in many universities. I settled in Jordan for many years and was then allowed to come back to Jerusalem in 1993.
My father was able to reunite our family because at the time, I used to accompany him to Hadassah University Medical Center at Ein Kerem where he would go for cancer chemotherapy. My impression in the beginning was that he would be treated like an Arab – like a Muslim, a Palestinian – but then I found out that he was treated like a patient. It affected my perception of others; I started to look at the other from the human side.
Furthermore, I had a [pivotal] experience with my mother, in which [my brother, my niece and I joined her] on a Friday afternoon. She asked if we could drive her to Tel Aviv for dinner; afterward, while walking on the beach, she suffered an asthma attack and found her inhalers were empty. Pharmacies were closed for Shabbat so we decided to drive her back to Jerusalem.
On the way, the asthma became a heart attack and she fainted. When we arrived at the gate [of the hospital] and informed the soldiers and security people that we had a patient with us, they immediately vacated a part of the entrance and called for medical help.
For more than an hour, the team of doctors and nurses were trying to resuscitate my mother. They decided to take her to a nearby military hospital, but she died on the way. When we got there, they didn’t speak to us for more than two hours – because they were afraid of our reaction, that we would accuse them of killing her. After a while, we were informed that she had died on the way to the hospital, and so we drove back to Jerusalem without her – since they couldn’t provide an ambulance to take her back because it was Shabbat.
And so, I was looking at her empty chair and thinking first, how life is fragile; and second, how much we miss her and how much we love her. But also in my mind was my enemy – who tried to save my mother.
In this way, I believe it was a very clear message for me that we can live together in peace, and actually create a community where you can have your state and I can have my state, and we can live in cooperation and mutual understanding, rather than in conflict and killing each other.
It is what I call the “big dream, small hope,” where the big dream for an Israeli is to wake up one morning and there are no Palestinians around, and to have Jerusalem as the capital and [re]build the Temple on Mount Moriah. At the same time, the big dream of the Palestinians is to wake up one morning, and there are no Jews.
But the small hope is for each of them to learn to wake up and there are two communities living in peace and cooperation, like what happened with France and Germany and many other communities that were in conflict, such as in Ireland, Cambodia, Rwanda and different parts of the world.
That is our responsibility to our children and grandchildren.
We inherited conflict and hate and enmity; we should not let them inherit it. Maybe we should [make efforts] so they grow up in a peaceful environment where they can learn, get an education, work and live a normal life without fear and insecurity.
What you are preaching is something many Palestinians and Israelis would like to see. Yet I don’t want to burst your bubble, but today, Israelis and Palestinians do not shop in each other’s shops, they don’t know each other in the same way you had the opportunity to do many years ago. So how do you change the vision of the other for youth today, in order for them to understand what you just spoke about?
That’s why we’re doing [what we’re doing] and building a culture of moderation, of Wasatia.
It is my belief that if the Israelis look at the Palestinian community and see a moderate nation – see people living in peace, see that there aren’t these voices of terror and extremism and radicalism – and at the same time, if the Palestinians look at the Israeli community and see a peaceful society, where there is no agitation or incitement against the other… If we can undermine those negative forces and build up empowerment for the forces of peace and reconciliation, and acceptance of the other… I believe this will bring hope.
If you look at me and see a human being and I look at you and see a human being, it is different than if we look at each other and demonize one another, or if we look at each other and see a stereotypical image of the other.
That’s why we have to do more on the people-to-people level, and try to undermine what is happening by a minority – whether on your side or our side.
This is where I believe the more we can stand up to end the cycle of violence and show empathy for the other, the better… and that was the purpose of our visit to Auschwitz. It was actually to allow Palestinians to look at the Israelis and Jews in a different perspective.
It was the same thing when we took Israelis to Palestinian refugee camps. We wanted them to hear the story of the Palestinians, and we wanted Palestinians to hear the story of the Jews. That way, they could acknowledge and understand each other, and have empathy for each other. Once they do that, we create the environment where we can achieve peace.
You start with creating a culture of moderation, then through moderation you create trust and respect for the narrative of the other; in this way, you engage in working on reconciliation, which facilitates negotiating in good faith; from there, you go on to peace and democracy.
That’s why we call for reconciliation in the midst of strife, in the midst of conflict. I do not believe we have to wait until the conflict is over in order to do reconciliation.
I believe if we do reconciliation today – now – then it paves the way for an end to conflict. is an American nonprofit news agency covering the Middle East.