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How interfaith groups are combating the rise in anti-Semitism
Mark Kellner Desert News
May 15, 2015

 

The rise in anti-Semitism, highlighted by murderous attacks on Jewish targets in Paris and Copenhagen earlier this year, suggests a looming concern on the global stage, and a conflict between elements of radical Islam and Jewish people. But in several corners of the world, Jews and Muslims are working together to combat the scourge, and those involved say they're seeing positive results:

-- On the afternoon of April 19, at the King Fahad Mosque on the west side of Los Angeles, dozens of Muslims gathered for a "multi-faith harmony program" that featured Jewish and Muslim "reflections" of Passover, the Jewish holy day celebrating the Exodus. Among speakers at the program was William Harvey, a 91-year-old Jewish survivor of the Nazi-led Holocaust.

-- In Israel, where 1.4 million Arabs comprise 20 percent of the population, Muslims and Jews are sitting down regularly in small group discussions organized by the Interfaith Encounter Association, or IEA, sharing experiences and gaining an understanding of one another's lives. Association officials say the discussions help combat anti-Jewish feelings among some Muslims residing in Israel, and claim that if more of the 11 million people who live in the region can be encouraged to participate in such groups, "we can expect to see overall change" in attitudes and, perhaps, a move towards peace, as founder Yehuda Stolov, an Israeli academic, put it.

-- And in Turkey, Morocco, the Persian Gulf and Iran, a French-based group called the Aladdin Project is broadcasting Arabic-, Turkish- and Persian-language versions of a landmark 10-hour documentary, "Shoah," to help combat Holocaust-denial in the region. According to executive director Abe Radkin, the effort was so successful that Iran's official news agency published a lengthy report claiming the group was a Zionist front.

These admittedly modest interfaith efforts, bringing Jews and Muslims together, may seem inconsequential. But a key observer said such measures are essential to building understanding in the face of a global problem.

"The majority of anti-Semites in the world happen to be non-Jews," said Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, director of interfaith affairs for the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles. "Looking purely at anti-Semitism, (if we) want them to regard it as a social malady and a moral wrong and even as a threat to the fabric of society, it's non-Jews who have to be convinced."

Fifty years after the Roman Catholic Church's "Nostra Aetate," in which Pope Paul VI declared Christ's crucifixion "cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today" opened the way for reconciliation between Christians and Jews. It is through outreach to the general Muslim population that advocates believe another potential pool of anti-Semitism can be drained.

The issue of anti-Semitism is, clearly, a troubling subject for many Muslims as well as for Jews. In its 2014 Global 100 survey, the Anti-Defamation League found that 200 million people, or 74 percent of the population in the Middle East and North Africa, agreed with enough anti-Jewish statements in a survey to be considered anti-Semitic. At the same time, anti-Semitism is not limited to Muslims or to the Middle East. The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg noted this year that, "In Greece, a recent survey found that 69 percent of adults hold anti-Semitic views, and the fascists of the country’s Golden Dawn party are open in their Jew-hatred."

In March, the Pew Research Center reported harassment of Jews "reached a seven-year high" in 77 countries around the world during 2013, long before this year's attacks in Paris and Copenhagen. The 2014 National Demographic Survey of American Jewish College Students, conducted by Trinity University and the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights, found that 54 percent of those surveyed said they'd either witnessed or received anti-Semitic attacks on campus.

Several Muslim scholars note that anti-Semitism is not an Islamic imperative. Ebrahim Moosa, a professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Notre Dame, said Islam teaches its followers to judge people's behavior as individuals, and not assign responsibility based on group affiliation.

"To collectively express hatred for Jews is not only illogical and immoral, but is a form of extreme bigotry," Moosa said. "Those who engage in anti-Semitism are violating Qur’anic teachings and the practice of Islamic teachings, per se."

Mehnaz M. Afridi, an assistant professor in the religious studies department at Manhattan College in Riverdale, New York, agreed, saying, "Islam does not sanction anti-Semitism."

Noting that many of the anti-Semitic attacks in France, Sweden and other European countries are traced back to radicalized young Muslim immigrants, Afridi said, "It comes from being marginalized, a whole historical context of an immigrant community being marginalized."

