When Good Intentions Meet Reality
By Symi Rom-Rymer
In a recent posting on the Washington Post’s OnFaith blog, a Rabbi and law professor recount their experience on a joint US Jewish-Muslim trip to the concentration camps of Germany and Poland. According to the authors’ account, “the Muslim leaders were visibly shaken by what they saw” and even those who had previously expressed skepticism about the Holocaust were moved and encouraged those with similar doubts to visit the camps for themselves.
Upon their return, the participating imams issued as statement saying in part, “We condemn any attempts to deny this historical reality and declare such denials or any justification of this tragedy as against the Islamic code of ethics…We have a shared responsibility to continue to work together with leaders of all faiths and their communities to fight the dehumanization of all peoples based on their religion, race or ethnicity. With the disturbing rise of anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and other forms of hatred, rhetoric and bigotry, now more than ever, people of faith must stand together for truth. Together, we pledge to make real the commitment of ‘never again’ and to stand united against injustice wherever it may be found in the world today.”
I am a big supporter of interfaith dialogue and educational programs. These kinds of efforts can help break down stereotypes and encourage new, more informed discussions to take place. But as I read this article, I was also reminded of a more sobering conversation I recently had with Karel, a Czech-Jewish friend, about what can happen once the trip is over and the leaders return to their communities.
Karel is close with several Czech Muslims. They hang out together a few times a month, catching up and swapping jokes at a local pub. When the conversation turns to Israel, as it often does, it is rational, measured, and understanding of all viewpoints. But when Karel’s friends speak publicly, as members of the Muslim community, the tone changes. Suddenly, they support anti-Israel rhetoric and are unabashedly pro-Palestinian. Karel, too, feels that he must tone down his support for the Muslim community when speaking as a board member of his synagogue. For him, this is all just politics: the opinions expressed over coffee are the truth and those expressed in public are just for show.
Karel sees the reality of both communities’ situations and accepts, at least for now, their limits. I am less understanding. It is encouraging to hear of friendships formed across the deep Jewish-Muslim divide, but what are those friendships worth in the face of glaring inconsistencies between public and private speech? Moreover, how can these two groups grow to trust each other if they cannot say to their congregations what they say to each other?
I am similarly encouraged to read about the successful interfaith trip detailed in the Washington Post. But at the same time, I can’t help wondering if the imams who condemn Holocaust denial and anti-Semitism today will stand firm in their willingness to speak out against hatred and violence in the wake of the next attack in the Middle East or if, like Karel’s friends, they will change their message to fit their communities’ expectations.
To paraphrase an old proverb, the road from hell is paved with good intentions, but it’s what happens at home that counts.
Symi Rom-Rymer writes and blogs about Jewish and Muslim communities in the US and Europe. She has been published in JTA, The Christian Science Monitor and Jewcy.