Two Unique Views of Israel
On Monday evening, after two and a half days of back-to-back lectures, panels, workshops and children’s activities, Limmud Oz 2015 came to a close. Though the major Jewish conference was founded in Britain in 1980, its model is now used by communities around the world. Each has its own flavor, depending on the location, but the idea behind the endeavor is basically the same: to gather Jews from all walks of life, levels of religious observance and political orientation and learn from one another.
I had the good fortune to be invited to this year’s event in Sydney, Australia — hosted by the Shalom Institute at the University of New South Wales — to present my perspective on the Israeli elections, the framework for the Iranian nuclear deal, Zionism, anti-Semitism and aliyah. This gave me the opportunity, in between my own sessions, to attend those of other lecturers and panelists.
Though there were many fascinating talks from which to choose, and just as many interesting presenters, two are worthy of particular note: Palestinian Professor Mohammed Dajani and Vic Alhadeff, chief executive officer of the New South Wales Jewish Board of Deputies.
Dajani, born in Jerusalem to secular Muslim parents, was educated in English-speaking Quaker-run schools and ended up studying at the American University in Beirut. It was there that he joined Fatah and went to work in the English-language public relations department of the Palestine Liberation Organization. Do to this affiliation, he was deported from Lebanon and banned from Israel. He then continued his studies in the United States, completing a Ph.D. in government from the University of South Carolina and another doctorate in political economy from the University of Texas. In 1993, his father was able to get him permission to return to Jerusalem.
Certain experiences having to do with his parents caused Dajani to rethink his position on Israel. “I became confused about my enemy, who did their best to help my father and my mother,” he wrote. “I started to see the other side of my enemy, which is the human side.”
In 1999, he led a program in Turkey for Israeli and Palestinian religious leaders. From this, he developed a conflict-resolution model called “Big Dream, Small Hope,” which would eventually be the basis for the Wasatia (“moderation”) organization he co-founded with his brother in 2007, to promote nonviolence and compromise.
In 2001, he joined the faculty of Al-Quds University in east Jerusalem, where he established its American Studies Institute.
In 2012, he co-authored “Holocaust Human Agony: Is there a way out of violence?” This is the only book of its type in Arabic.
Last year in March, as part of his organization’s efforts to teach Palestinian and Israeli students about the “suffering that has helped shape the historical consciousness of the other side,” Dajani participated in a joint program with Friedrich Schiller University in Germany and Israel’s Ben-Gurion University to educate the younger generation on both sides of the conflict. As part of the project, Dajani escorted a group of 27 students from Al-Quds University to visit the Nazi death camps at Auschwitz, while the Israeli students were taken to the Deheisheh refugee camp near Bethlehem.
As soon as word got out about Dajani’s trip, the faculty of Al-Quds University expelled him from its union, and the administration looked the other way. Dajani was basically forced to resign that summer. A few months later, in January of this year, his car was set on fire in front of his Jerusalem home, apparently by Palestinians who viewed him as a traitor and a “collaborator” with Israel.
In the meantime, however, Dajani’s work has gained him acclaim in Israel and abroad. Currently a Weston Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Studies, he is invited to speak at various events and to promote his moderate-Islam agenda. It is for this, as well, that he was invited to Limmud, where he was treated like a rock star. His sessions were packed and everyone wanted to shake his hand, thank him for his bravery and ask him about the chance for peace in the Middle East.
Vic Alhadeff is a Jew who grew up in South Africa, where he eventually became chief sub editor of the Cape Times. After a two-year stint in Israel, he moved to Australia and became the editor of the Australian Jewish News in 1996.
A strong supporter of Israel, Alhadeff is also a believer in multiculturalism and harmony. This led to his being appointed chairman of the Community Relations Commission of the New South Wales government, a role he fulfilled with great purpose. In it, he cultivated close ties between the Jewish and Muslim communities, fostering cooperation and understanding.
Nevertheless, like Dajani, Aldaheff found himself on the wrong side of the “right” politics. He was forced to resign his post last summer — during Operation Protective Edge in Gaza — when he called Hamas a terrorist organization that was committing war crimes, and simultaneously defended Israel for making every effort to avoid civilian casualties in a military confrontation it neither wanted nor initiated. Arab groups, among them “moderates,” went ballistic. Because he told the truth — one that any moderate of any ethnicity should welcome — he was finished in his role as gap-bridger.
This should come as no surprise to any serious observer.
Even Dajani, whose activities on behalf of moderation and peace put him in jeopardy, had no problem referring to “extremists on both sides,” and likening Hamas to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new government during a panel he and I shared at Limmud.
If Dajani is a shining example of a Mideast Muslim going out on a limb for peace — and Aldaheff’s Muslim friends in Australia were angered by (or silent about) his opposition to terrorism — there is no room for optimism in the near future.
Ruthie Blum is the web editor of Voice of Israel talk radio (voiceofisrael.com). This article was originally published by Israel Hayom.