Posts Tagged ‘ Jews ’

Christmas for Christians, Muslims and Jews

By Petula Dvorak for The Washington Post

National_Menorah_Lighting_0f582

The tree has decorations made of olive wood from Palestine, Christmas balls of glass, snowflakes and Hanukkah ornaments.

Grandma looks on at the tree-trimming party, a hijab the color of snow covering her hair. Mom, a teacher at a private Islamic school in Reston, snaps photos. Carols play in the background. Christmas cookies are baking in the oven.

This tableau in a Virginia living room — a scene of family, love, acceptance, celebration and generosity — is what this season should be all about but often isn’t.

You’ve gotta admit: Christmas is pretty unavoidable in this country.

Gas stations sparkle with tinsel, tiny dogs wear Christmas sweaters on their walks, federal buildings are closed, Costco stops selling pies the size of truck tires in honor of the day.

And if it’s not in your religion to celebrate it, the options are limited. You can hunker down for a month or two and try to avoid it or take part in the new American tradition of Christmas warring. You can join lawsuits over mangers on government property; post cheeky, atheist billboards that haters will deface; and support only stores that require employees to say “Happy holidays.”

The other side of the wars — the “reason for the season” folks — aren’t much more palatable.

Or you can take a more universal approach to the season.

“I present Christmas not so much as a religious celebration,” said Nadiya El-Khatib, 33, of Fairfax County. The aforementioned Christmas tree trimming took place in her aunt’s house, where their multi-faith family of Christians, Muslims and Jews find a universal theme this time of year.

“In Islam, we are taught to maintain strong ties with your family, and this includes coming together on Christmas,” she said.

El-Khatib’s mother, a former Irish-Catholic woman named Mary Catherine, converted to Islam when El-Khatib was 5 years old. El-Khatib was raised Muslim, but she always celebrated Christmas with her maternal family and continues to do so with her children.

Many of the Muslim families Nadeem Ahmed grew up with just gave up and started celebrating the holiday, too.

“You get enveloped in the culture of Christmastime. Some Muslim families would put up the tree, exchange gifts,” Ahmed, 36, a Richmond psychologist, told me between caroling and gift giving this week. “We never did all that.”

But he sang carols as a boy in school, went to Christmas parties and took in the spirit of togetherness. It is unavoidable. And it didn’t really bother him as a kid, he said.

Then he married a woman who was raised Presbyterian.

Now he prays in church, goes there on Christmas Eve and worries about getting the right gifts for his in-laws.

“From my perspective, how I was raised as a Muslim, this very welcoming church shares some universal value,” he said of the church they attend in Richmond. “I can feel very spiritual there, look at my own moral character.”

In other words, though he stays true to the rituals of his Muslim faith, Ahmed can find the universal, humanitarian message in Christian Christmas and embrace it.

“The rituals aren’t as important as what they’re trying to symbolize and being able to explore those things at a church, or at a mosque, it’s all about trying to be a better person,” he said.

Doesn’t hurt on the marriage front, either.

Listening to Ahmed, I was inspired and a little saddened by the relentless war of words that continues to scar the season.

Last week, I got an angry letter from a reader who was miffed that we used the words “holiday song” to describe a Christmas carol being sung by children in a photo.

Turns out, “holiday song” took up fewer character spaces in the tight caption space, which is why a copy editor wrote that. But to this reader, it was a sign of political correctness and fear.

It was someone picking a fight.

And that’s exactly what the spirit of the season is not about.

Since Christians — and I grew up one of them — seem to demand that everyone in the country observe this day as sacred (try escaping Christmas madness at a museum or anyplace else — you can’t), the meaning of the day must extend to people of all faiths, creeds and persuasions.

The Muslim families I talked to did it beautifully.

Whether you say “Happy holidays,” “Merry Christmas” or “Season’s greetings,” the sentiment is what is important here, not the words. And that sentiment is what we humans need these days. This day.

