Siavosh Derakhti, a 23-year-old Swedish Muslim, seems an unlikely champion in the fight against anti-Semitism. But Derakhti, whose parents immigrated to Sweden from Iran, has been recognized for his work in combating hatred and bigotry.
When he was 19, he founded Young Muslims Against Anti-Semitism, now known as Young People Against Anti-Semitism and Xenophobia. He worked tirelessly to teach Muslim youth about the evils of anti-Semitism, and has taken mixed Muslim and Christian groups to Auschwitz to show them the results of hate.
In 2012, the Swedish Committee Against Anti-Semitism awarded Derakhti the Elsa Award for leading a vigorous campaign against anti-Semitism in Malmo, a city in southern Sweden where anti-Semitism is rampant.
Malmo, with a population of 294,000, is Sweden’s third largest city. Muslims make up 15% of this population — roughly 50,000 people — and greatly outnumber a shrinking Jewish population. By some estimates the total number of Jews in the area is more than 1,000. Malmo has been called one of the most segregated cities in Europe.
In 2013, Derakhti received the Raoul Wallenberg Award. The selection committee said Derakhti showed “through his actions and determination that one person can make a difference.”
President Obama hugged Derakhti and congratulated him for his work during the president’s 2013 visit to the Great Synagogue of Stockholm.
“When I think of Siavosh, I think of a man who is all heart and always defends the persecuted,” said Mathan Ravid, a member of the Swedish Committee Against Anti-Semitism.
The Forward’s Don Snyder spoke with Derakhti about how his upbringing fueled his drive to establish a relationship between Jews and Muslims in Malmo.
Donald Snyder: When did you first become aware of race hatred?
Siavosh Derakhti: When I was 7 years old. My two best friends were David, a Jew, and Juliano, a Roma. The Muslim kids in my grade school used to pick on David. They used to say “Sieg Heil” and “Dirty Jew” and “Jews to the gas.”
A Muslim girl blows bubbles at an Eid celebration / Getty Images
All across New York City, Muslims are cheering Mayor Bill de Blasio’s decision to close public schools on the two holiest days of their religious calendar. And Jews should be cheering right along with them.
Why should we be happy to see the city observe Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha, days that commemorate the end of Ramadan and the biblical Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son, respectively? No, it’s not because that means we Jews will also get a hall pass. It’s because we fought and won this battle long ago — and our win should be used to help, not harm, others in a similar situation.
New York City public schools decided to observe two of our holidays, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, way back in 1960. That means that we’ve been enjoying the benefits of this recognition for a full 55 years.
If you’re wondering why recognition for Muslims has lagged so far behind, your first thought might be: Islamophobia. And you’d be right. Discrimination against Muslims is a powerful force in post-9/11 America — especially now that terrorism wrought by Islamic extremists in the Middle East and Europe dominates the headlines. That discrimination has a powerful impact on our policies, and it’s been fueling the protests against de Blasio’s plan to recognize Muslim holidays for months.
All photos by Ryan Rodrick Beiler
After four years covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a photojournalist, I’m not used to covering good news. Even before my recent relocation to Norway, land of the Peace Prize and Oslo Accords, it’s been easy to be cynical about institutionalized efforts to promote coexistence.
But a recent grassroots effort by Norwegian Muslims surprised me. Not because they were Muslim, but because their relatively simple gesture — surrounding an Oslo synagogue with a “Ring of Peace” — achieved the kind of international attention typically reserved for, well, terrorist attacks.
“We thought that we as Muslims needed to show by action that the majority of us, and especially the youth, take a strong stand against anti-Semitism,” said Mudassar Muddi Mehmood, one of the event’s organizers. “We stand 100% with our Jewish brothers and sisters in the battle against hatred and extremism. If anyone wants to commit violence in the name of Islam, you have to go through us Muslims first.”
The response to their invitation amazed locals as well. The Times of Israel reported earlier in the week that Ervin Kohn, a leader of Norway’s Jewish community, had said that if fewer than 30 people would show up, he didn’t want to have the vigil. Saturday night, more than 1,000 supporters of all faiths flooded Bergstien Street in front of Oslo Synagogue in an overwhelming show of support — their number nearly equaling that of the entire Jewish population of Norway.
