In January, an email was sent by a top Muslim official in Saudi Arabia that made Jewish communities worldwide pause and take notice.
The message, addressed to the director of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, has arguably become the single most important development in relations between Jewish and Muslim religious leaders in recent history.
In it, the head of the Riyadh-based Muslim World League, Dr. Mohammad al-Issa, acknowledged the “horrors of the Holocaust.”
The genocide “could not be denied or underrated by any fair-minded or peace-loving person,” Dr. al-Issa wrote.
Reading the high-profile statement from his Munich headquarters was Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, the President of the Conference of European Rabbis - the primary Orthodox rabbinical alliance in Europe.
Describing the remarks as “refreshing,” Rabbi Pinchas tells Al Arabiya English how they were received in Europe.
“They marked a clear and welcomed break with the region’s past,” he says, adding that Dr. al-Issa managed to inverse a narrative commonly believed about the Middle East.
“The Israeli-Palestinian conflict resulted in the creation of two distinct narratives of two people totally disconnected and ignorant of each other. Dr. al-Issa’s gesture is an important step in the direction of the Muslim World understanding and accepting the narrative of Jewish history.”
The catalyst for change
As well as being well-received among Jewish communities, some were able to connect the dots.
The statement had come against a backdrop of sweeping reforms in Saudi Arabia, which include a re-energized crackdown on hate speech and a pledge by the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to “destroy extremism and return to moderate Islam.”
Commenting on this, Rabbi Pinchas says he "wishes Prince Mohammed much success in his quest to define radicalism and bring back reason, moderation and peace to the Middle East.”
A crucial point within the rabbinical alliance’s manifesto is that “religious communities should police themselves and lead the fight against religious radicalism,” Pinchas says.
He believes interfaith communities can work across borders to achieve this, mentioning the Muslim-Jewish Leadership Council (MJLC) - created to unite “leading Imams and Rabbis of Europe to coordinate the campaign for religious freedom and the fight against Islamophobia and anti-Semitism together.”
The MJLC was, in fact, created with support from the King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz International Center for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue – a Saudi-founded inter-governmental organization.
Pinchas gives an example of the work Muslim and Jewish leaders are doing together: “We are currently protesting the new Icelandic law criminalizing circumcision and our united voice is more effective.”
But amid efforts by religious leaders to pacify and integrate Jews and Muslims at a community level, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict lingers at the forefront.
Rabbi Pinchas addresses this at length, but first points to Syria.
“Today, more people are killed in just one day in Syria, than during a whole year in the West Bank and Gaza,” he says, despite this statement largely being dependent on the length and intensity of bombing campaigns across Syria, the West Bank and Gaza, which vary year to year.
But his point is this: “The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is no longer the most important conflict in the Middle East.
“Nevertheless, the conflict remains, and it must be resolved,” he says, providing three points on what he believes will facilitate peace.
They can be read within the full transcript of the interview below.
Full Interview with Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, President of Conference of European Rabbis
Al Arabiya English: The Saudi-based Muslim World League chief, Dr. Mohammad al-Issa, recently commented on the Holocaust. How was this high-profile statement viewed received among the international Jewish community?
In the context of the Middle East, where caricatures featuring Jews as Nazis are ubiquitous, and countries such as Iran host festivals to celebrate an exhibition of Holocaust caricatures and fugitive Nazi scientists are engaged in the Arab struggle against the young State of Israel, Dr. al-Issa’s comments are refreshing as they mark a clear and welcomed break with the region’s past.
AAE: Al-Issa recently agreed to visit tour the US Holocaust Memorial Museum: Is this an important step in the process of legitimizing Muslim discussion of the Holocaust?
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict resulted in the creation of two distinct narratives of two people totally disconnected and ignorant of each other. Dr. al-Issa’s gesture is an important step in the direction of the Muslim World understanding and accepting the narrative of Jewish history.
AAE: Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has recently discussed the need for the kingdom “return to moderate Islam,” as part of efforts to “destroy extremism.” What are your thoughts on this?
Everyone or almost everyone today is opposed to extremism. The question arises, however, of what divides moderate Islam and extreme Islam? Is it the Hijab, as defined by French and Belgian law? Or is it circumcision or the Halal slaughtering practice, as suggested by many European far right parties and secularists?
I don’t believe so. The definition of extremism is very simple. It is the denial of a person’s right to lead a dignified and liberated life, as defined by them, because of some form of coercion, be it through violence or other means.
Osama bin Laden was an extremist and taught an extremist interpretation of Islam. Because of him, the modern world is unrecognisable. Secret bank accounts are a relic of the past and airport security results in the need for innocent people to disrobe as airport staff are pressed to safety at all costs.
I wish Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman much success in his quest to define radicalism and bring back reason, moderation and peace to the Middle East.
AAE: To what extent do you believe religious communities must take the lead in tackling radicalization?
After the attack against Charlie Hebdo in 2015, the Conference of European Rabbis published a manifesto at the WEF in Davos proposing that religious communities should police themselves and lead the fight against religious Radicalism.
A. Religious leaders are the most important ingredient of a religious community. They must be educated in European schools, where respect and tolerance of difference is an integral part of the curriculum.
B. The donation dollar should be transparent and not come from organizations promoting extremism.
C. There should be an officer from within the congregation who is tasked with monitoring extremism. This is because it is only a scholar from within the faith community who can detect when traditional, religious texts are manipulated as a tool to recruit suicide bombers and terrorists.
We distributed our proposals throughout the EU and two countries, Austria and France, have incorporated these suggestions as the law of the land.
It is always the same story. When we do not self- regulate, the Government are forced to introduce new regulations.
I believe that it would be much better to have this as an accepted practice of religious communities rather than a state law.
AAE: In your view, can interfaith communities work together across borders to achieve this?
Yes, I believe they can do. Under the auspices of the KAICIID, we have created the MJLC, the Muslim- Jewish Leadership Council, uniting leading Imams and Rabbis of Europe to coordinate the campaign for religious freedom and the fight against Islamophobia and anti-Semitism Together, our voice is amplified and stronger. For example, we are currently protesting the new Icelandic law criminalising circumcision and our united voice is more effective.
AAE: What’s your future visions for peace in the Middle East, do you predict any progress in the near future between the Israelis and Palestinians?
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is no longer the most important and bloody conflict in the Middle East. Today, more people are killed in just one day in Syria, than during a whole year in the West Bank and Gaza. Nevertheless, the conflict remains, and it must be resolved.
The following three points will facilitate the process of a peace settlement:
1. Strong leaders on both sides
2. The new Palestinian State should be based on sound economic footing, to ensure that it develops into stable country, such as Bahrain or United Arab Emirates, and not one that is poverty-stricken and conflicted, such as Sudan or Yemen.
3. A superpower should be positioned as guarantor for both sides as concessions are made for peace. At present, it seems that the US is very reluctant to play this role, and in the current political climate, I don’t think that Russia or China can fill the US’s shoes.