‘Dam’ – the word for blood in both Arabic and Hebrew is the same. Posters of faces, photo shopped to be half-Muslim and half-Jewish, and underlined with this word, went up in select places all over Berlin. The idea was simple: we bleed the same, we look the same – and while politicians and politics will continue to create chasms between the two groups, initiatives must be taken to bridge these gaps on an individual level.
This experiment was just one of the many experiences and elements of the Muslim-Jewish Conference 2016, a yearly event organised by a select group of individuals to bring people from dozens of countries together and discuss grievances, build bridges and perhaps do a little bit of healing. This year, the MJC was held in Berlin, Germany. Participants arrived for a weeklong engagement in August, with peers and counterparts, and stayed together at the same premises. They were then divided into several thematic committees, and the committees convened several times over the course of the week. I was in a committee titled “Us vs. Them: Encountering Marginalisation”, which was structured to address intolerance and oppression against both Jewish and Muslim communities in the world, across time. Another committee discussed the Israel-Palestine issue, with participants that hailed from all over the world, including Israel and Palestine. Other examples included ‘Conflict Transformation’, ‘Historical Narratives and Identity’, and ‘Power, Religion and Human Rights’.
On Muslim extremism, it is easy to argue that other religions also committed atrocities, but that is a lazy response
The committees excelled in creating safe spaces for people to speak their mind and ask the questions from the other side that bothered them the most. It would be an understatement to say that this resulted in some very difficult conversations. For example, certain Muslims in my group felt that the Jewish community was not fully cognizant of the fact that anti-Muslim bigotry is at an all-time high in the world, and that comparisons with anti-Semitism were frowned upon. During proceedings in the third day, I steeled myself and said the following: “Now what if I said I don’t like Jews? What if I said that Jews are the scum of the earth, that I do not want any Jews in Pakistan, and that any existing Jews in Pakistan should be deported, interned, or heavily monitored and interrogated to ensure they are not up to something? That is a hurtful sentiment, it is blinkered, it is dangerous and we have already seen it escalate to one of the most devastating events in human history, the Holocaust. Now take this scenario, and replace Pakistan with the US, the Jews with Muslims and me with Trump. This is what is happening. This is how it begins.” The reaction to this statement morphed from shock to realisation and finally to resolve.
Alma Karen, a linguistics student from Netherlands, asked one of the toughest questions. “I understand that groups like ISIS use Islam and twist it to suit their own narrative. I also understand that this is wrong, and that they are a violent, vocal minority. But what I don’t understand is this: why is Islam is the only religion in the world that is often susceptible to such violent interpretations?” It is difficult query, and it is easy to recede into one’s shell and offer arguments claiming that other religions have also committed atrocities in the name of their respective gods, but that is a lazy response. The actual answer, it turned out, eluded us all, and will perhaps require some significant introspection and study of the circumstances that leads to extremism in Muslim communities. I offered one response, stating that Muslim states, owing to terrible governance, nepotism, dynastic politics and unending greed had failed their people. In a place like Pakistan, a lack of (good) education and a lack of job opportunities sow the seeds of discontent in the public, particularly the youth. The extremist element relishes in this fertile ground, and capitalises on this sentiment to advance their agenda and recruitment.
Sachsenhausen in Nazi Germany served as a hub where the latest techniques of committing murder were pilot tested
Sana Khalid, one of the members of the staff from MJC, shared her personal struggle to help a young Tunisian Muslim male attendee. He felt hopeless and helpless, thinking that his opinion and worldview would not matter at the MJC, and that the Jewish voice/agenda would quickly curb anything he had to add. He felt like he did not belong, and that his age (21) would be a massive barrier as everyone else seems well-accomplished and much older. By the end of the conference, he had gone through catharsis, found his happy place, connected with both Muslims and Jews and gained immense confidence. Sana recalls the moment, beaming with pride, “That, for me, was why we do this. To bring people out of their shells, out of their comfort zones, to make them face the demons they think cannot be overcome. To make them meet the ‘enemy’ and to understand the plurality of perspectives.”