Waqas Sarwar, who also attended the vigil, noted another motivation for the show of solidarity: “The terrorist attack in Norway [by Anders Breivik on July 22, 2011] is still fresh in mind, and we as Muslims are also witnessing rising Islamophobia, which makes it easier for us to sympathize. No one should be killed or hurt solely based on their religious or political affiliations.”
“We hope that the event will strengthen our continuing good relations between our Jewish community and the Norwegian Muslim community,” said Marty Bashevkin, vice president of the Jewish Community of Oslo, who was “especially impressed by the fact that it has been arranged by Muslim young people, and with such a positive response.”
“Imagine,” added Bashevkin, “if events like this could be repeated around the world.”
This sentiment was echoed by Ikrame Chriqui, a Kurdish Norwegian in attendance: “I’m glad this is happening and I hope it happens in other countries too. I want to show people that not all Muslims hate Jews. We are all brothers and sisters, whether you are a Christian, a Jew, a Muslim, a Buddhist or an atheist.”
Ryan Rodrick Beiler is a freelance photojournalist living in Oslo, Norway.
Officials in the Montreal borough of Outremont — which includes a sizeable Orthodox Jewish population — are defending a last-minute decision this weekend to nix a reception hosted by a Muslim organization at a city-owned community center.
According to the Montreal Gazette, borough mayor Marie Cinq-Mars told reporters the event was presented as a graduation ceremony for a language school.
But Quebec’s French-language TVA News reported on Friday that Minnesota-based Mishkah University — aka the North American Sharia Academy — was behind the event, and that “two imams with fundamentalist views, Salah Assawy and Omar Shahin, would host.” Imam Assawy, an Egyptian, is secretary-general of the Assembly of Muslim Jurists in America, “an organization known for its radical religious views,” according to TVA.
In a statement to media, Mayor Cinq-Mars said she asked borough managers to cancel the reservation because the presence of the “controversial leaders” was “unacceptable” and could lead to conflicts, the Gazette said. Mishkah’s name did not appear on the booking, she said; regardless of the type of group, the borough “shouldn’t ever rent out space for religious or political events,” Cinq-Mars told the paper.
Since the Paris attacks, the internet has been overflowing with support for the victims and calls for freedom of expression. But, alarmingly and perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s also been full of demands for Muslims to “take responsibility” and “condemn” the heinous acts — as if somehow all Muslims universally bear responsibility for every single deranged or vile act committed by any Muslim, anywhere. You can find these enlightening cries everywhere from the New York Times op-ed page to Rupert Murdoch’s delightful Twitter feed.
Maybe most Moslems peaceful, but until they recognize and destroy their growing jihadist cancer they must be held responsible.— Rupert Murdoch (@rupertmurdoch) January 10, 2015
Muslim media outlet MuslimMatters.Org rose to the occasion and came up with an idea for a start-up called the “iCondemn” app. They even created a mock-up for the app, which would allow Muslims to condemn every awful Muslim action in the world, big or small, with a single click.
The app would even allow Muslims to issue condemnations “of events in the past, like the source of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 and British imperialism.”
Plus, “with a $4.99 upgrade, the app comes with the Guilt-O-Meter®, which accurately gauges how nervous Western Muslims are feeling right about now.”
The app is a joke, of course. But Muslims all over the media have been taking these demands for condemnations very seriously.
And you do have to wonder about the double standard set by the public’s outcry for Muslim condemnations. Why aren’t Jews asked to condemn all racist comments, crimes and murders committed by Jews? Where is the “Not in my name, Son of Sam” meme? Do we need an iCondemn app for every racist or sexist comment made by a prominent Jewish figure?
Shouldn’t it be obvious that the perpetrators of the attacks in Paris have nothing to do with the majority of Muslim people? As our hero J. K. Rowling tweeted in reply to the aforementioned Rupert Murdoch tweet:
I was born Christian. If that makes Rupert Murdoch my responsibility, I'll auto-excommunicate. http://t.co/Atw1wNk8UX— J.K. Rowling (@jk_rowling) January 11, 2015
Or as Muslim comedian Aziz Ansari put it:
Anytime a Christian person rear ended your car. #RupertsFault— Aziz Ansari (@azizansari) January 12, 2015
People gather outside French embassy in Berlin to say #JeSuisCharlie / Twitter
Paris, my city, is under attack. All of France is shocked and shattered.