Memorial for Noor Inayat Khan, SOE Agent and Daughter of Sufi teacher Hazrat Inayat Khan

As Reported by The Sufi Times

This past New Years Day would have marked the 96th birthday of Noor-un-Nisa Inayat Khan, an Indian muslim woman who was shot dead in a Nazi concentration camp in September 1944, after being the first female radio operator to infiltrate occupied France.

Her courage and self-sacrifice during World War II are to be honoured by a memorial which has been proposed to be raised in London’s Bloomsbury area next year. It will be the first war memorial in Britain either for a Muslim or an Asian woman.

The project has the support of 34 Members of Parliament and a number of prominent British Asians, including human rights activist Shami Chakrabarti and film director Gurinder Chadha, OBE. Permission has been granted by London University and the local authority to build a sculpture in Gordon Square. A sculptor has already been commissioned and the organisers now need to raise £60,000 to complete the project, of which about £25,000 has already been raised.

Noor Inayat Khan was the daughter of acclaimed Sufi teacher and musician, Hazrat Inayat Khan (1882 – 1927), who was one of the first people to bring Sufi teachings to the modern Western world. He established the “Sufi Order in the West”, which survives in various forms to this day and has followers around the world.

Hazrat Inayat Khan’s great-grandfather was Tipu Sultan, a king of Mysore who ruled during the time of the East India compay and who had died in battle against the Duke of Wellington in 1799. Hazrat Inayat Khan had been initiated into the Suhrawardiyya, Qadiriyya and Naqshbandi tariqas, but his primary initiation was from Shaykh Muhammed Abu Hashim Madani into the Nizamiya branch of the Chishti order (named after Shaykh Nizamuddin Auliya, died 1325).

Being an accomplished musician, Hazrat Inayat Khan went to America to tour with a group of musicians, playing mainly traditional court music on his veena and singing. During this time, he attracted a number of students to Sufism and met his wife, Ora Meena Ray Baker, an American from New Mexico who was of English-Irish-Scottish descent. They had their first child, Noor, in Moscow (1914), where Inayat Khan had gone to perform. Three more children were to follow: Vilayat (1916), Hidayat (1917) and Khair-un-Nisa (1919).

When Noor was four years old the family moved to Paris. Noor grew up in an environment steeped in Sufi teachings. Her father established a Sufi centre and regularly held Sufi meditation meetings with a growing number of students, lectured widely and authored a number of books.

Noor went on to study at the Sorbonne, and in her mid-20’s became an author of children’s stories. At the outbreak of war Noor’s family returned to her motherland and they moved into rooms in Bloomsbury Square in London. The site of the memorial which is to built in her name is, therefore, very appropriate.

Both Noor and her brother Vilayat decided they would do something to help the Allied Forces in their efforts against the Nazi threat. Vilayat joined the RAF (Royal Air Force) and trained as a pilot, whilst Noor joined the WAAF (Women’s Auxiliary Air Force). Because of her fluent French, she was given a position in the new Special Operations Executive (SOE) of the British Secret Service. The SOE was desperately looking for radio operators who could be positioned in enemy territory to send back intelligence by wireless.

Her recruiters were not at first convinced of her suitability for the role. One of them noted, “Not overburdened with brains but has worked hard and shown keenness, apart from some dislike of [the] security side of the course. She has an unstable and temperamental personality and it is very doubtful whether she is really suited to work in the field.”

But in June 1943, she became the first female SOE agent to be parachuted into enemy occupied territory in France. According to Sir Colin Gubbins, head of the SOE, she had “occupied the principal and most dangerous post in France”. As a radio operator she was on the front line of intelligence operations, a dangerous role not for the faint-hearted. She was once stopped by the Gestapo whilst cycling with her radio equipment, but managed to convince them that it was a cinema projector.

However, it eventually transpired that the French resistance group she had been sent to help had already been infiltrated by Nazi agents and within weeks of her arrival hundreds of operatives had been arrested and shot.

Noor turned down the opportunity to return to Britain, choosing to remain behind as the SOE’s only radio contact in or near Paris. She was given a life-expectancy of three weeks, but survived for three months.

