Shouts are heard by students gathered at the entrance to the public schoolyard in Malmö Sweden. The trigger: a rabbi has been invited to the school — and with a large kippah and peyot (sidelocks) he looks noticeably Jewish. His appearance has ignited a reaction with some of the pupils as they associate him with the Middle East conflict, despite him being the rabbi of the local Jewish community. Surprisingly, the rabbi comes in the company of an imam.
Imam Salahuddin Barakat and Rabbi Moshe David HaCohen take a deep breath. It is time for another Amanah visit to a school in Malmö.
Amanah, a unique Muslim-Jewish partnership in Malmö, has been an active grassroots player for the past four years, visiting schools, creating workshops, working on the ground, through official representation and unique collaboration between the local Jewish and Muslim communities.
By the end of the school visit that day, the shouts turned into a fruitful conversation focused on dealing with conflicts and disagreements. How anti-Semitism and Islamophobia are similar, and that allowing one, gives the green light for the other as well.
A recent report published by the municipality of Malmö titled “Schoolyard racism, conspiracy theories and exclusion,” has highlighted the well-known problem. The report, which received national attention in Sweden, as well as international Jewish press coverage, claims “a structural problem also in Malmö’s schools in terms of the skills and conditions to address issues of antisemitism.” Racial jokes using Jews and the Holocaust are considered normal. Another recent report, which received far less attention, shows that 97 percent of all Malmö residents who are exposed to cyber-hatred are exposed because of their ethnicity – of which 70% are of Muslim faith.
Amanah has become painfully aware of how children and young Jewish students are particularly vulnerable because of tensions around the Israel-Palestine conflict on the one hand and Western anti-Semitic stereotypes on the other. We have lately seen how these two paths have crossed and stood side by side, resulting in Jewish students who are proud of their tradition and belonging – now at even greater risk of being attacked.
History has taught us that anti-Semitism is not a disease, but rather a symptom of an unhealthy society. It is not just a problem for Jews, but a sign that society has failed, which in turn signals a development leading to catastrophic consequences. The increasing Islamophobia as well as other forms of discrimination and racism, both in society and specifically at school, reflect the same symptoms, namely society’s failure to accept others for who they are.
In Malmö city’s report, it appears that the suggested solution is primarily through education about the Holocaust and anti-Semitism. Although formal education is always useful, it is not always enough.
Amanah has experienced that a change of perspective is necessary. Each student needs to become aware of a very basic for young adults; that in order to be accepted and appreciated by society for who they are, they need to treat others in the same way. That their acceptance of discrimination, regardless of which one, is tantamount to the fact that they too are at risk of being discriminated against.
Having an imam and rabbi take the classroom stage together, we have not surprisingly focused on religion, rather on difficult conversations about identity, belonging, conflict, democracy and discrimination with both students and teachers. Through open and direct conversations and shared experiences, we allow Jews, Muslims and others to find support in each other by wearing each other’s shoes.
Our direct appeal and our open conversations have produced positive results. Through our visits, we have come to an understanding with principals, teachers and students — that as long as Jewish youth do not feel safe and appreciated about who they are, Swedish society is in danger.
We hope that the genuine concern seen in the report will raise awareness among schools in Malmö about the current situation. Hopefully, it will also lead to schools benefiting from what Amanah offers as a complement to existing and additional educational methods. European history has taught us that otherness and discrimination are the first steps towards genocide. It is not too late yet, but measures need to be put in place now to achieve fundamental change.
Moshe David HaCohen