Palestinian lecturer who led Auschwitz trip quits after backlash

Prof. Dajani, castigated for taking students on unprecedented trip to death camp, had expected university to back him, reject his resignation

Portrait of Mohammed Dajani, a former Fatah founder and prominent Palestinian academic. (photo credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

A Palestinian university lecturer who led a delegation of Palestinians to the Auschwitz concentration camp has resigned, reportedly following weeks of pressure and threats.

Al-Quds University Professor Mohammed Dajani had served as head of the university’s Department of American Studies and the director of its brand-new library.

But on May 18, less than two months after the Auschwitz trip, Dajani resigned, telling the Israeli daily Haaretz that he believed he had “no choice” but to do so after the university gave in to fellow faculty members’ “incitement” against him, refused to support him publicly and expelled him from the staff union, to which he said he never belonged.

In March, Dajani led a delegation of 30 Palestinian students to Auschwitz-Birkenau, in what was said to be the first organized visit by Palestinian students to a concentration camp. The delegation, which also spend several days in Krakow, was guided by two Jewish Holocaust survivors.

Dajani was praised in Israel and the West for taking the trip to the former Nazi death camp in Poland, but was condemned by Palestinians, who called him a traitor.

One article about the trip, in the Palestinian newspaper al-Quds, was removed from the paper’s website after online comments got out of hand, according to the Washington Post.

The academic, a former Fatah fighter who was banned from Israel for 25 years, said the university had distanced itself from his decision to lead the student delegation to Poland, and added that he had acted “in a personal capacity” while “on leave.”

According to Haaretz, Dajani had hoped the university would reject his resignation, sending a “clear and loud message” to students, faculty, and “the Palestinian community” that “the university supports academic freedom and considers my trip as an educational journey in search of knowledge.” However, he was soon informed that the university had accepted his resignation and that it would take effect on June 1.

“Some may consider my letter of resignation from Al-Quds University as a kind of ‘surrender’ to those opposed to academic freedom and freedom of action and of expression. I don’t,” Dajani told Haaretz. “In submitting my resignation, I feel I took the battle to a higher level. My letter of resignation from Al-Quds University was a kind of litmus test to see whether the university administration supports academic freedom and freedom of action and of expression as they claim or not.”

Dajani added that while he had received backing from the university’s outgoing president, Sari Nusseibeh — who may have resigned over a Hamas rally that rocked the university’s campus in March — and its incoming president, Imad Abu Kishek, their reassurances did not translate into public support.

Instead, he said, the smear campaign against him, followed by the university’s acceptance of his resignation, exposed “the double-talk” within Palestinian society with regard to freedom of speech and academic freedom.

Palestinian academic Mohammed Dajani in 2012. (photo credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

“Professor Nusseibeh expressed his view that in submitting my resignation, I would seem as if I am quitting the academic freedom battle,” Dajani reportedly said. “However, I expressed my view that the university administration should reject the resignation first in order to send a clear and emphatic message to the university community it supports academic freedom and that I broke no university rules, regulations, or policies.”

“By accepting my resignation, their message was loud and clear – ‘there is no place for Dajani’s ideas on our campus,” he said.

The student trip to Auschwitz came as part of a joint program on Reconciliation and Conflict Resolution with two other universities: Germany’s Friedrich Schiller University and Israel’s Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.

While the Palestinian group visited a Nazi concentration camp, the Israeli group visited a Palestinian refugee camp south of Bethlehem.

In the Palestinian academic community, the unprecedented visit was seen as a collaboration with an Israeli university and harshly criticized. But until his resignation was accepted, Dajani remained unfazed in his determination to justify the trip.

“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 said. “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.’”

Three years ago, in May 2011, Dajani co-wrote an op-ed in The New York Times along with Jewish-American historian Robert Satloff titled “Why Palestinians Should Learn About the Holocaust.” In it, he wrote that it was “essential” for Palestinian students to study the genocide so that they would be “armed with knowledge to reject the comparison” between the Holocaust and the Nakba because “if it were broadly avoided, peace would be even more attainable than it is today.”

Teaching Palestinians about the Holocaust, he said, would go a long way towards restoring the right of Arab societies to gain uncensored knowledge of history — and enable them to learn from the past.

“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,” he wrote, adding that learning about the Holocaust could also make young Palestinians more hopeful and determined to pursue peace.

“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.”

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