Reflections for Holocaust Memorial Day 2020

Yesterday I was called a Jewish agent. 

What! Why? I hear you exclaiming. The reason was simple. I had dared to extend an invitation to the local Holocaust Memorial Day event to local Muslims. It is reassuring to report that no one supported the views of this misguided individual and there was robust support for the event from others on the group. 

But the comment was a wakeup call. Whilst we have a lot of work that needs to be done in challenging anti-Semitism across the country, we have not taken up the challenge of addressing anti-Semitism robustly enough amongst Muslims. The reasons for this are many and varied. For one, there is a lack of understanding amongst Muslims surrounding the definition of anti-Semitism. There is a propensity to conflate political issues concerning Israel and Palestine with Jews and Jewish organisations in this country. There is a feeling that by commemorating the Shoah, we are ignoring the injustices and suffering of others (Muslims) across the world. And lastly and sadly, some Muslims have been indoctrinated with anti-Semitic views. 

The working definition developed by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance clearly defines anti-Semitism and the definition does not include criticism of the state or government of Israel.  The full definition can be seen here . But when you start accusing Jews as a people of being responsible for real or imagined wrongdoings, for example, or deny the facts of the holocaust or even the holocaust itself, you are being anti-Semitic.

For Muslims, there will always be sympathy for the injustices suffered by their Palestinian brothers and sisters but this should never prevent us from developing friendships and working relationships with Jews. We must stop blaming all Jews for the actions of the Israeli state or the actions of individuals. This is synonymous with blaming all Muslims for terrorist attacks, British Indians for what the Indian government of Modi is doing to Muslims in India and Kashmir or blaming all Arabs for what’s happening in Yemen. 

Holocaust Memorial Day commemorates the Shoah and subsequent genocides, in Armenia, Bosnia, Cambodia, Darfur and Rwanda. It is not ‘just about the Jews’.

I have spent over half my life working with people of all faiths and none. Most recently I have been working with Nisa-Nashim, a Jewish and Muslim women’s network, that strives to develop friendships, respect and understanding between our faiths. I have seen Jewish women be the first to call out anti-Muslim hatred and have the utmost regard for أهلالكتاب‎ Ahl al-Kitāb ‘People of the Book’ . I take guidance from my religion, most especially on how to treat others and I wish others, in particular our keyboard warriors who feel they are defending Muslims and Islam by attacking Jews, would do the same. 

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Reflections from St Mary’s Church Stafford

In the name of God the Most beneficent the Most merciful

O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know each other (not that you may despise (each other). Verily the most honoured of you in the sight of God is (he who is) the most righteous of you. And God has full knowledge and is well acquainted (with all things). (Al Hujarat)

Salaam Shalom and Peace 

It is always a source of great honour to be invited to speak at St Mary’s – and especially to be asked to share some reflections, as we commemorate Holocaust Memorial Day on what is, the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.

I’m sure we’ve all seen a number of news reports and social media posts this week related to Holocaust Memorial Day. Senior multi faith representatives visited and prayed at the site of Auschwitz in a show of unity and friendship. You may have seen reports of global senior politicians and dignitaries in Germany, speaking out about the holocaust as crimes against humanity. The Premier League also produced a very powerful anti-racism film featuring top footballers to mark HMD. This commemoration is about remembering a period in our world history that we really should be ashamed of. A point in history that saw the systematic extermination, of millions. Six million Jews, and countless others targeted because of their racial and political ideologies – the Roma, Jehovah’s Witnesses, dissidents, communists, social democrats as well as those with disabilities and homosexuals. 

It’s really difficult to try and comprehend the mass scale at which these events took place. And in trying to get our heads around the enormity of the numbers, we sometimes neglect the fact, that every single one of these beings, lived, had a narrative to tell, each individual experienced a life that came to a vicious and abrupt end. If you haven’t yet seen them, you may want to take a look at some of the survivors’ testimonies online  not just related to how they survived but what they lost during this bleakest period of human history. 