As of 11:00 this morning, French TV channels and radio stations have interrupted their regular programming to cover the story of the attack. On Twitter, the hashtag #JeSuisCharlie is now trending worldwide, unifying all those who reject terror of the kind we saw today.
Like all French citizens, my particular community — the Jewish community — is reeling from the news. Concerned as we have been for years about the spiraling communal tensions, the anti-Semitic attacks on Jews and the steadily mounting anti-Muslim sentiment, this hits an especially raw nerve.
People run with hands up from the Lindt Cafe during a hostage standoff in Sydney, Australia / Getty Images
My ears perked up when I heard the news about a potential terror attack at the Lindt Chocolat Cafe in Sydney. “Potential” terror attack, because for a while the nature of the situation was unclear. And then came the now-familiar black flag with white Arabic lettering, and what was murky became just a tiny bit clearer.
For some reason, my thoughts went to what this moment must feel like for the average Muslim living in Australia. Or in London. Or in my own New England city. Because that is an emotion I recognize. Though they had nothing to do with the crime, I imagine that these Muslims experienced that all-too-familiar feeling, that gnawing fear deep in the stomach, that in my house is called, “Oy. Not good for the Jews.”
No Jew who has even a passing connection to community can credibly deny it. When something bad happens, you sit and wait, listening to the radio, watching the news, refreshing the screen. And then, they say, we can identify the attacker, name the criminal. And the name flashes across the screen. You read it and think, “Thank God that’s not a Jewish name. Could that be a Jewish name? Oh man, that’s a Jewish name.”
On one level, of course it’s utterly ridiculous that the actions of a complete stranger could reflect on me as a person. But the truth is complicated. Because no matter who I am or what I do, there will always be people who associate me with the bad apples. And maybe, in some small way, they have a point.
Salaam-Schalom organizes a Jewish-Muslim human chain event in Neukollen / Ömer Sefa Baysal
This past summer, Armin Langer, a 24-year-old rabbinical student in Berlin, came to speak at the Sehitlik mosque in Neukoelln, a district of the German capital with a large Muslim population. Langer is the co-founder of the Salaam-Schalom Initiative, a Neukoelln-based intercultural dialogue group. His pre-scheduled presentation at the mosque, to announce Salaam-Schalom’s new campaign, took place on June 26, just as the violence between Israelis and Palestinians was escalating.
“I thought it was very courageous on his part to go on the stage and introduce himself as a Jewish person,” says Denis Mert Mercan, 26, a devout Muslim who lives in Berlin and was at Sehitlik mosque that day. “And I thought it was an amazing idea that the Jews would defend Muslims and Muslims would defend Jews in terms of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.”
The campaign Langer was introducing was a series of posters against anti-Muslim prejudice, to be displayed on the streets of Neukoelln. He explained that the goal of Salaam-Schalom is for Jewish and Muslim Berliners to collaborate, battling all forms of racism at once.
Salaam-Schalom’s grassroots attempt to bridge the gap between Jews and Muslims is happening at a time when Germany is experiencing a wave of anti-Semitism that’s partly rooted in Muslim communities. This summer, during the Israel-Hamas war, a Palestinian immigrant threw a petrol bomb on a synagogue in the town of Wuppertal, and hate speech against Jews appeared in Berlin demonstrations against Israel’s operation in Gaza.
“We are not soldiers standing against each other on the front. We are average people living in the same city,” said Langer, a Hungarian Jew who attended a yeshiva in Jerusalem and moved to Berlin to continue his religious studies. “Of course we all feel sorry for what’s going on there and we have relatives and friends in Gaza and in Israel and in the West Bank. But maybe we can build up something more peaceful here in Berlin.”
(JTA) — Looks like there’s another so-called War on Christmas, and this time it’s the Muslims, not the Jews, who are being blamed.
