|The Muslim prayer for the dead is recited at the mausoleum at Majdanek. Joanna Maria Trochimowicz|
Sulaiman Khativ had read about the Holocaust and seen programs about it on television.
But actually going to the Majdanek concentration camp outside of Lublin, Poland, was different.
“It was so important to feel things in the place and feel the history. It’s hard to see that people can reach this level of killing,” he said.
Khativ, a Palestinian Muslim, was in Lublin last month for an interfaith conference organized by the Jerusalem-based Interfaith Encounter Association. Participants came from Israel, the Palestinian territories, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Bosnia, Poland, and other places in Europe. Of 60 participants, half were Muslims, 20 were Christians, and 10 were Jews.
“For me, as a Palestinian, visiting the camp was a bit strange and different, but so deeply hard and sad,” said Khativ. “To be in that place makes you want to keep doing all your efforts to prevent this from happening again.”
Khativ, a Ramallah resident, is an advocate for non-violence who became involved in dialogue with Israelis in 2003, when he was part of a small group of Israelis and Palestinians who shared a trip to Antarctica in a program called “Breaking the Ice.” He had embraced non-violence during his 10-year stay in Israeli prison for throwing Molotov cocktails when he was 15.
Rabbi Bob Carroll, who lived in Bergenfield before moving to Israel in 2006 and was one of the organizers of last month’s conference, had also not visited Holocaust sites in Europe before. “I thought of Poland as one giant cemetery,” he said.
Traveling in the company of the non-Jews “was really meaningful, because they were non-Jews who wanted to be supportive in building better relations and a better future.” Particularly moving, he said, was hearing the conference’s Palestinian co-chair recite the Muslim prayer for the dead at the mausoleum holding the ashes of some of the 80,000 victims of the camp.
“It was a powerful thing. It really cemented the bonds between us, that he was willing to make that trip and see some things that are part of my history, that were so wrenching and horrible and searing, and that he was able to grieve over them. I hope I will be able to reciprocate at some point,” he said.
In its ongoing work, Interfaith Encounter aims to build a grassroots movement of “people who are committed to respectful relations and living together,” said Carroll.
“We study religious texts and religion,” he added, describing the workings of his organization’s dialogue groups. There are 37 that meet monthly across the country. “We don’t usually bring in politics. We’re not the people writing the peace agreements, we’re just people, representing ourselves, not our countries,” he said. Because the focus is on religion rather than politics, Carroll said Interfaith Encounter is able to recruit “a wide range of people who wouldn’t normally take part in the peace process de jour: settlers and supporters of Shas on our side, to sheikhs and imams on the other side.”
The Lublin conference was the second international excursion for the Interfaith Encounter Association, which received special foundation funding to expand its dialogue work, which is primarily focused on Israelis and Palestinians.
Expanding the circle of dialogue helped put the problems of the Israelis and Palestinians in some perspective, said Rabbi Alan Brill, an advisor to Interfaith Encounter who spoke at the conference on the Jewish view towards social responsibility. Brill, a Teaneck resident, holds the Cooperman/Ross Endowed Chair of Jewish-Christian Studies in honor of Sister Rose Thering at Seton Hall University.
“For most people in the Middle East, Palestine and Israel aren’t the only focus,” he said. “Bringing a Christian and a Muslim from Albania and Bosnia to hear what goes on in the Middle East brings a new perspective.”
Brill, who is a veteran of high-level interfaith dialogues in New Jersey, Rome, and other places, said religious dialogue is critical, because discussions of secular co-existence are beside the point in the Middle East.
“If you’re living in the Mideast, you don’t think of yourself as secular. You identify with your faith. Your political parties are 12 versions of your faith fighting each other and the secular option is not on the table,” he said.
“For many, religion is their means for creating ideals and galvanizing people and creating cooperation.”
One thing that distinguished this session was that each religious group worshipped in its own fashion and language while the other participants looked on.
“That is not usually done in interfaith encounters,” he said. But it helped each group see how much they have in common religiously, even though their actual practices, prayers, and languages are different.
Holding the encounter in Poland – the first, last year, was held in Amman, Jordan – added an extra dimension to the Muslim-Jewish dialogue Carroll is used to.
“Many of the Christians involved were people who had been to Auschwitz, who had spent some time confronting the whole issue of the Shoah and human violence and hatred and how to overcome it. In terms of the conversations that happened at the conference, they played a key role in helping to guide us and focus our conversations and ensure that we thought seriously and important ways about the issues,” said Carroll.
“People were talking about what used to be in terms of Jewish Poland and the Polish Jewish experience,” said Brill. “They shared their Catholic model of reconciliation with Judaism as taught by John Paul II.”
“People should know this exists,” said Brill, “that there are wonderful dialogue partners from places like Egypt, Jordan, Palestine, and Lebanon. And they should know that these people are going to be leaders in the future.”