Despite the frequency with which students from high schools and colleges worldwide visit Holocaust death camps, it was no simple matter for Issa Jameel when he was asked whether he wanted to visit Auschwitz.
For Jameel, a Palestinian master’s degree student from Al-Quds University in Jerusalem, the opportunity was laced with political and nationalistic issues. But he realized it would be an important educational experience, and he signed on as student coordinator.
“Until when will we keep hearing the Israeli narrative of what happened?” Jameel asked rhetorically during an interview in the American Studies department of the Al-Quds campus in Jerusalem. “Why don’t we find out for ourselves?”
The result was the first delegation of its kind — a March trip by 27 students to the Auschwitz and Birkenau Nazi camps in Poland led by Professor Mohammad Dajani Daoudi, dean of the school’s American Studies program.
“The idea is to study empathy in order to affect feelings of reconciliation,” Dajani explained. “We are exposing Palestinian students to what happened during World War II — in particular, the Holocaust concentration camps.” The Palestinian students are part of a program at Al-Quds University called Wasatia, an Arabic term for moderation.
“At the same time, we are taking 30 Israeli students to visit Palestinians who suffered as a result of the 1948 Nakba,” Dajani said, using the Arabic word for “catastrophe,” which is used to describe the establishment of the State of Israel. The Israeli students were from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.
The visits by the two groups are part of a project called “Hearts of Flesh, not Stone,” paid for by the German Research Foundation and organized by the Friedrich Schiller University of Jena, Germany.
Jameel was not taught about the Holocaust in school, he said, and all he had heard were general comments that “what the Nazis did was ‘heinous.’” He prepared for the trip by reading a book about the Holocaust written by Dajani, but the reality outpaced his expectations. “The picture of the horrible event is not complete,” he said, “until you see the place in front of you.”
On the Hearts of Flesh Facebook page, trip participant Nasser Al-Qaddi wrote, “My impression at this place is, I felt disgust and real dehumanization; and how Nazis acted mercilessly with illegal inhuman decision to exterminate Jews and other prisoners.”
Dajani said the purpose of the trips was to hear both sides, and to help create empathy by listening to the suffering on both sides. “Empathy brings reconciliation,” he said.
Angry feedback against Dajani and his students began before they returned home. Palestinian critics immediately used social media, including Facebook, to lash out against the trip. New vitriol continues to appear.
“My brother called me from Palestine and said, ‘Don’t you know? You and your delegation are spies.’” Jameel said.
“I told my brother to tell everyone he knows that we visited the Auschwitz camp and we saw the tremendous suffering of what happened during the Holocaust,” he said. “And we, as Palestinians, know the meaning of what it means to suffer.”
The visit was not a gesture opposing the “normalization” campaign, Jameel said, in which any cultural or educational contact with Israeli institutions is severely discouraged. He said the journey was “purely an educational trip,” and that “visiting the Holocaust is something and normalizing is something else.”
Jameel also said he was not afraid to share his feelings about Israelis with Dajani. “I told Mr. Dajani that we don’t want Israelis to come with us, as that would seem to show them we are trying to satisfy them. I did not want Israelis to look at me and say he is sympathizing [with me when] he is not.”
At one point during the trip, Jameel said, he felt he was being manipulated into feeling guilty for what happened to the Holocaust victims.
“On the trip, there were Jews whose grandparents witnessed the Holocaust. They were talking from an educational standpoint and then suddenly switched to an emotional perspective. When we saw that they were personalizing the Holocaust, we decided we did not want to listen anymore and asked for another guide at the Holocaust museum to tell us — factually — what had happened: different than the emotional and personal narrative because we were coming to learn,” he said. “My emotions should come from within me, without force, and not having had someone direct my emotions.”
The contingent included 12 Palestinian women. Shahd Swaid, a 22-year-old English literature major, said the pressure not to be part of the group began before their departure: “I was asked, ‘Why are you going?’ I wanted to go to imagine what happened so I can answer not just [my friends] but the other people.” Swaid, like many of the other Palestinian students, said she identified with life under an occupying power.
The students who went on the trip praised Dajani and for his “courage” in organizing it.
Dajani says despite the criticism he has received, he is planning a second trip if funding can be arranged.
“We are studying the Holocaust. People are trying to impose politics on this experience. We are not asking them to normalize or not to normalize. Not to be with or against. Just learn the facts.”