A visit by Palestinian students to Nazi death camps has stirred controversy among Palestinians, with some condemning it as a form of "normalization" with Israel.
Some 30 Palestinian students from Al-Quds University and Bir Zeit University in the West Bank arrived at Auschwitz-Birkenau last week to learn about the Holocaust.
The visit is being led by Mohammed Dajani, professor of American Studies at Al-Quds University, who also heads the Wasatia movement of moderate Islam.
The visit to the Nazi camps has angered some Palestinians, prompting Al-Quds University to distance itself from the tour. The university and its outgoing president, Sari Nusseibeh, had often been criticized for promoting "normalization" with Israel.
In a statement, Al-Quds University announced that it had nothing to do with the Auschwitz-Birkenau visit.
The university said that this was a private visit by Professor Dajani and the students. "They do not represent the university," the statement said. "Professor Dajani is on leave and was not entrusted by the university [to arrange the visit]."
Mohammed Dajani, professor of American Studies at Al-Quds University (left), and outgoing president of the university, Sari Nusseibeh. (Image sources: Dajani - Presidential Conference YouTube video; Nusseibeh - Wikimedia Commons)
Al-Quds University went on to emphasize that it remains committed to a 2009 decision by its administration to cut off all ties with Israeli universities.
The Palestinian students travelled to the Nazi death camps as part of a joint program on "Reconciliation and Conflict Resolution" with the Friedrich Schiller University in Jena, Germany, and Ben-Gurion University in the Negev.
As soon as "anti-normalization" activists learned about the visit, they launched a scathing attack on the professor and students on social media.
"I don't understand how the [Palestinian] students accept normalization [with Israel]," wrote a Palestinian journalist from Ramallah on his Facebook page. "This professor is the king of kings of normalization."
The leading Palestinian daily, Al-Quds, which reported about the controversial visit, triggered a debate among readers about the effectiveness of such tours.
The paper later had to delete some reader responses that accused the professor of treason and collaboration.
One reader commented, "The visit should be seen in the context of attempts to scrap the Palestinians' history and culture. Suspicious Western parties believe that there is a need to change the Palestinians' mentality not through politics, but by brainwashing generations and teaching them big lies and fabrications such as the Holocaust and the suffering of Jews so that they would accept the theft of their land."
Another reader remarked, "Our enmity is not with the Jews and no one can accuse us of being anti-Semites. Our enmity is with the Zionists who usurped our land. But can anyone deny that the Zionists exploit what happened to the Jews in Germany and elsewhere to justify what they did in Palestine and seek the world's sympathy?" Finally, some of us have joined the chorus of weepers."
But there is also good news. Many readers came to the defense of Professor Dajani and the students who visited the Nazi camps to learn about the Holocaust.
Responding to the criticism, one reader wrote, "Frankly, these responses are theatrical. Academics went on a tour and that's all. There's no need to politicize an insignificant visit."
Another reader who voiced support for the visit said, "We have politicized everything expect for the embezzlement of public funds. Is it okay to steal millions of dollars from the people and not okay to have an academic study mission?"
Palestinian columnist Abdullah Dweikat expressed regret over the visit and called on Palestinian academics to stop the "pilgrimage" to Nazi death camps. "I felt pain over the visit by Palestinian university students to Auschwitz-Birkenau," he wrote. "Yes we are human beings who reject genocide. But our humanity rejects any attempt to bypass the suffering of our people, who are being slaughtered every day at the hands of the occupiers. Wouldn't it have been better had our professors and students visited Yarmouk refugee camp [in Syria] or refugee camps in Lebanon to see the real suffering?"
The Palestinian Authority [PA] has neither endorsed nor opposed the visit to the Nazi death camps. The PA leadership is obviously afraid of being part of the controversy that has risen over the visit.
Hamas, on the other hand, has expressed strong opposition to teaching about the Holocaust in Gaza Strip schools run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency [UNRWA].
Hamas said that teaching the Holocaust was a "crime against Palestinians."
It now remains to be seen if Professor Dajani and his students will be punished upon their return to the West Bank for daring to "sympathize" with the suffering of Jews.