Do visits to sites of another’s tragedy help promote peace?

On Yom HaShoah this year, when Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas called the Holocaust “the most heinous crime to have occurred against humanity in the modern era,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu brushed off the unprecedented statement as “damage control” for failed peace talks.

But, for political science professor Mohammed S. Dajani Daoudi — founder of the American Studies Program at Al-Quds University in the West Bank, and the first-ever Palestinian professor to take his students on a tour of the Auschwitz concentration camps — the statement represents a groundbreaking shift in public opinion.

“Our Auschwitz trip made a crack in the wall of ignorance, [and] Abbas’ statement may cause it to crumble down,” Dajani wrote in a post to the prolific Facebook group he runs for his students.

In late March, in what was widely considered a historic act, Dajani took 27 Palestinian students in his American Studies program on a five-day trip from the West Bank to Auschwitz, where more than 1 million Jews were killed during World War II.

The trip also included a research team of graduate and doctoral students — hailing from Al-Quds University, two Israeli universities and one German university — who were there to monitor the students’ reactions as part of a trilateral research project titled “Hearts of Flesh — Not Stone: Does Meeting the ‘Suffering of the Other’ Influence Reconciliation in the Middle of Conflict?”

This $1.4 million project, paid for through Germany’s largest independent research fund, was first conceived two years ago, when a pair of Israeli psychology professors from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and Tel Aviv University teamed up with Dajani and the Friedrich Schiller University in Jena, Germany. Together, they wanted to find out what would happen if a group of Israeli students and a group of Palestinian students each experienced firsthand the wreckage of the other’s darkest catastrophes — the Holocaust and the Nakba (the Palestinian exodus of 1948).

Would exposure to the sites and stories of their enemy’s suffering, scientists wondered, soften the students’ hearts so significantly that they could start to picture reconciliation with a lifelong foe?

The “Hearts of Flesh” fieldwork got underway just as Israeli-Palestinian peace talks under U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry began their downward spiral this spring. Dajani’s students visited the Nazi death camps in Poland, while 26 Israeli undergraduates at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev toured multiple villages evacuated during the Nakba, as well as an East Jerusalem checkpoint and a West Bank refugee camp.

“When you started to enter [the camps], you could feel the souls of the victims. It’s something terrible that I cannot describe in a few words,” said Salim Swidan, a graduate student in Dajani’s American Studies program, in a phone interview with the Jewish Journal.

Another Palestinian participant, Nasser Alqaddi, wrote in his follow-up paper that after visiting the crowded Auschwitz sleeping quarters and the ovens where prisoners’ bodies were burned, he felt “disgusted” at the “real dehumanization” of the Jews.

These responses may be typical for other first-time visitors to the camps, but the Palestinians come from a culture in which any expression of compassion toward Israelis is frowned upon as “normalization.” Even before Dajani’s students set foot in Auschwitz, some of their Facebook accounts — where they were posting about the trip — began blowing up with disapproving responses.

“Recruiting the students was not that difficult — it was convincing them to come with an open mind,” Dajani said in a phone interview. “And while they were there, they were confronted with Facebook comments that affected their psychology.”

Local media outlets fanned the flames. A commentator for the West Bank’s Wattan TV criticized the students for wasting sympathies on Holocaust victims that could be going to “our martyrs and their families.” Commenters on the Al-Quds news website (unrelated to the university) called Dajani a “filthy little spy,” an “intellectual terrorist” and worse. 

“People [in the West Bank] started to link the study of history and the study of the Holocaust to the present political situation, which was very explosive,” Dajani said.

While the group was on their return flight, a Palestinian fellow at the Gatestone Institute think tank wrote: “It now remains to be seen if professor Dajani and his students will be punished upon their return to the West Bank for daring to ‘sympathize’ with the suffering of Jews.”

Indeed, by the time they returned from their five-day tour of the Nazi camps, the controversy had snowballed to the point that Al-Quds University released the following statement on the Auschwitz delegation: “They do not represent the university. Professor Dajani is on leave and was not entrusted by the university [to take part in this project].”

Despite this public declaration, Dajani said in an email to the Journal that the university had never informed him that he was on leave: “No one talked to me about it yet. My contract is up for renewal soon and we shall see.” Although Al-Quds University has a policy of zero collaboration with Israeli institutions, Dajani claimed school officials gave him their blessing to act independently. “I did not at all understand why the university decided to make this a political statement” after the fact, he said. “This is part of learning, part of advancing knowledge — this is the role of a university.” 

Because the Israeli half of the trip wasn’t as unprecedented as the Palestinian trip to Auschwitz — one Israeli nongovernmental organization even created an app recently called iNakba, a virtual tour guide of Palestinian towns destroyed in 1948 — the Israeli students’ trip attracted much less attention, both within Israel and worldwide.

