Beyond Dialogue: An Unprecedented Jewish-Muslim Gathering at the Holocaust Museum

Beyond Dialogue: An Unprecedented Jewish-Muslim Gathering at the Holocaust Museum

by Harrison Akins

My March 26th visit to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, for a meeting with a delegation of leading South American Jewish and Muslim leaders, was a particularly powerful moment for me.  As a young American of Christian and Jewish heritage, this was my first visit to the museum, ironically with my Muslim professor who was addressing the group.  To me, the Holocaust had seemed so distant and sterile in the pages of history, yet the exhibits of the museum brought to life the millions of Jews, and non-Jews, that suffered and died.  As I reflected on its exhibits, I was reminded of the true origins of genocidal violence: hatred, ignorance, and fear.  The worst of atrocities has these initial phases, which unfortunately we see taking place today despite the bitter lessons of history.

Monday’s meeting represented the crucial first step in checking this hatred.  The leading Imams and Rabbis of South America, an intimate group of twenty, gathered together at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in an historic meeting sponsored by the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding (FFEU).  The luncheon meeting marked the first occasion that these Jewish and Muslim leaders had come together for a shared dialogue to promote understanding between the two communities. 

This challenge of arresting hatred fittingly began at the Holocaust Museum.  For many of the Imams and Rabbis present, this was their first visit to the museum.  More than a history museum, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum is an American national museum dedicated to preserving and interpreting the history of atrocities committed during the Holocaust, against Jews and non-Jews alike, in order to prevent future genocides.  The museum is also a center for action with its Committee on Conscience which made headlines with its early outspokenness on Darfur, for which it issued a Genocide Emergency.

As the group from South America slowly filtered into the meeting room at the museum with conversations drifting between Spanish and English, everyone was warmly welcomed by Arthur Berger, the Senior Advisor for External Affairs at the Holocaust Museum.

Joining the South American delegation were some of the leading religious and academic figures of the United States: Rabbi Marc Schneier, Founder and President of FFEU; Imam Mohamed Magid, President of the Islamic Society of North America which has initiated a number of Jewish-Muslim dialogues; Imam Shamsi Ali, the Director of the Jamaica Muslim Center in New York City; Dean Claudio Grossman, Chair of the United Nations Committee Against Torture and Dean of the American University Washington College of Law; and Ambassador Akbar Ahmed, Chair of Islamic Studies at American University and the first Muslim scholar to give a lecture at the Holocaust Museum.

I was struck with pride when my professor, Ambassador Ahmed, was singled out by Mr. Berger for his contributions “not only to America but to the world” towards interfaith understanding, which included his participation in a number of public dialogues with Judea Pearl, the father of the slain journalist Daniel Pearl. 

Mr. Berger first invited Ambassador Ahmed to make some remarks.  He conveyed that in this “sacred space” the words ‘never again’ rang sharply in his ears because it is happening again.  Despite the lessons of history and the promises of faith, we still see so much hatred and oppression all across the world.  He reminded us that God in Islam is most of all known by the two words ‘compassion’ and ‘mercy’, and the Prophet of Islam is ‘a mercy unto mankind.’  The challenge laid out by Ambassador Ahmed was to actively move beyond dialogue towards mutual understanding and friendship in order to together fight the injustice committed against all oppressed peoples. 

Dean Claudio Grossman was then requested to say a few words.  A Chilean by birth, Dean Grossman spoke of his own experiences witnessing human rights violations in South America and emphasized the importance of the institutions of democracy within which diversity and pluralism can flourish.  He affirmed that within a democratic society Islamophobia must be condemned with the same passion and to the same extent as all discrimination, a strong conviction from within the heart of the Holocaust Museum.  Dean Grossman’s final message to the delegation, before they were whisked away to the White House, was to continue what this unique gathering had begun.

The message of the day was a mutual duty for compassion, mercy, and justice for all suffering people, citing the shared history of persecution for both Muslims and Jews.  This duty, as expressed by the clerics in yesterday’s conversation, calls for Jewish leaders to challenge the growing phenomenon of Islamophobia, and Muslim leaders to speak out against persistent anti-Semitism.  The vicissitudes of bigotry can easily fall on anyone.

This hope and optimism was, however, paired with the somber understanding of the obstacles to peace; the fear, anger, and sadness which currently envelops both religious communities, from the tragic shooting at a Jewish school in Toulouse, France to the horrific and unconscionable death of an Iraqi-American woman in San Diego, California to the seventeen civilians, including nine children, murdered in Afghanistan earlier this month.

Ambassador Ahmed, a Muslim, concluded his talk with the Jewish saying Tikkun Olam which means ‘repairing a fractured world’.  This is a motto that we all must live by in the 21st century, regardless of faith, heritage, or culture, if we are to work against continued violence and war.

Harrison Akins is an Ibn Khaldun Chair Research Fellow in the School of International Service at American University.