Once we were in the same shoes

Ever so often we hear it in Europe that “Muslim–Migrant neighbourhoods are No-Go-Areas for Jews”, since, as you know, “those Muslims and Migrants are dangerous, not civilized…” I happen to live in one of these “No-go-Areas“ of Berlin, between two mosques and I love it. And I don’t think that in 2014 Jews are the ones who need to be afraid. However often we might hear about Anti-Semitism, we are not the main target group of discrimination and hate speech anymore.

Take, for example, my country of origin, Hungary. Nowadays almost all the reports concerning Hungary in the Western media are about Anti-Semitism and the non-existence of Jewish life there. Sure, some idiotic Hungarian compatriots may paint a swastika on the wall of a synagogue or call me in the middle of the street “JEW!”, however that will not put the Hungarian Jewry in such a bad situation as the leading discourse might suggest. In the same country, in the same time the law forbids homeless people to live on the streets, the country has a 13% unemployment rate, local administrations leave the Roma in extreme poverty and refugee rights are not even a topic for discussion.
We, the new generation of Hungarian Jews see the flourishing Jewish life in Budapest. We feel, what also the latest scientific researches conducted by the well-known Hungarian sociologist András Kovács make clear that anti-Semitic expressions in the Hungarian society are decreasing. Jews are not the main victims anymore; we have the chance to act, in Hungary, Europe and beyond. (For more on the topic of the contraproductive nature of preoccupation with anti-Semitism I recommend this earlier article of mine.)

Times are changing. The European Jewish establishment’s habits should start changing, too. It’s time for a more socially engaged Jewry. For a Jewry that, as a friend of mine puts it, doesn’t only say “Never again should this – persecution – happen to us”, but rather “Never again should this happen to anyone”.

The need for interfaith social activism

The Torah commands us the following: “Don’t oppress the foreigner, since you were foreigners in the land of Egypt”. The rabbis of the early Jewish tradition interpreted this verse as the protection of the converts, since they couldn’t imagine a situation, where Jews would have the opportunity to oppress anyone – we were “the victims” at the time. But today the situation is quite different. Following the Shoah, part of the European Jewry became part of the mainstream society. “The Jew” is not weak anymore, not a prey – and that is good. This new role the Jewish community plays in the European society of the present day entails responsibilities never experienced before. This idea has led me to the idea of interfaith social activism.

At ‘traditional’ interfaith events, we sit down together and discuss the similarities of Islam and Judaism. This might be interesting but during the discussion, I often have an uncomfortable feeling, that I, as a Jew have more privileges in Germany than my Muslim fellows.

As long as in the overwhelming majority of the German states it’s not allowed to bury the deceased in a Muslim way, as long as only Christian churches may sound their bells but it’s forbidden for the Mueddhin to call the believers to prayer, as long as Muslim organizations are not allowed by the state to collect taxes – we do not have the same rights in practising our religions and we do not have the same opportunity to live as a religious person in Germany.

I believe before sitting down with each other to discuss the common values in our religions, we have to sit down and work together for the equal rights of our communities.

The responsibility of the media

The challenges that the Islamic community is facing now are familiar to us, Jews. Once we had to fight for the same sort of recognition, once it was us, who had to witness constant agitation against our civilization in the mainstream media, it used to be us whose life was endangered on the streets. Now it’s Muslims who are killed by Nazis in Germany and no one cares. Between 2000 and 2006, three terrorists known as the NSU – Nazi Underground killed eight innocent Turkish workers: up to 2011, German media and politicians were talking about the “Kebab Murderers” because “those Muslims are criminals, anyway, and their mafias are fighting each other”.

At the same time, Thilo Sarrazin, former Social Democratic finance minister of Berlin wrote a book, “Deutschland schafft sich ab” (Germany eliminates itself). He states that “Muslims are stupid, lazy and not productive” and that “this is genetically predetermined and inherited”, so he concludes that Germany will soon not exist anymore because Muslims are reproducing themselves faster than all the other groups. “Deutschland schafft sich ab” was the most successful book in Germany after the Second World War. All Jews remember a book written by a certain A. Hitler that was similarly popular a few decades ago; that book also held one people responsible for all the troubles in Germany.

This is true not for Germany alone. When in American and British newspapers I read that “Muslims everywhere behave with equal savagery”, or “Muslims are and have always been on a mission to conquer and kill infidels” – I have the feeling I have read this already with the word “Jew” in place of the word “Muslim”. At times, the language used to describe Muslims in mainstream newspapers is horrifyingly similar to the language used by the Nazi propaganda describing Jews.