“Many Palestinians did not realize there was also this [Israeli] component,” Dajani said. “Many were saying, ‘Why don’t you bring Israelis to refugee camps?’ Our response was, ‘We did just
that.’ ”

Surrounded by peers that have long ignored, if not denied, the internationally accepted account of the Holocaust, Dajani is something of a one-man show. Once a higher-up in the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), the professor, now 68, was reportedly banned from Israel for his political activity until 1993, when Israeli officials permitted him to return to Jerusalem on a family reunification visa. Dajani’s public persona has since taken a drastically moderate turn: In 2013, he spoke at the Israeli Presidential Conference on the potential for “stability, democracy, economic prosperity, human rights and equality for women” within political Islam. He has also become the leader of an upstream battle to introduce Holocaust education into the Palestinian curriculum, driven by the theory that “if society moves to more moderate culture, occupation will not be necessary.”

Since the trip, perhaps motivated by his resolve, a handful of Dajani’s students have found the courage to defend their trip to the skeptics at home.

In a bold piece for the Atlantic, Zeina Barakat, a trip leader and former student of Dajani who is now a graduate student at the Friedrich Schiller University in Jena, wrote:

“The Holocaust is a fact, and we all have a sacred responsibility to ensure that it never happens again to Jews or any other group. I believe our trip made a big crack in the Palestinian wall of ignorance and indifference about the Holocaust. … Perhaps one day soon this wall will collapse.”

Although none of the Israeli participants have come forward publicly, Shifra Sagy, chair of the Martin-Springer Center for Conflict Studies and Negotiation at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (and one of the project’s lead professors), said she likewise observed some very strong emotional reactions within her group.

In East Jerusalem, the Israeli undergrads went through a checkpoint and visited the Shuafat refugee camp. In Lod and Ramla, two towns seized from the Palestinians in 1948, they observed old Arabic ruins and heard the history behind them from Palestinian guides. And although they weren’t permitted to enter the Dheisheh refugee camp near Bethlehem, two generations of Palestinian refugees met them at an overlook above the camp, where they shared memories of the Nakba and stories of daily life.

“Most of the Israelis really don’t know what happens in the other side — we are living in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Beersheba, and we don’t know how the Palestinians live,” Sagy said. “One of the main reactions that I heard was, ‘Wow, I didn’t know this.’ ” 

Israeli and Palestinian researchers meet in East Jerusalem to discuss the project. Photo courtesy of Mohammed S. Dajani Daoudi

The Israeli students visited Lod (or Lydda in Arabic), a run-down, mixed Jewish-Arab city 20 minutes east of Tel Aviv. Israeli journalist Ari Shavit wrote about the town last year in the New Yorker magazine: “In that square kilometre of what was once Old Lydda, one still feels that something is very wrong. There is a curious ruin here, an unexplained ruin there. Amid the ugly slums, the shabby market, and the cheap stores, it is clear that there is still an unhealed wound.”

After the Nakba tour, Sagy said, “It was very interesting to hear the men who [previously served as Israeli] soldiers suddenly look differently at the Palestinians. Not only as those who we need to keep from doing terror, but also as human beings.”

However, the Israeli professor emphasized that there is no way to know yet if the experience went so far as to “change their opinions regarding a solution to the conflict.”

The full scientific analysis of the Holocaust-Nakba exchange is still ongoing: Researchers at all four universities are now carefully reviewing before-and-after questionnaires and in-class discussion transcripts, as well as individual student essays and interviews. “Each team is analyzing its own group‘s data, and then we will be sharing results with each other,” said Sharon Benheim, an Israeli-American graduate student at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev who oversaw both trips. “This will take a few months.”

While the official study continues, though, dozens of think pieces and forum wars on the Palestinian half of the trip have unfolded across the Internet. Unfortunately, many of these strongly worded reactions lacked the nuance buried in long, winding Palestinian student testimony — both written and verbal — currently being analyzed by researchers. 

In some of the participants’ testimony, reviewed by the Jewish Journal, they grappled with the fact that many stops on the Auschwitz tour reminded them of their own people’s history.

“We feel as if we’re victims of the victims of the Holocaust,” wrote Alqaddi, a Palestinian participant, in his final report. 

“One of my students mentioned that the Jews imprisoned him for five years, and he was comparing the concentration camps — very small and gloomy — to his experience,” said Barakat. “All the memories came back from when he was in Israeli jail.”

Alqaddi wrote something similar. “At each building where various violent manifestations occurred by Nazi S.S. officers, the same image came to my mind when I remembered what Israelis had done and still do to the Palestinians nowadays. … The portraits of house demolition, land confiscation, detention, solitary confinement and waiting for a long time at checkpoints without legal justification.”

But the opportunity to ask questions and draw conclusions from a more informed and worldly perspective, shoulder to shoulder with the international community, seems to have given participants a critical sense of importance and a desire to learn more. 

“One of the things that really hit the students when they were at Auschwitz was to see how many different delegations and groups were coming from different parts of the world — Italy, France, different African countries,” Dajani said. “And so they felt, ‘Wow, all these people are visiting and we do not come. Why?’ ”

Barakat, Dajani’s former student now studying in Germany, elaborated in a phone interview: “For the West Bank people, for some of them, it was the first time for them to travel — their first time in an airplane. Before, they knew about the Holocaust, but only by reading, not by going to the grounds and seeing the gas chambers, the executions. When you go in reality, it’s totally different. It broadened the students’ understanding of the psyche of the other.”