Global Politics

It may be taboo, but some Palestinians are rethinking their views toward the Holocaust

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American Studies professor Mohammed Dajani took a group of Palestinian students on a trip to Auschwitz in March 2014.

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Mohammed Dajani

Israel on Monday marked its annual commemoration of the victims of the Holocaust. It’s a touchy subject among Palestinians, but for some, attitudes toward the Holocaust are evolving.

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A siren wails throughout Israel to mark the Nazi killing of six million Jews during World War II. On a road straddling Israeli West Jerusalem and Palestinian East Jerusalem, Israeli drivers got out of their cars and stood in silence — while some Palestinian drivers ignored the siren and sped around them.

For many Palestinians, the Holocaust is a sore subject. It’s impossible to disconnect the Jewish Holocaust from the Jewish state established soon after, and, in their eyes, at their expense.

This year, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas spoke out. He issued a bold statement Sunday calling the Holocaust “the most heinous crime” of the modern era. It was the first ever official Palestinian expression of sympathy on Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Official recognition is one thing, but Palestinian professor Mohammed Dajani of Al Quds University says there’s a larger issue in Palestinian society: ignorance of the Holocaust.

“There isn’t a single textbook about the Holocaust in Arabic that describes the Holocaust in terms of historical narrative,” said Dajani, a professor of American studies. “Our children are not being taught about it at all, and they are growing in a society of ignorance on this topic.”

Abbas himself wrote a dissertation in 1983, questioning the number of Holocaust victims, and claiming that Nazis and Zionists worked together to get more Jews to move to what later became Israel. Abbas based his research on written material from Lebanon and Syria, where he was when he wrote his dissertation, Dajani explained.

“Even till this very day, that is the literature there and the mindset there,” Dajani said. “If you write your dissertation there, that is the conclusion you reach.”

President Abbas distanced himself recently from some of his earlier conclusions. Dajani's views on the subject have also evolved.

As Holocaust survivors and other Jews were pouring into the new state of Israel, Dajani and his family were displaced from their home in Jerusalem and were never allowed to return. He grew up hating Jews.

In recent years, though, Dajani has been a champion for Israeli Palestinian dialogue. In March, he took 30 Palestinian university students to visit the Auschwitz concentration camp, where Jews were gassed and burned. He said it was eye opening for them.

“One of our students thought that Jews were being collected into concentration camps by the Nazis in order to ship them to immigrate to Palestine,” Dajani said. “To him, it was a shocking experience to find out that was not the case, that it was to annihilate them.”

Sitting in a café across from campus, Nasser Alqaddi, 26, a master’s student in American studies and a participant on the trip, said he came with a lot of questions.

“Before I went on this educational trip, I had no [idea] why the Holocaust occurred, why Jews were the main target in Nazi operations, and what Jews committed to face this horrible destiny,” Alqaddi said. “I didn’t find they deserved to face this destiny.”

When the students returned, there was uproar. Al Quds, the Palestinian university, publicly distanced itself from the trip, issuing a statement that the trip was a private initiative. Student groups on campus were angry. Alqaddi, the master’s student, understands why.

“Israelis, they have historical trauma,” said Alqaddi. “From the other hand, we have historical trauma as well that occurred to Palestinian people as well, when they were displaced and expelled from their homes — houses and villages destroyed, and what we face during our life, (on) a daily basis.”

Alqaddi pointed outside the café window to a cement wall, just a few feet away from campus, covered in graffiti of Palestinian flags and protest slogans. Israel says that barrier is needed to keep Palestinian attackers out of Israeli cities, but Palestinians say it makes them feel as if they’re in a ghetto.

“The Holocaust was an event (that) occurred and happened,” said Alqaddi. “I feel profoundly sorry about (it). But our suffering didn’t finish yet.”

Dajani said his initiative also brought Israeli students to meet Palestinian refugees and hear their experiences being uprooted during Israel’s war for independence. He is now researching the Israeli and Palestinian students’ reactions, to determine how listening to the trauma of the enemy can contribute to reconciliation.

At the moment, though, Israelis and Palestinians are far from reconciliation. Israel suspended peace talks last week after Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas reached a deal to form a unity government with Hamas, an Islamic militant group that says it seeks the destruction of the Jewish state.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, under those circumstances, Abbas’ sympathy for the victims of the Holocaust rings hollow.

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    Nasser Alqaddi, 26, a master's student at Al Quds University in east Jerusalem, attended the student trip to Auschwitz in March.

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    Mohammed Dajani

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    American Studies professor Mohammed Dajani took a group of Palestinian students on a trip to Auschwitz in March, 2014.

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    Mohammed Dajani

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    Mohammed Dajani in his office at Al Quds University in East Jerusalem.

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    Daniel Estrin

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    Palestinian professor Mohammed Dajani holding a booklet he recently authored on the Holocaust.

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    Daniel Estrin