Once at an international conference in Europe, an archbishop from an African country approached me after my talk. ”I have never heard anything before about what you discussed,” he said. “I did not know that there was anyone working for peace in Israel or Palestine.”
Over the years, in my lectures and panel discussions with visitors to Israel, or when I have been abroad, I have often been surprised to discover how little is known about the work for peace that is going on in Israel and Palestine. Therefore, I have decided to write about peacebuilders. Peacebuilders are those who bring other people together to learn about the possibilities and benefits of peaceful coexistence (as opposed to “peacemakers” who are politicians who engage in the political peace process, which has virtually ceased in Israel and Palestine in recent years).
Without doubt, one of the most committed and courageous peace-builders among Palestinians in East Jerusalem is Professor Mohammed Dajani Daoudi, the founder and chairperson of an organization called Wasatia. Dajani is a former professor and founder of the department of American Studies at Al Quds University in Jerusalem, a prolific author, active communicator on social media, especially Facebook and a sought-after lecturer in Israel, Palestine and abroad.
I have known and worked with Professor Dajani for many years. Not only have we spoken together on many panels in Israel and abroad, but we co-authored, with others, a “policy brief” on The Practice and Promise of Inter-Faith Dialogue and Peacebuilding in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict for the Academic Peace Orchestra Middle East of the Peace Research Institute Frankfurt (August 2014).
Dajani is a man with a method and a message. His method is education and dialogue. His message is one of reconciliation, mutual understanding, and joint cooperation for peace.
Over the years, Dajani’s organization, Wasatia, Arabic for “the Middle Way,” has educated hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Palestinian religious leaders, adults and youth in the classic texts of Islam that clearly speak in favor of moderation, reconciliation and peace. He has conducted many workshops for these target audiences in East Jerusalem and in the West Bank. Even today, he continues to do workshops in Palestinian schools, even though the boycott movement and anti-normalization mood make these workshops very challenging.
Nevertheless, he persists because he does not believe in giving in to despair or drifting with the crowd. He opts to swim against the stream to break taboos and deep-rooted outdated customs. Moreover, he has brought his message to regional and international conferences. In addition, his organization has published more than 30 publications in a variety of languages which is distributed freely to readers.
In a courageous pilot program a few years ago, Dajani took Palestinians to Auschwitz to try to come to grips with the Holocaust, while at the same time, Israeli Jews went to Palestinian refugees camps in the West Bank, to help them understand the suffering of the Palestinian people, with all the differences inherit in both phenomena. For doing this, he lost his job at Al Quds University in East Jerusalem as head of the libraries and director of the American Studies Institute, his car was torched, and his life has been threatened several times. Nevertheless, he persists and does not give in to the anti-normalization and pro-boycott trends in Palestinian society.
What is his message? In a recent interview, he stated clearly:
Moderation in times of extremism is a revolutionary idea. It is a positive, courageous value, as opposed to a defeatist attitude. It is swimming against the tide, rather than following the crowd on a path obviously leading to the abyss. We need to create our own vision rather than just copy the vision of others.
In addition to his writing, lecturing and educational programs, Dajani is active daily on Facebook as a way of getting his message out to the world. Social networks, he tells me, are the cheapest and easiest medium to reach out. “We are standing with a voice of reason, so that people don’t only hear the voice of extremism.”
On the interreligious level, Dajani’s voice of religious moderation is important, especially since he continues to raise it publicly here in Israel and Palestine, and in his lectures abroad. He is adamant in his response to Muslim extremists who have adopted anti-Jewish and anti-Christian attitudes and teachings in recent years:
We want to reverse this trend by arguing against the dominant paradigm that Islam comes to replace other religions that preceded it such as Judaism and Christianity by explaining and showing that Islam, according to its foundational Quranic texts, was sent to complement other faiths and calls for cooperation and coexistence with other religions.
In recent years, Dajani has devoted much of his efforts to setting up a new graduate program in Peace and Reconciliation Studies, in cooperation with universities abroad. This new program would offer doctoral studies in Palestine and Israel, and then abroad, for Israeli and Palestinian students, who would want to specialize in this field. Graduates would return to their homeland to teach in universities and schools, and promote dialogue and peace education in many settings, to help both peoples, Israelis and Palestinians, build bridges between them. As of this writing, Dajani is actively developing serious plans for this important new project.
At the end of the interview, I asked Professor Dajani the question that I am often asked by journalists and other pessimists why he keeps going. His answer was immediate and clear: “We owe it to future generations. It is our responsibility to leave a heritage of peace.”
In the midst of so much despair in our region, with so many people having given up on the peace process, I asked him if there is room for optimism. “Yes, I believe so. We can learn from each other to build a better more peaceful future. We need to focus on our common values, on what brings us together not what sets us apart.”
And then he told me the following story which he had heard in first grade but later learned from a Jewish friend and colleague that its theme comes from the Talmud. This is a story which he uses often in his lectures:
A king walking in the fields came across an old man planting a tree. He asked him: Old man, why are you planting a tree when you are too old to eat its fruit? The old man responded, Oh my king, our grandparents planted trees and we ate their fruit and we plant so that our grandchildren would eat its fruit.
Dajani added his own reflection to this story: Sadly, we have inherited this conflict from our grandparents and we owe it to our grandchildren to leave them a heritage of peace so they may live in security and prosperity.
What a great story, as retold by an unusual Muslim teacher of reconciliation and moderation.
As the grandfather of five grandchildren, I couldn’t agree more! On a personal level, I must say that I have always found Dajani’s optimism and persistence, in the face of so many obstacles, to be encouraging and inspiring. He continues to be a source of hope for so many people here on the ground and all over the world.