But then she was betrayed by Renée Garry, the sister of one of her French Resistance colleagues. The reason for this betrayal is not clear. Some reports say Garry was jealous of Noor’s role as an SOE agent, others say she was jealous of her beauty. In any case, she was seized by the German Gestapo and taken to a concentration camp in Pflozheim. Here she was routinely tortured for weeks, but refused to give up any information to her interrogators.

On 11 September 1944, Noor, together with three other female SOE colleagues, were taken by cars to the concentration camp in Dachau, arriving in the dark. During the night, they were tortured again. Early on the morning of September 12, they were marched out to the dog kennels, forced to kneel two by two and each was shot in the back of the head. Their bodies were incinerated in Dachau’s infamous ovens. Her last words before she died were ‘liberte’.

Shrabani Basu is Noor Inayat Khan’s biographer and founder of the Noor Inayat Khan Memorial Trust. She spent eight years researching Noor’s life from war archives and family records, and has more recently been involved in the planning of the new memorial. Basu remarked, “I feel it is very important that what she did should not be allowed to fade from memory, particularly living in the times that we do. Here was a young Muslim woman who gave her life for this country and for the fight against those who wanted to destroy the Jewish race. She was an icon for the bond that exists between Britain and India but also between people who fought for what they believed to be right.”

Of the SOE’s 55 female agents, 13 died in action or at the hands of the Nazis. One of those killed (Violette Szabo) and one who survived (Odette Hallowes) have had popular movies made about their lives.

The initial unfavourable assessment made by Noor’s recruiters was in stark contrast to the note that her commander and head the SOE’s French section, Maurice Buckmaster, later made of her: “A most brave and touchingly keen girl. She was determined to do her bit to hit the Germans and, poor girl, she has.”

In France, Noor is already widely recognized as a war hero. There are two memorials for her, and a ceremony is held each year.

In 1975, a commemoration plaque was installed at the Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Site, by the State of Massachusetts. It displays Noor’s name and the names of the three others who were executed with her on September 12th 1944.

To this day, nothing has been built in Britain to commemorate the life of this Indian Sufi Muslim woman who courageously sacrificed her life for freedom and the British contribution to the war against Fascism. It is hoped that the proposed memorial will be built to redress this oversight.

The Founding Fathers and Islam

By James H Hutson for The Library of Congress

With more than 55 million items, the Library’s Manuscript Division contains the papers of 23 presidents, from George Washington to Calvin Coolidge. In this article, Manuscript Division Chief James Hutson draws upon the papers of Washington, Thomas Jefferson and other primary documents to discuss the relationship of Islam to the new nation.

Many Muslims feel unwelcome in the United States in the aftermath of September 11, according to newspaper reports. Anecdotal evidence suggests that substantial numbers of Americans view their Muslim neighbors as an alien presence outside the limits of American life and history. While other minorities—African Americans, Hispanics and Native Americans—were living within the boundaries of the present United States from the earliest days of the nation, Muslims are perceived to have had no part in the American experience.

Readers may be surprised to learn that there may have been hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Muslims in the United States in 1776—imported as slaves from areas of Africa where Islam flourished. Although there is no evidence that the Founders were aware of the religious convictions of their bondsmen, it is clear that the Founding Fathers thought about the relationship of Islam to the new nation and were prepared to make a place for it in the republic.

In his seminal Letter on Toleration (1689), John Locke insisted that Muslims and all others who believed in God be tolerated in England. Campaigning for religious freedom in Virginia, Jefferson followed Locke, his idol, in demanding recognition of the religious rights of the “Mahamdan,” the Jew and the “pagan.” Supporting Jefferson was his old ally, Richard Henry Lee, who had made a motion in Congress on June 7, 1776, that the American colonies declare independence. “True freedom,” Lee asserted, “embraces the Mahomitan and the Gentoo (Hindu) as well as the Christian religion.”