The decision by a suburban Washington school district to continue closing for Jewish and Christian holidays — but not label them as such on the school calendar — has ignited a firestorm from right-wing bloggers and commentators.
On Tuesday, the Montgomery County Board of Education voted to remove the religious designations after local Muslims had complained that the district observes Christmas, Easter, Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah, but does not offer vacation on any Muslim holidays.
“School Dumps Christmas to Appease Muslims” was how Todd Starnes of Fox News Radio framed the headline.
Describing the issue as “a new battleground in the war on Christmas” and “bad news for you Jews and gentiles out there,” Starnes implied that the holidays will be eliminated rather than just not identified on the school calendar. (“That means no more Christmas, no more Easter and no more Yom Kippur,” he claimed, later noting that the school board “opted to eliminate all religious holidays.”)
In a similar vein, The Blaze wrote “School District Bans Christmas, Easter and Jewish Holidays From Calendar Following Debate Over Muslim Request.”
The Examiner, which accompanied its article with a still from the film “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” headlined it “Christmas, Easter, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur stricken from school calendar.”
While the outraged headlines may indicate otherwise, the decision seems to have pleased no one, least of all the local Muslim activists. One activist, Zainab Chaudry, told the Washington Post that the school board was willing to ““go so far as to paint themselves as the Grinch who stole Christmas” to avoid granting equal treatment for the Muslim holiday.
“They would remove the Christian holidays and they would remove the Jewish holidays from the calendar before they would consider adding the Muslim holiday to the calendar,” she said.
Shootings in Canadian Parliament captured on film / YouTube
As I write this while at home in central Ottawa, my husband is in lockdown at work and my kids are being kept indoors all day in their secured school.
Ottawa residents joined by onlookers the world over are still trying to piece together today’s events, after a shooter opened fire this morning at the War Memorial in downtown Ottawa, killing a Canadian Forces Soldier, before apparently entering Center Block building on Parliament Hill where shots rang out. A third shooting was reported outside Rideau Centre, the shopping mall two blocks away. At the time of this writing, one shooter has been reported killed, and another one or two remain at large.
All this on the same day that Malala Yousafzai was due to receive honorary Canadian citizenship at a ceremony with Prime Minister Harper in Toronto.
Nine kilometers west of Parliament sits the Jewish community campus. Jewish Federation of Ottawa President and CEO Andrea Freedman said that she has been in contact with the Ottawa Police Services and mayor’s office. There doesn’t appear to be any imminent threat to the Jewish community, but the campus is taking precautions, including locking down schools community buildings.
“The important thing is not to jump to any conclusions about why these atrocious acts are taking place, but obviously there’s shock, dismay and anger that our country is being attacked like this,” Freedman told me by phone.
Freedman is right that we don’t yet know what motivated the attacks. It could be insanity, murderous crime, or politically motivated terrorism. If it is an act of terrorism — meaning a politically motivated action rather than a random crime — it is possible that it is of the Islamist variety. Or not.
What is the responsibility of the media, policymakers and commentators in both reporting facts and keeping passions calm, both among potential targets who need to be kept safe, and among innocents who may face backlash by virtue of presumed ethnic association?
International affairs commentator Hayes Brown tweeted:
We are now entering the “conflicting information” stage of the Canadian shooting crisis, with a sprinkling of “assign ethnic blame”— Hayes Brown (@HayesBrown) October 22, 2014
Even more direct was Alex Kane, tongue firmly on cheek:
REMEMBER: If the Canada shooter is Muslim, he's a “terrorist.” If he's white, he's “unstable.”— Alex Kane (@alexbkane) October 22, 2014
The controversial new bus ad.
Pamela Geller is at it again. Her new set of black and white posters on Metro buses in Washington, D.C. declare: “Islamic Jew-Hatred: It’s In the Quran. Two Thirds of All U.S. Aid Goes to Islamic Countries. Stop Racism. End All Aid to Islamic Countries.” An accompanying photo shows Adolph Hitler meeting with Haj Amin al-Husseini, the grand mufti of Jerusalem during the Mandate period.
