'We need people here to talk about peace'

Palestinian activist preaches peace at NY colleges where the conflict is a flashpoint

Professor Mohammed Dajani tours CUNY college system, warning students against ‘importing the conflict to campus’ and pushing for dialogue and reconciliation

Luke Tress is a JTA reporter and a former editor and reporter in New York for The Times of Israel.

Professor Mohammed Dajani speaks at Brooklyn College in New York City, September 28, 2023. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)
Professor Mohammed Dajani speaks at Brooklyn College in New York City, September 28, 2023. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

NEW YORK — Palestinian academic Mohammed Dajani has faced fierce blowback for preaching peace and reconciliation with Israel. Taking his students on a trip to Auschwitz ended his university career, Palestinian officials have condemned his activities, his book donations have been tossed out of libraries and he has been blocked from foreign campuses.

He has persisted in his message, though, including during a trip last week to New York City’s public college system, where the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has become a flashpoint, repeatedly sparking heated debate and intense controversy.

“If you believe what you’re doing is the right thing, do it despite the odds,” Dajani told students at the City University of New York (CUNY) last week, urging them to build bridges, and not burn them. “I want the dialogue to focus on how can we achieve peace, rather than, ‘You did this, I did that,'” he said.

The massive public university system, long part of the city’s social fabric, has been grappling with alleged widespread antisemitism on its campuses in recent years, with Jewish students and faculty reporting harassment and discrimination, and demanding action from the administration. Much of the controversy stems from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with Zionist students saying anti-Israel activities often veer into antisemitism, and pro-Palestinian activists claiming attacks on free expression. The battle is part of a larger struggle on US campuses surrounding Israel criticism and Zionism’s centrality to Jewish identity.

Leading Jewish groups, including the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee, have condemned recent decisions by the CUNY administration, and elected representatives at the city and national level have called for action to address the alleged discrimination. The US Department of Education launched a probe into alleged antisemitism at Brooklyn College, where Dajani held an event, last year. CUNY has taken some countermeasures to address the issue.

A Jewish faculty group that works to combat campus antisemitism, CUNY Alliance for Inclusion (CAFI), invited Dajani to tour the campus as a moderating voice in the fraught atmosphere.

“The only way forward is for people to be able to talk to each other, so that’s a message that’s very important and very heroic that he has,” said Azriel Genack, a distinguished professor of physics at CUNY’s Queens College who helped organize Dajani’s trip. “The future is only going to happen in any kind of positive way for Palestinians or anybody else if there’s dialogue.”

Anti-Israel, pro-Palestinian activists burn an Israeli flag in New York City, May 15, 2021. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

Dajani, a resident of Jerusalem and former Palestinian hardliner, pushes a message of tolerance and reconciliation that has drawn fire from some Palestinians and their supporters. He is probably best known for taking students from the Palestinian Al-Quds University on a 2014 tour of the Auschwitz concentration camp in a trip designed to encourage empathy. Dajani had been a leading professor at the university but was pushed out due to fallout from the trip.

He has engaged with prominent Israelisspoken out against antisemitism in the Palestinian leadership and written a book in Arabic on the Holocaust. He was blocked from a conference at a South African university in 2018 for alleged pro-Israel positions.

Dajani is also the founder of ‘Wasatia’ (the word means “moderation” or “middle way” in Arabic), a Palestinian peace movement based in Jerusalem aimed at promoting de-radicalization among young people based on the study of Islamic sources and interfaith dialogue.

Palestinian peace activist Prof. Mohammed Dajani, founder of the Wasatia anti-radicalization movement, during a visit to the Auschwitz death camp in March 2014. (Courtesy)

He brought his message to CUNY, where dialogue about the conflict is charged and coexistence events are rare. Pro-Palestinian student groups hold regular rallies that call for Israel’s destruction, a “global intifada,” and the ostracization of Zionists, events that have included violence against Jews. The last two commencement speakers at the CUNY law school attacked Israel in comments that were widely seen as antisemitic and caused an uproar that reached the national level. The CUNY faculty union is harshly critical of Israel and has come out in support of the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

“The US campus atmosphere breeds tension and divisiveness. Jewish and Muslim groups do not conduct any dialogue between them. I was hoping that my call for an interfaith dialogue may bridge the gap between them,” Dajani said. “CUNY campus includes students of different diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds, and bonding in friendship is far more better than living in an environment of hostility and hatred.”

Dajani spoke to classes about antisemitism in the Arab world and political psychology, and met with faculty, during the two-week trip to New York. He also visited New York University, a private institution not affiliated with CUNY, to deliver a lecture about teaching the Holocaust to Palestinians. At least two college presidents attended the events, with Queens College President Frank Wu granting Dajani a leadership award.

After the New York visit, Dajani went to Washington, DC to speak at George Washington University and Georgetown University.

The CUNY visit was funded by CAFI and the Sandra K. Wasserman Jewish Studies Center at Baruch College. Ilya Bratman, a campus Hillel director, and Prof. Manfred Philipp of the CUNY Graduate Center, also played key roles in organizing Dajani’s trip. The CUNY administration was not involved in the planning.

“We wanted to show that CUNY is not monolithic. People hear in the papers about condemnations of Israel and the rest, but there are many people who want to hear a different voice,” Genack said.

At Brooklyn College on Thursday, Dajani held a conversation with Rabbi Jill Jacobs, the head of the dovish rabbinic rights group T’ruah, focused on empathy and reconciliation and sponsored by the college’s Judaic studies department. Several dozen students and faculty attended the two-hour discussion.

“People ask me, ‘Why are you optimistic?'” Dajani told the crowd. “My response is that I’m optimistic because I have left the past and the present to historians and I’m dealing with the future.”

From left: Brooklyn College Judaic studies professor David Brodsky; Professor Mohammed Dajani; T’ruah director Rabbi Jill Jacobs, during an event at Brooklyn College, September 28, 2023. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

“We have inherited from our grandparents this conflict, and so it is our duty to plant seeds of love, seeds of peace, so that we can leave a different inheritance to our grandchildren,” he said.

Many in the audience were Jewish students, and Genack said the other events had attracted a cross-section of CUNY students and received a warm welcome, although pro-Palestinian activists appeared to have avoided the discussions. There were no protests, except for one Palestinian student, who angrily told a class that Dajani was “brainwashing” them.

“She came into the room thinking that I will be talking about the collective narrative of the Palestinians, and when she did not hear that collective narrative, she got upset and left,” Dajani said, encouraging the students to not “import the conflict to your campuses.”

“Instead of being one part against the other — Muslims don’t want to hear Jews and Jews don’t want to speak to Muslims — basically you are harming the cause, and the best way to do it is to be both for peace and cooperation with each other,” he said. “People outside the region could play a very big role in exporting to us the concepts of reconciliation and peace, rather than supporting the conflict in supporting one side against the other.”

Jacobs echoed the message, telling the audience, “I would just encourage all of us to spend the time being open to the possibility that someone else’s story can also be true and doesn’t have to be a threat.”

Dajani advocated for empowering Palestinian civil society, taking a long-term approach to counter extremism on both sides, accepting that both sides have a claim to the land and need to share it, and fostering education as ways to end the conflict. He cited the Israeli nonprofit Women Wage Peace and its alliance with the Palestinian group Women of the Sun as a productive effort toward reconciliation.

“Palestinian and Israeli peacemakers are putting their lives on the line to achieve peace amid conflict. Their story should be told to inspire hope among American youth on university campuses to carry the unity banner of peace instead of the divisive banner of supporting one group in the conflict against the other. It is a message of hope,” Dajani said. “We need people here to talk about peace and to work for peace.”

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