Many Palestinians link what happened to the Jews during World War II with the Nakba, the Arabic word for “disaster” and the term Palestinians use to describe the events of 1948, which led to their dispossession and the flight of hundreds of thousands of refugees. But those who argue that we Palestinians should close our eyes to the reality of the Holocaust because it was the cause of our national tragedy are wrong. They know nothing about Zionist history, from the First Zionist Conference in Basel, Switzerland, in 1897, to Britain’s Balfour Declaration calling for the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine in 1917, through the British mandate in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s. And those who argue, as student-critics of our trip wrote on Facebook, that the injustice Palestinians currently face is of the same magnitude as what happened to Jews in Nazi-controlled Europe are wrong, too. However degrading and unfair our situation in Palestine is today—and yes, it is degrading and unfair—it pales in comparison to the dehumanizing horror, depravity, and evil conceived and implemented by Nazis and their collaborators.
When my fellow Palestinian travelers talk among themselves and with friends and family about the accusation that they “sold out to the Jews” by visiting Auschwitz, they tend to cite their love for their country, noting that their travel makes them no less patriotic or nationalistic than their critics. Although the public outcry has silenced most of them, they all went to Auschwitz out of the belief that deepening their knowledge of the Holocaust could help pave the road to peace. Not only did they choose to reject ignorance, but they displayed remarkable moral courage by choosing to respect the past suffering of “the other.”
Our experience reminds me of Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave.” The great philosopher asks you to imagine that you have been imprisoned all your life in a dark cave, with your hands and feet shackled and your head restrained so that you can only look at the wall in front of you. Behind you is a blazing fire, and between you and the fire there is a walkway where others move back and forth. The shadows cast on the wall by those objects are the only things you see. Those shadows become your reality. Suppose you are released from your shackles and freed to walk around the cave. Dazzled at first by the fire, you would gradually come to understand the origin of the shadows that you thought were real. Finally, you are allowed out of the cave and into the sunlit world, where you see the fullness of reality. But if you go back to the cave and tell others what you saw, will they believe you? No, they will condemn you. That is what happened to us, the Palestinian students who dared to visit Auschwitz. We simply left the cave.
Some of Professor Dajani’s colleagues believe this entire exercise has been a curse, given the attacks and criticism we have suffered since we returned home. Yet Professor Dajani, the eternal optimist, sees only a blessing in what we have done. We have opened a crack in the wall of ignorance. We have made Palestinians talk publicly about a topic that was once taboo.