Among the ruins in Jerusalem and Berlin: A call to return

For the more than 150 participants at the Muslim Jewish Conference 2016, Tisha Be’av 5776 came at the end of a long and intense week of dialogue, introspection, and in many ways tangible progress.

Muslim and Jewish participants in the seventh annual Muslim Jewish Conference perform Friday prayers (photo credit: DANIEL SHAKED)
Muslim and Jewish participants in the seventh annual Muslim Jewish Conference perform Friday prayers
(photo credit: DANIEL SHAKED)
BERLIN – Listening to Lamentations, Jeremiah’s vivid recounting of Jerusalem’s destruction by the Romans, I asked myself in quasi-Passover style: “Why is this Tisha Be’av different from all others?”
The simple answer was that as opposed to previous years spent fasting in the Holy City, I was now in a hotel conference room in Berlin. More notably, roughly a third of the congregation sitting on the floor that night were Muslims.
There was far more to it than that, however.
For the more than 150 participants at the Muslim Jewish Conference 2016, Tisha Be’av 5776 came at the end of a long and intense week of dialogue, introspection, and in many ways tangible progress.
The conference, founded by Ilja Sichrovsky and now in its seventh year, brought together members of both religions from 33 countries, including Pakistan, Sudan, Tunisia, the Palestinian territories and Singapore. Inter- and intra-faith dialogues were complimented by a range of activities, panels, and shared religious experiences.
While the aim of the conference was not a phantasy of kumbaya – although I did hear it being ironically sung once – dialogue between total strangers over religious and political views quickly transduced into demystification, understanding and friendship. Art was created, projects conceived and developed.
The hotel lobby was busy almost 24 hours a day, somewhat resembling Jerusalem’s Mahaneh Yehuda market after the fruit stalls close and the bars open – a vibrant coming together of diverse backgrounds and cultures.
While the conference reached the heights of positivity over the Friday prayers (meditative Jummah, energetic Kabbalat Shabbat), the atmosphere viscerally mellowed with the setting of the sun on Saturday, as a few dozen participants gathered for a somber havdala and the reading of Lamentations.
Tisha Be’av is not a naturally sharable occasion, such as a bar mitzva, Seder night or Hanukka candle lightings, where other faiths could readily appreciate or participate in the symbolism and spirituality. It seemed ironic that a week of dialogue would end with possibly the least relatable experience of the Jewish calendar.
However, in an extraordinary demonstration of religious coexistence extending far beyond tolerance and curiosity, a participant from a remote town in the tribal badlands outside Karachi, Pakistan, decided to join her Jewish cousins for the 25-hour fast.
Her act was inspired by both solidarity and a deep spiritual appreciation of the Jewish people’s tragedy, an almost too-perfect example of the best that can be teased out from an interfaith exposure.
Nevertheless, it stood as an extraordinary exception, considering the world which waited outside the conference.
Inevitably, as participants began returning to the four corners of the map, those harsh realities began reemerging: News of an imam gunned down in New York City, and a stabbing in the West Bank; a Tunisian participant discovered that a close friend had quietly blocked her on social media, after she had appeared in a picture with a kippa-wearing man; another Muslim participant with a headache told me that if her mother knew she was taking an Israeli’s aspirin, she would be disowned. Nobody knew that she was in Berlin to meet Jews. My Twitter feed was, as ever, a mixture of anger and fear, as I absorbed a week’s worth of missed news.
It was more evident than ever that the MJC was a unique creation, a space for Muslims and Jews from every continent and background that seemed all too fragile to exist in the “real world.”
Something added to mourn, perhaps.
RABBI JOSEPH B. Soloveitchik taught that marking Tisha Be’av is not an act of memorializing ancient history. Rather, it should be practiced in a way that every generation experiences the destruction afresh – just as Jews seek to recreate the Exodus, sojourning in the desert, and receiving the Torah each year.
As with each calendar event’s unique concoction of symbolism and tradition, Soloveitchik explained that the days and weeks leading up to Tisha Be’av are constructed to resemble the mourning process for a loved one: layers of intensifying mourning lead up to the day itself, juxtaposing the gradual parting from grief we experience after bereavement.
While one is an immersion, and the other a release, the unifying lesson is that the Jewish people never stop losing the Temples. We don’t get to move on, to mark it our loss once a year with a yahrzeit candle and kaddish yatom (mourner’s prayer).
A former student of Soloveitchik, Rabbi Reuven Grodner, further explained that we induce such harsh feelings of loss precisely because we pray for a brighter future; through pain we seek to evolve. Indeed, at the end of Lamentations we read, “From the depths of our sadness comes gratitude and song.”