In his autobiography, Jefferson recounted with satisfaction that in the struggle to pass his landmark Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom (1786), the Virginia legislature “rejected by a great majority” an effort to limit the bill’s scope “in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan.” George Washington suggested a way for Muslims to “obtain proper relief” from a proposed Virginia bill, laying taxes to support Christian worship. On another occasion, the first president declared that he would welcome “Mohometans” to Mount Vernon if they were “good workmen” (see page 96). Officials in Massachusetts were equally insistent that their influential Constitution of 1780 afforded “the most ample liberty of conscience … to Deists, Mahometans, Jews and Christians,” a point that Chief Justice Theophilus Parsons resoundingly affirmed in 1810.

Toward Islam itself the Founding generation held differing views. An evangelical Baptist spokesman denounced “Mahomet” as a “hateful” figure who, unlike the meek and gentle Jesus, spread his religion at the point of a sword. A Presbyterian preacher in rural South Carolina dusted off Grotius’ 17th century reproach that the “religion of Mahomet originated in arms, breathes nothing but arms, is propagated by arms.” Other, more influential observers had a different view of Muslims. In 1783, the president of Yale College, Ezra Stiles, cited a study showing that “Mohammadan” morals were “far superior to the Christian.” Another New Englander believed that the “moral principles that were inculcated by their teachers had a happy tendency to render them good members of society.” The reference here, as other commentators made clear, was to Islam’s belief, which it shared with Christianity, in a “future state of rewards and punishments,” a system of celestial carrots and sticks which the Founding generation considered necessary to guarantee good social conduct.

“A Mahometan,” wrote a Boston newspaper columnist, “is excited to the practice of good morals in hopes that after the resurrection he shall enjoy the beautiful girls of paradise to all eternity; he is afraid to commit murder, adultery and theft, lest he should be cast into hell, where he must drink scalding water and the scum of the damned.” Benjamin Rush, the Pennsylvania signer of the Declaration of Independence and friend of Adams and Jefferson, applauded this feature of Islam, asserting that he had “rather see the opinions of Confucius or Mohammed inculcated upon our youth than see them grow up wholly devoid of a system of religious principles.”

That ordinary citizens shared these positive views is demonstrated by a petition of a group of citizens of Chesterfield County, Va., to the state assembly, Nov. 14, 1785: “Let Jews, Mehometans and Christians of every denomination enjoy religious liberty…thrust them not out now by establishing the Christian religion lest thereby we become our own enemys and weaken this infant state. It is mens labour in our Manufactories, their services by sea and land that aggrandize our Country and not their creeds. Chain your citizens to the state by their Interest. Let Jews, Mehometans, and Christians of every denomination find their advantage in living under your laws.”

The Founders of this nation explicitly included Islam in their vision of the future of the republic. Freedom of religion, as they conceived it, encompassed it. Adherents of the faith were, with some exceptions, regarded as men and women who would make law-abiding, productive citizens. Far from fearing Islam, the Founders would have incorporated it into the fabric of American life.

James H. Hutson is chief of the Manuscript Division and the author of many books, including, most recently, “Religion and the Founding of the American Republic,” 1998.

In Pakistan, Another Assassination and the Lessons Unlearned

By Natasha Fatah for Canadian Broadcasting Corporation

The Lion of Punjab is dead. Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab in Pakistan, was assassinated in Islamabad on Tuesday by one of his own security guards.

When the guard later turned himself in to the police, he said that he killed the man he was supposed to be protecting because he considered Taseer’s campaign against Pakistan’s blasphemy laws an insult to Prophet Muhammad.

The blasphemy laws, which have been around since the 1980s, have been at the heart of a huge religious debate in Pakistan recently after a 45-year-old Christian woman was sentenced to death, allegedly in a dispute over drinking water among farm hands.

Most human rights observers say that the woman did nothing wrong, did not break any blasphemy law, and that the law is just being used to make some kind of example out of her.

Taseer stood by the side of this Christian woman, Asia Bibi, both literally and figuratively.

He stood next to her in the courtroom, which was a brave and dangerous move for any Muslim in Pakistan, but particularly so when you are a member of government and have a profile.