Dialogue and understanding are vital to stemming the tide of anti-Semitism, Rabbi Adlerstein said. "The interfaith alliances … are crucial," he declared.

Mosque's Passover program

It's four miles from the sands of Venice Beach, a 15 minute drive down Washington Boulevard, to the Culver City location of the King Fahad Mosque. Built with funds from the late Saudi Arabian monarch, the structure has stood as an Islamic beacon in the area since its 1998 opening. The building's marble façade comes from Turkey, its 72-foot tall minaret is topped with gold leaf.

A Muslim worship center may seem an unlikely place to hold a program explaining the Jewish festival of Passover, but one took place at the mosque, nonetheless. Mahomed A. Khan, a filmmaker and director of interfaith activities at the mosque, initiated the event to show his co-religionists the centrality of Moses in the two faiths.

"One thing (Muslims and Jews) share in common is the story of Moses. Moses is mentioned more in the Koran than any other prophet," Khan explained. "In the Jewish community, there is the holiday and spiritual celebrations around the Exodus and story of Moses; in the Koran, there are the divine miracles of Moses before Pharaoh."

Speakers at the April 19 Passover program at the mosque included rabbis as well as laypersons and provided the Muslim youth attending an insight into another faith, Khan said.

The event "made an impact on the next generation," Khan said, adding that the dialogue "bridges the gap, demystifies, (and) eliminates polarization through politics. We'll follow up with more programs down the road."

Khan said the discussions didn't shy away from the issue of anti-Semitism, not with the presence of Harvey, a survivor of the Shoah, the Hebrew word used for Holocaust, who told his story and related it to the Jewish observance of the Passover.

"It's easy to be anti-Semitic, or anti-anything, if you don't communicate with other people," Khan said. "If Muslims see how much affection Jewish people have for the life of Moses and celebrating what happened through the Exodus and how they institutionalize it in the Passover, that addresses anti-Semitism."

One of the young adults at the event, teenager Nina Chaudry, said the understanding of common roots is important.

Speaking at the mosque event, she said, "I wonder, which part of our shared history do we want to use as our guide to the future? The part that steers us to presume the worst stereotypes about each other or the part that shows how much we can benefit humanity through our mutual cooperation."

According to Los Angeles police officer Shawn Alexander, a Muslim who specializes in community outreach, the event had an impact for him about understanding other people and their faiths. "They’re people, they’re human, (they) want the same things we want: practice their religion, provide for their people and enjoy life," he said, noting, "The Muslim and Jewish community here in Los Angeles have a long history of working together."

That cooperation, the Wiesenthal Center's Adlerstein admits, is often clouded by the politics of the moment. He attended the mosque event and said such exchanges are vital.

"There is a reluctance, sometimes among Jewish groups, to deal with Muslim groups they don't know very well," Adlerstein said. "Lots of Muslims understand their future is tied to the well-being of a democratic society and there are expectations of how you deal with your neighbor in fitting in with such a society."

The mosque program may be a first for the Los Angeles area, but it's not the only one in the U.S. that involves Muslims and Jews. Manhattan College professor Afridi, a Muslim, organized a Passover seder at a nearby Orthodox Jewish synagogue that included "three Catholic students, a Muslim, three Yeshiva students and three Holocaust survivors." She hopes this will be a continuing, annual event.

Person to person

Salah Aladdin, a 37-year-old Muslim accountant in Jerusalem, might not be the kind of individual you imagine as a symbol of the fight against anti-Semitism. But Aladdin’s life experience since becoming involved with the IEA, the group Yehuda Stolov founded, tells a different story.

Thirteen years ago, at age 24, Aladdin said he was "fed up with politics that went nowhere." It was the time of the Second Intifada, a Palestinian-led protest which had begun two years earlier, just months after the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States. The world was far from being a happy place and Aladdin's country reflected the global discord.

"A friend of mine told me there is a new group of interfaith dialogues between Muslims and Christians and Jews and asked if I was interested in getting involved," Aladdin said. "I went to the first meeting," he added. He is still involved with the group that sponsors such discussion groups around the country. Approximately 1,000 people a year attend such groups which are held monthly, though numbers vary, he said.

It was the similarities between Muslims and Jews, not the differences, that spoke to Aladdin as his discussions and understanding progressed.

