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(Above and at top of article) Prof. Mohammed Dajani (left) and Yossi Klein Halevi at The Times of Israel's office in Jerusalem, May 2019 (ToI staff)
ToI staff shows Prof. Mohammed Dajani (left) and Yossi Klein Halevi at The Times of Israel's office in Jerusalem, May 2019

When an ex-Fatah Palestinian ‘neighbor’ took up a Zionist author’s challenge

Yossi Klein Halevi wrote a book of ‘Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor.’ Here’s what happened when Mohammed Dajani, a hardliner who later took his students to Auschwitz, wrote back

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

Main image by ToI staff shows Prof. Mohammed Dajani (left) and Yossi Klein Halevi at The Times of Israel's office in Jerusalem, May 2019

A little over a year ago, I wrote a lengthy interview on these pages with the author and Shalom Hartman Institute fellow Yossi Klein Halevi. My longtime friend had just published an ambitious book, “Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor,” setting out the Zionist narrative in terms he hoped the Palestinians would understand, because, he said, while we’re rightly outraged when they attack our legitimacy here, we’ve simply never bothered to explain it to them before.

It was an ambitious book with a still more ambitious intended sequel, especially in these dark and hostile times. His hope, Klein Halevi said last year, was that our Palestinian neighbors would respond to his overture, and write back with their own counter-arguments — not to spark an intellectual battle to the death, but, rather, to facilitate a mutually empowering dialogue: each side would learn more about the other, creating an interaction between writers that, who knows, might one day help facilitate greater political awareness and the possibility of reconciliation.

Now, a year later, the paperback edition of “Letters” is being published and, lo and behold, it includes an epilogue — more than 50 pages of Palestinian responses to the original text. Thoughtful, proud, fierce, pained and gracious in turn, Klein Halevi’s Palestinian interlocutors accepted his challenge, most strikingly, with empathy. And none more so than a Palestinian academic named Mohammed Dajani Daoudi, whose name may ring a bell with some readers. For it was Dajani, five years ago, who led a group of 27 Palestinian students on an unprecedented visit to Auschwitz — with all manner of abiding, shattering consequences.

A few weeks ago, Klein Halevi contacted me to update me on the fate of his book, mentioned its new, extensive epilogue, and asked whether I’d be interested in doing a follow-up interview on “what happened with ‘Letters.'”

Yossi Klein Halevi’s ‘Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor,’ with an epilogue of Palestinian responses

I agreed with pleasure, but also proposed we maintain the spirit of his initiative by arranging a joint interview at which he would be accompanied by one of his Palestinian responders. (Readers with longer memories and the capacity to endure my occasional ventures into mini-book-length articles may recall that I conducted a similar joint interview four years ago with Klein Halevi and Imam Abdullah Antepli, his key partner in an ongoing Hartman Institute educational program in which young US Muslim leaders travel to Jerusalem to learn about Judaism, Zionism and Israel.) Klein Halevi suggested he invite Prof. Dajani to join us, and the conversation you are about to read was born.

Klein Halevi arrived at my office first and began setting out what he’d sought to achieve with “Letters,” and how it has been panning out. But the interview took off with Dajani’s appearance. Klein Halevi, 65, is a well-documented (including by himself) former Jewish extremist. Dajani, 73, is a former senior Fatah operative. He wound up discussing key parts of his life story, including the years of his radical loathing of all things Jewish. And he explained how unremarkable acts of kindness and grace by the Israeli medical personnel who treated his parents utterly changed him — to the point where he would break barriers and defy threats to take his Palestinian students to a Nazi death camp, and remain undaunted, uncrushed and determined to press reconciliation even after that singular trip destroyed his professional career and, in some circles, his reputation.

It becomes obvious, in the course of the interview that follows, that proud Zionist Klein Halevi and proud Palestinian nationalist Dajani can make peace — indeed have made their peace. The question is whether there is any hope of widening the spirit that Klein Halevi, reluctantly and skeptically, and Dajani, insistently and optimistically, represent.

As we waited for Dajani to join us, Klein Halevi and I started talking, and I turned on my tape. It stayed on for the next two hours.

David Horovitz: So tell me about the book itself — how it has been received — before we sit with Mohammed and his response to it.

Yossi Klein Halevi: I had two broad audiences in mind. The first, obviously, were my neighbors near and far, the Palestinians and the wider Middle East. And the second audience were Diaspora Jews.

To reach the first audience, the book was translated into Arabic. There were a lot of responses from Palestinians, many more than I had expected. You and I made it available for free download at The Times of Israel Arabic site, and I created a website where you can get the Arabic book for free download as well. It has been downloaded over 1,000 times, and that’s before any real Arabic social media push. I’ve just hired someone to do that.

Many of the responses were – as you can imagine – hateful: You have no history, you are a liar, you are a thief, the army of Mohammed is coming to get you, we’re going to destroy you, to burn you. Quite evocative.

Yossi Klein Halevi (Ilir Bajaktari / The Tower)

But I also got long, thoughtful emails. What broadly characterizes the letters that I included in the new edition was first of all a deep willingness to engage and listen and passionately but respectfully argue. I have become friends with some of the respondents. Last November, I went on a speaking tour of American campuses with one of the young Palestinian letter-writers.

He wrote the first letter that appears in the epilogue, and which accepts the premise that this is a conflict between two indigenous peoples. However passionately we disagree about different aspects of the narrative, the fact that we can agree that there are two claims to this land and that the endpoint needs to be accommodating these two claims — that, for me was dayeinu [sufficient].

Some friends on the right sarcastically said to me when the book came out, So you think you’re going to make peace? Of course I am not going to make peace. I’m only a writer, not a politician. My writer’s responsibility is to try to model what a respectful disagreement over irreconcilable narratives would sound like. And I looked for Palestinian partners to help me model that conversation. And they appeared.

I have never met a Palestinian who does not believe that all of this land between the river and the sea belongs to them. And so my starting position is, Between the river and the sea – it is all mine. My endpoint is that each side needs to contract its claim and accommodate the competing claim

I recently spoke with one of the Palestinian negotiators at Camp David in July 2000. He said: At one point, we Palestinians and Israelis sat down and tried to come up with a shared narrative, and that almost destroyed our relationship. Of course that relationship would be destroyed soon enough anyway… There is no way that we are going to come up with a shared narrative. But how do we accommodate mutually exclusive narratives? Can we create a situation in which I have their voice in my head and they have my voice in theirs?

My aim in writing this book was not to convince the Palestinians of my narrative — that is as far-fetched as Palestinians convincing me of theirs. Instead, my aim was to complicate the picture and to at least get Palestinians to understand that there is a coherent Jewish narrative, because in their media and schools, my narrative has been erased. So my first goal was to find partners with whom I could model a conversation over opposing narratives, create a new language for reconciliation.