He had also waged an attack on those who wanted her dead by constantly criticizing the mullahs and hard-liners on his very active Twitter account these past weeks.

In response, Islamic fundamentalist politicians and imams were constantly attacking Taseer, even going as far as to say that criticizing the blasphemy law is an act of blasphemy itself, thus making Taseer an apostate.

A member of the Pakistan People’s Party and closely tied to President Asif Ali Zardari, Taseer had dedicated his life to social and political liberalism and to taking on the fundamentalists. But now that bravery has cost him everything.

According to witnesses, the guard who killed Taseer jumped out of a car, pointed his Kalashnikov and blasted away. He then continued his rampage, shooting the governor at least nine times.

Dropping his weapon, the man then gave himself up to police, saying later he was “proud” that he killed the blasphemer.

Another disturbing aspect to this story is that the assassin had managed to get himself into the police force and then, barely four months into the job, was transferred to the unit assigned to protect the governor.

It makes you wonder who was doing the vetting and whether some other even more devious plan was afoot. But how deep and powerful this doctrine of hate must be when someone who is paid to protect you ends up being the one to take your life?

Still, while it was the guard who pulled the trigger, it was the culture of hatred, ignorance and bigotry that put the idea in his head in the first place.

And it will no doubt be the disease of apathy among the majority of Pakistan’s comfortable middle class that will ensure nothing changes, which means more good men and women who want to reform Pakistan’s society will lose their lives.

After all, it was only three years ago that the world lost Benazir Bhutto, the former prime minister and leader of the Pakistan People’s Party, for the same reasons.

She, too, was an advocate on behalf of liberalism and democracy and an enemy of religious extremists and she, too, paid for it with her life. If her death could not motivate the wealthy, powerful and influential in Pakistan to stand up and change things, then I’m not sure what will.

There is strange culture in Pakistan of blaming the victim. When Benazir Bhutto was murdered, many middle-class Pakistanis, in effect blamed her for her own assassination.

They criticized her for knowing the risks and continuing to speak out. Some said that as a mother she was being selfish for putting herself in the public eye.

And now, with Taseer’s murder, there are murmurs about him bringing this on because he provoked the Islamists through his criticism of their agenda. These are the risks you take when you stand behind a Christian blasphemer, some are saying.

It is only in an upside-down world like Pakistan’s self-absorbed middle class where those who die for being brave are considered irresponsible.

And it’s not like these moderate politicians such as Taseer don’t represent the values of the ordinary Pakistani.

Overwhelmingly, whenever given the election opportunity, the people of Pakistan vote in liberal, moderate and middle-of-the-road parties. Hardline Islamist parties do not win majorities in any of the country’s provinces.

Still, there seems to be a disconnect between what the Pakistani middle class say they want — stability and democracy — and what they are willing to work for.

Yes, in the case of Taseer, they will mourn the loss of another great leader. But Pakistan has lost far too many moderate leaders like this while everything goes on as before.

Wealthy Pakistanis will continue to go to their luxurious parties at fancy hotels, where the poor and their servants are not even allowed to enter. They will continue to justify the economic divide that keeps so many of their fellow citizens in squalor. And they will continue to argue that the Islamist militants are just a creation of the Western media.

Fortunately, there are still a handful of journalists, lawyers and politicians in Pakistan who are fighting the good fight and putting their lives on the line to try to push back against the extremists who think that violence is the only way to get their ideas across.

But unless Pakistan’s elites joins this fight, nothing will change.

For Pakistan, with the current government coalition in danger of crumbling and its Taliban launched on a terror campaign in the capital Islamabad itself, Taseer’s murder is a horrible start to a new year.

Yes, there will be vigils throughout Pakistan and around the world this week for this fallen hero. But vigils are temporary and the underlying problem that Taseer was taking on will likely still be around long after the vigils have wrapped up.

