Rabbi Elhanan Miller on interfaith dialogue
"People of the Book" brings Jews and Muslims together

Conceived by Israeli journalist and rabbi Elhanan Miller, "People of the Book" is a YouTube project designed to provide information on Judaism in Arabic. Disarming prejudice with humour, Miller's cartoons aim to promote mutual understanding between Jews and Arabs. Interview by Claudia Mende

How did you get "People of the Book" up and running?

Elhanan Miller: The video project kicked off in July 2017 when I finally found an animation studio that I thought offered the best prospects for teaching through animated stories. I felt that what was needed was a soft way of approaching the Arab and the Muslim world. After all, there is something about cartoons that disarms viewers. They have an almost innocent way of approaching things.

Your cartoons are full of humour. I'm guessing the combination of humour and religion is not to everyone's taste?

Miller: Humour is key to the project; it allows us to deal with sensitive issues in such a way that people drop their defences. It is also very important that the humour is self-deprecating – in other words, you find yourself laughing mostly at yourself and at your own religion. The project doesn't set out to poke fun at the other side. After all, there is a very fine line between laughing with and laughing at someone, which may cause offence. Working closely with my animators, I always try to use humour to show our side and make light of Jewish issues. I would argue that Judaism is maybe more used to combining humour and religion than Islam.

How do viewers react?

Miller: There have been one or two instances where I unintentionally crossed a red line with my Muslim viewers. In the second video on prayer, for example, there is a scene in which a muezzin makes the call to prayer and a cat jumps up in fear. I got a lot of complaints, because it was felt we were poking fun at the adhan.

 

Many people also complained about depictions of the prophets in the same video, which showed Abraham, Isaac and Jacob at prayer. These were ignorant mistakes. I simply didn‘t know that you shouldn‘t draw any of the prophets of Islam. It is like a work in progress. You learn your lesson and then move on.

On the Jewish side there hasn‘t really been any opposition. A couple of people have questioned the humorous mode of presentation, but other than that Jews have been okay with the cartoons.

And the Arab side?

Miller: Reactions have been predominantly positive. At the beginning people were a little negative and suspicious of my motivations, but my reception has become more positive as the project has grown and developed. Now that it has been running for three years most of my viewers are used to me. The idea of starting with lighter and easier topics was intentional.

I felt like the least controversial subject was food, which is why I started with a comparison of kosher and halal. We all love to eat, and indeed the comments were quite curious and inquisitive. As time went by, especially over the last twelve months, I have begun to address more controversial issues, where there is more conflict between Judaism and Islam.

Such as?

Miller: The idea of prophecy, for example, and the respective ways in which Jews and Muslims regard the prophets. I also touched on the issue of Jerusalem, which is a politically contentious issue. In doing so, I tried to explain what Jerusalem means to the Jews, as well as the sacred status it occupies in Islam. In recent years I have even dealt with verses or chapters in the Koran that I felt might be difficult for Jews, or where there might be misconceptions about Judaism.

What is new and unique about this project is that it speaks in Arabic from a Jewish point of view. Islam says a lot about Jews and Christians, but Arabs today and Muslims more broadly have very little access to the opinions of Jews about themselves. The project's unique contribution is to explain in Arabic how we see ourselves and our religion.

 

Arabs are not used to seeing that, so in some cases they find it shocking, in other cases it‘s surprising. Some things they find funny and other things they find similar to Islam. It depends on the viewer.

There are a lot of similarities between Islam and Judaism. Do people comment on that saying, wow, I didn’t know we were that close?

Miller: Yes, there are many comments like that. They are the ones that I enjoy. But there are other comments that have to with the theology of Islam and that view any contradiction as threatening. Such comments focus on the differences: they write, your tradition has been falsified.

What I try to create through my project is cognitive dissonance. I try to initiate positive confusion that will foster curiosity and further examination. People react to this new information in different ways. Some are threatened by it and they immediately dismiss what they hear. Others say, oh this is something I didn‘t know, maybe I should delve deeper. Those are the people my videos are aimed at.

What about those viewers who cannot deal with the differences?