Geller is known for her inflammatory ads. But I admit that this one makes me think.
Israel is making another push to join the U.S. visa waiver program, which would allow Israelis to enter the U.S. for 90 days without a visa. Last year, another effort to enlist Israel in the program stalled amid criticisms of Israel’s discrimination against Americans of Arab and Muslim origins at its border.
In the latest push, which was reported today in Haaretz, Israeli officials said they planned on ending discrimination against Palestinian-Americans entering Israel through Ben Gurion Airport, the country’s main international hub. But this pledge falls short in several ways.
Though discrimination against Palestinian-Americans is particularly acute — and, because of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, particularly fraught — it does not constitute the totality of Israel’s discrimination against American citizens. The U.S. State Department, after all, warns that “U.S. citizens whom Israeli authorities suspect of being of Arab, Middle Eastern, or Muslim origin” face difficulties entering.
Indeed, confronted with a specific question today on Americans of Middle Eastern and Muslim extraction, State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki acknowledged that narrowly easing discrimination against only Palestinian-Americans would not be enough to satisfy the reciprocity requirements for consideration in the visa waiver program. So while Israel seeks piecemeal fixes to the problem, the U.S. — correctly — won’t readily compromise the equal rights of any of its citizens.
What’s more, Ben Gurion Airport isn’t the only point of entry to Israeli-controlled areas where these demographic groups may encounter discrimination. Last year, my colleague George Hale and I reported on the case of Nour Joudah, an American of Palestinian descent teaching in the Palestinian territories who was denied entry to Israel twice — in the first instance at the Allenby Bridge, a crossing between the Israeli-controlled West Bank and Jordan where Israeli officials now claim Palestinian-Americans were supposed to enter in the first place.
On Monday, citizens of Quebec will go to the polls to vote for a new provincial government.
Two main players are facing off in this year’s elections: the Parti Quebecois (PQ), Quebec’s nationalist party currently ruling as a minority government and led by Premier Pauline Marois, against Quebec’s Liberal Party, ousted from power in 2012 after a wave of student protests fighting proposed tuition hikes, with newly-elected leader Philippe Couillard at its head.
1,057,706 people, or 17.8% of voters, already cast their ballots during the advance voting sessions held on March 30-31, and the most recent polls put the Liberals in the lead, with the potential for a majority win.
So, why should you care?
Earlier this year, the PQ released its proposal for a Charter of Values, portrayed as a means of promoting a religiously neutral state, as well as gender equality.
Under the Charter, presented to the National Assembly as Bill 60 and spearheaded by Premier Pauline Marois and Bernard Drainville, public servants would be forbidden to wear so-called “ostentatious” religious symbols such as kippahs, hijabs, turbans or large, and prominent crosses. Smaller and less “conspicuous” objects such as earings bearing religious symbols would still be tolerated.
The Charter has been met with vocal opposition by religious and ethnic minorities who see this push for secularization as discriminatory in a province where religion has long been a touchy subject. The Jewish community in particular has been quick to denounce what it sees as a “bad solution to a non-existent problem.”
Here are a few things to keep in mind as Election Day approaches.
1. This is what will happen if the Parti Quebecois wins a majority.
The Charter of Values is the third item on the party’s electoral strategy sheet, directly below Quebec sovereignty (the issue which is essentially its primary reason for being). So, it’s fair to say that it’s a major priority.
If the Charter becomes law, Jewish doctors, lawyers, teachers, judges, police officers, government officials (need I go on?) will be forbidden to wear visible symbols that openly flaunt their religious beliefs.
But the law goes even further. Organizations that receive public funding from the Quebec government will also have to comply. Montreal’s Jewish General Hospital, for example, could no longer serve kosher food, nor could its doctors wear yarmulkes while treating patients. One PQ candidate even proposed to do away with the “Jewish” in the hospital’s name.
2. Who will this law affect?
The Jewish General Hospital in Montreal // Wikimedia Commons.
According to the latest National Household Survey (2011) there are currently 85,100 Jews living in Quebec, the majority of whom live in the Montreal area. Jews are the fifth-largest religious group in the province; Catholics are first, followed by Protestants, Muslims and Christian Orthodox.