That language revolves around three components: The first is to respectfully disagree over irreconcilable narratives and accommodate each other’s stories. Fundamentally, our conflict is a war over history. Just as neither people is going to disappear, our two opposing narratives are here to stay. The second is that religion has to be an essential part of our conversation. This is the Middle East, not the West; you can’t hope to even attempt to make peace without some religious legitimation. And the third component is that the starting point of any conversation between Palestinians and Israelis needs to be honest – a frank acknowledgement of our maximalist dreams and claims. I have never met a Palestinian who does not believe that all of this land between the river and the sea belongs to them. And so my starting position is, Between the river and the sea – it’s all mine. It is all the land of Israel. My endpoint is that each side needs to contract its claim and accommodate the competing claim. But we can only get there if each side understands that the other is sacrificing something essential of its claim.

I have one letter in the collection from a Jordanian – he calls himself “your somewhat distant neighbor” – and he ends it with these words: What the hell took your side so long to finally start explaining to us who you are? I wanted to take that as the epigraph of this project. We know how to tell our story seemingly to everyone in the world, but we have never even tried to tell our story to our neighbors.

Of course this all sounds surreal. Irrelevant. And it is — at this moment, it’s completely irrelevant. But when you look at the changes in the region – the threat of war with Iran and Hezbollah and Hamas, and anti-Iranian realignment bringing Israel together with the Saudis and Gulf states — there are openings in the Arab world that were never possible before. And this could have long-term implications for our relationship with the Palestinians.

A review of Yossi Klein Halevi’s “Letters” at the bottom of the front page of Morocco’s Al Ahdath Al Maghribia.

Recently, one of the leading Moroccan dailies (Al Ahdath Al Maghribia) published a front-page review of “Letters” that was very positive. More significantly, Saudi Arabia’s leading news magazine, Al Majallah, has just published a very favorable two-page review of “Letters” [This is a translation from the Arabic edition: In Pursuit of Peace, Yossi Klein Halevi Examines Commonalities Between the Sons of Abraham].

So there are slender openings and I felt it was the right moment to put out a book, aimed at my neighbors, throughout the region, that explains who we are, why we came back home, why we consider this home. And to see who I would have as partners for a future conversation.

It does sound somewhat theoretical.

That is irrelevant for a writer. My job is to tell a story and to model a conversation. And it is now there. It is now part of the record. And you never know who is going to read it among Palestinians, among Saudis, among Israelis.

The book is being published in Hebrew?

Later this year.

Including the Palestinian letters?

Yes. My target audience in Israel is my own camp – the political Center.

If you show sympathy for the Palestinians, you are a left-winger. If you reaffirm the Zionist story, chances are these days that you are a right-winger. But holding the two together should be a centrist position

This book was written from a deeply rooted Zionist perspective. But it also expresses empathy for the Palestinians. To be able to hold those two positions — they don’t usually go together. If you show sympathy for the Palestinians, you are a left-winger. If you reaffirm the Zionist story, chances are these days that you are a right-winger. But holding the two together should be a centrist position. Yet when you listen to the leaders of Blue and White — which is the party I identify with — speak about the Palestinians, they don’t seem to know what to say. What is the centrist position on the Palestinians?

They don’t dare state it. They may be more empathetic, but they don’t allow themselves to empathize.

I think we need to have a language that the center can feel comfortable with. I’ll give you an example. In the book I write that I loathe a two-state solution. I fear it. I don’t speak about the territories as the West Bank, certainly not as occupied. For me, it is what Jews have always called it: Judea and Samaria. But I am willing, with tremendous pain and reluctance, to give up parts of my land for an agreement.

Your narrative essentially places overwhelming blame on the Palestinians for us not having been able to find a negotiated solution.

Yes. Like most Israeli Jews, I blame the Palestinian leadership for the collapse – the violent collapse – of the peace process. But it’s not enough to say that in the year 2000, we tried to make peace, and then [prime minister] Olmert made an even more far-reaching offer in 2008. That’s all true. And the current generation of Palestinian leaders doesn’t accept our legitimacy even now. But that doesn’t absolve us from the need to ensure that a two-state solution will be viable in the future, even the long-term future. If everything we are doing on the ground today is leading us toward a one-state situation, then the argument about what Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert offered becomes increasingly thin.

I loathe a two-state solution. I fear it. I don’t speak about the territories as the West Bank, certainly not as occupied. For me, it is what Jews have always called it: Judea and Samaria

You also say that it was very hard to get this book published.

I couldn’t find a publisher for two years. Every publisher in New York initially said the same thing: We will publish it if you find a Palestinian with whom you can exchange letters.

I told them that that would not be an authentic reflection of reality. I had Palestinian friends before the second intifada but then lost those connections. For almost all Israelis and Palestinians there is no dialogue. There aren’t even casual relationships anymore.

But the deeper reason why I had to write the book this way is because the Israeli narrative is being erased from large parts of Western discourse and I felt an urgent need to restate my narrative without diluting it in the context of dialogue and debate.

I envisioned this book as the beginning of a project. The first stage would be to state my narrative. The second stage would be to engage with Palestinian respondents and model a conversation over competing narratives.

And that’s where the book is at now. With the new edition, this is the first book I can think of that models a personal engagement between Israeli and Palestinian voices. Palestinians, however angry, are responding to a Zionist narrative, often with moving openness.

I made the decision to give the Palestinian letter writers the last word in the book. I wanted to honor their courage and goodwill, and model what a respectful disagreement over narratives looks like. The Palestinian letters come from a deeply personal place, from family experiences, and of course from a strong Palestinian national consciousness. That makes their willingness to engage with a personal Zionist narrative very powerful.

You didn’t publish any of the nasty letters.

No. Because we know what that sounds like and it wasn’t interesting to me. I do write in my introduction to the epilogue that I have gotten hateful letters, but I didn’t feel any need to give space or voice to them. This is a different kind of project.

What kind of reaction have you had from the book’s other intended audience, Diaspora Jews?

On the whole extremely positive. Both the leftwing Forward and rightwing Commentary gave it excellent reviews, and I didn’t think that either publication would like the book. The Forward responded to the empathic outreach to Palestinians, and Commentary responded to the strong defense of the Zionist narrative.

If you put those two reviews together, you get what I am trying to do in the book, which is to hold those two approaches in one sensibility.

A young woman at the University of Wisconsin called Hilary Miller wrote a terrific piece in her campus paper – an open letter to a BDS activist. In it she states that she is writing an open letter because she’d just read “Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor” and it gave her the idea to reach out and try to explain Israel. She tells this unnamed BDS activist that while they share the same moral sensibilities, the same concerns for social justice, this is what the BDS camp gets wrong.

That was another dayeinu moment for me. When I read Hilary’s piece I thought, That is what I was hoping to do, give a student on campus a voice with which to speak about Israel. Not to just respond to the next BDS resolution — but take the offensive.

The book is trying to give Jews a 21st century narrative on Israel, because most Diaspora Jews are still speaking about Israel in a 20th century way, which is: Zionism began with the pogroms in czarist Russia, and it culminates in the Holocaust — an entirely Euro-centric narrative.

That is problematic for several reasons. One is because the majority of Israeli Jews come from families that have nothing to do with the Shoah, who came from one part of the Middle East and moved to another part. So we are writing out a majority of Israeli Jews from the Zionist story.

