Open minds

Introducing Manhattan College’s Muslim director of Holocaust studies

A former official at the US Holocaust Museum describes Mehnaz Afridi as ‘almost a dream come true’

Mehnaz Afridi, director of Holocaust studies at New York’s Manhattan College. (Photo credit: Courtesy)
Mehnaz Afridi, director of Holocaust studies at New York’s Manhattan College. (Photo credit: Courtesy)

Whatever springs to mind when you hear the term “Holocaust educator,” Mehnaz Afridi probably isn’t it.

A Pakistani-born Muslim, Afridi spent her early childhood in cities not exactly known for their Jewish sensivitivies. For several years of adolescence, she attended a Lebanese-run school where crossing the word “Israel” out of textbooks was an annual tradition. It’s a running joke that her father’s side of the family, from near the border with Afghanistan, “is sort of related to the Taliban.”

But appearances can be deceiving, a major theme of Afridi’s new job. Since the start of the academic year, the 40-something Islam scholar has served as the director of Holocaust studies at New York’s Manhattan College, a position that “felt like it was God-sent,” she says. On the side, Afridi writes articles about the need for Muslim-Jewish co-existence, and has outlined a book called “Shoah Through Muslim Eyes,” which she hopes to complete next year. Her mother, who once visited her in Israel, now serves as an informal “spokesperson” against anti-Semitism in Pakistan, she says.

‘I want to be a Muslim who’s writing and speaking out. We need to have dialogue on the hard issues’

“I want to be a Muslim who’s writing and speaking out,” says Afridi, who prays five times daily and fasts during the month of Ramadan. “We need to have dialogue on the hard issues.”

On a chilly recent morning, Afridi somehow blended in and stood out simultaneously at Manhattan College, a Catholic institution that, despite its name, is actually located in the Bronx — specifically the famously Jewish Riverdale section. Clad in pants and  sunglasses pulled back over a dark head of unconcealed hair, Afridi guided a visitor to the college’s newly renamed Holocaust, Genocide and Interfaith Education Center — actually a book-lined room in the campus’ main library.

Her father, a banker who grew up poor, passed away 20 years ago, but likely would have been pleased to see his daughter as an academic, since his own “top goal was to get his kids a US college education,” Afridi says. He lived to see that wish come true, but only after providing Afridi and her brother an unusually international upbringing.

Raised first in Pakistan and then in Zurich, Afridi later moved with her family to London, where she made her first Jewish friends while attending a Catholic school — chosen for its academic offerings rather than its religious affiliation. (“I was upset not to participate in the Christmas plays,” she recalls with a smile.)

The family later relocated to Dubai, where Afridi attended the school that banned references to Israel. “I was very curious about it,” she says. Asked about the issue, her  mother told her simply, “Jewish people are equal to us, and you should love them equally.”

She soon got a chance to do just that, after her family relocated yet again — this time to heavily Jewish Scarsdale, a suburb of New York. The move was something of a culture shock: After several years as part of Dubai’s Sunni majority, the teenage Afridi was suddenly very aware of her minority status, a position underscored by anonymous phone calls suggesting the new “effing Arabs” move elsewhere.

Her interest in Israel was rekindled during graduate studies at Syracuse University, where a randomly assigned research placement matched her with Alan Berger, an expert on Jewish life after the Holocaust.

“I got very interested in this hostility between Islam and Israel,” she recalls. “It seemed like a new problem.”

In 1995, Afridi’s growing interest in the topic led to a five-week fellowship at Hebrew University. Despite the timing — optimism surrounding the Oslo peace accords was at its height — Afridi was dismayed by what she saw as a disconnect between the city’s Jewish and Arab residents. “There was a lack of contact, even at a good time,” she says, though she adds that her personal experience in Jerusalem was “very rewarding.”