The older and more established Jewish community in Quebec is Ashkenazi and Anglophone — meaning their first language is English. Like their American counterparts, most arrived in Canada in the late 19th century or in the aftermath of the Second World War. The growing Sephardic community, largely French-speaking, immigrated to Quebec from North Africa (in large part because of language) in the 1960s and 1970s.
Why the emphasis on language? Welcome to Quebec. Language groups retain singular importance in a region where political and social affiliation depends largely on which language you were brought up speaking. The one thing that most Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews can agree on, however, is that they hate the Charter.
Opposition to the Charter makes for unlikely allies. Ethnic and religious minorities who might not otherwise agree — Jews and Muslims among them — have joined together in the face of a common perceived threat to their fundamental religious rights.
3. Many people say they will disobey.
Muslim women protest the Charter of Values in Montreal // Claude Robillard / Flickr.
Many Jewish groups have openly declared that they will flout the Charter of Values if it becomes law. The Jewish General Hospital in Montreal released a statement in November declaring it would publically defy the law, which its staff views as “patently discriminatory.” Others have found more creative ways to protest the dreaded kippah ban: one rabbi stamped his head covering with the blue-and-white Fleur-de-lys — the province’s flag and symbol of nationalism. “I thought this would be a great way to make a positive statement,” Rabbi Yisroel Bernath told the Forward in December. “They want to ban the kippah? Let’s put a kippah on our heads!”
There is no single place in Jerusalem as politically sensitive as the site that Jews call the Temple Mount, and Muslims call the Haram al-Sharif, or noble sanctuary.
In the past couple of decades, there have been riots and violent confrontations there. The Second Intifada erupted in 2000 after Ariel Sharon, then leader of Israel’s right-wing opposition, visited the Temple Mount.
While Israel annexed the Temple Mount and all of East Jerusalem after their capture in the 1967 Six Day War, the Muslim group known as the Waqf manages the site. Freedom of access to the area is enshrined in Israeli law. However, for security reasons, Israeli police enforces a ban on Jewish and other non-Muslim prayer there.
Recently, right-wing religious Zionists have been pushing to change the status quo on the Temple Mount. They want the Israeli government to assert its sovereignty over what Jews revere as the site of the first and second holy temples. These activists have gained support from elements within the current government, especially members of the Jewish nationalist Habayit Hayehudi party.
While the Waqf is in favor of tourists of all kinds visiting the area, it is wary of Jewish religious fanatics who might want to damage or destroy the Dome of the Rock and other Muslim sites. Some ultra-religious Jews believe it’s their responsibility to do so in order to clear the path for construction of a third temple.
Yehudah Glick, an American immigrant to Israel, professional tour guide and Temple Mount activist, was arrested on October 10 and barred by the Israeli police from the site. He began a hunger strike in protest, ending last Thursday after 12 days, when his permission to ascend to the Temple Mount was reinstated.
The Forward asked Glick about his being barred from the Temple Mount, his hunger strike, and why he believes Jews should have full access to the site.
A group of people partakes in violence to prevent a rival group from praying in a site that is deemed holy to both. The authorities in charge of the area restrict access to this revered spot and forbid the second group to enter because of fears of upcoming violent disturbances.
At first glance, one would harshly condemn the police decision as violence should not be rewarded and used as a tool of intimidation. However, this scene is quite ordinary in on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem where Palestinian rioters throw stones and other objects at Israeli police and at Jewish worshipers below at the Western Wall.
The current status quo on the Temple Mount must change with both Jews and Muslims allowed to worship freely at this holy area for both religions.
“We reject these religious visits. Our duty is to warn,” said Sheik Ekrima Sabri, who oversees Muslim affairs in Jerusalem, using the Arabic name for the Temple Mount. “If they want to make peace in the region, they should stay away from Al-Aqsa.”
It is true that the Dome of the Rock is considered the world’s third holiest site to Muslims after Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia. However, this is not a justification to prevent other worshippers from different religions to pray at this same spot. Jews consider this land their holiest area as they believe that the first and second temples were built here in addition to other important events in their collective history.
