New York Rabbi Marc Schneier won a small but significant victory on a recent visit to Vienna – a promise from the head of Austria’s Islamic community to promote Holocaust education among the country’s half a million Muslims.
Invited to an interfaith lunch along with his years-long partner in Jewish-Muslim outreach, Imam Shamsi Ali, Schneier found himself having a “very, very frank exchange” of views with Muslim leader Fuat Sanac, whom the Austrian Jewish community was hosting for the first time.
Dismayed at the apparently low level of awareness among Muslim children about the Holocaust, Schneier asked Sanac whether he would be willing to address this by allowing Jews to carry out an education programme in the Muslim community, and, to his surprise, Sanac agreed.
“The result of this luncheon was beyond our expectations,” Schneier said. A spokesman for the Islamic community confirmed the plan, saying the details had yet to be worked out.
Ali and Schneier were in Vienna for the 75th anniversary commemoration of Kristallnacht, the night when Germans and Austrians went on the rampage against Jewish businesses, synagogues and schools, marking a turning point in Nazi policy.
Austria’s 200,000-strong Jewish community was wiped out in the Holocaust and today only about 15,000 Jews, mostly immigrants from eastern Europe and central Asia, live in the Alpine republic.
The presence at the Austrian parliament ceremony of Ali, a former imam of New York’s largest mosque, was unusual in a country where Holocaust commemoration is still almost exclusively a Jewish affair.
“In 1938 it would have been a very, very different story had there been alliances in place between the Jewish community and other faith groups in Europe,” Schneier said.
In general, the rabbi and the imam agree, interfaith bridge-building in Europe has a way to go to catch up with the United States, where the unlikely partners have organised the twinning of mosques and synagogues in which rabbis preach to Muslims and imams to Jews – something they are now reproducing around the world.
The two launched a petition this month against a Council of Europe resolution calling for circumcision, including circumcision of boys on religious grounds, to be monitored more closely – the first such joint petition in Europe.
Their target is 10,000 signatures by December 1st.
“Ritual religious slaughtering and male circumcision here in Europe are issues for us both, but we didn’t see collaboration between Jews and Muslims in tackling that particular issue, while in the United States we have a lot of things that have gained common ground where we work together,” said Ali.
Schneier and Ali were in Vienna as part of a book tour for their co-authored “Sons of Abraham”, an exploration of what separates and unites Jews and Muslims, which came out in September.