Jews and Muslims in dialogue

"Jews are being used to create anti-Muslim feeling"

Through their "Dialogue Perspectives" programme, the Ernst Ludwig Ehrlich and Avicenna academic foundations promote discourse between Jewish and Muslim scholarship holders. In an interview with Ursula Russmann, Rachel de Boor and Hani Mohseni talk about new alliances between their communities – and why the majority of society wants to see devout Jews, but liberal Muslims

Frau De Boor, Herr Mohseni, what changes for a young Jew and a young Muslim when, like the two of you, they enter into dialogue with the other’s community?

Mohseni: A lot of things. First and foremost, I became aware that as minorities, Jews and Muslims are in a similar position in society here. Personally, I had never had any contact with Jews before this. It hadn’t even occurred to me that secular Jews existed.

De Boor: For me, it’s sharpened my vision. I live in Neukolln, in Berlin, where I hear Arabic spoken every day, and have always been aware of Ramadan, for example. But I had never dared to ask a lot of questions. The dialogue project between the funding bodies has made it easier to ask questions.

And it’s easier to give honest feedback, too – like: “You can’t ask that question, it’s racist. Why do you think I am that way just because I’m Jewish?” Although I have to say, I haven’t had many tactless questions from Muslims, it’s been more from other people.

The exchange in the “Dialogue Perspectives” programme is generally more social and political than theological. And that’s really important, because when we’re talking about things like the circumcision debate, or the precarious housing market, Jews and Muslims often have the same problems.

Rachel de Boor, 31, grew up in a Christian family in the German state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania (photo: Stephanie Haerdle)
Rachel de Boor, 31, grew up in Mecklenburg-West Pomerania in a Christian family before she converted to Judaism at the age of 25. She studied in Potsdam, Jerusalem and New York and graduated with a Master's degree in Jewish Studies. Today she feels close to the progressive Jewish communities and her religiousness is "pleasantly secular". De Boor is a former scholarship holder of the Jewish Ernst Ludwig Ehrlich academic foundation. She now works for the new Karov- Qareeb think tank

Your last seminar took you to Israel. Where do you experience disagreements between your communities when it comes to the Middle East conflict?

Mohseni: It actually wasn’t the case that Jews and Muslims argued most fiercely over that. It was more that there were real conflicts between the Jewish participants. Some of them identified very strongly with the State of Israel, and felt very hurt when people started talking about human rights abuses and strongly criticising Israeli policies. Others were the loudest critics of Israeli policies.

Herr Mohseni, where do you stand yourself? You were born here, and your parents are from Afghanistan. From that point of view, it’s not something that has anything to do with you.

Mohseni: Yes, that’s true. I have Muslim friends who identify very strongly with the conflict, because they see it as a religious one. Personally, I don’t see it that way at all. For me, it’s a political and economic struggle, like every other conflict in the world. I see myself as an observer who wants to understand more.
De Boor: It’s really great for me to hear someone say it’s a conflict like any other. There are a lot of people who don’t have anything to do with it on a personal level, but they’re very sure about who the good guys are, and who is in the wrong...

Do you feel it is normal that, as someone who was born a Protestant in East Germany and converted to Judaism, you are addressed differently on the subject of Israel to someone who has no connection to Judaism at all?

De Boor: I think it’s natural for people to speak differently about the conflict when a Jewish person is in the room. We do have a special connection to it. Personally, I have a lot of friends in Israel, I studied there and I go back regularly for holidays.

But here in Germany, I prefer to steer clear of these discussions, because it doesn’t matter whether a non-Jew is pro or anti-Israel, they tend to lecture rather than question. And it’s hard to convey the fact that Israeli society is actually really pluralistic, there are left-wing and right-wing people, orthodox people on both left and right, secular Jews who are really conservative...

Hani Mohseni holds a scholarship with the Avicenna talent foundation (photo: private)
Hani Mohseni, 23, was born in Munich in 1996 as the son of Afghan parents and is a scholarship holder of the Avicenna Talent Foundation. He is currently doing his Master's in Logic and Philosophy of Science. The devout Muslim first met young Jews in the "Dialogue Perspectives" programme run by the Avicenna and Ernst Ludwig Ehrlich academic foundations. Today he is involved in encounters between the two communities "in order to escape his own ideological bubble through dialogue and exchange"

In Germany the Middle East conflict is relevant in another respect, because it is regarded as a source of so-called Muslim anti-Semitism.

De Boor: Yes, but there, the message is often that we have to protect “the Jews” from “the Muslims”. The AfD makes that claim really prominently. It’s extremely dangerous to connect Israel, Judaism and a so-called Muslim anti-Semitism in that way. I for one have no desire to be protected from “the Muslims” by these Germans.  

When we talk about Muslims in Germany, the headscarf issue always comes up. We have a partial headscarf ban for judges and teachers. Does that affect Jews, too?  

Mohseni: Personally, the first thing that annoys me about this is the double standards being applied. On the one hand, people argue that religion is a private matter that has no business in public life, and on the other it’s then only applied to Muslims.

