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Hussein Ibish

The knowledge constituency versus the ignorance lobby

The saga of Prof. Dajani is a subset of a broader Arab struggle between the forces of intelligence and stupidity

Professor Mohammed Dajani has resigned from his post at Al-Quds University following controversy over his leading of a Palestinian student delegation to Auschwitz

Chalk up another victory to the mighty Arab ignorance and stupidity brigade. Or should we?

Professor Mohammed S. Dajani Daoudi, who runs the Al-Quds University Department of American Studies and University Library has been allowed to resign his position following the uproar over a trip he led of Palestinian university students to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Some Palestinians, including some of his own university colleagues, attacked Prof. Dajani with a mishmash of incoherent and utterly irrational condemnations.

The whole saga has been most impressively chronicled by the redoubtable Matthew Kalman of the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz, whose latest report suggests that Prof. Dajani sought and received promises of support from the university leadership, only to have his resignation letter accepted rather than rejected. Presumably Al-Quds University just doesn't want to hear any more criticism and prefers to turn its back on the entire "controversy" rather than uphold academic freedom in its own institution.

Prof. Dajani told Mr. Kalman that he saw his letter of resignation as "a kind of litmus test to see whether the university administration supports academic freedom and freedom of action and of expression as they claim or not.” If this was indeed a test, they just got a resounding F.

But the whole squalid affair is redolent with Palestinian, and broader Arab, collective neurotic symptoms about others. What, after all, do Palestinians have to gain by insisting their students remain ignorant of the Holocaust? Prof. Dajani argued from the outset that it is essential to understand the Israeli mentality and the Jewish experiences, especially in Europe during the first half of the 20th century, that inform it. It's an unassailable argument.

Nonetheless, there are those, including professors, who, with a straight face, argue that Palestinians should only be taught, and by implication think, about their own Nakba.

Others tried to argue that the problem was not with the trip to Nazi death camps itself, but rather that Prof. Dajani's trip was coordinated with an Israeli university that took Jewish students to a Palestinian refugee camp in the West Bank.

 

Shock! Horror! Normalization! It's laughable.

 

There's little hope of Israelis and Palestinians improving their dreadful relationship without, among many other things, trying to understand each other's histories and narratives. That's hardly a panacea. Real coexistence can only emerge in the absence of occupation, and the structural relationship of dominance and subordination built into that profoundly unhealthy and abusive structure. But better mutual understanding may be an essential component of helping to end the occupation and the conflict.

Even if none of that's true, knowledge is, nonetheless, power. The constituency for keeping Palestinian students ignorant of certain facts, presumably because they present the truth about Jewish suffering in Europe during the 20th century and that this complicates the understanding of Jewish Israelis simply as oppressors in the occupied Palestinian territories, is a perfect example of the "stupidity lobby."

And it's not just restricted to Palestinians and their relationship to Jewish history and the Holocaust. There is a broader conflict throughout Arab culture between those who want to embrace the world, in all its complexity and challenges, versus those who want to crawl inside a warm cocoon of insularity. Relying on nostalgic fantasies about former periods of greatness, the broad Arab ignorance constituency is very powerful.

It includes not only Islamists and other religious dogmatists, including apolitical clerics, but also strident nationalists, leftists, fascists, and chauvinists of every possible variety. Among all of these groupings, as well as the important open-minded and globally-conscious constituencies that are most in favor of engaging the world, there are people who push back against insularity. But for the past century at least, the majority trend in the Arab world has been to try, insofar as possible, to shut out knowledge of and engagement with outsiders, except for commercial purposes.

Many Arabs seem to be suspicious of and hostile towards real knowledge of others (as opposed to myths and stereotypes, of course), and even more engagement with them. Too many of us just don't want to hear it. Those, like Prof. Dajani, who try to break through this curtain of insularity are frequently punished, or at least criticized, for their embrace of broader realities, some of which are uncomfortable and destabilize reassuring mythologies.