But one thing we forget is this. Hostility towards Jews began long before Hitler came into power. It started many years before that – with name calling, stereotyping, character assassination, religious intolerance and bigotry. The Nazi trademark of anti-Semitism blamed Jews for the defeat of Germany in 1918, it “predicted” the annihilation of the Jewish race from Germany and propagated the idea of the dominance of the pure white or Aryan race. The demonization came many years before state-sponsored extermination, by creating a division in society – a ‘them’ and ‘us’ society, where ‘they’ were the root cause of all societal problems. Stigmatisation and persecution became the norm and whilst sometimes we make it sound like it happened overnight, it didn’t.

Closer to home, our own divisions in society sometimes seem overwhelming, with anti-Semitism, anti-Muslim hatred, racism, gender-based violence, homophobia and other forms of prejudice growing on the streets of Britain. Today is an opportunity for us to listen, and show compassion to others. Evil acts by states and the slaughter of innocents should never be forgotten, nor should remembering victims of genocide be viewed as a ‘Jewish thing’ – it is a universal and humanitarian obligation, to ensure the world never sees it’s like again. Every year we say ‘never again’. Yet three days ago The International Court of Justice in The Hague ordered Myanmar to prevent a genocide of the country’s remaining Rohingya Muslims — the target of a brutal army crackdown that has led to the deaths of tens of thousands of innocent men women and children. Every year we commemorate the Shoah and the genocides that took place in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur. How long before we add Myanmar to the list? How long before we add Kashmir and Xinjiang to that list? Now is the time for all of us to break out of your comfort zones, our religious and collective bubbles, stand together and witness the humanity that exists amongst others. It is only then that we can honestly say that we are taking responsibility, we’re speaking out and will act against all forms of prejudice, racism and indiscriminate violence. We should never attempt to justify what are quite simply acts of evil as anything other than what they really are. We should never be amongst those “that shook their heads or turned away or watched the deeds of others but did nothing”. As Nelson Mandela reminded us “No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, because love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

I’d like to finish with a short prayer written especially for this years commemorations by the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Chief Rabbi and a senior Imam, and by quoting Prince Charles who said that ‘I hope and pray that all those who are suffering, all those who are oppressed, all those who are facing injustice, persecution and division find freedom, justice and equality” in the future.

A prayer for Holocaust Memorial Day 
“Loving God, we come to you with heavy hearts, remembering the six million Jewish souls and countless others who were murdered during the Holocaust.

In the horrors of that history, when so many groups were targeted because of their identity, and in genocides which followed, we recognise destructive prejudices that drive people apart.
Forgive us when we give space to fear, negativity and hatred of others, simply because they are different from us.
In the light of God, we see everyone as an equally precious manifestations of the Divine, and can know the courage to face the darkness.
Through our prayers and actions, help us to stand together with those who are suffering, so that light may banish all darkness, love will prevail over hate and good will triumph over evil.”

“For every man there is a purpose which he sets up for his life and which he pursues. Let yours be the doing of all good deeds’ (Al-Baqarah)

 

 

The Power of Friendship

The power of friendship is something that we underestimate. We form friendships throughout our lives. My 2½ year old granddaughter takes great pride in telling us that her friends in nursery are Neha, Gracie, Frankie and Finley. Friends come and go, because we move away from an area, our circumstances change or we simply grow apart. But there will always be something about all our friendships, that, wherever we go, there will still be a part of that friendship that remains.

The two names I recall from my early childhood friendships are Gail and Rosemary. I was heartbroken when Gail told me she wouldn’t be returning to school after the summer holidays because her family were emigrating to Australia. We must have been 10 at the time. Rosemary and I went our separate ways when after primary school we went to different middle schools. Grace and Tasneem are probably two of my oldest friends that I’m still in contact with. Grace and I met at high school over 30 years ago and she now lives in Scotland. We manage to stay in touch thanks to social media. Tasneem and I grew up within the Muslim community in Leeds. Our mums were friends and our sisters were friends. We exchange the occasional text message, most often when one of my sisters tells me she bumped into Tasneem as a wedding or funeral of a mutual acquaintance.

