Manhattan College is revamping its Holocaust Center to include the further study of other genocides, as well as interfaith activities that would include Islam alongside Judaism and Christianity — the two religions that until now have been mostly alone at the core of Holocaust interfaith issues.
Perhaps nothing accentuates the change more than the appointment of Mehnaz Afridi, 40, to be director of what will be renamed the Holocaust, Genocide and Interfaith Education Center.
Afridi, a Pakistan-born Muslim woman, has been teaching at Antioch University, and her writings have primarily focused on Muslim identity and the intersection of Islam and the Holocaust.
Afridi is awaiting publication of her first book, “The Shoah Through Muslim Eyes.” The book, Afridi told The Jewish Week, grew out of “my frustration with the anti-Semitism within the Muslim community, its lack of education, [its] denial of the Holocaust, or those that say it wasn’t six million but two million. Negating someone’s history or someone’s truth is actually quite a huge sin.”
She added that “the uniqueness of the Holocaust is very clear in my book.”
Among her goals at the Bronx college, which is under Catholic auspices, will be “to bring more diversity and interfaith events, especially with Muslim academics and Muslims [in the] nearby community. I think this will be important to Manhattan College and it’s Lasallian [Catholic] tradition,” Afridi said.
“I want to educate people about Muslims,” she said, “but I don’t want to [always have to] defend Islam, because I don’t think it’s the greatest religion in the world. I happen to like aspects of it; I’m a liberal Muslim. When people ask me about the Five Pillars [of Islam], I say, you know, I’m kind of like a two-pillar girl.”
Afridi, who is Muslim but not Arab, tells of a well-traveled life as the daughter of an international banker, moving from Pakistan to Switzerland to Luxemburg to Dubai, and then to high school in Westchester County’s Scarsdale, before graduating the University of Syracuse where, she says, “my interest in the Holocaust truly began when I was a teaching assistant for a post-Holocaust undergraduate course.” She then earned her doctorate in religious studies at the University of South Africa.
The Center’s expansion into interfaith projects was made to better fulfill “the spirit of Nostra Aetate,” the Vatican reformation encouraging a reconciliation of the Abrahamic religions including Islam, said Jeff Horn, the outgoing director of the center, who is Jewish and will remain on the faculty as chair of the history department. He emphasized that the changes will be a “broadening” of the Center, not a dilution. Afridi, he says, will be able to “devote far more time and energy to [the Center] than I was ever able to,” because of Horn’s other academic duties, “so when we say expansion, we mean expansion.”
The expansion, however, has aroused concern from some survivors who had become informally connected to the center, and from children of survivors, such as Borough Park’s Assemblyman Dov Hikind, who worry that the centrality and Jewish specificity of the Holocaust are being diminished. At the college’s community reception for Afridi, some of the survivors privately expressed some half-embarrassed doubts about an Islamic woman leading a Holocaust program.
“I’m not surprised” at the controversy, Afridi said. “A Muslim woman to head a Holocaust center — it’s an oxymoron, in a sense. I’m not shocked.” She added, “I would be more than happy to meet Dov Hikind. I think he’s done some wonderful things, working hard [to fight] anti-Semitism. We may have more in common than he thinks.”
Before teaching in the departments of both liberal arts and theology at Antioch and National University in Los Angeles, Afridi taught at Loyola Marymount University, where she developed a friendship with fellow faculty member Michael Berenbaum, former director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and editor of the revised Encyclopedia Judaica.
“She’s a sterling human being, and I respect her as a scholar,” said Berenbaum. “She has been a guest, together with her husband, at my Shabbat table.” Additionally, she’s “an important voice within Islam for moderation.”
Aside from her academic work, Afridi has worked extensively with organizations such as the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, “creating educational journeys,” she said, “for Palestinian, Israelis, Jordanians and Jewish-Americans, in Israel,” and the Women’s Islamic Initiative In Spirituality and Equality, a program of the American Society for Muslim Advancement.
The changes at Manhattan College prompted novelist Thane Rosenbaum, a professor at Fordham Law School and a frequent essayist on post-Holocaust themes, to wonder whether the Holocaust is becoming unmoored from its Jewish specificity.
“It hasn’t even been two generations,” said Rosenbaum, and already the message is, ‘We now have transcended the Holocaust,’ time for something else. Only with Jews, do people change the parameters like this, going from the Final Solution to exploring ‘Prejudice Around The World.’ This is Holocaust Studies for a new century: led by a Muslim, dealing with issues not exclusive or particular to the Holocaust, [issues] from Islamophobia to racism, looking for a wider appeal. They can do whatever they want, but I’m not sure that morally they have the right.”
Hikind, noting that his Brooklyn district includes “the largest contingent of Holocaust survivors,” asked Manhattan College to drop the word “Holocaust” from the center’s name because “the addition of Dr. Afridi and the expansion of the Center’s mission diminish the magnitude of the Holocaust as a defining Jewish event.”
Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, one of the pioneers in Holocaust studies in the 1970s, and the former chair of the national Holocaust Memorial Council, said that the debate over the universalistic expansion of Holocaust studies “has been an issue all along, going back decades.”
“Each case is different. In some places its worked,” protecting and underlining the distinctiveness of the Shoah, “and in other places not.”
The increased emphasis on interfaith relations is “great,” said Rabbi Greenberg. “One of the lessons of the Shoah, and part of what drove me [to Jewish-Christian] dialogue was that we have to recognize and break down the horrible poison and stereotypes [that predominated in Christian Europe] to prevent future Holocausts. That’s a legitimate application. I’m in favor of Muslim dialogue, too. The real issue is that most of the Muslim dialogue, so far, has not been very honest. That’s where the danger comes — not the concept of interfaith, but it’s how you do it, with whom, and how it’ll play out.”
Hikind’s criticism of Afridi was partially provoked by an article she wrote for Common Ground but widely circulated by the Khaleej Times (Aug. 11, 2008), an Arab newspaper. In the article, Afridi recalls an exchange at a Jerusalem bar that happened 18 years before, when she was studying archeology in Israel. An Israeli Jew at the bar, not knowing Afridi wasn’t Jewish, voiced the opinion that “surely you know, as a Jew, that this is our ancestral homeland.” She responded, “Well, no … First, I am not Jewish, and second, I am not quite sure whose land this is.”
In the Common Ground article, she goes on to write, “Jews can help Muslims navigate in a post-9/11 world by sharing with them the difficulties that they, too, faced in Europe and the United States…”
Hikind wrote to Manhattan College that Afridi’s equation was “both erroneous and offensive. It is inconceivable to me how Dr. Afridi can even begin to equate what the Jews of Europe suffered under Nazi rule with what she perceives Muslims in present-day America are enduring.”
However, in another piece, written for the Jewish Journal (Oct. 4, 2007), Afridi says that she “sympathizes with Jews and understands the need for the state of Israel,” as well as noting that her young daughter happens to share a birthday (March 30) with Maimonides.