Perhaps it explains how Jews were able to hold onto the dream of returning home for so long, while enduring religious and racial persecution at almost every step along the way.
The Tisha Be’av experience has pushed Jews to remember their roots for two millennia, and we are a better people for it.
IN BERLIN you are of course confronted with reminders of the Holocaust, where the relative safety provided by Jews’ assimilation and dispersal across a dozen borders was outmaneuvered first by Hitler’s rhetoric, then his policies, and finally by his tank columns.
Even between the city’s modern facades and model village suburbs, ghosts emerge onto the streets of Berlin. You glimpse them among the trees in Tiergarten, they weep beneath the colossal flagpole at the Reichstag.
Two days prior to Tisha Be’av, the MJC visited the site of the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, 35 km. north of Berlin. Eighty years after its gates opened – “Arbeit Macht Frei” still taunts all those who pass through – participants recited prayers in Hebrew and Arabic to sanctify the memory of those who perished.
It was a truly beautiful ceremony, but on reflection, the contrast with the prophet Jeremiah’s message on Saturday night was clear.
Muslim and Jewish participants pray and embrace during a ceremony at the site of the Sachsenhausen concentration camp in Oranienburg, GermanyMuslim and Jewish participants pray and embrace during a ceremony at the site of the Sachsenhausen concentration camp in Oranienburg, Germany
To remember the Temples, and our exile, we immerse ourselves in spiritual, physical, communal grief. The pain remains fresh, and so does the message. Aveilut. Mourning.
To remember the Holocaust, we build museums and memorials. On Holocaust Remembrance Day we stand in silence and recite kaddish, accepting the passing of time, and with it the inevitability of history. Yahrzeit. Memorial.
We say “Never forget!”, but who among us lights a yahrzeit candle for their great-grandparents?
With the passing of the generation which bore its horrors, what if the Jewish people stopped commemorating the Holocaust, and began to truly mourn it in the Jewish way – by evoking it? It certainly would not be easy.
Who could bear to know the agony and terror of the camps, the endless horrors of the cattle cars? Who could cast his mind’s eye back, and meet the gaze of an SS soldier? Whose mind’s ear could stomach the beat of marching jackboots? Whose feet could shuffle forward on the train platform, as he is separated from his family for the final time?
Who could do that every year? What benefit would the trauma bring?
We are called back to Jerusalem not despite our suffering on Tisha Be’av, but because of it. Likewise, if the Jewish people want to strive for a brighter future in the Diaspora, it must begin mourning the Holocaust anew.
Muslim and Jewish participants pray and embrace during a ceremony at the site of the Sachsenhausen concentration camp in Oranienburg, GermanyMuslim and Jewish participants pray and embrace during a ceremony at the site of the Sachsenhausen concentration camp in Oranienburg, Germany
JEWISH LIFE in much of Europe remains a shadow of its former self. The vast majority of communities and representative bodies build high walls, physically and politically, cutting themselves off from society at large at the grassroots level.
While that may have been sufficient to continue Jewish life on the continent for a time, Europe approaches the political precipice once more.
Rampant radicalization of both majority and minority populations has led to the rise of the xenophobic far Right across much of the continent on one hand, ghetto-ization and barbaric terrorism on the other.
This is no time for political disengagement.
With Jews gored between the horns, anti-Semitism has reached an intolerable level for many, but for Rafael Tyszblat, the 36-year-old Parisian who plays a large role in organizing the MJC, the Jewish community in France has been misguided in its approach to its role in society.
“The organized Jewish community does not see the value in building bridges with other minorities in France,” he said, comparing a healthy approach to social engagement to that of a balanced attitude to religion.
“Safety and integration is like practicing a religion: you have the vertical relationship with God, but also horizontally, with your brothers. So too with the Jewish community and the state, which is vertical, and with other communities in the country – horizontal.”
Acknowledging the difficulties of reaching out when Jews are regularly the target for abuse or worse, Tyszblat said, “It takes perseverance in times of war, but we need to make the extra effort to understand how to talk with others.”
He added that in his experience there are leaders in both communities who want to reach out to one another, but lack the tools and spaces to make it possible.
Inter-communal dialogue can have a major impact in combating racism, where lobbying the state falls short in providing total security. In any case, complete security on the reliance of the state is not achievable even when a government is highly attuned to the needs of the community, as is the case today in the UK and Germany.
This is even more evident in France, where Manuel Valls’s government takes serious action against anti-Semitism.
However, while the state’s support has been welcomed by the community, Jews have seen the armed guards outside synagogues as a signal that the path to safety leads across the moat and behind the drawbridge.
