From the Senate in the 1970s to the presidential campaign trail in 2020, Joe Biden has a long record of going where political pressures push him—and right now they’re pushing him aggressively leftward
Mohammed S. Dajani heads Wasatia, a group of Palestinian Muslims who see Jews and Christians as their brothers and sisters and hope to work together with them for peace. While a professor of Al-Quds University (a Palestinian school in Jerusalem), Dajani gained international recognition in 2014 for leading a group of Al-Quds students to Auschwitz to learn about the Holocaust. Here are edited excerpts of our conversation.
Where did you grow up?
I was born in West Jerusalem, but when I was 2 years old, we fled to East Jerusalem and Egypt when Israeli forces took over West Jerusalem during the 1948 Palestine war. We left with nothing but what we could carry with us. From being well-off, we suddenly had nothing.
I had a grandfather who was a strong, independent man. One time, my grandmother went and registered our family into the refugee offices of the United Nations without telling my grandfather so she could get us food and supplies. When my grandfather found out, he grabbed the refugee cards and tore them up, saying, “I’m not a refugee! I will never be a refugee!” He taught our family that being a refugee is a state of mind. Now every time I face a setback, I remember my grandfather and move on instead of being stuck in the past.
Being stuck in the past is frequent.
Both Israelis and Palestinians are burdened by the legacies of the past and need to start thinking about what they’re leaving to their children: conflict or sustainable peace?
‘Both Israelis and Palestinians are burdened by the legacies of the past and need to start thinking about what they’re leaving to their children.’
You were once radical yourself.
I became extremely radicalized through high school and college in Lebanon. Between 1967 and 1975, I joined Fatah [a major Palestinian political party]. I believed it should be us or them. I was totally against any kind of peace settlements, dialogue, or negotiation. I believed in the armed struggle against Israel, spoke the ethos of Lenin and Marx. That was the mood of that period in the Arab world.
How did that change?
In 1975, I went to the United States to study. It was like Plato’s Cave: I finally left an environment that reinforced a corrective, nationalist narrative, and now I was liberated. I could see truth better with an open mind and accept different views. I learned about American history and values and democracy. What helped me most were my personal experiences. I was banned from Israel since 1965, but Israel let me come back in 1993 when my father had cancer. I would accompany my father to get chemotherapy at a Jewish-run hospital. I saw how well the Israeli doctors and nurses took care of my father.
And your mother as well?
My mother had an asthma attack that became a heart attack. We had to seek help from the Israeli soldiers. They called an ambulance and took my mother to the nearest hospital, which was an Israeli military hospital, even though we were Palestinian civilians. The Israeli EMT tried very hard to resuscitate my mother, but she died upon arrival. Those two episodes awakened me to the humanity of the other—my enemy—and awakened the humanity in me. I started to view the other as human beings and to seek peace as something attainable.
You created an American Studies program at Al-Quds University.
In the mind of Palestinians, the U.S. supports Israel, Israel is the enemy, hence the U.S. is also our enemy. The American Studies program broadened students’ views on America beyond its foreign policy to its democratic experience, culture, history, literature, technology, and achievements. It was the first of its kind not only in the Palestinian world but the Arab world.
Why did you take your students to Auschwitz?
My goal was to help my students understand that the Holocaust’s goal was to annihilate a whole people, religion, and civilization—for just being who they are. Many students have false knowledge about the Holocaust. The trip was an educational effort, not political. My students went to Auschwitz to study reconciliation and to what extent empathy for the sufferings of the other can help with reconciliation. More than 70 students applied to go to Auschwitz, and we selected 30.
How could the Israeli-Palestinian conflict be resolved?
We need to start with Palestine recognizing Israel as a Jewish state, and Israel recognizing the state of Palestine as a member of the UN. Israel can’t negotiate with the Palestinians without first recognizing us as a state. Otherwise, whatever we agree upon is not sustainable.
So you support the two-state solution?
I support any solution. Whether there is a one-state solution, or two- or 10-state solution, I don’t mind—the key point to me is “solution.” I just think the two-state solution is the more rational alternative: The Jews want to establish a Jewish homeland, while the Palestinians also want a national identity and state.
What made you form Wasatia?
The idea for Wasatia came to me in 2006 on a Friday morning during Ramadan. I was standing at my office balcony, which overlooked an Israeli checkpoint separating the West Bank from Jerusalem. Hundreds of Palestinians were pushing at the checkpoint in order to go to Jerusalem to pray at Haram al-Sharif [the Temple Mount]. But because they had no permits, the Israeli guards at the checkpoint didn’t allow them to cross, and people got upset. I thought there would be violence and shooting, but after a while, both sides struck up an agreement. The guards took the people’s IDs, searched them, and called buses to transport them to Haram al-Sharif and back.
On that day, moderates won?
I observed this happen and thought, “These are moderate Palestinians who are not extremists. They don’t believe in violence—they just want to pray. But who represents them?” In the Palestinian political spectrum, there are the Islamist parties who are against peace negotiations, and then you have the secular parties who shun religion. Who represents the religious moderate Palestinians? So I started Wasatia.
What does that word mean?
Wasatia comes from the Arabic word wasat, which means “middle or center.” Religiously speaking, it means tolerance, justice, temperance. Our work in Wasatia is focused on reconciliation in the midst of conflict. We believe that moderation paves the way for reconciliation, and reconciliation ushers conflict resolution and negotiations, which in turn usher peace and democracy. In Palestine, the extremists are teaching our children that all who don’t follow Islam are infidels.
So you don’t think there’s a difference between Christianity and Islam?
Look at the Ten Commandments, and you’ll see those same values—be merciful, do good deeds, don’t do evil—embedded in Islam. But Islam does not teach that Jesus is the Son of God. You have your religion, I have mine. Whether you believe Jesus is the Son of God or not, on Judgment Day, God will determine who’s right, as it says in the Quran: “On that day you will all return to me and I shall resolve your dispute.”