Many people become friends and touch our hearts in the course of our lives. People of many different cultures and faiths, if we are lucky! But despite growing up in a very Jewish part of Leeds, I didn’t have any Jewish friends. I knew of Jewish people. Our local chemist was owned by Mr Booth, our family GP was Dr Levy and my father would only ever buy fresh bread and cheesecake from Chaultz bakery when it opened on a Sunday morning after Shabbat.

I met my first Jewish friends when I moved to Staffordshire in the early 1990’s and became involved in the local interfaith organisation. They were part of a very small Hebrew congregation based up in Stoke and were in the process of de-consecrating the large synagogue that had now outgrown the diminishing community. The thing I welcomed most about our friendship was the capacity to have difficult conversations, but still remain honest and maintain respect for the views of ‘the other’, and of course, Sydney’s never-ending supply of Jewish jokes!

One conversation in particular I recall was with Sydney and a Christian chaplain. We were discussing the Israel – Palestine issue. Sydney understandably had his loyalty to Israel, but totally accepted that as a Muslim I would feel affinity to the plight of the Palestinians. As our conversation came to a close, Sydney looked at me and said “honestly Hifsa if this is what it takes for the Messiah to come, I wish he’d just stay where he was”. Some might call this blasphemy, I call it one mans’ desire to see peace in the region.

Through my friendships with Sydney, Paul, Martin and many others I was able to discover so much more about Judaism. My father used to say to me – our name is Haroon {Arabic for Aaron} don’t you know he was the brother of Moses & that makes Muslims and Jews brothers & sisters? I became a regular at the synagogue and attended many Sedar meals there. Sadly, I was also able to go and pay my final respects to Sydney when he passed away.

Over the last century, Muslims have suffered terrible conflicts in the Middle East, Bosnia, Africa and South Asia. But this is nothing when compared to the centuries of persecution faced by Jews; the Russian pogroms that saw the large scale targeted and repeated mob-attacks on Jews; and the Holocaust that witnessed the genocide of 6 million Jews, for example. But for the last 70 years our two great religions have been portrayed as being at war over the Israel-Palestine conflict. Indeed, it has been difficult to speak of Muslims and Jews without seeing things through the prism of the Middle East conflict. It needs to be acknowledged however that as a Muslim, it is natural for me to feel the pain of the terrible injustices and suffering faced by the Palestinians, whilst recognising that my Jewish friends will hold a deep connection to Israel and desire for a homeland which is safe and secure. Furthermore, just as I do not have to justify or be held to account for the actions of some Muslims, my Jewish friends do not have to account for the actions of the Israeli government.

Friendship is not about agreeing with everything the ‘friend’ has to say. Friendship is about the ability to listen to views and opinions that may differ from our own. Friendship is about trying to understand a different viewpoint and respectfully presenting your own. Friendship is about accepting that we don’t all have to be clones, it is ok to thing, believe and behave differently. True friendship is based on many factors but ultimately it is about recognising that despite all the things that we may disagree and differ on, our love for humanity is the one commonality that binds us.

Our faiths are different but the same. As Europe heads into uncertain times, the far-right and the far-left increasing in their vehemence towards the Muslim and the Jew, perhaps now is the time for us to rekindle old relationships. Friendship must always be used as our baseline. This is the foundation on which we build our communities and ensure they are interlinked & bound together, whatever our differences, in a way that will not allow minor tremors to bring down the structures we work so hard to raise.

{This blog post was first published on the website of Nisa-Nashim, the Jewish Muslim Women’s Network at http://www.nisanashim.org/the-power-of-friendship/ }

Our annual conference will be taking place in London on Sunday 7th April and will be about Faith and Friendship Shaping the Future Together Please do join us and purchase your tickets here https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/nisa-nashim-annual-conference-2019-faith-and-friendship-tickets-53727142329

 

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