Mohammed Dajani is a Jerusalem-born Palestinian scholar and peace activist. He studied in Lebanon and the United States, earning a PhD in government from the University of South Carolina and a second PhD in political economy from the University of Texas. In 2007 he launched a movement he named Wasatia, dedicated to peace through education within the Palestinian community, including what he describes as a more rational understanding of Islam and interfaith dialogue to promote coexistence. (“Wasatia” is Arabic for “center” and appears in the Quran to describe justice, moderation and balance.)
In 2014, Dajani made international headlines for taking a group of Palestinian students to Auschwitz and was forced to resign from the faculty of Al Quds University. He’s the author of numerous books and in 2022 he was a recipient of the Simon Wiesenthal Prize, awarded for civic engagement to combat antisemitism. He spoke with Moment on December 15 from his home in Jerusalem.
Let me start by asking where you were on October 7, and how the last two months have been for you.
Actually, I had been in New York and Washington, DC, giving talks and left on October 7 to come back to Israel via Rome. When I got to Rome, I learned my connecting flight to Israel was canceled, then I realized that there was a war and there were simply no flights home. I stayed in Rome for a few days, and each day I would go to the airport to see if there were possibilities of traveling to Israel, but everything was locked. I thought maybe I would go to Germany and have a better chance of getting back from there, so I went to Berlin. And then I traveled to Antalya in Turkey, and from Antalya I traveled to Jordan, and then from Jordan I crossed the bridge to come back to Jerusalem, 17 days after leaving the United States.
Do you feel most people living in Israel and the Palestinian territories have taken a firm side in the conflict that is directly opposed to the other? What are the alternatives?
The problem is that each side has its own war narrative, and the gap is getting wider. A Greek philosopher once said, “Truth is the first casualty of war.” And so, if you look at different channels of the news, each channel tries to bring its own version of the truth to what’s happening. People are also very worried and concerned about their own security. Not many people go out, and this affects their psychology and causes depression. And because they’re afraid to go out, they are stuck to the news, which makes them more depressed.
We need to promote a huge deradicalization of the region. Extremism is partly related to the elephant in the room, which is the occupation. We need to change leadership on both sides, recognize the two-state solution, and promote a different way of thinking that focuses on coexistence, on sharing the land.
People look at what Hamas did on October 7 as a crime against humanity. What Israel is doing now is also a crime.
I go to a gym in an Israeli hotel, the Dan Hotel, and there are people there who left their homes in the north and came there for refuge. There are Israelis and Palestinians in the gym, and despite the war, people have a nice relationship with each other. At least they are coexisting in an environment focused on sports and health. And so I believe that people can find it in themselves to tolerate each other and to think in terms of leaving each other alone, to coexist.
In addition to finding common ground as you do at the hotel gym, it’s vital to go even further than that—to appreciate the cultural and religious attitudes of people who think differently than you do, who are from a very different background. How do you approach those interfaith conversations?
We can do it through education, because there are lots of mythologies circulating that lead people to demonize, delegitimize and dehumanize “the other.”
At the same time, people are saying that religion is part of the problem. Religion should be part of the solution. If you study religion well, you see that we have nothing to fight over. We have many similar values in all religions—basically the Ten Commandments that are articulated in one religion or the other.
In Islam, the problem is that the extremists misinterpret the Quranic scripture to be anti-Jewish, anti-Christian, anti-other. But this is not the truth within the scripture. And that’s what we are doing in Wasatia, we’re trying to bring awareness to people about what the Quran teaches, as opposed to what extremists teach about what it says. We try to use the Quran as our reference in order to solve conflict.
We have also allowed education to incite against the other, on both sides, by calling it national education. A new curriculum should be written to teach a new generation how to live, not how to die, to teach them how to prosper and to move on with their lives. This would require not only changing textbooks, but also changing the mindset of the teachers to promote moderation, tolerance, mercy, compassion, acceptance of the other and interfaith dialogue. We have to stress that on both sides in order to avoid another October 7.
Instead of chanting “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” I would chant “From the river to the sea, Israel and Palestine will be free—from discrimination, prejudice and hate and hostility.”
Is the challenge greater today, when people are entrenched even further on each side?
I think that was the goal of the extremists in creating this war, to widen the gap between both peoples. That’s basically what they have tried to do since Oslo. Because Oslo in a way was a historic landmark in this region in that it separated the big dream—the hope of both Palestinians and Israelis to have a state from river to sea without the other—from the small hope of two states living next to each other. Shulamith Hareven, in her book The Vocabulary of Peace, writes that before Oslo, it was Palestinians against Israelis, while post-Oslo it’s been Palestinians and Israelis who were for peace against Palestinians and Israelis who were against peace.
You have addressed antisemitism on U.S. university campuses well before October 7. What do you feel has changed in terms of antisemitism and Islamophobia? What hasn’t?
A few years ago, when I was at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy as a Weston Fellow, I was invited by a Jewish organization to go to South Africa to speak. But the day that I was supposed to deliver the talk at the University of Johannesburg, it seems they received threats. They were worried about my security and decided it would be best to cancel the event. I insisted they not and said, “I flew all this distance in order to speak, and extremists should not prevent me from doing so.”
