NEW YORK — At a time when Judaeophobia — a more accurate term than anti-Semitism in the context of Israeli-Arab or Jewish-Muslim relations — is on a stark upswing in the Arab street, it is important for us to pay tribute to the efforts of the handful of Jewish and Muslim leaders who are fighting against hatred and extremism on both sides of the chasm that separates the respective descendants of Isaac and Ishmael. Hardliners have long dismissed as naïve and utopian those Israelis and Palestinians who try to find common ground against the ongoing cycle of suicide bombings and rocket attacks followed by military reprisals.
They have a point. The shrill, hate-filled voices of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his ilk continue to dominate the airwaves and shape the debate. Each time Ahmadinejad repeats his canard that the Holocaust is a “lie” and a “myth” purportedly invented by Western leaders to justify the creation of the State of Israel, we retreat to our ideological bunkers and reconcile ourselves to the disquieting probability that any perceived light at the end of the tunnel may well be a freight train heading straight at us.
Still, a consensus appears to be growing that dialogue with Israel’s sworn enemies may be inevitable. Shaul Mofaz, the former chief of staff of the Israel Armed Forces and Likud defense minister (now the second-in-command of the centrist Kadima Party) has not only presented an accelerated plan for Palestinian statehood but is prepared to negotiate with Hamas “if Hamas chooses and wants to sit at the negotiating table.”
In this charged environment, those among us who remain committed to a political two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict must recognize those individuals and organizations dedicated to bringing Jews and Muslims closer together, to shattering stereotypes and creating at least the beginning of a spirit of understanding and trust.
Rabbi Marc Schneier, a vice president of the World Jewish Congress, believes that “Muslim leaders have an obligation to help prevent the toxic spreading of anti-Semitism among the Muslim masses. … In the same spirit, I believe that more Jewish leaders must speak out against Islamophobia, making clear that it is wrong to demonize an entire religion because of the hateful actions of a relative few.”
Rabbi Schneier’s Foundation for Ethnic Understanding has “twinned” American and European mosques and synagogues, and is endeavoring to bridge the Jewish-Muslim divide by forging a dialogue with imams and rabbis from the United States, Canada, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Russia, Switzerland and the United Kingdom. The London-based Sheikh Dr. Muhammad al-Hussaini is taking part in this process because “it’s absolutely critical at this juncture that there are Muslim voices that are willing to stand firmly and practice in opposition to Islamic-inspired anti-Semitism.”
In France, the Foundation for the Memory of the Shoah is sponsoring Project Aladdin whose purpose is to spread awareness of the Holocaust in the Muslim world. Project Aladdin translated the Diary of Anne Frank into Arabic and Farsi. When Al-Manar, the television station of the Iranian-sponsored militant Hezbollah, called on Lebanese judicial authorities to prosecute those responsible for “distribution and import” of the classic work, Project Aladdin publicly condemned “this campaign of vilification and intimidation” and reiterated its conviction that reading the Diary “is a way toward the rejection of hatred, anti-Semitism, racism and xenophobia. Reading the Diary must be one of the basic rights of every human being in any society.”
Project Aladdin’s Web site features Arab and other Muslim personalities who have written and spoken out about the importance of teaching the history of the Holocaust. Among them is Iraqi political analyst Bassem Mohammad Habib who denounced Holocaust denial as the result of “irrational doubt, promoted by certain parties under the guise of scientific inquiry.”
Lebanese journalist Hazem Saghiya wrote in the daily pan-Arab newspaper Al-Hayat that Holocaust denial “is no longer tackled or discussed, except in intellectually retarded and educationally deficient circles. When the denial is being uttered by Arabs and Muslims, this adds another dimension, which is the inability to achieve any progress in reality, and then proceed to contest history with myth.”
Abdulrrahman Wahid, the former President of Indonesia, and former Israeli Chief Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, jointly declared Holocaust denial to be “the most visible symptom of an underlying disease — partly political, partly psychological, but mainly spiritual — which is the inability (or unwillingness) to recognize the humanity of others. In fighting this disease, religious leaders have an essential role to play. Armed with the knowledge that God created religion to serve as rahmatan lil ‘alamin, or a blessing for all creation, we must guard against efforts to demonize or belittle followers of other faiths.”
There are precious few positive developments these days in the Arab-Israeli conflict. If we condemn Ahmadinejad and other patrons of terrorism, we must, with equal force, commend those Muslim intellectuals and religious leaders who have the courage to speak out publicly against the continued fomentation of Holocaust denial and other manifestations of Judaeophobia in their midst. They may yet prove to be one of the most significant factors in the elusive search for peace in the Middle East.
(Menachem Z. Rosensaft, a New York-based attorney and columnist, can be reached at email@example.com.)