The Next Palestinian Revolution, as Seen Through the Eyes of a Moderate Scholar

Few people have heard of the centrist Palestinian movement Wasatia, yet founder Mohammed Dajani is convinced it will become the ruling party - just not in his lifetime.

Mohammed Dajani always keeps a copy of the Amoz Oz book “How to Cure a Fanatic” in his car. “Being moderate in times of extremism is revolutionary,” says Prof. Dajani, three decades after he abandoned his role as a student leader in the Fatah political group.

Defined by Israel as a Palestinian refugee in his hometown of Jerusalem − where family members have been political leaders, sheikhs and custodians of King David’s tomb for hundreds of years − Dajani says that his experiences have led him from radical to peacemaker.

Dajani, director of American studies at Jerusalem’s Al-Quds University, in 2007 founded Wasatia, a social and political movement based on concepts of moderation, pluralism, democracy and justice that he found in the Koran. He hopes Wasatia will grow into a political party.

Though Dajani is a secular Muslim, and supports separation of religion and state, he turned to religion in building his platform. “There will be no peace unless there is peace among the religions ... there will be no peace among the religions until moderation dominates people’s behaviors,” he explains.

Six years after its creation, Wasatia is struggling to gain momentum. It holds conferences and seminars, publishes articles in Arabic-language newspapers, and has distributed its publications to about 250 imams, 50 mosques, and more than 10,000 local Palestinian students, academics and intellectuals. But, says Dajani, “Palestinians have lost faith and hope in the political system and peace process.”

Reaching out is also difficult because the large Palestinian movements get millions of dollars in funding from supporters – often states and regimes – while Dajani pays for his publications and programs himself, he says. A small grant from a German NGO expired five years ago.

Promoting Wasatia is also dangerous, he says. Photos of Dajani with a red ‘X’ through his face once circulated on the Internet. He occasionally receives threats, such as an anonymous letter that warned him before an Israeli-Palestinian seminar: “If you go in, you will not go out.” His websites and emails are regularly hacked.

Wasatia opposes the strict dress and behavioral codes that Islamic preachers have promoted in recent years. It also supports a two-state solution, with the Old City having international status because of its significance as a holy site for Judaism, Islam and Christianity.

Initially, hostility toward Wasatia came largely from conservative Muslim groups, he says. Today, Wasatia’s views on coexistence and dialogue are also opposed by the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, as it works to isolate Israel, to pressure the government to change its policies.

Al-Quds University, where Dajani teaches political science, was once known as the only Palestinian university in frequent partnerships with Israeli academics. After the 2008-09 Israeli campaign in Gaza, no new joint ventures were initiated. But unofficially, many students and academics support Wasatia, which advocates dialogue and partnerships says Al-Quds lecturer and Wasatia volunteer Zeina Barakat, 31.

“Some people are not with Hamas or Fatah, so need a party,” she says. Fatah and Hamas members also attend Wasatia conferences, “to listen,” Barakat adds. “Many [Palestinians] are not against normalization, but are afraid to talk about it, or to have their name or photo appear in the newspaper.”

Al-Quds emeritus economics professor Iskander Najjar notes that Palestinians “are living in despair, but we don’t live in a closet ... Muslims, Jews and Christians were [always] neighbors.”

“I am for normalization,” says Dajani. “We should learn from the South African concept, but not copy it. If the Israelis feel secure with us as neighbors, they will fight in our struggle for a Palestinian state.” Justice and compassion must be “for both sides − from both sides,” he says.

A family legacy

The Dajani family has long been associated with opposition movements. In the 1920s and ‘30s, the Dajanis joined with other prominent Jerusalem Arab clans to oppose the separatist policies of Jerusalem’s grand mufti, Haj Amin al-Husseini. Family member Hasan Sidqi Dajani, part of “the opposition,” was assassinated in 1938.

The clan’s prominence in Jerusalem dates back centuries. In 1529, Ottoman Sultan Suleiman I appointed family member Sheikh Ahmad Dajani ‏(1459-1561‏, according to his gravestone) and his heirs as custodians of the traditional tomb associated with King David, on Mount Zion. The name Daoudi − Arabic for David − was added to all Dajani descendants’ formal names. Sheikh Ahmad is buried in a large mausoleum in Jerusalem’s contested Mamilla Cemetery.