In my opinion, the state recognition of Islam will come only after the representation of the religion is changed. To create a more realistic picture was the motivation of the Salaam-Shalom Initiative, when we began to do interviews with Muslims living in the migrant neighborhood of Neukölln, Berlin. Our interviewees were telling us that they have felt insulted by the statement that Neukölln is a No-go-Area for Jews because of them. They are yearning for the same values as we are: pluralism and co-existence – not polarization that racist and Islamophobic statements cause.

And they have told us about their everyday challenges which we never hear about: not only about those stemming from the juridical non-recognition of Islam, but also the everyday Islamophobic incidents that are all consequences of the one-sided and misleading representation of Islam in mainstream European discourse.

Never did Europe’s mainstream media report on the Muslims who saved a synagogue in England financially, never did they speak about the joint Muslim-Jewish-Christian religious services for peace in the US, never did they write about the Imams praying for the souls of those murdered in Auschwitz, never did they cover the Muslim anti-terrorist youth camps in the UK. And the list of things they could have reported on is very long, thank God.

However, what mainstream media loves to report about is terrorist attacks or the oppression of women. We get the picture of a violent and male chauvinist religion, hence the justification of not recognizing it as equal to Christianity and Judaism. Meanwhile, statistics prove that in Europe less than 1% of terrorist attacks have Islamic background (in the US, this number is 6%), and, by the way, four of the five largest countries with a Muslim majority have already had women as presidents – unlike most European countries or the US.
Another thing the mainstream media in Germany always reports on is the Al-Quds March. The Al-Quds March is meant to be a solidarity event with the Palestinians, but, in the leading discourse, it became a symbol for Muslim Anti-Semitism: every year, the media manage to record Anti-Semitic chants at this event in Berlin and this is used again and again to prove that Muslims are anti-Semitic.

There is a slight little problem with this: from the 5,000,000 Muslims in Germany, only 500 participate in this march. That’s exactly 0,0001%. Based on the behaviour of this 0,0001%, the German media are selling Muslim anti-Semitism, Muslim aggression: constructed images.

This is the same kind of thing the Anti-Semites do: many people have heard about the common Anti-Semitic stereotype that after the circumcision of a boy, the rabbi sucks the blood of the wounded bit. There are indeed some marginal Jewish Fundamentalist groups, where this is the practice: but that’s only 0,0001%, what about the rest? Representing a phenomenon which is different from the Leitkultur, the leading culture, as something primitive and of potential danger is a very old racial essentialist trick.

You might say representation is only a symbolic issue. But we mustn’t forget this false representation encourages Islamophobic deeds. It encourages 300 Islamophobic attacks each year in Germany – and massacres like the one committed in 2011 by Breivik in the left-wing youth camp at Utoya Island, Norway, causing the death of 77 people, mainly children in order to “save Europe from the Muslim conquest.”
As a French Muslim woman put it in an interview, who has to face Islam-bashing each day: “I feel that I now know what Jewish women went through before the Nazi roundups in France. When they went out in the street they were identified, singled out, they were vilified. Now that’s happening to us.”

I believe that fighting against different forms of Islamophobia – not only in Germany – and for the recognition of Islam in our mainstream European environment will lead to a decrease in anti-Semitic prejudice in the Muslim-Migrant communities. When I was in a mosque in Berlin working on a Jewish-Muslim social activism project, suddenly a Muslim visitor from Uganda appeared. He has never met a Jew before. He has had an idea of what Jews might be like – but due to the right-wing Israeli political narrative, his picture about us was not very positive. Then he came to see Jews working together with Muslims in a mosque, and he was amazed and enthusiastic to get in touch with Jews in his own country.

The golden rule

The central line of the Torah is the following: “Love your neighbour as yourself.” As one of the main figures of the Talmud, Rabbi Akiva put it, this teaching is the most important teaching of Judaism – everything else is just commentary.

This golden rule unites us all, since it’s valid for all of us. In Islam there are hadiths quoting Mohammad saying “None of you is truly a Muslim until he loves for his brother what he loves for himself”. There are Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, Sikh and many other religious and secular sources, which teach us this important rule.

We have to understand this line, this ethical norm. We have to recognize ourselves in our faith-neighbours, in the followers of Islam, and we have to work together to overcome the challenges and to have a Muslim and Jewish community of equal recognition in Germany and all over Europe.

About the Author
Armin Langer is a rabbinical student in Berlin and student of Jewish Theology at the University of Potsdam. He holds a B.A. in Philosophy (University of Budapest). He is also coordinator of the intercultural-interfaith social activist group Salaam-Shalom Initiative in Berlin, long-time volunteer of Limmud Hungary and board member of Congregation Sim Shalom in Budapest.