While the conference strived strenuously to bring people together, and provide context for why it is important to fight intolerance together, irrespective of the target or the source, recent attacks in Germany also resulted in security precautions for the conference. Attendees were asked not to geo-tag photos, or identify their location during the conference. Almost all activity was organised inside the hotel to ensure everyone stayed indoors.
Towards the end of the conference, as is tradition for the MJC, we were taken to Sachsenhausen, a few kilometers north of Berlin, Germany, in a small town called Oraneinburg. Sachsenhausen was one of the largest concentration camps in Nazi Germany, and served as the hub where the latest techniques and methods of committing murder were pilot tested, before being exported to other camps in Nazi-occupied territories.
Ordinary German citizens would place bread at the footsteps of their houses for prisoners to pick up, as they were marched from one form of death and indignity or another, resulting in countless lives saved at Sachsenhausen. The act of placing bread was as much an act of mercy as it was an act of disobedience and resilience. It showed, even at the height of the cruelty of the Nazi regime, that there were those who refused to turn a blind eye and refused to be enamored by the propaganda of the Nazi war machine. It showed that humanity can prevail even in the most trying of circumstances, and the direst of situations. Ultimately, though, it did little to save the more than 40,000 souls that were killed in Sachsenhausen.
At Sachsenhausen it is a strange sight, not just to see Muslims consoling Jews as they experience the sheer overwhelming presence of death and misery, but also to see Jews reach out to Muslims who feel overcome by emotion. Ilja Sichrovsky, the Founder and Secretary General of the Muslim Jewish Conference stood next to me at Sachsenhausen, tears in his eyes, looking over the massive field which housed the dozens of barracks where prisoners were crammed, starved, beaten, abused and killed. “When you meet a European Jew, or a Jew of European decent, you should know they are an exception. They are here because someone in their family beat the odds of the Holocaust, and somehow survived to start a family.” Nearly six million Jews were murdered during the Holocaust, which accounted for two-thirds of the Jewish population of Europe at the time.
Visiting Sachsenhausen, Muslims consoled Jews experiencing the overwhelming presence of death and misery. Jews also reached out to Muslims feeling overcome by emotion
Jack Gozcu, a mountain of a man with piercings and tattoos all over his imposing physique, is a Turkish Jew who recently went through the harrowing ordeal of witnessing the failed Turkish coup firsthand. “If you told me at the start of this conference that I would be crying like a baby at a concentration camp, and the first people who would reach out to me, console me and hold me to make me feel better would be Muslims, I would tell that you are out of your mind. And yet, that is exactly what happened today. The most comfort I found was in the embrace of my Muslim brothers and sisters.”
The trip to Sachsenhausen, as is tradition for the MJC, ended with a joint prayer by both religions, as people came together to mourn the departed, and just for a moment, allow themselves to feel paralysed by grief and fear. It is an oddly cathartic experience, one that shows you the stark capacity for violence and hatred human beings possess. Yet there is a sense of hope and purpose, in the stories of the residents of the surrounding town who tried to help in their own way, in the stories of how prisoners rallied and came to the defense of one another, in the stories of how prisoners exhibited defiance and perseverance in the face of certain death.
But perhaps the true antithesis of the devastating experience of Sachsenhausen was a presentation by the Arts and Culture committee during the closing ceremony. The performance elicited both tears and joyful hoots, and eventually brought people to their feet. The entire act was beautifully executed and masterfully directed, but the crème de la crème was a rendition of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, in Hebrew, by a French Muslim, Youssef Ben Soltane. It was an impeccable ending to a week filled with agonising questions, forging enduring friendships, blunt reminders of what unchecked hatred and prejudice results in, and purgative moments of introspection. It was a reminder that we have a lot more in common with the world than the issues over which we are at odds with it, and for many, it provided a renewed sense of purpose to march on, to fight prejudice in any and all forms and to continue to spread the message of a shared humanity.
Zeeshan Salahuddin is Senior Research Fellow and Director Communications and Strategy at the Center for Research and Security Studies, Islamabad