Ancestor Abdelrahman Dajani was mayor of Jerusalem from 1863 to 1882. His relation Aref Dajani was mayor 1917-18. Mohammed Dajani’s grandfather and namesake was a city councillor.

A copy of Suleiman’s 1529 declaration appointing the family guardians of David’s tomb hangs today in the Dajani home, in the Beit Hanina neighborhood of East Jerusalem.

Flight to Egypt

Mohammed Dajani was born in 1946 in Jerusalem’s German Colony, which at the time was mostly Arab. The area on Hatzfira Street, where his extended family lived, was known before the 1948 war as “the Dajani neighborhood,” says Jerusalem historian and architect David Kroyanker.

In 1948, as Jewish forces started to overrun the Arab neighborhoods there, Dajani’s immediate family fled to Egypt, intending to return after the war. But the Dajani houses, like other Arab properties, were confiscated by the state as “absentee property.”

Dajani’s family returned in 1949 to live in Jerusalem’s Old City ‏(then under Jordanian rule‏). When Dajani’s grandmother applied for a refugee card to get food and supplies, Dajani’s grandfather ripped it up, shouting, “We are not refugees − Jerusalem is our home.”

Against this backdrop, Mohammed became a student leader in the secular Fatah movement in 1967, while studying at the American University of Beirut. He also did PR work for Fatah in Lebanon. In 1975, Lebanese authorities deported him to Syria for his political activism.

Dajani ended his association with Fatah. Over the years, he went on to pursue degrees in economics, government and political science in the United States and later taught in Jordan. In 1993 − 25 years after Israel had revoked his Jerusalem residency because of his Fatah affiliation − Dajani got permission to return home on a family reunification visa. Back in Jerusalem, Dajani taught political science and advised the Palestinian Authority on government-building.

Change of heart

Three turning points led him to redefine himself as a peace activist. The first came in 1993, when he witnessed how Hadassah University Hospital doctors treated his father and other Arab patients the same as they treated Jewish patients. “It was the first time I started to look at Israelis in the human dimension,” he says.

Previously, he had always seen Israelis as soldiers, terrorists, occupiers, and land and property thieves, he explains. Months after his father’s death, in 1995, his mother lost consciousness during an asthma attack while visiting Tel Aviv, and, again, he witnessed Jewish-Israeli doctors, as well as soldiers, trying to help save an Arab life.

Dajani never stopped being against occupation or for Palestinian rights, but – even though the Israelis were unable to save his mother – he stopped seeing all Israelis as the enemy. He became involved with many interfaith and joint Israeli-Palestinian programs.

During Ramadan in 2006, watching Israeli soldiers prevent hundreds of Palestinians from crossing the checkpoint near his house on their way to visit the Al-Aqsa mosque, he was surprised. Instead of the usual tear gas and riots, the soldiers and Palestinians reached a compromise for both sides through spontaneous negotiations. The Palestinians agreed to leave their ID cards with the soldiers and the army agreed to transport them in buses to the mosque and back.

In that moment, Dajani had his final epiphany: Palestinian moderates had no leader.

Within months, Dajani founded Wasatia and published its guiding principles and positions in Arabic and English. He cited the Koran on issues of peace, forgiveness, freedom of faith, equality and the like, but he also made reference to the traditions of Judaism, Christianity and other communities, in an effort to show commonalities.

Today, Palestinian groups like Hamas and Fatah recruit through schools and mosques, former prisoners and government ministers, so Dajani tries to do the same. He also reaches out to women.

The movement remains small, however. Palestinian political pollster Khalil Shikaki told Haaretz that he didn’t know about Wasatia, and didn’t think the time was ripe for small, independent parties to succeed.

In Dajani’s home office, books in English and Arabic by such figures as the Dalai Lama and Albert Einstein line the shelves, interspersed with Islamic, Jewish and Christian literature and works of history.

The seeds are being planted for Wasatia to grow into a political party, but the going is slow, Dajani acknowledges. “Some people say I’m a one-man crusade, but it’s not true,” he says. “It may not be in my lifetime, but I believe that one day Wasatia will be the ruling party in Palestine.”

Lauren Gelfond Feldinger
Lauren Gelfond Feldinger