Aladdin said he's continually amazed there are more similarities than differences between Muslims and Jews. "Things are very much identical not only in religion, but also in traditional behavior that is not religious, social behavior," he said.

Aladdin has done more than attend the sessions, he's now the number two official in the Interfaith Encounter Association and is working to expand the ranks of those who are sharing life experiences. When Jewish and Muslim parents sit together and talk about shared experiences, it becomes more difficult to hate each other.

"If we can take these encounters and put them in a system or methodology of interfaith dialogue, expose your feelings and beliefs … people connect with that," he said. "The hatred, the anti-Semitism, would diminish, and we see that, we feel that, we have it all the time in our encounters."

Books, films communicate

While many people laud the efforts of the Paris-based Aladdin Project (no relation to the IEA's Aladdin) which bills itself as building "bridges of knowledge" between Muslim and Jewish communities, the 10-year-old venture has one major critic: the Islamic Republic of Iran.

That's not surprising, Executive Director Abe Radkin said in a telephone interview. The Iranian governmental news agency FARS said the project's efforts were "a significant initiative by International Zionism to woo the Muslims of the Middle East."

Radkin says the effort is not to "woo," but to demonstrate that the Nazi-era Holocaust actually happened and to educate Muslims about its impact.

"When we started in 2009, we did a simple test and had our experts Google 'Holocaust' in Arabic, Farsi and Turkish. In Arabic and Farsi, the first 20 pages of Google (results) were 99 percent sites that denied the Holocaust in one way or another."

The group, whose funding comes from the French government, private foundations and companies such as France's Total petroleum corporation, has a youth leadership training program with branches at 35 universities, including New York University, Al-Quds University in the Palestinian Territories, as well as Bogazici and Bahçesehir Universities in Turkey, Radkin said. Publication of a series of books about the history of Muslim-Jewish relations in countries such as Morocco, Turkey, Iran and Iraq are planned, he added, along with a book for training Islamic religious leaders about interfaith understanding.

That volume, Radkin said, would be "co-written by a panel of high level religious leaders from three monotheistic religions; knowing the religion of thy neighbor." The volume's intention is to "counter" the anti-Jewish training found in some Islamic madrassas, or schools, he said. Moreover, the Aladdin Project leadership has diligently worked to enlist the support of thought leaders in the Muslim world, making it a true interfaith endeavor.

"One thing that has been important in our work, is that we have been very mindful from the beginning (that) this effort needs to have Muslims on board," he explained. "We've really been trying not only to get Muslim leaders, but also people at the university level, teachers and opinion makers across the Muslim world, and that's a key part of our efforts."

Perhaps the most ambitious — and effective — voice of the project is the translation of Anne Frank's diary as well as other books such as Primo Levi's Survival in Auschwitz. The books can be downloaded from the group's website as well as picked up at various book fairs "from Casablanca to Baghdad," Radkin said.

Another accomplishment, the one that earned Iran's official opprobrium, is the translation and broadcast of Claude Lanzmann's 10-hour 1985 documentary, Shoah, into Turkish, Arabic and Farsi. The film has been aired in Turkey and via satellite into Iran. "We had ten million viewers, with thousands of comments on social media," Radkin said.

The goal, he noted, is to "bring on board as many Muslims as possible, and counter radicalism, anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial."

If that happens, the Wiesenthal Center's Adlerstein said, it would be a positive development. "There's no question that this would be welcomed by large swaths of both communities."

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Over 50% of Jewish American college students report that they experienced or witnessed anti-Semitism on their campuses during the 2013-2014 academic year. The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights has announced that campus anti-Semitism “is a serious problem which warrants further attention.” Campus anti-Semitism can include subjecting Jewish students to different treatment, harassment, violence or a hostile environment. In some cases, campus anti-Semitism is related to anti-Israel sentiment. In other cases, it is not. For most purposes, we define anti-Semitism according to the U.S. Department of State definition of anti-Semitism. .
 
 
 
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Neal M. Sher, Esq.
Neal M. Sher is founder of the Law Offices of Neal M. Sher and Of Counsel to Simon & Partners, LLP, where he specializes in litigation and government relations.
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