Prof. Dajani says he doesn't regret the turn of events. Why should he? He's done something noble and constructive, and he will continue to do so without the support of his former university, through many other venues such as his Wasatia movement. But he, and all those like him throughout the region who want to smash the shackles of decades of carefully cultivated ignorance and embrace history and reality in all its troublesome complexity, are pointing the way.


The whole Arab world is at a turning point. If it continues to allow the stupidity and ignorance lobby, in all its myriad forms, to insist on cultural insularity, chauvinism, and deafness to the outside world, it will remain utterly stuck and unable to successfully join and compete in a globalizing world. But if the intelligence and knowledge constituency, as embodied by Prof. Dajani and so many other important leading Arabs, succeed in turning their societies away from decades of enforced parochialism, they will be among the most important groups in building a better future for the Middle East.

The saga of Prof. Dajani, and the whole battle between the Arab ignorance versus knowledge constituencies, is far from over. My money is on the intelligence community ultimately defeating the stupidity brigade, but it's going to be an uphill struggle.

A brave man. (Image via Blogspot)

"Real coexistence can only emerge in the absence of occupation, and the structural relationship of dominance and subordination built into that profoundly unhealthy and abusive structure. But better mutual understanding may be an essential component of helping to end the occupation and the conflict."

  • philly.szteinbok

    I support and applaud Prof.Dajani's words views and effort. I hope that he will be successful. I wish him health and success !

    January 27, 2015

  • john.macarthur.10

    It won't happen. The "stupidity and ignorance" lobby exists not just in the minds of a few blinkered imams but in the very soul of Islam itself, where even moderates whether they'd care to admit it or not, are enslaved to the principle that the Qu'ran does their thinking for them. Which in educational terms translates into excellent rote-learners but poor critical thinkers.

    July 23, 2014

  • GungleGeorge

    If fact, if Mao, the puppet of the KGB, hadn't won the civil war, generations of Chinese whose lives were ruined by the communists would have experienced the liberation and wealth of freedom at the same time as their fellow Chinese in Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan did.

    June 14, 2014

  • Hanibaal-Atheos

    How about the French revolution? It was brutal, but it transformed France and catapulted it into modernity, democracy and prosperity.

    June 15, 2014

  • GungleGeorge

    Hanibaal Atheos couldn't be more wrong about China. Mao and communism was an evil and complete failure. The tiny enclaves of Chinese living in freedom - Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore - dwarfed Mainland China with wealth and creativity born peacefully that outstripped in real terms the output of the communist slave state. The contrast couldn't have been more stark, or more threatening to the criminal gang running the "animal farm" on the mainland. That's why they were forced to emulate their offshore brethren so as to forestall the collapse of their scam. Emulating the West was the fast track to progress.

    June 14, 2014

  • Hanibaal-Atheos

    So how do you propose, therefore, that 21 Arab countries reeling under autocrats, Islamists, and other varieties of dictatorships begin to emulate the West? The regimes won't emulate the West because they would lose their monopoly on power. The people can't emulate the West because the dictators won't let them.... So, any ideas other than pontificating on Maoism and communism and rehashing your "civilized" yet stale ideas?

    June 15, 2014

  • john.macarthur.10

    Monarchical exceptionalism rests on three pillars; Islam, tribalism and oil. They may all just have to wait until the third pillar collapses, in which case, the other two cannot stand alone.

    July 23, 2014

  • Jacob the aggressive watcher

    No Muslim , Shiite or sunni is willing to come to terms with the fact that Israel is here to stay. And they believe what once has been conquered by Islam must stay Islamic territory. Islam conquered most of today's territories by sword and not by conviction. Rarely Muslims do soul searching why they live in such a terrible state. Mostly because they never had a revolution to free themselves from the dictate of their belief. State and religion are one, unfortunately. It took a long time in Europe to overcome this. Going back to the beginning of Islam will by no means free the people. Freedom does not come by. One has to stand up for. One has even to be prepared to fight for the right of others to express their belief.

