Salzburg Global Fellow Leads First Organized Palestinian Visit to Auschwitz

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Mar 31, 2014
by Alex Jackson
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Salzburg Global Fellow Leads First Organized Palestinian Visit to Auschwitz

30 Palestinian university students travel to Nazi extermination camp, as part of reconciliation program The entrance to Auschwitz concentration camp memorial site.

A program led by Salzburg Global Seminar Fellow, Mohammed S. Dajani, that aims to foster better reconciliation between opposed, oppressed groups, has organized what is believed to be the first visit to a Nazi death camp by Palestinian students.

Over the course of several days at the end of March, students from Al-Quds University and Birzeit University learnt of the historical suffering that has heavily influenced the modern consciousness of their regional neighbors.

The students also visited Kraków and Oświęcim; their hosts were two Jewish Holocaust survivors to enhance their experience and reinforce the spirit of forgiveness and the need to learn from those who witnessed such atrocities.

The visit is part of a wider series of trips in the MENA region, as part of a joint program on Reconciliation and Conflict Resolution with the Friedrich Schiller University in Jena, German, and Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.  

A week prior to the Auschwitz visit, a group of Israeli students made a similar journey to visit the Dheisheh refugee camp to learn of the Palestinian pain and anguish as a result of displacement during the founding of Israel in 1948.

Each group will be monitored closely by PhD psychology students who will hope to determine what effect these sites of historical trauma have upon the visitors, and whether their compassion will go beyond initial reaction to genuine empathy and a willingness to understand their perceived enemies.

Whilst this is not the first time that an Israeli group has crossed borders in order to explore and interact with those in camps, the visit to Auschwitz is previously unheard of and brings hope that this will foster a new era of reconciliation and harmony.

The program is directed by Mohammed S. Dajani, professor of American Studies at Al-Quds, who has written what he trusts to be the first objective take on the Holocaust available for Palestinian students. Dajani is a Fellow of Salzburg Global Seminar, having attended a program on Political Processes as part of the American Studies Center in 1995, and he will return to Salzburg this summer for the latest session in the Salzburg Global Holocaust Education and Genocide Prevention Initiative on "Sharing Experience Across Borders".

“Basically, we want to study how empathy with the Other could help in the process of reconciliation,” Professor Dajani said in an interview with Israeli newspaper Haaretz. “I feel I would like Palestinians to explore the unexplored, and to meet these challenges where you might find that within their community there will be a lot of pressure on them not to do it or questioning why they are doing it, or that this is propaganda. I feel that’s nonsense.”

Professor Dajani, who is a firm believer in the school of thought that we need to learn from our past to prevent making the same mistakes, says that the scheme promises to break through the wall of bigotry that blocks the MENA region, and has led to factions between neighboring countries, and a lack of understanding from youths.

“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 added. “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.’”

Notable for having been banned from Israel for 25 years, Professor Dajani advocates tackling the issue of conflict in the region head on, by teaching tolerance and calling for compromise. By witnessing the destruction of mankind first hand, the visit to Auschwitz exudes raw emotion and by which he hopes students will look for change.

“I was also raised in the culture of denial, so for me, to go and see and look and be on the ground – it was a very sad experience for me. It had a lot of impact,” he admits. “I was shocked about the inhumanity of man to man. How can this happen? Why did it happen? Why would man be this cruel?

“It showed me the deep, deep, dark side of human evil.”