Holiday brings Muslims, Jews Together to Volunteer

By Niraj Warikoo for The Detroit Free Press

Detroit, Michigan– For the past 20 years, hundreds of local Jews have volunteered on Christmas to help needy people on a day when many Christians are busy celebrating the holiday.

But because Dec. 25 falls on a Saturday this year — a day of rest for observant Jews — the Muslim community will be filling in on Christmas, helping at soup kitchens, senior citizen homes and in impoverished neighborhoods.

The Council of Islamic Organizations of Michigan hopes to get 400 volunteers.

The Jewish community will move its volunteer efforts to today, Christmas Eve, as part of Mitzvah Month, which refers to good deeds. Last year, the Jewish community invited the Muslim community to help out on Christmas for the first time. That partnership continues this year, with some Muslims helping on Christmas Eve, too.

“The more contact we have, the more understanding,” said Freya Weberman, 51, of Huntington Woods, who will be delivering toys in Detroit today with the Jewish Community Relations Council of Metro Detroit. “There is fear of the unknown. By bringing people together and having shared experiences, we see our commonalities.”

When Micki Grossman of Farmington Hills read journalist Helen Thomas’ comments about Zionists earlier this month, the Jewish woman was hurt. “It caused a lot of pain for me,” she said.

“I also wish that we could have had more of our Muslim friends stand up and say, ‘This was not appropriate.’ ”

But some Muslims and Arab Americans were upset that Jewish leaders pressured Wayne State University to remove an award in her name.

At the annual banquet this month of the local chapter of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, people wore buttons reading “Defender of Thomas,” said regional director Imad Hamad.

“You can’t punish someone for the right of freedom of expression,” Hamad said, referring to Thomas, who is of Lebanese descent.

Despite the differences of opinion, about 200 Jewish volunteers — along with 40 Muslim ones — will work together today to help serve poor people across metro Detroit.

Grossman will be among them, glad to help people in need while bringing two communities together.

Gigi Salka, 41, a Muslim from Bloomfield Township whose children attend bar mitzvahs, also will be volunteering — one of dozens of Muslims helping on Christmas.

It is one way in which local Jews and Muslims are trying to build ties despite their differences on politics and foreign affairs. Last month, a health fair run by Jews and Muslims was held in a Detroit mosque. And Muslim leaders spoke earlier this year before the board of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Metro Detroit.

The council organizes the event, which is usually held Christmas Day, but this year that is on the Jewish Sabbath, a day of rest for observant Jews.

Last year, the Jewish community invited Muslims to help them volunteer on Christmas. The partnership was a historic first, with about 60 Muslims helping 900 Jewish volunteers. This year, up to 400 Muslims led by the Council of Islamic Organizations of Michigan will take the lead on Christmas.

“We have many similarities,” Grossman said. “Let’s look for the sameness rather than the differences.”

Such partnerships are playing out across metro Detroit.

Victor Begg of Bloomfield Hills, a co-founder of the Islamic council who is helping to lead the volunteer effort with Muslims this week, said they “are part of an ongoing effort by our communities to bridge the gap.” He had no comment on the Thomas controversy.

Hamad said he was upset over the Jewish community’s pressure on WSU to drop the award in Thomas’ name, but he maintains contact with Jewish leaders such as Betsy Kellman, head of the Michigan branch of the Anti-Defamation League, a civil rights group.

“We are Americans first,” Hamad said. “We should not see ourselves as an extension of the external conflict abroad.”

Ismael Ahmed, a longtime Arab-American leader who is the director of the state Department of Human Services, spoke to the board of the Jewish council this month about poverty issues.

“The Jewish and Arab communities have a huge amount in common — a sense of family, a sense of community,” Ahmed said. “But we have different views on the Middle East.” At the same time, “I think that isn’t a major divide” because “we’re very much alike.”

Salka will be volunteering on Christmas because it is important to give back, she said. To her, interacting and forging ties with people of various backgrounds is part of her everyday life.

“My friends are from all different faith traditions,” Salka said. It’s on an individual level, “how you change hearts and minds, the personal connections.”

