His family was forced to leave their stately Jerusalem home during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. Following the example set by his grandfather, who ripped up the refugee card given to his wife, Mr. Dajani has refused to label himself a refugee: “We are citizens and human beings and we have to earn our way,” he says.
But as a young man he saw no other solution than taking back all of historic Palestine from the Israelis.
“I believed that it was us or them and that the only solution was to liberate our land,” he says. “And if we did not have the power to do that, we should do what Samson did and bring down the temple on everyone’s head,” he says, referring to the biblical story of a Hebrew prisoner who killed 3,000 people, including himself, when he removed the central pillars of a Philistine temple.
After that, however, he went to the US to get a PhD; getting some distance from the conflict changed his outlook dramatically and he began working for peace.
Those efforts crystallized into a new initiative after he witnessed a standoff at an Israeli checkpoint near his home. Palestinians who wanted to pray in Jerusalem amassed at the checkpoint, but Israeli guards initially refused to let them pass. Eventually they worked out a deal – the Palestinians were allowed to pass in exchange for leaving their essentially indispensable identification cards at the checkpoint, virtually guaranteeing they would return.
The 2006 incident showed him that despite the strong feelings and distrust on both sides, there is also pragmatism, and convinced him there was a need to a middle path for Palestinians who were devout and committed to pressing for their rights, but also willing to negotiate.
“They [were] not jihadi Islamic guys … because those people would have refused to negotiate with Israelis,” he says. “They were able to negotiate their way to go to Jerusalem, and to convince Israelis that they are not there to put bombs, that they are just going there to pray.”
“And the Israelis, because of the multitudes and the pressure and all that, instead of dealing with it with force, dealt with it more with the mind, with rationality,” he adds.
“Who represents those people? No one. So I started Wasatia.”
The movement, founded in early 2007 and named after a Quranic term for “moderation” or “balance,” aims to give a voice to what Dajani considers a majority of Palestinians who want to work for statehood through nonviolent means but get drowned out by increasing radicalization on both sides. It hasn’t gathered a lot of momentum; he has difficulty obtaining grants for his work, and he has been maligned by more religious Muslims who chafe at his ideas of moderation.
But his faith that the conflict will be solved remains strong and is perhaps best symbolized by the chess sets at the center of his Wasatia office and his classroom. He provides them, he says, to cultivate a skill he considers crucial to resolving the conflict: rationality.
“That’s why I feel that this problem will be solved … that rationality will prevail in the end,” he says. “It is stupidity to kill each other.”