Increasingly, Jews and Muslims are becoming partners in grief. Pittsburgh and Poway and Christchurch have become synonymous with white nationalist hatred against adherents of the two faiths. Now, Jews and Muslims will together strike a chord of religious solidarity — and a blow against Holocaust denial — with a high-profile interfaith visit to the killing field of Auschwitz.
The American Jewish Committee, which created the Muslim-Jewish Advisory Council in 2016 to deepen ties between the faith groups, announced last week that Dr. Mohammad Abdulkarim Al-Issa, secretary general of the Mecca-based Muslim World League, agreed to go to Auschwitz next January as part of the 75th anniversary of the death camp’s liberation by the Allies.
As part of a Memorandum of Understanding that he signed with AJC, Al-Issa will also address the AJC Global Forum in Berlin in June 2020, and David Harris, the AJC’s CEO, will lead a Jewish delegation to Saudi Arabia next year.
“I believe that by paying my respects to the victims of Auschwitz, I will encourage Muslims and non-Muslims to embrace mutual respect, understanding and diversity,” Al-Issa said at AJC headquarters in Manhattan. “The heinous attacks in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in Christchurch, New Zealand, and most recently in Sri Lanka [against houses of worship of the three major Abrahamic faiths] compel us all to unite and stand up against those who want to divide us.”
Harris called Al-Issa’s forthcoming visit to Auschwitz “a direct rebuttal to the extremists who threaten us all.”
Because of Auschwitz’s historical and emotional significance for Jews as the Third Reich’s foremost killing site, several Islamic groups have spent time there in recent years, led by Jewish organizations from the U.S., France and Sweden. But according to the AJC, Al-Issa will be “the most senior Islamic leader” to visit Auschwitz.
The visit comes amid rising anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim hate in this country. Since the election of President Donald Trump, liberal Jews and Muslims have deepened their ties as they have joined together to oppose the administration’s immigration and refugee policies.
The AJC-sponsored initiative “is not [primarily] a religious trip,” said Marshall Breger, a professor of law at Catholic University who has organized two “spiritual trips” to Auschwitz for prominent imams and Muslim leaders from the United States under the auspices of the Center for Interreligious Understanding in Teaneck, N.J.
Breger, who served as White House Jewish liaison during the Reagan administration, said the itinerary he put together for those trips stressed the religious aspect of and understanding of the Shoah.
“It is important [for all religious groups to acquire the information they need to publicly recognize] the tragedy of the murder of six million Jews.”
Breger said the Muslim participants on the Auschwitz trips he organized “felt it existentially. That is terribly important if you want to move forward on interfaith relations.”
Al-Issa, who earlier served as justice minister in the Saudi government, visited the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington in 2017 and called Holocaust denial a crime against Islam.
All the Auschwitz visits are designed to counter Holocaust denial in the Muslim community, which has grown stronger in recent decades, Breger said. Their message: “Holocaust denial is against Islam and against the values of Islam and sharia [Islamic law].”
The memorandum Al-Issa and Harris signed pledged both organizations’ “mutual understanding and interfaith cooperation.”
Interviewed during a recent signing ceremony by Ari Goldman, professor of journalism at Columbia University, Al-Issa declined to declare that a visit to Jerusalem will follow his visit to Auschwitz. “We are not a political entity,” he said, adding that he will be willing to visit Israel “if a just peace [between the Israelis and Palestinians] is achieved.”