The second problem is we are leaving ourselves vulnerable to the colonialist anti-Zionist narrative. The argument that you hear from anti-Zionists is, Why should Palestinians pay the price for what Europe did to the Jews? When you widen the lens and deal not just with the Zionism of refuge, you tell a different story, the Zionism of longing, a 2,000 year story of a people that maintained a vicarious indigenousness with a land it lost but never abandoned. That is one of the most extraordinary stories, not just in Jewish history, but in human history. If you don’t widen the lens in this way, you erase the most significant meaning of our return here, which isn’t just the search for refuge but the fulfillment of longing. We don’t know how to tell that story anymore, and that’s one reason why we’re doing so poorly in the war against our narrative.

My book tries to tell the story of the Zionism of longing, and that is what American Jews have responded to. I have felt a great hunger for a new way of speaking and thinking about Israel and Zionism.

At this point, Prof. Dajani arrives, and he sits down next to Klein Halevi. I have never met him before, so Klein Halevi makes a brief introduction, and then we continue the conversation.

So Yossi writes this book. How did it come to pass that you, Mohammed, responded to it? He reached out to you, or you heard about the book and decided you wanted to respond?

Prof. Mohammed Dajani at The Times of Israel’s office in Jerusalem, May 2019 (ToI staff)

Mohammed Dajani: Actually I saw an article about the book And then I read the book, and then I thought that it would be interesting to respond to some of the points. Because we are on opposing sides — whether in 1948, 1967, 1973, 1982… Whatever. I was on the other side.

It was interesting for me when I was reading Amos Oz’s book on Jerusalem, [A Tale of Love and Darkness,] and he was talking about it from his side of the city. I was on my side of the city looking, and he was looking at Jerusalem from his side. So I thought that here, with Yossi’s book, we have the same thing. And just as he is trying to tell his side of the story, maybe I should tell him my side. Maybe he would also put himself in my shoes, as well as me putting myself in his shoes.

Some people said to me: He is an extremist, why do you want to respond? I said: No. On the contrary, I do not want to speak to the converted. I also want to speak to other people who do not think the same way.

The people who said to you that he is an extremist, had they read the book?

No.  I think that maybe from his history or something.

Do you think he is an extremist?

I don’t think so. I don’t care really. It is his business. Why should I? I also believe that I should speak even to people in the settlements, people who are extremists who want to throw Palestinians out. This message of peace and reconciliation and hope should reach out to all, and maybe can change hearts regarding “the other,” because sometimes you are speaking based on stereotypical images and misperceptions. Because of ignorance, you tend to build up false images. Once you get to know “the other,” then the attitude will change.

Yossi Klein Halevi’s Memoirs of a Jewish Extremist

Klein Halevi: This notion about my being extremist is complicated because my first book was called “Memoirs of a Jewish Extremist”.

Dajani (surprised): That is something!

You didn’t know that?

Dajani: No!

Klein Halevi: I started out in Beitar, the right-wing youth movement of Jabotinsky and Begin, in Brooklyn in the 1960s. I was 13 when I joined and then I graduated to the Jewish Defense League of Meir Kahane. I was very active in the protest movement to free the Jews of the former Soviet Union, and Kahane led the most militant faction of the movement. Kahane said that the way we are going to free the Jews is by adopting the tactics of every other liberation movement, through violence, and that very much appealed to me as a teenager. Then Kahane moved to Israel in 1971 and he left the Soviet Jewry movement as his main cause and became the Kahane that we came to know here. At that point, I said that is not what I had signed up for. I am not interested in an anti-Arab crusade, and I left, and so did almost all of his followers from New York. 

The first book that I wrote was a memoir of those years. That was more than 40 years ago.

You also have a past, Mohammed…

Dajani: Exactly!

Mohammed, you have changed over the years. Tell us a bit about you. I want to preface this by saying that I thought your letter to Yossi was incredibly empathetic. I read your letter and I thought that if you two guys were running the world, I am not saying we would be able to make peace tomorrow – but there is common ground and common empathy and a desire to move forward.

Klein Halevi: Mohammed and I would sign an agreement.

Dajani: I was born in 1946, two years before what we call the Naqba and what the Israelis call the War of Independence. [Until the 1948 war,] my family was living here in Baka, Talbiye and these places [in Jerusalem]. When I came back [to Jerusalem] in 1993, my father wanted to take me to show me the house where I was born, etc. I refused because I said: memories of the past will open wounds and why should one open one’s wounds. Let it rest.

Some people said to me: He is an extremist, why do you want to respond?

During the 1950s and 1960s, I was raised here in Jerusalem. We were actually living first in the Old City. Then we moved to Shuafat and then to Ramallah and then back to Beit Hanina where we are now living. My mother built a house there in 1962. Our family also had the Imperial Hotel at Jaffa Gate. You would sit there everyday in the afternoon on the balcony, looking at the other side, and my grandfather would keep telling me how this wall will collapse and we will regain our property.

Imperial Hotel, Jaffa Gate, Jerusalem (DiggerDina/Wikipedia)

I grew up with that, and I grew up with my grandmother, who every time my brother and I would would fight, she would say: Goddamn the Jews, the Jews are responsible for us two kids fighting.

There was a lot of hatred, and I grew up within that environment of hatred. Once, in the 1960s, I conspired with two of my friends to start a fire. There was an area of no-man’s land between the Hebrew University and the Ambassador Hotel. We burned that area, where there were minefields before ’67, as a sign of protest for them allowing the Israeli convoys to go through to give ammunition [to the Israeli enclave on Mt. Scopus]. Everything we lost, we blamed the Jews for it.

Then I went to the American University in Beirut in 1964, where the environment was extremely anti-Israel, extremely nationalistic — that Israel is an imperialist implantation.

All the Palestinian writers, poets – everybody was talking about their return to the homeland and to the orange groves. They painted this nostalgia in their hearts, and that is why I first joined the Arab Nationalist Movement. I was there to one day regain Palestine; I believed the Arab countries would fight and win the war. At the university, I used to join demonstrations or any activity against Israel.

Then in 1967, the whole world collapsed. A few days before the war, we thought that tomorrow we would have coffee in Haifa, tea in Jaffa. That everyone would be going home. We lived the lie.

The American University of Beirut, Lebanon, photographed in December 1967. (AP Photo/Harry Koundakjian)

On the first day of the war, we closed the University and we put this huge table in the courtyard setting out how many Israeli planes and tanks were destroyed by the Arab armies – Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Iraq. There were hundreds of planes that on the radio they claimed had been downed, that we were winning the war.

The Arab Nationalist Movement arranged to take students to volunteer to go to the front, and I was among them. The bus took us to Damascus, where they gave us a rifle and five bullets. The rifle was full of oily grease. On the bus from Damascus to Amman, people were cleaning their rifles and loading them. Suddenly, you would see someone shooting at someone else. By the time we got to Jordan, some of them had fired all the five bullets they were given.  

We were planning to go to the border, but we saw the Jordanian army coming, and they said that it is all over and we lost the war. That was the 3rd or 4th day. We did not believe that. We waited for them to take us to the border.

