Talking About the Holocaust with the Saudis

Apparently dreams do come true, especially when there are dedicated people who devote time and energy into bringing them to reality.

A few months ago, when Dr. Mohammed Al Issa, former Saudi Minister of Justice and now the Secretary General of an influential Mecca-based NGO called the Muslim World League, as per request by his friend Robert Satloff, known for his research on the Holocaust in the Arab World, wrote a letter to the US Holocaust Museum, acknowledging the fact of the Holocaust, many observers of this latest development in Saudi Arabia’s process of liberalization wondered what was next.

Sure enough, Dr. Al Issa gave a surprisingly candid interview to the Algemeiner, an American Jewish newspaper. He also partook in a big interfaith event in DC, organized by Sam Brownback, the newly appointed Religious Ambassador. However, that event left more questions than answers, as some of the participants were mired in controversy. Despite the MoUs of continuity and pledges of dedication to high-minded nature, big scale events of that sort are often largely symbolic. I wondered whether anything more than a nice gesture would come out of that letter. To be sure, in itself, it was an important and historic development. Perhaps it was also done to cast shade on Iran, which, by the tone of the letter, acts “insane” in denying the Holocaust – whereas the Saudis, albeit belatedly, chose to embrace common sense and historic validity.

Still, writing one letter in English, that could be easily minimized if not outright ignored or suppressed in the Saudi Arabic-language press, might have little overall effect on the country itself, other than a political step towards rapprochement with the American Jewish community and perhaps a nod to the Trump administration.  How would the Saudis react if their feet were held to the fire? Would Dr. Al Issa be willing to go on record with further commentary on this subject? Would he be willing to appear alongside Jews and talk in more depth about the Holocaust? Would his words be translated to Arabic? There was only one way to find out, and that was to actually invite him to such an occasion.

What if a Jewish organization had an event in some way commemorating the Holocaust, jointly with the Saudis, among others? What if the Saudis had opportunity to be treated as equals among nations, as opposed to untouchables, given that partnering with them on such a topic would normally be considered unthinkable? Just how far would they be willing to go? As it turned out, the American Sephardi Federation in New York was curious and courageous enough to explore such a possibility, and, along with the Conference of Presidents of Jewish American Organizations, reached out to Dr. Al Issa to invite him to speak on this subject. I personally was skeptical that Dr. Al Issa would accept the invitation, or that the event would actually happen, and remained doubtful up until the point he actually walked into the room.

Indeed, my skepticism about his willingness to walk the walk was also in part mired in my skepticism about the country’s progress in general – the range of opinions on its direction ranges from full throated enthusiasts who unequivocally endorse every move its Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman makes to dismissive haters, who believe that nothing the Saudis have suggested has been real, that all of the changes taking place inside the country have been cosmetic, and that nothing good will ever happen in that backwards place. Needless to say, I steered clear of both positions, preferring to cautiously watch and see what happens, encouraging positive steps to the best of my ability. Pushing the Saudis to talk more about the Holocaust was not just a way of testing them, but also a way of actively promoting the change that everyone wants to see. Giving an opportunity to do the right thing is the essential premise of the Jewish attitude; I was glad to see two major organizations embrace that. The temptation to steer clear of controversy was strong, but I thought that once someone initiated the dialogue, others would gladly jump on the bandwagon and follow.

As it turned out, the Saudis turned out to be willing to be pushed much farther than even I expected. The event, which, appropriately, took place at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York, started with the Israeli Consul General in New York Danny Dayan giving a moving speech in praise of Dr. Al Issa’s courage, and acknowledging the history of coexistence of Jews and Muslims in the Middle East, as well as the stories of Muslims who rescued Jews from the Holocaust, ranging from Egypt to Iraq. He left for Israel’s 70th celebration that took part later that evening before Dr. Al Issa took stage, but the very fact that an acting Israeli diplomat and the head of one of the foremost Muslim theologians from a formerly closed society, where any mention of Jews in any favorable context, was once seen as socially prohibited, participated in the same event spoke volumes about the reality of the steps the Saudi government is indeed taking to fight prejudice. The social part of the event was a testimony to the realities that defy sensationalist press and gloating by those who thrive on fearmongering. Israeli diplomats amicably chatted with their Muslim counterparts from Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, and Morocco. Indeed, these relationships appeared at least every bit as friendly as any interaction I have seen between the Israelis and their European partners – if not warmer.

Following that, we moved into the auditorium (“we” being an eclectic gathering of human rights activists, Middle East enthusiasts and scholars, Jewish advocates, and assorted others) where the bulk of the presentation took place.  The presentation began with Laziza Dalil’s speech representing the Mimouna Association from Morocco. The Mimouna Association was co-founded by Laziza, and Elmehdi Boudra, both wonderful people and great friends, to educate the young Moroccan Muslims about the rich Jewish history of their country, to ensure that the remembrance of Jewish culture and the Moroccan tradition of existence would never be lost or forgotten. In over ten years of its existence, Mimouna-inspired clubs have sprung up over a number of Moroccan college campuses, while the original association runs a number of successful cultural and educational events, each year, bringing together groups of young people to discover and celebrate various Jewish traditions.