Ahmed Tibi, an influential Arab Member of Knesset announced that Palestinians would see an increase in Jews visiting the Temple Mount as a “declaration of war.” Tibi continued saying, “The occupation is temporary and the government in East Jerusalem is temporary. The crusaders passed, the British passed, and so will the Israelis.”
Such a sentiment is an insult to Jews worldwide. The Jewish attachment to Jerusalem and the Temple Mount spans thousands of years with significant archeological evidence demonstrating the Jews’ strong ties.
(JTA) — Sarajevo is a city with a rich multicultural past, but it also bears the scars of war. Take a short walk through the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina and you will see the many cemeteries and bullet-riddled walls, which are undergoing restoration.
These lay side by side with magnificent churches, mosques and synagogues. For this reason, 100 Jews and Muslims from 39 countries gathered there last month to listen and learn from one another at an interfaith dialogue conference organized by the Muslim-Jewish Conference.
I was uneasy about participating. I was concerned that as an Israeli, a secular Jew, a combat soldier in the reserves and a Zionist activist, I would be surrounded by political activists whose sole purpose is to vilify Israel. From my experience, many dialogue initiatives have been hijacked by radicals, who silence any voice that is different.
On the very first day, however, my concerns were allayed. I found myself sitting and talking with young men and women from Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Egypt, European Muslims, along with Jews from all over the world, each voicing their unique perspectives on conflicts, hate speech, gender relations and religious practice. Miraculously, despite the Arab-Israeli conflict, the different sides succeeded in overcoming the stereotypes, biases and ignorance we all have.
On the interpersonal level, it was a great success: a diverse group of Jews and Muslims who set aside their cynicism and mistrust, and engaged in friendly conversation for a week. Many questions were asked, some of them difficult and pointed, but there was room for answering, explaining and listening, an attempt to bridge the gaps that for many Israelis often seem unbridgeable.
It was not all rosy. Disagreements and tensions were present, and groups opposing interreligious dialogue accused the organizers of promoting certain political agendas. We may have been successful in overcoming our personal differences and finding common ground, but hatred, the foundation of violence, is still rife in many parts of the Muslim and Western worlds.
The tradition of English liberty which runs through the political culture is a deep one, traceable back to John Milton’s Areopagitica, published in 1644, through Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason and John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty. The nub of it was best put by Mill when he wrote, “If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.”
It is with this in mind that the recent decision by the British government to pre-emptively exclude Pamela Geller from travelling the United Kingdom should be considered. Geller, it must recalled as often as possible, is a spiteful and malicious person. Founder of Stop Islamisation of America and proprietor of the Atlas Shrugs blog, she has used her public platform to minimise the Bosnian genocide, label secular, democratic Kosovo a “militant Islamic state in the heart of Europe,” and perpetuate the myth that President Obama is the secret love child of Malcolm X.
And then there’s Islam, about which she has said so much it’s hard to filter. “There are no moderates. There are no extremists. Only Muslims,” she said. “Devout Muslims should be prohibited from military service. Would Patton have recruited Nazis into his army?” she enquired on another occasion.
Geller has expressed support for Geert Wilders and the thuggish English Defence League, with whom she shares concerns about the so-called Islamisation of Europe, even nefariously calling upon Jews to stand up with them in this struggle.
But even considering the foregoing, or especially considering it, withdrawing Geller’s right to speak and address a rally organised by the EDL in the London neighborhood of Woolwich violated English liberal tradition. It is precisely this sort of application of state power to silence another that Mill deemed ‘noxious’ in any circumstance, whether “exerted in accordance with public opinion, than when in or opposition to it.” The state, rather, must protect against “the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling; against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them.”
Geller’s case would be especially troubling because the government not only proscribed her based on what she had said but what she might say. If she were to repeat her slurs against Muslims of the type previously exhibited, she would be “committing unacceptable behaviours”, the Home Secretary deemed. This type of prior restraint goes against the grain of English liberty. Mill questioned rightly what authority has the right to decide what words are appropriate or inappropriate, what behaviour is acceptable or unacceptable. “They have no authority to decide the question for all mankind, and exclude every other person from the means of judging.”