I went to the university and walked to the area where the meeting was supposed to take place. It was a huge courtyard. In the middle they had barrels of flowers and on either side was a tent, one where the pro-Palestinian group was and another on the other side where the pro-Israel people were. And what was interesting to me was that on both sides, they were all South Africans. There were no Palestinians or Israelis among them, and yet they were taking sides. When I wanted to start to talk—I was in the tent of the pro-Israel group because I was invited by the Jewish organization to speak—the pro-Palestinian people came over to disrupt the talk. And so I addressed both of them. I said, “Don’t import our conflict to your campus, but rather export to us Nelson Mandela’s vision of reconciliation, of his Rainbow Nation. And in doing so, you will be—”
[Professor Dajani stops abruptly at this point in the interview.]
There are sirens outside. There might be rockets coming to Jerusalem—
Oh no, should you go?
We don’t have anywhere to go. So, we stay here.
Well, I’ll stay with you.
So that was my message to [the South African students]: Don’t be pro-one side against the other but rather be pro-peace and pro-reconciliation, and in this way, you will benefit humanity because this is an issue where you should—
Wow, this was close, as if there is a rocket coming in. Do you hear that? You hear the siren?
What do you hear?
That’s probably a siren. It is as if there is something…I wonder…There is like boom, then boom. This is the second one. These are rockets hitting Jerusalem? Wow.
Would they be coming from the West Bank?
No, no. It’s coming from Gaza…The sirens are off now.
[The interview resumes and Dajani later sends a link to the Times of Israel liveblog, which reports that at least three rockets from Gaza had been intercepted by Iron Dome. Another source indicates that one rocket from the barrage landed near Istishari Hospital, a Palestinian hospital west of Ramallah. Some property damage was reported but no injuries.]
I carried this message [of not importing our conflict] to students in New York and Washington, DC. “Don’t take sides,” I said, “Instead of fighting and quarreling, whether as Jews and Muslims or pro-Israel and pro-Palestine, try to build bridges. Export to us the values of peace.”
What is missing, which I told officials at CUNY campuses, including Brooklyn College, is a center for conflict resolution or for reconciliation. Such educational centers at major universities could bring in people from various academic divisions and diverse backgrounds to teach about living together. Reconciliation is not conflict resolution alone; these centers could include religious reconciliation, political reconciliation… human reconciliation. I suggested there could be student groups within the universities that would advocate Wasatia. That would, for example, bring the Jew and the Christian and the Muslim and the Buddhist together to discuss religion and discuss life and discuss personal issues and campus issues.
Religion should be part of the solution. If you study religion well, you see that we have nothing to fight over.
I would also encourage Arab governments, particularly those who are part of the Abraham Accords, to have such centers within their universities. In Palestine, we don’t have a single university where reconciliation is taught as part of a curriculum to train experts in the field. These would be people with degrees in reconciliation who write, publish and teach, creating multipliers in society. Particularly, we need to empower women to lead the peace camp. Men have failed to do a good job there. Women in Liberia have proved they can do a better job, so it can also be here.
A lot of American students who are demonstrating or protesting about Hamas or Israel are neither Muslim nor Jewish. The anti-Israel voices particularly are coming at it from an anti-oppression lens. What do you think about that?
Instead of chanting “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” I would chant “From the river to the sea, Israel and Palestine will be free—from discrimination, prejudice and hate and hostility.” That’s what we need here. We don’t need political statements that might hurt.
Are you worried about antisemitism around the world? There was just an announcement of a foiled plot in Europe to target Jewish sites.
This war is causing a rise in both antisemitism and Islamophobia. And I believe that when some people look at this war and see so much wreckage, so much human suffering, it might incite people against Jews. People look at what Hamas did on October 7 as a crime against humanity. What Israel is doing now is also a crime. If you want to talk to me, talk to me about the future, about what is next. Don’t tell me about people killing each other, because that’s a dark tunnel that you cannot get out of. Tell me about the light at the end of the tunnel, and how that light can lead to prosperity and security.
I’m against Hamas. Basically my ideology of moderation is meant to undermine the ideology of Hamas. That’s the whole concept that I started back in 2007. But this is what I keep telling those who want to kill the leaders of Hamas: “You kill them today. Tomorrow their sons and others will grow up. How will that help?” We need enlightenment. The Talmud tells the story of Hillel who instructed: Whatever is hateful and distasteful to you, do not do to another, to your fellow man. This is the entire Torah. The rest is commentary.
Speaking of looking to the future, what are your plans? Will you continue to travel and speak to students?
Definitely. I will keep promoting Holocaust education. I will keep promoting awareness of antisemitism and keep trying to bring peace in times of hardship—to light the candle in this darkness. These people who have died on both sides should not die in vain. There are more than 7 million Israeli Jews on one side, there are more than 5 million Palestinians on the other side, and the only way is for each to swallow the bitter pill and know that their state from river to sea is not going to happen. We must have two states from river to sea. And eventually, when there is trust, maybe the land can link together the way a wound to the body heals over time and blends together. But you have to address it with medicine. And the medicine here is reconciliation and living in coexistence.