Imams’ trip to Auschwitz brings hope

US anti-Semitism czar hopes trip will help decrease Holocaust denial.

Auschwitz (photo credit: AP)
(photo credit: AP)
WASHINGTON – The top US official for battling anti-Semitism hopes that a recent trip of imams to Auschwitz will help decrease Holocaust denial and Jew-hatred in the Muslim community.
“The phenomenon of Holocaust denial is not going away but is growing, which is unbelievable to me, and it’s growing a lot in the Arab/Muslim world,” Hannah Rosenthal, US special envoy to combat anti- Semitism, told The Jerusalem Post in a recent interview upon returning from the early August trip. “When it comes to Holocaust denial and anti- Semitism, this can have a sea change.”
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She pointed to a statement the eight participating imams and Muslim leaders made unequivocally condemning anti-Semitism following their trip.
“I’m not so silly as to think that one trip and eight imams signing a statement will change age-old perceptions,” Rosenthal acknowledged, “but it’s a very, very big step and I’m very excited about it.”
The declaration states, “We bear witness to the absolute horror and tragedy of the Holocaust where over 12 million human souls perished, including 6 million Jews.”
It continues, “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.”
Rosenthal, who was joined on the trip by other officials from the Obama administration and former Republican administrations, said that many of the imams intend to have colleagues sign on, and that several of those who participated will be holding programming and even trips with members of their community.
“Those condemnations are very powerful,” she said, noting that all of the participants have significant followings. “They all learned and know that they have a responsibility.”
Suhaib Webb, a Muslim educational leader in California, described himself as “just overwhelmed by the sheer absence of humanity... I didn’t have any idea of the enormity of it.”
He explained that the Muslim participants on the trip felt “we have a responsibility to bring something back to our communities [as well as] to address some of the fringe elements who are Holocaust deniers and anti-Semites.”
Yasir Qadhi, a resident scholar at a mosque in Tennessee, also described himself as unable to comprehend “the sheer inhumanity” of the Holocaust following the trip.
“It’s going to have a number of effects,” he said of the trip, pointing to parallels between anti-Semitism and Islamaphobia and the need to counter both.
“We stand united as Muslim American faith and community leaders and recognize that 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,” the imams’ statement also says. “With the disturbing rise of anti-Semitism, Islamaphobia, and other forms of hatred, rhetoric and bigotry, now more than ever, people of faith must stand together for truth.”
Qadhi was the subject of some criticism because he once made statements questioning the extent of the Holocaust, which led some to suggest he was an inappropriate choice for the delegation.
In 2001, Qadhi said that Adolf Hitler didn’t intend to exterminate all the Jews. Several years ago he retracted and apologized for his statements.
In response to the criticism about his participation, he said, “It was even more necessary for me to go and see how wrong I was.”
He added, “We do need to appreciate that people can change.”
Anti-Defamation League National Director Abe Foxman said he was wrongly depicted in the media as being among those opposed to Qadhi’s participation and stressed that he had not contacted any organizers about which imams were going on the trip.
“I think it’s wonderful,” he said of the initiative.
But, as someone whose own organizations had led trips of Muslim leaders to concentration camps and Holocaust museums, Foxman cautioned that not everyone comes away with the same message this group did.
He said that in some cases, these trips have been used to draw parallels to the Palestinian case rather than to take a stand against Holocaust denial.
And he did question the appropriateness of Rosenthal’s participation in the trip.
“She has a job to do [and] that’s fight anti-Semitism, and interact with government officials, and not go on educational trips,” he said.
Rosenthal was a late addition to the trip, sponsored by the Konrad Adenauer Foundation and organized by Rabbi Jack Bemporad of the Center for Interreligious Understanding in Carlstadt, a borough of Düsseldorf, and Marshall Breger, a law professor at the Catholic University in Washington involved in interfaith work.
Breger, a former Jewish liaison in the Reagan White House, defended the choice of participants.
“In my experience the Jewish community limits itself to talking to people they feel have quote on quote ‘proper credentials,’ and those people have no significant constituencies,” he contended.
“It seemed better to reach out to people who have significant constituencies in the Muslim world and are prepared to be engaged and hopefully be impacted or transformed by their experience than not talk to them because them because they don’t have the right credentials,” Breger said.