It is named after the eponymous Moroccan Jewish holiday, which celebrates the end of Passover with the gathering of Jews and Muslims over a feast of baked goods, while sharing in music and dancing. Laziza, who came to participate in the event, despite tragically recently losing her father, gave a very moving speech which included the story of her personal encounter with anti-Semitism in France, which caused her to abandon her study abroad program there, return to Morocco to join the Al Akhwayn University, and, meeting up with Elmehdi, who shared his vision with her, focus on founding and growing the organization. At the event, she announced the launch of the first ever Arab language Holocaust education curriculum specifically designed for the Moroccan audience.

Unlike previous such projects which were either translations of existing Western curricula or, in one Swedish case, were created by non-Muslims for the local Swedes (and were likewise a translation), this was an original productions meant to operate in the existing framework and address cultural and historic issues specific to Morocco and the language issues that would otherwise be a barrier towards understanding the Holocaust. The Mimouna Association is already working in partnership with the US Holocaust Museum, and held a screening of Satloff’s film, but now it’s looking to produce an original short documentary that would introduce the topic to the local audiences. All of that has been an inspiring achievement, which will hopefully serve as a model for other Muslim and Arab states looking to incorporate Holocaust education, including, of course, Saudi Arabia.

Following Laziza’s presentation, the guest of honor joined the public in conversation with Robert Satloff, who asked him about the origin of his views and interest in Holocaust and history (given that all of his formal education has been in theology), and also engaged him on the future plans to introduce Holocaust education formally to students into the country. Dr. Al Issa reiterated his commitment to truth and engaged in forward-looking thinking that made clear that he was indeed interested in getting to a place where such education would be considered something normal, rather than radical and controversial. The challenge here, of course, is that unlike Morocco, Saudi Arabia has no recent history of Jewish presence in the country, nor a king who had saved the Jews from the Holocaust.

Indeed, until recently, the sentiments from the Royal Family, were quite the opposite, and so at this point, they are basically constructing a new future based on the direction they would like to be going in, rather than following inertly the trajectory dictated by the past. Dr. Al Issa, however, made it clear that he is committed to introducing a humane vision of Islam that recognizes the humanity of people of other religions and condemns the crimes of the Holocaust in no uncertain terms. That sort of thinking is the first and most important step in reforming the mindset of the entire country, and which with time can undo decades of learned prejudices.

Laziza presented Dr. Al Issa with the curriculum in an important symoblic gesture, that served, on many levels to bring together the two monarchies overs the common issue, while also lending a hand with an important project in a context that is more relevant than its Western analogues. That such a gesture represents KSA’s full embrace of modernity is fairly obvious; what is more interesting is the fact that increasingly Muslim countries are embracing the fact and the narrative of pluralism, tolerance, and humanity in opposition to the popular concept in certain circles that Islam is a religion that cannot be interpreted in any humanistic manner or reformed or otherwise directed towards humane ends. This event was just as important in terms of the inter Dar al-Islam dialogue, as in terms of interfaith discussion. Indeed, whatever changes need to take place in Muslim majority countries are taking place not because of the pressure from the Western world, but due to the initiative of their leadership in government and in religious circles.

That was the sentiment that also came from the three Ambassadors from Muslim countries, who, after the entire group of speakers was honored for their courage and contributions to the conversation, were invited to speak about the Jewish communities and history of coexistence in their own countries. Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan, two, formerly Soviet countries, both felt the brunt of World War II personally. Azerbaijan lost one sixth of its population in fighting. Both teach Holocaust as a regular part of their curriculum; not teaching it seemed absurd to both diplomats.  Their input was very important; they made the idea of acknowledging Holocaust and respecting people of other faiths as Muslim majority countries appear natural and normal. Their role in normalizing what in modern conversation about Islam seems far-fetched and exotic will go a long way towards dispersing preconceptions, as well as encouraging Saudi Arabia to take increasingly bolder steps.

At the same time, Morocco delivered a tour de force speech, giving full credit to King Mohammed VI and his personal dedication towards ensuring that Holocaust is a vibrant part of the education and conversation. The monarchy is actively engaged in bringing the educational curriculum (starting with the Al-Addin project in 2009) into the country, and formally facilitating its implementation. However, none of those comments should be taken as a rebuke to the current government of Saudi Arabia, or to Dr. Al Issa who initiated a step that may seem comically belated to most people who have grown up with the normalcy of acknowledging the Holocaust. Given KSA’s history, however, any small step is progress in the right direction, and so long as it keeps moving in that direction, rather than gets stuck on some symbolic achievement, such movement is laudable. Rather, these comments by the three diplomats should be taken as encouragement, and a rebuke to any of Dr. Al Issa’s critics from the religious clergy or the political establishment who may be opposed to or skeptical of his efforts.

Following the conclusion of the formal part of the event, a small group of us was honored to join Dr. Al Issa for conversation at dinner over delicious Syrian Jewish food. While that conversation was off the record, I can assure you that Dr. Al Issa was very forthright and insightful in his comments, and made some very interesting remarks that convinced me both of his (and his government’s) sincerity on this issue and the challenges that he is facing in his journey. I hope that this event was just a start to a future organizational relationship with his NGO, and that we shall soon see genuine progress in introducing Holocaust into educational curriculum in every Saudi school and university.

About the Author
Irina Tsukerman graduated with a JD from Fordham University School of Law in 2009 and received her BA in International/Intercultural Studies and Middle East Studies from Fordham University in 2006. Her legal and advocacy work focuses on human rights and security issue, mostly in Muslim countries. She is also involved in diplomatic outreach and relationship-building among different communities.
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