Ramadan has just started, and an estimated 1 million Muslims from the West Bank will enter Israel to spend part of the holiday with relations here. The defense establishment has become more confident about giving access to Israel for Arab holidays — and for the main part things have been smooth.
The opening of the checkpoints for mass travel underscores one of the interesting contrasts in the Israeli-Palestinian situation at the moment. While diplomatic channel between Jerusalem and Ramallah is sluggish and while there’s much friction and little movement on the peace process, on some day-to-day issues Israel is making significant efforts.
Of course, Jerusalem’s ability to do so reflects another fact of Israeli-Palestinian relations — political connections may be poor, but security cooperation is still strong.
Yet despite the upbeat attitude of security forces and the good level of cooperation, Ramadan this year poses a unique challenge. Not only does it fall at the height of summer (unlike Jewish festivals Ramadan isn’t fixed in a particular season).
There is also an unfortunate coincidence between Ramadan and the Fast of Av in the Jewish calendar.
Why unfortunate? Because during Ramadan Muslims converge on Temple Mount, and given that the Fast of Av is the holiday when Jews commemorate the destruction of the ancient Jerusalem Temples, a larger-than-normal contingency of Jews will head to Temple Mount.
Of course, if the observance of different religious holidays can happen in parallel and peacefully, it would be a boon to coexistence. Yet there is a real danger that the groups could clash.
The religious-Zionist right is becoming increasingly focused on the idea of asserting itself on Temple Mount, and the Fast of Av gives particularly strong expression to this desire. And Palestinians are especially sensitive at the moment to any violations of what they see as their rightful control of the Mount.
Add in the significance of the time-of-year consideration — people from both religions depriving themselves of food and water for an extremely long day in the sweltering sun and you get a potentially explosive situation.
A calm Tuesday could well point to a calm summer in Jerusalem, but if conflict is on the cards for this summer, Tuesday could well be the day that it beaks out.
The French media are feasting on this week’s revelation that the fading star Gérard Depardieu, who brought to the screen such icons of French patriotism as Astérix and Cyrano de Bergerac, is settling in Belgium. The move, it appears, is dictated less by the scenery (there is none) than the lower tax bracket, an issue of sharpened interest now that the Socialist government has introduced a new marginal rate on the nation’s wealthiest citizens.
Amidst this distraction, the press has scanted the most recent triumph of a rising star: the Socialist Minister of the Interior, Manuel Valls. This week the country’s parliament overwhelmingly voted in favor of an anti-terrorism bill that Valls had championed since he took office in May. The legislation reinforces an already impressive array of police powers, allowing the state to arrest anyone who has attended terrorist training camps abroad even if they have not yet committed a crime on French soil.
The law was a direct consequence of Mohammad Merah’s horrific murder spree earlier this year in Toulouse. Merah had trained at such a camp in Pakistan — a fact apparently know to France’s intelligence service, yet not acted upon. The government of Nicolas Sarkozy, in power at the time, had proposed a similar law, but it was shelved then abandoned during the elections that brought the Socialists to power.
Though many French Jews worried at first if the Socialists would act with the same vigor as the Gaullists, they were quickly reassured. In part, this was the work of François Hollande, who has repeatedly reassured French Jewry that his government will do everything in its power to repel the growing tide of anti-Semitic activities and rhetoric. His recent speech at Drancy, marking the 1942 round-up of French Jews under Vichy, was one notable instance of this commitment.
Standing by Hollande’s side at Drancy was Valls.
Mitt Romney has came under fire for meeting with William (Jerry) Boykin, a retired U.S. Army officer who is now executive vice president of the Family Research Council, a leading Christian conservative organization.
Boykin has enraged the Muslim-American community with anti-Muslim remarks which date back to his days in uniform but have intensified after his retirement in 2007. Boykin has argued, for instance, that Islam should not be protected under the First Amendment and has wondered during a synagogue speech whether President Obama is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Muslim groups questioned Romney about the meeting, arguing that Boykin’s history of anti-Muslim statements should not make him a welcome partner.
As it turns out, Boykin hasn’t just made inflammatory statements about Muslims. He has had a lot to say about Jews as well.