'What kind of civilization do we want?'

How change became possible in a hotbed of intolerance, Malmö, Sweden

At Global Forum for Combatting Anti-Semitism, Rabbi Michael Melchior says interfaith cooperation necessary to combat doctrinal anti-Semitism — and make a better world

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

Rabbi Michael Melchior speaks at the Global Forum for Combatting Anti-Semitism in Jerusalem, March 21, 2018. (Envision Experiential Marketing, Ron Shelef)
Rabbi Michael Melchior speaks at the Global Forum for Combatting Anti-Semitism in Jerusalem, March 21, 2018. (Envision Experiential Marketing, Ron Shelef)

There was yet another anti-Semitic protest in Malmö, Sweden, following United States President Donald Trump’s December 2017 declaration of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Some 200 youth marched in the streets, carrying posters and shouting virulently anti-Semitic slogans.

The most egregious rhetoric by far included the announcement of an intifada — and a death threat: “We want our freedom back and we’re going to shoot the Jews.” In that week, there were fire bombs thrown at a synagogue in Gothenburg, protesters who burned the Israeli flag in Stockholm, and then more Molotov cocktails were thrown at a Malmö chapel.

As expected, Prime Minister Stefan Löfven condemned the anti-Semitic incidents. “There is no place for anti-Semitism in Swedish society. Those behind it must be made responsible. All democratic forces must now work together for a tolerant and open society where everyone feels safe,” Löfven wrote in a statement.

And remarkably, Muslim and Jewish youth in Malmö heeded his call.

Anti-Semitic demonstration in Malmo, Sweden, on December 8, 2017. (Screen capture: MEMRI)

“The next day, the leaders of the demonstration came with big flower arrangements to the Jewish community to apologize, to repent,” said Rabbi Michael Melchior in remarks at the 6th Annual Global Forum Combatting Anti-Semitism on Wednesday. Melchior spoke on the final of three days in which thought leaders from around the world gathered in Jerusalem to contemplate the apparent rise in international anti-Semitism and to advocate for how to fight against it.

A project underwritten by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Diaspora Ministry, the massive event included 23 sessions, close to 100 speakers, including heads of state past and present, and some 1,700 registered participants.

Melchior chaired a session titled, “The Faith Traditions as a Resource for Combating Antisemitism and Hate,” with panelists theologian Rabbi Irving Greenberg; founder of Jerusalem’s Congregation Tzion Rabbi Tamar Elad Appelbaum; Vice President of the Islamic Religious Community of Italy Imam Yahya Sergio Yahe Pallavicini; and Apostolic Nuncio, Archbishop Leopoldo Girelli.

Jerusalem’s Congregation Tzion Rabbi Tamar Elad Appelbaum at the March 21, 2018 Global Forum for Combatting Anti-Semitism in Jerusalem. (Envision Experiential Marketing, Ron Shelef)

He was a fitting choice for chair. Not only is he a leading figure in the field, but were it not for interfaith cooperation, Melchior would not have been able to stand on that Jerusalem stage Wednesday. The 64-year-old rabbi told the large gathering in the main hall that his family had found refuge in Malmö during World War II after being hidden by a priest in Denmark.

Recently in his family’s safe haven, after a heavy influx of refugees and migrants from Muslim nations, there were a series of anti-Semitic incidents. The Jewish community was filled with fear and “falling apart,” said Melchior, who was tapped for help.

Melchior aided in forming a nascent dialogue project between Tekoa-based Orthodox Rabbi Moshe David HaCohen and Malmö’s Islamakademin founder Imam Salahuddin Barakat. It is called Amanah or, “Faith/Trust.” The project’s goal is to build mutual trust between Jews and Muslims through examining where their religious traditions are the same, or diverge.

According to Barakat, the new initiative is already showing promise among youth. He told Radio Sweden in a November 2017 interview, “Just them seeing a rabbi and an imam being able to disagree and agree and being honest about their opinions about each other and each other’s traditions… I think it’s a good experience for them that gives them courage to deal with these issues in an open and honest way.”

The synagogue in Malmo, Sweden. (Wikimedia Commons)

Back in December, the day after the activists’ apology and flowers, interfaith religious leaders lit Hanukkah candles together at a local synagogue. HaCohen and a Muslim leader in Sweden Imam Sheikh Maher issued a joint statement: “We do not accept any form of anti-Semitism or aggression against Jews in Malmo, in the same way that we do not accept any form of racism or discrimination.”

“But the next day was the most important: Young people who had been shouting death to the Jews, came to their religious leaders and asked, ‘Can we meet and start dialogue groups?'” said Melchior. They knew it was time to act, said Melchior, because they saw their leadership modeling such dialogue.

The role of clergy should not be underestimated, he said. “When a potential terrorist hears he will not become a shahid [martyr], but will go to hell, that has more affect when it comes from within the faith tradition,” said Melchior.

After centuries of animosity, the Catholic church changed

Melchior was hardly the only clergy calling for closer cooperation and tolerance, while at the same time remaining steadfastly true to their own faiths without going the way of extremism. Greenberg chided the ultra-Orthodox community in the same breath as extremist Islam.

Theologian Rabbi Irving Greenberg at the Global Forum for Combatting Anti-Semitism in Jerusalem, March 21, 2018. (Envision Experiential Marketing, Ron Shelef)

Elad Appelbaum passionately preached for more engagement and respect for each others’ traditions on a grassroots level and much amplified person-to-person contact.

In his remarks, the Apostolic Nuncio, Archbishop Girelli, referenced the landmark 1965 Vatican document on the Church’s attitudes towards non-Christian religions called “Nostra Aetate.”

Since then, said Girelli, “the Catholic Church has been engaged in the challenging journey of transforming negative images into positive ones, reinterpreting texts that were used to legitimize the teaching of contempt, and finding new texts that can promote a teaching of respect.”

“Without obscuring where Jews and Christians differ on important issues, the Church stands vigilant that Christians never be tempted to adopt attitudes of contempt towards those now seen as brothers and sisters,” said Girelli.

Vice President of the Islamic Religious Community of Italy Imam Yahya Sergio Yahe Pallavicini at the Global Forum for Combatting Anti-Semitism in Jerusalem, March 21, 2018. (Envision Experiential Marketing, Ron Shelef)

This attitude was echoed by Imam Pallavicini, who called for fewer statements of support, and more action. “We need to make declarations, to be outspoken in condemning any kind of hatred and violence, but this is not enough,” said Pallavicini.

Pallavicini derided religious extremists for perpetuating “a childlike conflict of who is the ‘master of truth'” and called on moderate religious leaders to find way to advise politicians on contemporary challenges towards an ethical solution.

Melchior concluded the session by stressing the importance of not isolating the issue of anti-Semitism from other forms of hatred and prejudice.

“When we isolate the combating of anti-Semitism from all kinds of xenophobia, racism — all the phobias — then we are not serving the cause of combating anti-Semitism. We cannot only battle the hatreds, even the anti-Semitic acts or acts of terrorism. We need to look at the broader picture: what kind of society do we want? What kind of civilization do we want?” he asked.

“We need to build civilization in this world,” said the rabbi, calling on fellow clergy to be the architects. “I believe that if we build together — Christians, Muslims, Jews, including people who do not believe — if we can build civilizations instead of building hatred… If we can show models, then we have a civilization and then the anti-Semites will be isolated,” said Melchior.

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