Israeli troops are seen at Government House in the Old City of Jerusalem after capturing the Jordanian held part of the city in heavy fighting on June 6, 1967. The building was formerly the seat of British High Commissioners during Palestine mandate times and more recently the headquarters of the UN truce supervisors. (AP Photo/Israel Army)

Then we heard [Egyptian President] Nasser on the radio saying that he resigned because he takes responsibility for losing the war. Then it dawned on us. For a minute we thought that the Chinese would bring all their planes. But it never happened. It was such a psychological setup.

Gamal Abdel Nasser, president of Egypt, addresses a huge crowd gathered in Republic Square, Cairo, Feb. 22, 1958, from a balcony of the National Union building (AP Photo)

As a result I joined Fatah. I met with Abu Jihad [Fatah’s co-founder Kahlil al-Wazir]. I was a student leader at the university so they asked me to meet him, in July 67, one month after the war. I sat with him and he talked about the liberation of Palestine and the organization called Fatah. He was trying to recruit people to set up Fatah in Lebanon.

Khalil Al-Wazir explaining a military operation (photo credit: PASSIA/wikimedia commons))
Abu Jihad / Khalil Al-Wazir (PASSIA / wikimedia commons)

I went to train in different parts of Syria, and then to Algeria. They needed people in PR, so because of my English from the American University in Beirut, I was asked to set up two international conferences – one in Jordan about solidarity with Palestine, and another in Kuwait. I was in charge of Fatah’s international relations and media in Lebanon for quite some time. I was also president of the Student Union for three years and I was extremely radical. The Wall Street Journal came and did an interview and they said that I was clearly an extremist because in my office, at the American University, you will see huge portraits of Mao Tse Tung, Ho Chi Minh and Che Guevara – but not of Lincoln. Those were the radical years.

Klein Halevi: I think this is another reason we like each other, because we both have pasts.

Dajani: Yes. I think so. At that time, to me, to even speak to a Jew, that was something catastrophic.

I went to the US in 1975 [after being deported from Lebanon] – first I went to England to [study] and then my brother was in the US, in eastern Michigan, so I went there. I did my MA in Michigan and then I did my first PhD in the University of South Carolina, and a second PhD [at the University of Texas]. I was not allowed to go back [to Israel or to Jordan because of Fatah activities] and at the same time I needed residency and I didn’t want to have a US residency. Actually in 1972 in Beirut, when I was president of the student council, I was the first student speaker at the graduation ceremony. When I spoke, I threw away my (BA) certificate. I said that I don’t want it because this is an American certificate, and America is killing people in Vietnam, and they are imperialists, aggressors, and I don’t care to carry their certificate. That caused a stir at that graduation ceremony.

Ironically, three years later I ended up in the States with an Algerian passport, studying there for my PhDs.  

During that period [in the US], I was not active politically, but I held a grudge against Jews. If I knew somebody was a Jew then I would not talk to them. I had professors who were Jewish and I would avoid taking classes with them.

Then I started going with my father to [Hadassah] Ein Kerem hospital for his chemotherapy. And to my shock, I started to observe that the doctors and the nurses treated him as a patient. The doctors were very friendly and the nurses were also. He would bring them fruit, flowers and chocolate. And I noticed in the hospital that Palestinians are also receiving treatment

Things changed when my father eventually got me [permission to come back for] a family reunion in 1993. From 1968-93 I was not allowed to come back, so it was years of anger, years of hatred, years of enmity. When I came back, at the beginning, my father, who had a lot of friends from both sides, he reconnected with his friends from before 1948…

Israeli Jewish friends?

Yes

So he was not as hostile as …

No.  He wasn’t.  He wasn’t into politics at all, never.

You came back in ’93. Your father was still alive?

Yes, but he had cancer.

Did he moderate you?

He tried to take me around [in Israel] to show me, but I wouldn’t go with him… I feared someone was coming to kill me or whatever. Then I started going with him to [Hadassah] Ein Kerem hospital for his chemotherapy. And to my shock, I started to observe that the doctors and the nurses treated him as a patient. The doctors were very friendly and the nurses were also. He would bring them fruit, flowers and chocolate. And I noticed in the hospital that Palestinians are also receiving treatment. That actually awakened me to a great extent to the humanity in the other, and it also awakened my humanity. This was the starting point.

Illustrative: Nurses at Hadassah Ein Kerem emergency room, Jerusalem, August 27, 2013. (Yonatan Sindel / Flash90)

I had a second experience with my mother, years after my father died. On a Friday afternoon, my mother wanted to go to Tel Aviv and we drove – me, my brother, my mother and my niece — to Tel Aviv. And we went to the opera. We had dinner and we walked on the beach, and then she had an asthma attack. We did not realize the severity of the asthma attack. Her inhalers were empty and we thought we could drive back to Jerusalem to take her home and then she can have her asthma inhaler. But on the way home she collapsed and had a heart attack.

Security seen checking cars at the entrance to Ben Gurion International Airport. (Moshe Shai/FLASH90)

We were close to the Ben Gurion [Airport] exit and my brother who was driving decided to turn off at that exit to seek help. By the time we got to the exit she had fainted.

I thought that the soldiers would kick us out once they knew we were Palestinians and say it wasn’t their business to help us. But surprisingly, they immediately vacated one of the gates and called an emergency medical team ….

You pulled up to the gate at the airport, and said my mother is having a heart attack? Help us!  

A whole medical team came over – they had an operation room at one of the gates and they tried to resuscitate her. For more than 30 minutes, three or four people from the medical team there worked on her. Eventually they found her pulse and said we should take her to the hospital — to the Tzrifim military hospital nearby. The ambulance drove her there.

We asked why they kept us in the dark. They said: We were afraid of your reaction, you are Arabs and we didn’t know how you would react to the news. We said no, we appreciate all the work that has been done to help her

For two hours, no one told us anything. Finally, the doctors came and said, We are very sorry but your mom died on arrival.

We were in shock. No one had told us. We asked why they kept us in the dark. They said: We were afraid of your reaction, you are Arabs and we didn’t know how you would react to the news. We said no, we appreciate all the work that has been done to help her.

We couldn’t take her back with us because it was Shabbat and they couldn’t provide an ambulance and we couldn’t get one from Jerusalem. So we drove back without her and I was looking at the empty seat and thinking about her and what a big loss, because she was the one who was keeping us all together. At the same time I was thinking about the enemy who was trying to help.

What year was it that your mother died?

In 2005.

I wonder what it would be like today if you pulled up to Ben Gurion airport?

I would like to think that it would be the same. I’ll tell you why. Don’t forget at that time it was after the Second Intifada and there was a lot of enmity.

And still they were ok.

So I don’t think it will change.

So was it really the little, genuine, humane, personal encounters with Israelis, especially surrounding both your parents’ medical treatment, that changed you?

Yes, I believe so.  I think it is getting to know the humanity in the other.