Yet, as the situation continues to spiral out of control, thousands leave for Israel and the UK.
Something is not adding up.
Indeed, the society French Jews leave behind is fragmenting and radicalizing along every division line, according to Nassr Eddine Errami, a Moroccan-born Shi’ite religious leader in Paris and Strasbourg who staffed the MJC this year.
From his perspective among the Muslim community, the Jewish exodus is only making the situation worse for everyone in the long term.
Echoing Tyszblat, Errami said that in his experience, the best way to combat radicalization is through exposure to the other. He specified that distance between minorities, both physical and social, leads to a “competition of victimization, which only shuts down empathy and understanding of the other’s perspective.”
Pushing for greater cooperation in France and across Europe, he said that there is no reason that Muslims and Jews cannot come to understand, support and help de-radicalize each other.
Participants in the Power, Religion and Human Rights committeeParticipants in the Power, Religion and Human Rights committee
Addressing l’éléphant dans le salon, he says that as long as both groups do not present blindly uncritical narratives of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there is significant room for progress in de-escalating what has become a toxic issue between Jews and Muslims in every society they share.
“If Zionism is advocating for peace and a solution for two states, or [even] a secular state including all origins and backgrounds, then many Muslims are Zionist,” he said. Coming from an imam, that position represents an opportunity, not a threat.
The MJC itself embodies the idea of opportunity, but its success is by no means a guarantee. With the most vigorous argument of the week possibly going to the unlikely match-up between a pro-Clinton Orthodox rabbi and a pro-Trump Muslim, organizers privately acknowledged that each conference could go disastrously wrong. In practice, however, the successes pile up.
As an Israeli-British Jewish Zionist who served in the IDF, I found at the MJC curiosity and sincerity in far greater volumes than hostility and rejection.
Unlike in some interfaith spaces, anti-Zionism and auto-flagellation were neither prerequisite nor predominant.
By and large, those present had open minds, were turned off by slick propaganda, and weary from absolutist polemics.
Those apathetic and suspicious of these initiatives from within Diaspora communities must learn instead to nurture opportunities such as these.
DESPITE NUMEROUS issues with other minorities, it is not only the fellow stranger that Jewish communities need to keep check of in 21st-century Europe.
Civil liberties in France and other nations are being degraded on the back of far-right nationalist populism, often under the guise of security measures.
In Paris, police brutality against minorities and refugees goes unchecked and unanswered; just last week, between riot police gassing and beating non-violent protesters, the French authorities were caught tricking refugees into signing their own deportation forms, under the guise of applying for housing assistance.
Away from the realm of individual rights, some journalists compare their position in working with the authorities as akin to reporting from a Middle Eastern dictatorship. A culture of fear and repression is spreading.
As Muslim women in modest swimwear are called extremists, and told by city mayors they have “no business” on French beaches, and as France and other nations deport Roma from their borders to muted opposition, Jewish communities must question when, not if, the mob will turn on their values, on their traditions.
That the Jewish Diaspora has until now not offered solidarity with the Roma – a community that shared its tragic fate in the Holocaust – or with other minorities under attack, the picture sketched by Tyszblat and Errami comes into focus, and it’s ugly.
When phrases such as “get rid of four million problems” – in relation to the country’s Muslim citizens – can reportedly be freely aired in the corridors of power in France, those with a spine should shiver.
Talk of deportations does not always stop with deportations; acquiescence in the persecution of one minority is as short sighted as it is immoral.
For Jews, passivity is no longer a legitimate strategy in Europe. Passive remembrance of the Holocaust is no longer an effective call to vigilance.
AS THE Jewish people have begun to turn prophecy into reality, and the depths of their sadness becomes gratitude and song in Israel, so too must they become a force for good in Europe.
Dialogue is a necessary and critically needed tool to leverage both security and civil rights in the Diaspora; and it follows that supporting interfaith initiatives such as the MJC must become a priority for Diaspora communities.
Erich Fromm wrote that “to have faith requires courage, the ability to take a risk, the readiness to accept pain and disappointment. Whoever insists on safety and security as primary conditions of life cannot have faith… he makes himself a prisoner.”
When the Second Temple stood in all its glory, Jews nevertheless sat and fasted. They did so not just to mourn Solomon’s Temple, but to pray history would not repeat itself.
The path to securing a Jewish future in the Diaspora begins with mourning the Holocaust for these very reasons. It ends not behind a castle wall, but in a conference room in Berlin, mourning the cruelty of human history with a Pakistani Muslim, and vowing to change its future together.
Was this Tisha Be’av different from all others? That will be up to us all over the next year.