Miller: They are very hard for me to convince. Yet there are many people who have no knowledge of Judaism and who are genuinely curious about it. Especially now, at this point of time in history, where Jews are practically non-existent in the Arab Middle East and the Muslim world. These people have had no chance to observe what it means to be Jewish in an Arab context.

There used to be synagogues and communities. People used to have neighbours who were Jewish. In many countries – Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Morocco or Libya – there was a lot of interaction. Since, however, my audience is very young – 50 percent of my viewers are under the age of 35 according to my YouTube statistics – there is now a whole new generation that has no experience of what Jews are.

How many viewers do you have and which countries are they from?

Miller: I have some 80,000 subscribers on YouTube and another 55,000 on Facebook, which makes about 135,000 subscribers in total. My videos are viewed millions of times every month.

It‘s very interesting to see which countries they come from. On YouTube most of my viewers are from Saudi Arabia, roughly 25 percent. That‘s a sizeable majority, since the next countries in line are Iraq and Egypt with ten percent each. I have come up with a few theories as to why that is. One is that they have a lot of access to the Internet and social media, of course, but more interestingly is the fact that Saudi-Arabia is one of the only countries in the Middle East to have had no Jewish community for 1400 years – since the time of the prophet Muhammad.

 

And it‘s a very conservative, religious society. This interest in religion combined with the lack of a Jewish community has turned Jews in Saudi-Arabia into this mythical people that Islam talks a lot about, but which they have never experienced.

Does your project aim to clear up common misconceptions relating to Judaism in the Arab world?

Miller: My aim is to educate Arab audiences about Judaism on a very basic level. But it is also about creating peace. My own political agenda would introduce religious language into the peace-building process. The Oslo Peace Process that Israel engaged in with the Palestinians was mostly run by secular people on both sides. One of the reasons the process got stuck, hampered and blocked by its opponents, was that it didn‘t involve religious actors and religious language.

Why do you think religious language might be helpful?

Miller: We should at least be prepared to experiment with religious language in peace-building. I personally have witnessed some dialogue between Palestinians and Jewish settlers. In the process I experienced a sense of closeness with the Palestinians that was absent among my secular Israeli colleagues. Between me and my partners on the Palestinian side there was somewhat of a common language: I spoke Arabic, which was highly unusual for a Jew, and I also had an appreciation for the religious elements that Muslims and Arabs share. It is possible to foster peace through shared religious experience. Of course, it cannot replace the political process, but it can complement and facilitate better peaceful relations.

So is it politics or religion that divides?

Miller: I think it’s both. The conflict is very messy and it‘s hard to define the borders as being solely politics or solely religious. Of course, at the bottom line it is all about land, territories, borders and political issues. But the reason it’s so difficult to solve is because of tradition and the baggage we all carry. It‘s because of what our religions tell us about the other side and its intentions and beliefs and its connection to the land. You can‘t ignore that and just expect it to go away and not disturb the peace process. It has to be included in the language of peace-building.

 

The better we know each other, the more the other side becomes human. The biggest obstacle to peace-making is de-humanisation. Religion can be a very strong tool for humanisation.

There is a lot of hate speech in religions. Have you addressed this topic?

Miller: I held a series of conversations with a Muslim woman, whom I partnered with to discuss in depth some religious issues. We tackled problematic verses in our holy scriptures, verses that demonise or misrepresent the other side, things that we struggle with. I can‘t ignore the fact that in the history of our conflicts it is religious actors and religious parties that have been the biggest obstacles on both sides of the conflict.

We haven‘t experimented enough yet with using religion to promote its other intrinsic values: peace, tolerance, coexistence … . We are all well-acquainted with the conflict zones. My aim is to focus on what we have in common.

Interview conducted by Claudia Mende

© Qantara.de 2020

Elhanan Miller was born in Jerusalem to a Jewish-Canadian family. He studied Islamic and Middle East Studies at Hebrew University, is fluent in Arabic and has worked as journalist for Israeli and Arab news outlets. He completed his studies as a rabbi and is now based in Canberra, Australia.

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