And what’s the conclusion? So now you read this book by Yossi and you write a letter that basically says that we each have to respect each other’s narratives and we have to try and move forward. How do we move from this very well-intentioned overture from Yossi and your very nuanced response to something that has greater momentum for more people? How do we inflate your respectful interaction into something that can really make change?

Dajani: We need to create an elite group who could lead the community — leaders who could be multipliers. Teachers, journalists, anyone who can make a difference. That’s why I am obsessed about setting up a doctorate program where we can take a journalist or a religious leader and train them in reconciliation and interfaith dialogue. Give them proper training so that they can go back to their community and actually preach that message – not emotionally but rather scientifically, professionally. The problem is that within the Arab world you cannot find people who are trained in reconciliation and conflict resolution. Universities don’t train people in reconciliation.

You want to set up a PhD program — where and in what?

At the Europa University in Flensburg, in Germany. We hope to bring in not only Palestinian and Israeli students and German students or European students, but also Arab students from areas of conflict like Syria and Libya. Also the Gulf states. To let people within that crucible learn about each other, because I believe that a central part of conflict is ignorance.

Moving on to the incident that has made you the most headlines and, it seems, remade your life, how is it that you came to lead a group to Auschwitz (in 2014) and what happened afterwards?

I was asked by Al-Quds university…

You were a professor there, you are a professor there?

I was a professor there and the founding director of their American studies program — an MA program in American studies which started in 2002. Later, in 2012, I was appointed to be the director of all the libraries.

During that period I was asked by Professor Sari Nusseibeh [the university president] to take part and represent al-Quds university in a project which is called “Hearts of Flesh,” with a German university, an Israeli university and al-Quds university. Then al-Quds withdrew from all such joint projects, and I was given the choice of either withdrawing from this project or staying on in my own capacity and representing my own organization, which is the Wasatia [center ground] movement. So I opted to stay and represent the Wasatia movement in that project.

Why did al-Quds pull out?

They had more than 50 joint projects. There was a lot of pressure on the university to pull out of joint projects with Israeli universities because of the [2014] Gaza war, so they pulled out from all projects, not only this project.

One of my students came to me and said that I have a message for you: You need to cancel this trip, and if you go, when you come back there will be a lot of repercussions

This was a joint project between al-Quds university, Ben Gurion University and Tel Aviv University, and the Friedrich Schiller University in Jena, Germany. The idea was to take 30 Palestinian students to visit Auschwitz, and at the same time to take 30 Israeli students to visit a Palestinian refugee camp – Dehaishe refugee camp in Bethlehem. Although there is no comparison between the two, the idea was to see what impact meeting the other and learning about the suffering of the other will have on your empathy for the other. What role would empathy play in reconciliation?

The Israeli students went and met Palestinians outside the Dehaishe camp; they couldn’t go in because of security reasons at the time. That was in early March 2014. Then we had arranged for Palestinian students to go to Auschwitz, and we had 30 students. At the last moment, two of them backed out. And another Palestinian turned out to be Hamas — I didn’t know that — who went to the border and the Israelis sent him back. So we ended up with 27 students.

A Hamas guy genuinely wanted to come?

Yes.

Israel was foolish in preventing him from going?

Yes. I wrote him a letter as a guarantor for his visit with the group, and stated that it is part of a project. Twice he went to the border and Israel said no. I asked him why he wanted to go. He replied – knowledge. I would like to know. He said, we heard so much about [the Holocaust]. He was seeking knowledge.

Before going I was warned not to go.

By who?

By different people. One of my students came to me and said that I have a message for you: You need to cancel this trip, and if you go, when you come back there will be a lot of repercussions. He was going on the trip and I asked him if he was still going. He asked me if I am still going. I said – yes. I asked him, are you still coming. He said yes.

Also, a week before we left, I received an email from the president of the university, Prof. Nusseibeh, in which he said: I heard rumors that you are taking students to Auschwitz. If so, please inform the students that the university has nothing to do with it and that this is part of your Wasatia initiative.

I wrote him back saying that the students already know that — that this is not a university activity. Although I thought that this should be a university activity, because the mission of the university is learning and knowledge. But at that time, I wanted the trip to happen and not get into arguments.

Prof. Mohammed Dajani at Auschwitz, March 2014 (Courtesy)

So we went, and it went well. But the day before we came back, when we were on the second day at Auschwitz, the Ha’aretz daily published an article about the trip in English. The al-Quds (newspaper) translated it and published it in Arabic but unfortunately the translation didn’t reflect what the article said. The article in English said that the trip was sponsored by a German university and that it was funded by a German research institute and that Israeli students went to visit the Palestinian refugee camps. The Arabic version said that the sponsors were Israeli universities, and it was funded by Zionist organization and it ignored the reciprocity. So the article made it look like this professor is trying to sell a Zionist narrative to the Palestinian students.

There were nine student organizations and they issued a statement saying that this is normalization, and normalization is treason. That I committed treason

There was huge outrage on the social networks at the university. There was a lot of incitement against the trip. The university itself was part of that incitement. The university issued a statement saying that we have nothing to do with the trip. No one asked them to issue that statement and at the same time the union of professors and workers and employees issued a statement saying that they are firing me from their membership because I took students to Auschwitz.

Then there were student demonstrations. There were nine student organizations and they issued a statement saying that this is normalization, and normalization is treason. That I committed treason. They came to my office and tried to trash it. Then they came to my office in the library also, and they left me a letter threatening my life if I come back to campus. I asked the president what [the university] would do. Because of the pressure, I thought maybe it would be better if I resign so that I don’t put myself in any… There wasn’t an academic environment for me to teach anyway and if they were demonstrating against me all the time, then I cannot be on campus.

Former President of Al-Quds University Prof. Sari Nusseibeh in his office at the university in Beit Hanina, in East Jerusalem. (Photo credit: Nati Shochat/Flash90)

So I sent a letter of resignation and when the president got it, he asked to meet me. I met him. He said: We are trying to cool things down and it is much more dangerous than you think. I have also received from outside a lot of warnings. The only thing I can do for you is, if you withdraw your resignation, I will put security people for you when you come to campus, but I am not in charge once you are outside the gates.

I said that I don’t need security guards here, I need you to issue a statement that what I did was a part of education, that it was my academic freedom, and that I didn’t do anything wrong. You don’t have to support me, but say that it is my academic freedom to teach.

I didn’t withdraw my letter. And a few days later they sacked me. He accepted my letter.

I had donated thousands of books to the library. Later, every book that they found with my name on it, they threw it out of the library. When I mentioned that on Facebook, they sent me a letter saying that if you defame the university’s name we are going to sue you. I sent them a response saying: if you sue me, I am also going to sue you also. My car was torched because of that. They forgot about suing me, and I forgot about suing them.

So taking a group of Palestinians to Auschwitz ruined your academic career?

We gave the choice for the students to come and learn [about the Holocaust], to see for themselves, that this is what has happened and it is not a myth, it is not a narrative, it is the historic reality, and we have to face it

Yes.  And my reputation within the Palestinian community, because they were attacking me as if I sold out, rather than hearing my story.

What happened to the 27 students? Were there any repercussions for them?

