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.
The Norway massacre has touched off a nasty war of words on the Israeli Internet over the meaning of the event and its implications for Israel. And I do mean nasty: Judging by the comments sections on the main Hebrew websites, the main questions under debate seem to be whether Norwegians deserve any sympathy from Israelis given the country’s pro-Palestinian policies, whether the killer deserves any sympathy given his self-declared intention of fighting Islamic extremism and, perhaps ironically, whether calling attention to this debate is in itself an anti-Israel or anti-Semitic act.
The debate seems to be taking place almost entirely on Hebrew websites. There’s a bit of bile popping up on the English-language Jerusalem Post site as well (for example, there are a handful of choice comments of a now-they’ll-know-what-it-feels-like variety following this Post news article reporting on Israel’s official offer of sympathy and aid). In Hebrew, though, no holds are barred. I’ve translated some of the back-and-forth from the Ynet and Maariv websites below, to give you taste.
The debate exploded aboveground on Saturday in an opinion essay at Ynet (in Hebrew only) by Ziv Lenchner, a left-leaning Tel Aviv artist and one of Ynet’s large, bipartisan stable of columnists. It’s called “Dancing the Hora on Norwegian Blood.” He argues that the comment sections on news websites are a fair barometer of public sentiment (a questionable premise) and that the overwhelming response is schadenfreude, pleasure at Norway’s pain. As I’ll show below, that judgment seems pretty accurate.