De Boor: It just makes me want to convince Jewish male judges to wear the kippah, for instance, just to make it clear that a ban like this affects Jews as well. That’s why programmes like “Dialogue Perspectives” are so important, so that we can all pull together and communicate more to the majority society: if this affects one group, it affects us all.  

You’ve already mentioned the circumcision debate: that’s a key issue. Here in Germany, there are some very strong reservations about the Jewish and Islamic practice of circumcising little boys, including some who even claim it constitutes assault. Does that sense of “we’re in the same boat” hold true here, too?

De Boor: I remember a lecture on anti-Semitism and Islamophobia by our two funders. A Muslim woman said that the moment the Jewish community weighed in on the circumcision question, she thought: finally, this issue is going to be taken seriously, we’ve got the Jewish community with us now and people in Germany listen to them.

To which a Jew said the exact opposite: there are so few of us Jewish people, we’ll only be heard if you Muslims are with us, because there are so many more of you.

As far as the debate itself goes: I thought it was interesting that the criticism of Jewish and Islamic circumcision started up pretty much straight after all the cases of abuse in churches and schools were revealed. As if there was this sudden need to say that Jews and Muslims damage their children, too... It was so severe that as a Jewish person at that time, you thought: if this is banned in Germany, we don’t have a future here.

Circumcision is so important that a ban would threaten the existence of the Jewish community in Germany?

De Boor: Yes, that’s how I see it. And that’s how it is: if Jewish parents are forbidden from having their sons circumcised, then they also lose the freedom to decide against it themselves. I know a few Jewish parents who thought long and hard about whether they should have that done to their baby. Those individual decisions would be impossible were it to be banned.

So religious traditions are really being questioned in your community. Do you see a need for reform in your communities?

Mohseni: For young Muslims, uniting tradition and modernity is a big thing. Our parents often have a very traditional background, but we grew up here and we know another life. Of course there are conflicts because of that, and it isn’t easy. But I have a problem with the concept of reform in a Muslim context.

The last Islamic reform was the Wahabism that is practiced in Saudi Arabia, a movement that from a modern, Western point of view has to be regarded as one of the most regressive and inhumane in Islam. On the other hand, an inner pluralism has always been part of the Islamic tradition. When there are calls for a reform of Islam in the West today, we should make that clear.

De Boor: Within Judaism in Germany, there are a lot of discussions and different movements. But unfortunately, you then very quickly get a label put on you by the rest of society – on the one hand, "orthodox" and on the other "liberal", whatever that might mean.

There are a lot of stereotypes that come with those labels, including when you see pictures of Jews. It’s often men wearing kippahs, or even a hat and beard. And they fulfil the general cliche of what a "proper Jew" is. But the boundaries are fluid: you can be thoroughly orthodox and yet very open, and even so-called "reform Jews" can be really narrow-minded.

Mohseni: "Liberal" is the public’s code-word for good Muslims; the conservatives are the bad ones. And then within the Muslim community, it’s often reflexively the other way around: the conservatives are seen as the ones who are getting it right, and the liberals are watering everything down.

In other words: devout Jews deserve respect, and devout Muslims are suspicious?

De Boor: Yes, people want properly stereotypical Jews, so that they can say they live here again – but they don’t at all. You can’t even slaughter animals the kosher way in Germany.

Mohseni: And Muslims are regarded as something more foreign, because people still uphold the image of the "Christian-Jewish tradition".

De Boor: For me, it’s like a punch in the gut to hear that. Today the "Christian West" wants to invoke its Jewish roots, but it has always been against Judaism. Plus, this always involves opposing Muslims. As a Jew, I don’t want to be used for that.

And in your two communities – is there any kind of resentment there against the other?

De Boor: It does exist, and that’s another important topic in the dialogue programme. People argue about it within the Jewish community, as well. For example, in the context of the Israel debate, there is the phenomenon of fear of "the Arabs". But we discuss this, of course, because it comes from the same negative stereotyping as the fear of "the Jews" or "Jewish world domination".

From your point of view, what needs to change in the relationship between Jews and Muslims?

Mohseni: The first thing that has to change is the relationship of mainstream society in Germany to our communities. Rachel has said it several times: one group is used to stir up feeling against the other. The fact that "imported anti-Semitism" is so often presented to the general public as a huge problem – which isn’t true statistically – makes dialogue a lot harder.

But I would also like to see more encounters between Muslims and Jews at a more general level. The events that are held are often for students or academics. It needs to be broader than that.

Interview conducted by Ursula Russmann

© Qantara.de 2019

Translated from the German by Ruth Martin

More on this topic
In submitting this comment, the reader accepts the following terms and conditions: Qantara.de reserves the right to edit or delete comments or not to publish them. This applies in particular to defamatory, racist, personal, or irrelevant comments or comments written in dialects or languages other than English. Comments submitted by readers using fantasy names or intentionally false names will not be published. Qantara.de will not provide information on the telephone. Readers' comments can be found by Google and other search engines.
To prevent automated spam submissions leave this field empty.