By Rabbi Jack Bemporad and Professor Marshall Breger
During a time of raw hostility in the Middle East and heated arguments in the US over the proposed Islamic Center near Ground Zero, we traveled to the past to build bridges to the future.
On August 7 – 11, we had the honor of escorting eight of the foremost Imams and Muslim leaders in the U.S. on an historic mission to concentration camps in Germany and Poland. We were joined by two State Department Ambassadors: Hannah Rosenthal, Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism and Rashid Hussein, Ambassador to the Organization of the Islamic Conference.
Some Jewish groups urged us not to undertake this journey, arguing that not all the imams invited on this trip had been allies of the Jewish community in the past. We believe, however, that human beings grow and are transformed by their experiences and that it is our duty to engage with all those willing to openly engage with us. Setting litmus tests for dialogue may make one feel righteous but it does little to change hearts and minds.
And so we embarked on this unprecedented mission of learning and compassion.
It began in Germany where the delegation toured the Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Site, then went on to Poland where we entered the notorious arbeit macht frei gate for a day-long visit to the infamous Auschwitz-Birkenau camp.
The Muslim leaders were visibly shaken by what they saw. They were moved when 90- year-old Max Mannheimer spoke of his time at Auschwitz and showed them the arm tattoo he still bears. The air crackled with tension when Wilhelm Brasse, a 92 year-old Polish Auschwitz survivor, described his work as a photographer ordered to take pictures of the young female victims of Mengele’s sadistic “medical” experiments.
The reactions and questions flowing from the imams — “Did you see any of your family members killed?” — “When did you find out about the crematoria?” — were not shaded by skepticism, but by a heartfelt desire to learn, and the impossible task of trying to comprehend.
Together, we Jews and Muslims (Reform, Orthodox, Sunni, Shi’a, young, old, male female) laid wreaths and said prayers. At Dachau, beneath a bronze sculpture of gnarled human forms caught for eternity in barbed wire, the sight of Muslims prostrate before the memorial stopped tourists in their tracks.
It was a life-altering trip and deeply personal for all: One imam who had made controversial statements about the Holocaust in his past, stated that anyone who denies the Holocaust must go and see for themselves. A father of four, he was so overwhelmed when he got to the confiscated children’s clothes and toys – crying, he had to turn away. Another imam, during an interview with Polish TV, simply ceased to speak, broke down, and shaking his head slowly walked away. Yet another pushed away his lunch telling us that he couldn’t eat after what he saw.
We understood that few in the Muslim community had extensive knowledge of Nazi ideology or of modern German or Jewish history. Their knowledge of World War II was intellectual and abstract only-book learning at best.
At the same time, above and beyond the rantings of Iran’s President Aminadjad, for political reasons there has been an increase in Holocaust denial among many in the Middle East and a concurrent increase in anti-Semitism. For many in that region, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion are a book of history, not rancid fiction. We felt it urgent to address these developments
We believed that experiencing the truth of the camps would have the same impact on the participants as it had on so many others. And we wanted to share that experience with them. Our belief in the value of this process proved justified.
Islam is a religion that champions compassion. That was amply demonstrated to us by the profound compassion and care that these imams demonstrated in regard to human suffering. Upon their return to the US, these influential Muslim leaders issued an unprecedented public statement, which says in part:
“We bear witness to the absolute horror and tragedy of the Holocaust where over twelve million human souls perished, including six million Jews.
We condemn any attempts to deny this historical reality and declare such denials or any justification of this tragedy as against the Islamic code of ethics.
We condemn anti-Semitism in any form. No creation of Almighty God should face discrimination based on his or her faith or religious conviction.”
These imams are calling to us all:
“We have a shared responsibility to continue to work together with leaders of all faiths and their communities to fight the dehumanization of all peoples based on their religion, race or ethnicity. With the disturbing rise of anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and other forms of hatred, rhetoric and bigotry, now more than ever, people of faith must stand together for truth. Together, we pledge to make real the commitment of ‘never again’ and to stand united against injustice wherever it may be found in the world today.”
We ended the trip back in Germany where Jews, Christians and Muslims shared an evening interfaith Iftar for Ramadan. But we haven’t ended the journey. We planted an unprecedented seed of understanding in the most unlikely of places. The imams were united in affirming that no responsible individual – indeed no good Muslim- can be a Holocaust denier. There is no room in human history for Holocaust denial.
At this time, as we approach the Jewish High Holidays with their emphasis on renewal and reconciliation, this trip was a significant witness to how faiths can, indeed, learn to appreciate and understand one another. We surely have not resolved all the differences between Muslims and Jews. But the visit to these camps not only unequivocally testifies to the fruits of hate, it affirms that the lessons of the Holocaust can lead us to affirm our common humanity.
Rabbi Jack Bemporad is Director of the Center for Interreligious Understanding (New Jersey) and Director of the John Paul II Center for Interreligious Dialogue at the Pontifical Angelicum University (Rome).
Professor Marshall Breger is Professor of Law, Columbus School of Law at The Catholic University of America, and former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan and liason to the Jewish community.
This trip was generously supported by the Konrad Adenauer Foundation (Germany).