In the beginning, some of them claimed they hadn’t gone on the trip. Then they saw that I am standing up, and I am not denying anything. I said that this is part of my work as an educator, and at the same time in the Qur’an it says “Advance me in knowledge.” And it says, “Those who know are not equal in level to those who do not know.”

I said that I would do it again, I don’t regret it, it’s not something I feel was wrong and it is not brainwashing as claimed. We gave the choice for the students to come and learn [about the Holocaust], to see for themselves, that this is what has happened and it is not a myth, it is not a narrative, it is the historic reality, and we have to face it.

When the students saw what I was saying, they tried to pressure the university to reject my resignation, and they went and spoke to the president who said that I have submitted a resignation and he cannot do anything about it – which is not true because he could have rejected it. Two students wrote articles in support. One of them wrote an article in The Atlantic in support of the trip. Another wrote an article in Al-Quds newspaper in Arabic defending it. I thought that was very courageous of them. Other students wrote their memories and we published that in our book.

You wrote a book about the trip?

Yes.  The book is divided into 3 sections – one section of professors writing the theory about reconciliation, another section about students’ reactions, and the third is the media’s reaction.

Whether it is in the Palestinian educational system or whether it is in the mosques – the enemy is the Jew. Not the Zionist, the Jew

I return to my question. Yossi is somewhere in the middle ground and may be heading into the minority as Israel becomes more hawkish, but certainly within the mainstream somewhere, and so is this website and my views. It seems to me that you, because of a readiness to acknowledge that there is another narrative, and because of your open mindedness to try and learn more about the other side, without diluting your history and narrative and claims – you are a radical outsider in your society. You mentioned the “crime” of normalization. Is this normalization, is this treasonable, that you are sitting here now talking to a Zionist, Israeli journalist? It is very depressing. Here I am reading Yossi’s book, which you think is not perfect by any means – but you think: here is someone who has made a good-faith effort and deserves a serious, nuanced response. He is in the mainstream and you, because of the readiness to respond in the way that you do, are beyond the pale on your side of the conflict. Is that true and if so, what can we conclude from that?

Yes, I think that it is true in the sense that I don’t speak for the Palestinians. And maybe the radicals today, they are not in the majority, but they are controlling the way people think. They are using religion in order to achieve their political agenda. Whether it is in the Palestinian educational system or whether it is in the mosques – the enemy is the Jew. Not the Zionist, the Jew. Maybe in the 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s it was the Zionist claim to Palestine, and we have a competitive claim, and so the struggle was political. Today, it is the Jew and the Muslim. They are creating enmities that didn’t exist in the past.

They are even claiming that the Jews poisoned the Prophet [Mohammed]. In the educational system, they teach the children a lot of stories about how the Jews tried to poison the Prophet and eventually they poisoned the Prophet. A Jewish woman gave the Prophet a poisoned chicken which he ate and died. This is nonsense. It is not corroborated by evidence. It is part of the education that we seek to try and reform.

Our religion is being manipulated, misinterpreted, to reflect a version which is very anti-Jewish, very anti-Christian, [including in] the university and the education system. There is a lot of ignorance about each other.

I felt that writing the letter to Yossi is important because I wanted to reach out to Israelis. I felt that there is a lot of ignorance on their part too. Every time I go to speak, and I speak about moderation in Islam, people will say that the Qur’an is anti-Semitic, or the Qur’an is violent, or anti-women or whatever.  Unless we reach out to the Jewish community, and unless the Jewish community reaches out to the Palestinian community, there will be no peace.

Yossi, did you know the professor’s life story, as he set it out here?

Klein Halevi: A lot of it. We have talked about this. When I, as an Israeli, hear you, Mohammed, I come to two opposing conclusions.

The first is despair. This is what happens to a Palestinian who is loyal to his people, but who dares to try to expose his students to the other side’s story. You weren’t teaching them Zionism, you were teaching them about the history of the Holocaust and even that is considered taboo. So, one side of me says: Why bother?

The other side of me says: Wait a minute! Here is a Palestinian professor, a former Fatah man, who took 27 students to Auschwitz. That has meaning. I need to honor that.

The first response leads me to the conclusion that even if [the leftwing] Meretz were to create the next Israeli government, there wouldn’t be peace. Because in the end, Palestinian society is not ready to accept my legitimacy.

The other side of me says: Well, maybe there are more people than we know about. You took a stand publicly and you paid a price. How many other people silently agree with you? How many other people in Palestinian society really are ready to consider a different way?

Even if nothing further comes out of it, as a human being I feel that you have given me this gift and I need these human connections with Palestinians

And I struggle with these two conclusions and the way that I try to resolve them is to say: At this moment in the history of the conflict, there is no chance for an agreement. But I can’t allow this moment to place a veto power on possibilities for the future. And so, I feel that our relationship, our friendship, the trust that we have developed, is meaningful.

First of all, it is meaningful for me personally. It allows me to breathe a little bit easier in this conflict, it allows me to feel that I have some hope, however small, in this otherwise hopeless situation. And even if nothing further comes out of it, as a human being I feel that you have given me this gift and I need these human connections with Palestinians. I need to be able to step out of my Israeli siege and have these relationships. So even just on that level, I can say dayeinu.

Can you answer Yossi’s question about how many people like you there are on the Palestinian side? What do you think? I know Sari Nusseibeh, not well, but I’ve met him a few times. He was one of the moderates…

Dajani: He is still.

So why…

Dajani: I think it was the pressure on him. Remember that he ran for the Central Committee of Fatah and he lost. There was also pressure on him because he gave up on the ‘right of return’ for refugees. I think that he was succumbing to that pressure. And then he resigned from his post at the university.

All my life I have worked for the cause of Palestine… And suddenly I am being branded not only a collaborator, even a traitor

All my life I have worked for the cause of Palestine. I could have taught in the US or somewhere else and got more money and got more fame or whatever. Yet I opted to come and teach at al-Quds University at a very low salary.

I have dedicated my life for this. And suddenly I am being branded not only a collaborator, even a traitor. And not only within the Palestinian community, but this reputation is preceding me to other places. A few months ago I was invited to attend a conference in South Africa. The BDS movement there demonstrated against the Israelis who were taking part in the conference. Part of their protest was: You are inviting Israelis but no Palestinians. The organizers of the conference told them, but there is Palestinian participation: Me. Their response was: He is not a genuine Palestinian.

Many people asked me: What is more hurtful for you? That you are being labeled as a traitor and a collaborator, or that you lost your job. I replied: Neither. What is most hurtful is that nobody stood up for me publicly

A few days ago, a friend of mine, who was a [PA] minister of tourism and was the ambassador to France, wrote on my Facebook page that I am not honest and that I had succumbed to power. Why? Because I posted that the Palestinian curriculum should not teach about martyrdom. She posted that there was no such thing in the curriculum and that I was being dishonest, which is not true because martyrdom is being taught in the Palestinian curriculum broadly, very openly.

To say that I am not a genuine Palestinian because I am pro-peace and pro-reconciliation, this hurts.