Righteous Among the Nations: Muslims Who Saved Jews from Holocaust

By Tim Townsend for The St. Louis Dispatch

In 2003, Norman Gershman was looking for some of the righteous.

What he found astonished the investment banker-turned-photographer, and led him toward a project now on display in a St. Louis synagogue.

The Righteous Among Nations are gentile rescuers who make up “a small minority who mustered extraordinary courage to uphold human values,” according to Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial museum.

They are, the museum says, “the few who helped Jews in the darkest time in their history.”

Gershman’s story begins during the Holocaust and involves Albanian Muslims — villagers, peasants and farmers — who risked their lives and the lives of their families to shelter Jews fleeing Nazi Germany.

Italy invaded Albania in 1939 and occupied the country until the overthrow of Benito Mussolini in 1943. Germany then took over the Albanian occupation. Before the war, Gershman estimates from his research, only about 200 Jews lived in Albania, a country that is about 70 percent Muslim.

During the years of occupation, 10 times as many Jews streamed into Albania to escape persecution from Poland, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, Greece and Italy. Gershman says it was the only country in Europe where the Jewish population grew by the end of the war.

Most of the hidden Jews either fled to Israel or back to their native countries after the war. Albania’s postwar communist regime made it impossible for the Jews who had been hidden to stay in touch with the Albanian Muslims who had provided shelter.

In 2003, New Jersey native Gershman heard hints of the story and began doing research, eventually traveling to Albania to begin interviewing those Muslims who took part and who were still alive. Gershman said it wasn’t just Muslim families who shielded Jews from the Nazis, but also Orthodox and Catholic families.

All of them were motivated by an Albanian code of honor called “besa,” a concept that can be translated into “keeping the promise,” Gershman says. The Albanian villagers were motivated to risk their lives by the simple concept of helping one’s neighbor.

“We chose to focus on the Muslims because, who ever heard of Muslims saving Jews?” Gershman said in a telephone interview from Israel, where he is at work on his next project.

Gershman’s research eventually led to an exhibit of his photographs, “Besa: A Code to Live By,” which opened recently at Congregation Temple Emanuel, and a book, Besa: Muslims Who Saved Jews in World War II.

The exhibit makes the case that the Muslim Albanian villagers who sheltered Jews from deportation to concentration camps did so from a sense of religious obligation.

“Besa is a cultural idea, but for the Muslims in Albania it was ingrained in their faith as well,” Gershman said.

Ahmet Karamustafa, professor of history and religious studies at Washington University, said saving a life is a universally acknowledged Muslim value.

Protecting a life, Karamustafa said, “has always ranked at the very top of moral and legal categories articulated by legal and theological scholars in Islam.”

The exhibit has been traveling the world since 2006, opening in Yad Vashem in Israel, the United Nations in New York, and synagogues, mosques, college campuses and Holocaust museums from Turkey to El Paso, Texas.

The exhibit of 30 photographs includes one of Lime Balla, born in 1910, who told Gershman that a group of 17 Jews came from the capital city of Tirana to her village of Gjergi in 1943 during the holy month of Ramadan.

“We divided them amongst the villagers,” Balla said, according to Gershman. “We were poor. We had no dining table, but we didn’t allow them to pay for food or shelter. We grew vegetables for all to eat. For 15 months, we dressed them as farmers like us. Even the local police knew.”

David Sherman, president of Temple Emanuel, said the synagogue “decided it could be an opportunity to educate the public about this piece of history that was a model of dialogue and tolerance.”

The synagogue’s rabbi, Justin Kerber, said one of the Reform congregation’s goals with the exhibit is to combat a common depiction of the modern relationship between Jews and Muslims.

“There’s so much coverage about Muslim-Jewish strife and conflict,” Kerber said. “It’s important to tell people that’s not the whole story, and these are examples of Muslim-Jewish respect, tolerance and love. This was a good opportunity for us to be part of that conversation.”