    June 14, 2014

  • Hanibaal-Atheos

    I seem to have tickled everyone's sordid fancy with the guillotine and images of decapitated people. Let me explain to the highly ethical and civilized: My reference to the guillotine was more a metaphor for the need for rapid revolutionary change, as opposed to an unlikely evolutionary one, in an Arab world mired in archaic and primitive mindsets and structures. I think the cultural revolution in Maoist China is the closest I can think of. Yes, of course, it was brutal, but in a manner of 20 years, the cultural revolution lifted China out of its medieval past and into the 20th century. Without the violent cultural revolution, China would not have attained (despite all its remaining shortcomings) its current prosperity. Sometimes, a patient has to take the bitter medicine or be cut open, in order to ensure survival and future good health.

    June 13, 2014

  • jeffrey.g.johnson.7

    You didn't tickle anything. You disgusted me. Your thinking is exactly like that of the totalitarian Islamists. The only difference is that you think you are right and they think they are right. The best ideas, if implemented by brutal expedience, will be corrupted and breed resentment that easily leads to failure. I don't see what the cultural revolution had to do with China's prosperity. It was a failed cul-de-sac on the way to simply unleashing people's creative ambitions. They could have gone to that directly and jettisoned the cultural revolution. The cultural revolution crippled China by punishing creative thinking intellectuals. It slowed progress.

    June 13, 2014

  • jeffrey.g.johnson.7

    Hanibaal Atheos Cutting off people's heads is certainly one way to change the way they think rather abruptly. But then you are just emulating the barbarians you rail against. Probably more patient yet actively focused approaches toward changing attitudes are a better bet for good outcomes.

    June 12, 2014

  • jan.litty

    Dear Hanibaal-Atheos, I am unable to understand that the conclusion you draw from this article is to decapitate other people. Do you have any constructive thoughts?

    June 12, 2014

  • Hanibaal-Atheos

    I think that the guillotine is a very constructive instrument. The French revolution was successful only because it sent to the guillotine and decapitated all the abusive elites of its time (nobility, clergy, etc.). Same thing with the cultural revolution in China and the American revolution as well. Political change by violence is, unfortunately, at least equally successful as slow evolutionary change. Sometimes you have to suspend puritanical well-behaved high-minded ethics (usually a luxury afforded by people like you as a result of previous violent change). Many of us cannot afford this luxury. While this is unfortunate in a way, the guillotine ensured the success of the French revolution on the long run. The elites of the Arab world are so entrenched and powerful that I see no way of making progress without a violent overturn of the existing tribal, feudal, and religious order that governs the Arab world today. Is that constructive enough for you?

    June 12, 2014

  • david.zohar.165

    As an Israeli citizen of Jerusalem I salute my brave neighbour Professor Dajani David Zohar

    June 11, 2014

  • Hanibaal-Atheos

    Thank you, Mr. Ibish. An entire century - and perhaps Palestine itself - were lost because of chauvinistic stupidity that is sadly promoted by the so-called elites in the Arab world. We had hoped that the revolutions of recent times will begin to dismantle the entrenched and barricaded feudal, tribal, religious, and mercantile Arab elites that continue to rule over our lives like medieval lords over serfs, and that occasionally parade themselves as "intellectuals" and university professors, but this is one gigantic ship that will take centuries to make a turn. I sometimes pray for a French-style revolution with guillotines in every Tahrir and Martyr Squares of the Arab capitals to decapitate every sheikh, bek, effendi, rayiss, and basha, and with them the pseudo-intellectuals who want to keep us, the lowly ordinary Arabs, in our ignorance so they can more easily lead us further into this gloriously murderous Arab and Islamic nationalism in which we have been wading since the fall of the Ottoman Empire.

    June 11, 2014