[After the furor that followed the] trip to Auschwitz, many people asked me: What is more hurtful for you? That you are being labeled as a traitor and a collaborator, or that you lost your job. I replied: Neither. What is most hurtful is that nobody stood up for me publicly. There were people who stood up within the community, but not publicly. There were only two students who gave me public support. Colleagues of mine at the university kept silent and did not stand up to say that this is academic freedom.

So what do you do nowadays?

I am working on this PhD program.

So you are working at putting this program together, hoping it will be funded and go ahead?

Yes. The university is hoping that the program will get funding so they can start it, because they said they cannot start the program without funding.

I want to ask both of you: What vision do you have of long-term reconciliation? What does it look like? How do Israeli and Palestinian goals co-exist?  How do we solve this ever?

Klein Halevi: Palestinians and Israelis still have a shared interest in ending the occupation. I consider it an Israeli interest to free Israel from the situation where I am occupying Mohammed. For me, as a long-term, permanent situation, that is untenable. In that sense, the pragmatic goal is separation, to move away from the direction that we are heading in now, which is where this government is taking us, to a one-state. I don’t call it a one-state solution. It is not a solution. It is a dis-solution, it is a no-state solution – it is Yugoslavia, it is Syria, it is Iraq. That is where I believe this is heading, if we don’t have the two-state solution. That is one answer.

The hopeful, long-term answer is hard to even say these days. But when I do meet people like Mohammed on the other side, I feel that there is a possibility for Israel finding its place in the region. For me, the process of Jewish homecoming will not be complete until we are no longer in exile from the region. Now, it seems so irrelevant to speak that way today, but I still have to hold out that long-term hope. We are all old enough to remember, even you, Anwar Sadat getting off the plane at Ben Gurion Airport.

Prime minister Menachem Begin welcomes Egyptian president Anwar Sadat at Lod Airport on November 19, 1977 (Moshe Milner/GPO archive)

I don’t know what you, Mohammed, thought of it at the time. You probably thought he was a traitor. I was a student in Washington in the year that Sadat came to Jerusalem, and I was hospitalized with jaundice. I watched on TV and, seeing Sadat and Menachem Begin together, I thought I was delirious. It seemed totally impossible, and now we take it for granted.

There were no greater enemies than Sadat and Begin. Begin was the most right-wing Israeli prime minister ever until that time. And Sadat, until he set foot on Israeli soil, had been the most hated man in Israel. He was responsible for thousands of Israeli deaths, launching a surprise attack on Yom Kippur.

I know the circumstances are very different between Palestinians and Israelis. And yet if you would have mentioned to anyone on either side a day before Sadat came that this was going to happen, it would have been inconceivable.

So a part of me — admittedly an increasingly shrinking part — still insists on the possibility of the miraculous.  

Dajani: So while this part in Yossi is shrinking, in me it is growing. I believe that rationality and just knowing the other will eventually lead to compromise, lead to reconciliation. We cannot keep fighting each other forever. Who would have believed that Arafat would sign the Oslo Agreement or that he would shake hands with Rabin? He may not have been serious about it, maybe, at the time. Maybe he believed in it, maybe he did not. I don’t know. But for sure he did take a stand. It was a late stand, because if he had taken it before, when Sadat did, it could have meant much more.

We are here to stay, the Israelis are here to stay. They cannot wipe us out. We cannot wipe them out. It is immoral for anyone to wipe the other out. If we reach that conclusion, then the only option is to co-exist

I believe there will come a time when radical voices will diminish and reconciliation voices will be stronger, because this is the future. We inherited this conflict from our grandparents, and it is our duty, our responsibility, to leave a legacy of peace for our grandchildren.

You sound to me like a Palestinian Shimon Peres, and that’s not a compliment. The reality is so bleak. What basis do you have for your optimism?

Dajani: We are here to stay, the Israelis are here to stay. They cannot wipe us out. We cannot wipe them out. It is immoral for anyone to wipe the other out. If we reach that conclusion, then the only option is to co-exist.

Shimon Peres meets with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in Ramallah, May 14, 1997. (photo credit: Flash90)
Shimon Peres meets with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in Ramallah, May 14, 1997. (Flash90)

The Israelis cannot continue to rule us, to dominate us. We are not going to Sinai or any other place. That is why I just posted about the Trump initiative. and I said that I called it an initiative. I don’t call it a deal.  He is a businessman and so he thinks in terms of the Deal of the Century. I don’t believe in that. I posted that there is bad news and good news about this initiative. The good news is that it will unify the Palestinians, the bad news is that it will unify them behind Hamas and behind violence and extremism.  

Palestinians could start from scratch again and again and again in order to achieve their aspiration of a national homeland, the same thing that happened to Jews. If in 1920 or 1930, you would have said that in 30 years there would be a State of Israel, nobody would have believed it. If I would say today that there will be a State of Palestine, nobody will believe me. But there will be a State of Palestine, not a state on paper like now, but a real state, a vibrant state. We need support from not only Palestinians or the international community, but from the Jewish community.

Yossi was talking about coming back [to this land], about the Jewish dream of coming back. I will add to it one more step: coming back without hurting your neighbor. I think that is also very important in Jewish morality. You want to come back? Ok! But you don’t want to put your feet on the other, and you don’t want your presence to be at the expense of the other. When I hear extremist rabbis say that we have to kill Palestinians, I feel they have nothing to do with their religion. As I feel when Muslim imams and sheikhs say that we have to kill all the Jews because this is what the Prophet said, which I don’t believe.

Klein Halevi: Not long ago, I would have said there is no majority of moderates on the Palestinian side — that there is a minority, maybe a strong minority — but that on the Israeli side there is a majority of moderates. Today, I still don’t think there is a majority of moderates on the Palestinian side, but I am no longer sure there is a majority on the Israeli side either.

Dajani: They will swing.

Klein Halevi: Maybe. For the first time, I feel alienated from my own government. I feel this great anxiety about where they are taking us. The government has legitimized the Kahanists — my childhood camp. If you had told me when I was a teenager that one day there would be an Israeli government coalition in which Kahanists [via the Otzma Yehudit party] will be represented, I would have been thrilled. Today, nothing scares me more.

Otzma Yehudit party members Michael Ben Ari (C), Itamar Ben Gvir (R) and Baruch Marzek (L) speak during a press conference held in response to the High Court decision to disqualify Ben Ari’s candidacy for the upcoming Knesset elections, Jerusalem, March 17, 2019 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

I don’t have the luxury of asking myself the question: Is what I am doing going to be effective or not? I feel that at this moment in our history, I have to stand and reaffirm my commitment to a better resolution of this story for Palestinians and Israelis.

I am fighting, first of all, for my Israel

If you would have told me even five years ago that I would be taking this public position now, I wouldn’t have believed it. [After what happened in the second intifada,] I didn’t believe there was any point at all in these kinds of initiatives. It seemed to be irrelevant, a fantasy. It may still be a fantasy, but when I see where the right is taking us… If this continues another 10 years, 20 years, we really will reach the point of no return and find ourselves in a bi-national state.