Muslim-Jewish Evening Raises $$ For Pakistanis

By Cristina Costantini for The New Haven Independent

Farhan and Shahida Soomro became American citizens on Friday. Originally from the Sindh Province in Pakistan, they have lived in the U.S. for ten years. Two days after becoming Americans, they held an event with their friends Ron Miller and his wife Cathie Miller to raise money and awareness about the floods which have ravaged their province in Pakistan. “It’s been a busy weekend!” said Shahida Soomro.

The event—“An Evening to Support Pakistani Flood Relief at the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven”—was held Sunday night at the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven on Audubon.

The Soomro family is Muslim; the Miller family, of Westville, is Jewish. The idea for the event, a “Jewish-Muslim collaboration,” came about over a dinner with old friends, Cathie Miller said. The Millers then sought the support of the Social Action Committees of the Temple Emanuel of Greater New Haven and the Congregation Mishkan Israel of Hamden, which were instrumental in the organization of the event.

After guests Sunday night enjoyed a wide spread of ethnic foods, Farhan Soomro opened the presentation by relaying the severity of the crisis. While the Soomro family was not present during the flooding, they have stayed in constant contact with their relatives in the region. With a fifth of Pakistan underwater, 20 million people displaced, and two million homes destroyed, Soomro explained, farmers have lost two seasons of crops and the Pakistani government cannot meet the food and shelter demands the disaster has triggered.

The event raised about $3,000.

Timothy Rogers, the director of charitable gifts for Save the Children in Westport described to guests where their donations would go. “We have been in Pakistan for 31 years now,” said Rogers. “What are we doing in Pakistan now? We’re providing emergency medical care, we’re distributing tents, shelter kits, food, and other supplies, we’re distributing water purification tablets, and bed nets.”

According to Cathie Miller, Save the Children was chosen as the charity for the event because over 90 percent of money donated goes to direct relief, and the Soomros have heard anecdotal evidence from their relatives and friends in the Sindh province that Save the Children has been effective in the region.

Rogers raised questions about the lack of American response and media coverage to the tragedy. Americans have given disproportionally less than other developed nations in the world. Although Save the Children has sent about $46 million to help alleviate suffering in Pakistan, the American public’s contribution makes up only $2.3 million of this total. Norwegian citizens, a country with a much smaller population, has already donated over $4 million in assistance funds through Save the Children. Rogers posited that donations might be down because of “donor fatigue due to recent tragedies” or because of a lack of media coverage. Ron Miller linked the trend to Islamophobia.

“I think even though we don’t want to say it, Americans have a hard time understanding and appreciating Muslims,” Miller said. “And one of the reasons that, myself as a Jew, and I’ve talked with various synagogues which they are present here today, is the importance for both Jews and Muslims and Muslims and Americans to come to grips with who we are, what our cultures are and what our values are. One of our reasons for doing this, was in our small way, a Muslim family, and a Jewish family, over dinner decided to try to do something to show that that gulf doesn’t exist between us and our Muslim colleagues.”

One audience member admitted her initial hesitations about donating to the cause. “My knee-jerk reaction, when I heard about this event, was how do I know my money isn’t going to go to the Taliban? Of course this was ignorant, and I really think the reason we don’t talk about this flood is that our government is struggling with Pakistan,” she said.

A Pakistani member of the audience responded to her comments, suggesting that crisis alleviation in the area is one of the best ways to win a war of ideas: “The Pakistani people realize that Save the Children is coming from the American people. Winning the hearts and minds is the key thing, our policy makers have allocated $30 million to public diplomacy work in Pakistan. It should be a no-brainer that if we use our resources to help get their homes together that this will be much more effective.”

“This is a great opportunity for us to change and affect the hearts and the minds of the Pakistani people,” he concluded.

The event drew around 50 guests.

Donations are still being accepted. Checks can be made out to “Save the Children” with a memo note: “Pakistani Flood.” In order to count as a part of the Greater New Haven response to this disaster the check must be sent to The Community Foundation for Greater New Haven, 70 Audubon Str., New Haven 06510 Attn: Lee Cruz. All donations will be sent to Save the Children within the week.

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