Dr. Mehnaz Afridi, believed to be the nation’s only Muslim director of a Holocaust and genocide education center, said the conflict over Israel is shrouded in misunderstanding and denial among Arabs and Jews of each other’s past suffering.
Much of the Muslim world doesn’t comprehend the depth of Jewish loss during the Holocaust and the Zionist mission of securing Israel as a Jewish homeland, she said. And Jews often don’t understand that after centuries of European rule of their lands, Arabs view Israelis as yet another foreign occupier oppressing the Palestinians.
Afridi, an assistant professor of religious studies and director of the
Holocaust, Genocide and Interfaith Education Center at Manhattan College in the Bronx, said that what happened “is that Zionism came to be seen as a colonial force” by many Arabs, who regarded Israelis not as Jews, but as the latest European occupiers.
Afridi spoke at Taking Action: Combating the Rise in Anti-Semitism, the annual education symposium of Hadassah Southern New Jersey, which was held May 24 at Forsgate Country Club in Monroe, and which drew some 160 participants.
Afridi, who has studied in Israel, said she endorses the two-state solution, and has refused to sign on to the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, the global campaign that aims to place economic and political pressure on Israel to cede control of what its leaders regard as Palestinian land.
Appearing with Afridi was Linda Scherzer, director of the Community Relations Committee of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ and former Mideast correspondent for CNN and “Mabat LaHadashot,” an Israeli TV news program.
Afridi acknowledged she has received “a lot of flak” for her refusal to join with other academics in supporting BDS.
“I didn’t sign it because I don’t believe in sanctions — period — and I believe it’s a silly movement,” she told Hadassah members attending “The Muslim view of Zionism and Anti-Semitism,” the workshop she presented at the symposium.
Later, while being interviewed by Scherzer, Afridi was asked if there were any serious repercussions from her stance. She received the loudest applause of the day when she shrugged her shoulders and quipped, “Not much they can do to punish me. I just got tenure.”
In her keynote address, Scherzer cited the “double standard” applied to Israel when it comes to human rights abuses, a perspective driven in part by 24-hour media coverage and an Internet campaign mounted by Israel’s enemies.
“They know they are no match for Israel on the battlefield,” said Scherzer, “so they work to dominate Israel in the court of public opinion.”
This is especially a problem on college campuses, where Israel is often demonized by supporters of the BDS campaign, and where, as a result, Jewish students often feel conflicted and confused, said Scherzer, who has been involved with a program that prepares high school students to advocate for Israel on college campuses.
The growing anti-Zionism has been “morphing into anti-Semitism,” she said, and posed a question that amounted to a warning: “As we look 25 years down the road, how will this toxic environment on college campuses affect the future, when these students are the influencers of tomorrow?”
Afridi, author of the book “Shoah Through Muslim Eyes,” a member of the ethics and religion committee of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, and a self-described observant Muslim, said she believes strongly in the importance of understanding other religions and belief systems, and is “deeply invested” in interfaith work.
The center she heads at Manhattan College also focuses on other genocides, such as those that have occurred in Darfur, Bosnia, and Armenia.
“My struggle has been the rise of anti-Semitism in the Muslim and Arab community,” Afridi told those attending her workshop. She said she is often asked by both Christians and Muslims why people hate the Jews. Her answer: “I honestly don’t know.”
She said she believes the Muslims who oppose Zionism do so out of a “lack of education and a lack of understanding history.”
“History kind of stops in 1948 in the Muslim world,” with Israel’s establishment, she said.
Moreover, anti-Zionist movements and efforts to delegitimize Israel have been fueled by a troubling strain of Holocaust denial that has gained traction in the Muslim world.
Manhattan College is a Catholic institution, and, Afridi said, she is often surprised by the beliefs of some of her students, who are for the most part middle-class Catholics from the Northeast, along with some Muslims. Many are astonished when they learn that, contrary to what they’ve been told, Jews don’t control all the major financial institutions or the media. When she asks them how many Jews there are in the world, she said, a common response is one billion, when the number is actually about 14 million.
“I teach the Holocaust to Muslims because I don’t think Muslims know about the Holocaust,” said Afridi, emphasizing that until there is widespread acceptance that six million Jews died in the Shoah, “we can’t have a dialogue.”
When Muslims do understand the historical connection of Jews to the land of Israel and recognize the consequences of the Holocaust, said Afridi, “it starts to click” and they begin to comprehend “why there was a need to create Israel.”
Likewise, she said, while there were some infamous Nazi collaborators among Muslim Arabs, many Jews don’t realize that Muslims in Arab countries under Vichy rule, such as Libya and Algeria, rescued Jews or were themselves victims of Nazism. Some countries, Turkey and Morocco included, protected its Jews.
Calling herself “a bridge builder,” Afridi said, “Jews and Muslims have a lot to learn from one another.”