I am fighting, first of all, for my Israel.

[Turns to Dajani:] And I am honored to have you as a partner.

Dajani: When people ask me how many people support Wasatia, or how many people are there who share its goals, I say: It could be a one-man initiative and it could a people’s initiative. The task is for the one man to make it a people’s initiative. You have to stand your ground, and keep doing it, irrespective of whether people are following. I do not want to keep looking to see whether there are people behind me or not. I want to keep moving on.

Why should there be a contradiction? If I am nationalistic, I should not be humanistic? I should not show empathy for my enemy, for others who suffer as human beings?

In the beginning, when my students saw this attack [on us for going to Auschwitz], they started to question — maybe we did something wrong? But one of the students said: I am not less nationalistic. I am more humanistic because of what happened to me.

Why should there be a contradiction? If I am nationalistic, I should not be humanistic? I should not show empathy for my enemy, for others who suffer as human beings?

So that’s where I feel I don’t worry about who is following. I think that the message is more important — carry it and keep standing up for it. This is what I said: I will promote Holocaust education, I will promote co-existence, whatever happens, and despite the fact that the people I show empathy for are my occupiers. The issue is whether you believe in it or not. If you believe in it, then why should you care how many people follow you, or how many people will follow you. If you have the right message, then eventually you will reach people. I see there are types on the social media networks who write things which are extremely negative. Then you argue with them, you show other views, and people change. We need to have that change.

Klein Halevi: Even if you, Mohammed, are only one person, I will stand with you. I am also one person. Together we can model a possible relationship. That is all an individual can do. But that’s still worth doing.

Dajani: We start as one, two, and then we will become three, five, and eventually we will be the voice of the people. I strongly believe that one day we will be the voice of the people.

Yossi, do you think you will be able to reach an agreement one day with the Palestinians?

(Above and at top of article) Prof. Mohammed Dajani (left) and Yossi Klein Halevi at The Times of Israel’s office in Jerusalem, May 2019 (ToI staff)

Klein Halevi: I don’t think that the Palestinian national movement in its current configuration can reach an agreement with Israel, and the current Israeli leadership can’t reach an agreement with your side. But what does give me some hope is the possibility of an agreement between Israel and the region. We are seeing more and more signs that that may be possible. My admittedly slender hope is that we can reach an agreement with the Arab world which will then impact on the Palestinians. I think that the Palestinians are too angry, traumatized, focused on victimhood to offer us a deal that we can work with. But let’s see what happens with the region. We need to widen the lens, because if it is just a bilateral track of Israelis and Palestinians, it’s going to remain stuck.

That is pretty much what Netanyahu says.

Klein Halevi: It is. But I take what Netanyahu says a step further. Netanyahu wants to leap over the Palestinians and make peace with the Middle East. I don’t believe that this is possible. In the end, the Palestinian issue is going to be the stumbling block. So we are going to have to figure out ways in which we can bring the Palestinian track into our negotiations with the Arab world. It’s a long shot. Can it happen? Yes, it can happen.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) talks with Sultan Qaboos bin Said in Oman on October 26, 2018 (Courtesy)

What I have discovered is that there are more people out there in Palestinian society than I thought who are ready to genuinely come to terms with our indigenousness.

One of the things that surprised me when I began interacting again with Palestinians after a hiatus of more than 15 years since the Second Intifada, one of the themes that kept on coming up in the letters that I got from Palestinians and in conversations with them, was surprise when I wrote that we need the Palestinian national movement to accept our existence, our legitimacy. People said to me over and over again: “But Arafat did that already.”

I don’t believe that Arafat ever intended to make peace with us. The constant denial of our legitimacy in Palestinian media and schools, which has never let up, is a legacy of Arafat. And yet I think for some Palestinians, the impact of Oslo was: Okay, if Arafat has formally accepted Israel, then so do I. We should not write those people off.

So Mohammed Dajani is one of them. The question is how many of them are there?

Klein Halevi: I did a public event with a prominent Palestinian businessman, whose name I won’t mention. Someone who has accepted not only Israel’s existence as a fact but its right to exist. I realized that for him, what I consider to be the lie of Arafat’s acceptance of Israel was a necessary cover for his own acceptance of Israel. He could then turn to his own people and say: Well, I am not doing anything out of the ordinary, Arafat already accepted Israel.

Palestinians hold pictures of late leader Yasser Arafat in Gaza City on November 9, 2017, during a festival to commemorate the 13th anniversary of his death. (AFP PHOTO / MOHAMMED ABED)

The cynical, duplicitous Yasser Arafat provided a fig leaf for Palestinians who are genuinely interested in reconciliation?

Klein Halevi: That’s one of the things I’ve learned as a result of writing this book.

For 20 years I have been a public skeptic about Palestinian intentions. I built up an op-ed career being a skeptic of the Oslo process and I don’t repudiate that. So this is a very strange position for me to be in right now, at the most unlikely moment, when everyone is giving up on the two-state solution, which really is impossible anytime soon.

Maybe I’m just a contrarian, with something in me that says: Well, if everyone now is saying there is no possibility for a two-state solution, this is the moment to stand up and say: not so fast, don’t give up on the only real alternative that we have to a one-state catastrophe.

Part of the anguish that I feel is the absence of anguish among so many Israelis about the prospect of the status-quo becoming permanent, of the Jewish people turning into permanent occupiers of another people. I can’t make my peace with that. And I can’t make my peace with the complacency.

“Peace now” has to be erased from our lexicon. But so should “annexation now,” which is the new cry of the right. Precisely because the very possibility of a two-state solution is now in danger, I feel the need to stand up and affirm it.

Then there is the moral aspect. Part of the anguish that I feel is the absence of anguish among so many Israelis about the prospect of the status quo becoming permanent, of the Jewish people turning into permanent occupiers of another people. I can’t make my peace with that. And I can’t make my peace with the complacency.

I understand the source of that complacency. It is fear — legitimate fear. The Middle East is disintegrating. We have no partner on the other side. I understand that. It is what I have been writing about for years. But I feel the need at this moment to say that just as the Left was guilty of one kind of delusion, the Right is now guilty of another delusion, which is that somehow we can annex parts of the territories and still remain a Jewish and democratic state. Or maybe remaining a democratic state no longer matters for growing parts of the right.

I used to be worried about the delusions of the Left leaving us caught in an impossible situation in which we won’t be able to defend ourselves. For all practical purposes, the Israeli Left no longer exists. Now my anxiety is focused on the Israeli Right. The annexationist right is as delusional in its way as the “peace now” left once was.

Finally, there’s the spiritual aspect of this work. I can’t say that, from a practical perspective, what Mohammed and I are trying to do has much significance at this moment. But when there is no progress among the politicians and diplomats, it’s the responsibility of people to step into the void and do what we can to create possible alternatives. As a writer I’ve seen how books can have a life of their own and find their way into unexpected places. I’m a religious person; I believe that if you do what you can with the right intentions, then God can magnify that work with consequences beyond our abilities and reach.

Well, that was quite some conversation. Thank you both.

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