It also proved formative. While Islam has remained her primary academic focus, Judaism and the Holocaust have also figured prominently in her work. Her religious background, initially a point of concern for some, has at times helped seal a bond with Jews she’s worked with, such as Holocaust survivors whose testimonies she recorded in Los Angeles. “Some of them hadn’t had a chance to talk to Muslims before, and it was really neat to have this exchange with them,” she says.

Her dual role at Manhattan College — as both an expert on Islam and director of the Holocaust Center — came about partly because of administrative and budgetary considerations, acknowledges Richard Emmerson, dean of the college’s School of Arts. Just as the college decided to hire its first Islam scholar, the Holocaust Center’s director stepped down, inspiring talk about combining the roles. Afridi’s professional background made her a natural fit.

“It was perfect for us, and she’s certainly off to a great start,” Emmerson says. “No one could predict it would turn out to be such a good combination.”

That certainly wasn’t the expectation of early critics, some of whom questioned Afridi’s appointment based on her background, and who took issue with the college’s decision to broaden the center’s mission to include other genocides and co-existence work. Dov Hikind, a New York state assemblyman from Brooklyn, asked the college to drop “Holocaust” from the center’s name, while others questioned the ability of a Muslim to engage appropriately with the topic.

‘The Jewish community was very … curious to hear from me. There’s no question that there was skepticism’

“The Jewish community was very … curious to hear from me,” Afridi says, pausing mid-sentence to find the right words. “There’s no question that there was skepticism.”

Though she clearly took umbrage at some of the negative reaction — one blog likened her to a “neo-Nazi,” she says — she also understood the Jewish community’s surprise, and responded by launching an unofficial goodwill tour to meet with local rabbis and other Jews. “I went to Reform temples, the [Orthodox] Hebrew Institute, the Jewish Y. After they met me, they could see that there’s no hidden agenda, that I’m going to be very faithful with the programming,” she says.

Indeed, the syllabus for Afridi’s annual Holocaust course provides a fairly standard reading list, asking students to grapple with Elie Wiesel’s “Night,” among other selections. The class also offers a critical look at the actions of Christians and Muslims during the period, with one recent lecture focusing on “Nazi Arab propaganda.”

If anything, Afridi says, her personal background should be an asset, because it demonstrates that the genocide can be of interest to people of any background — and increases her credibility among those not necessarily sympathetic to Jewish suffering.

“I get asked, ‘What about the Palestinian Holocaust?’ ” she says, describing conversations with some Muslims. “I say that it’s clearly not a Holocaust or a genocide, according to the definition. There are no laws against Arab Israelis, no efforts at killing all Palestinians or Syrians. They often don’t understand that that’s what happened during the Holocaust.”

(As for her own views on the Middle East, Afridi supports a two-state solution. “I see culpability on both sides,” she says. “I believe Israel should be a state, that the Jews deserve a state, a sacred place. I believe the Palestinians also have a right to self-determination. I believe in co-existence.”)

With nearly two decades of Holocaust studies behind her, Afridi has drawn a distinguished set of speakers to the college, among them experts from the US Holocaust Museum and the Department of Justice. Michael Berenbaum, a former director of the Research Institute at the US Holocaust Museum, describes her as a “friend and colleague,” saying her work on the topic is “almost a dream come true.”

‘We’re looking for a generation of Muslim scholars who are not radicalized, and have an appreciation for the wider world of learning. That’s what she is’

“She’s a Muslim Pakistani woman who’s well-versed in Jewish thought and significantly literate on the Holocaust,” he says. “We’re looking for a generation of Muslim scholars who are not radicalized, and have an appreciation for the wider world of learning. That’s what she is.”

Afridi clearly knows she’s unusual, and is mostly accustomed to the questions she elicits. But she also sees herself in context, jokingly cutting off Emmerson when he gets too enthusiastic about her work. Hearing herself described as “a Muslim woman teaching about the Holocaust at a Catholic college in a highly Jewish neighborhood,” she breaks in.

“Well,” she says with a smile. “That’s New York.”

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