Salaam-Schalom organizes a Jewish-Muslim human chain event in Neukollen / Ömer Sefa Baysal
This past summer, Armin Langer, a 24-year-old rabbinical student in Berlin, came to speak at the Sehitlik mosque in Neukoelln, a district of the German capital with a large Muslim population. Langer is the co-founder of the Salaam-Schalom Initiative, a Neukoelln-based intercultural dialogue group. His pre-scheduled presentation at the mosque, to announce Salaam-Schalom’s new campaign, took place on June 26, just as the violence between Israelis and Palestinians was escalating.
“I thought it was very courageous on his part to go on the stage and introduce himself as a Jewish person,” says Denis Mert Mercan, 26, a devout Muslim who lives in Berlin and was at Sehitlik mosque that day. “And I thought it was an amazing idea that the Jews would defend Muslims and Muslims would defend Jews in terms of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.”
The campaign Langer was introducing was a series of posters against anti-Muslim prejudice, to be displayed on the streets of Neukoelln. He explained that the goal of Salaam-Schalom is for Jewish and Muslim Berliners to collaborate, battling all forms of racism at once.
Salaam-Schalom’s grassroots attempt to bridge the gap between Jews and Muslims is happening at a time when Germany is experiencing a wave of anti-Semitism that’s partly rooted in Muslim communities. This summer, during the Israel-Hamas war, a Palestinian immigrant threw a petrol bomb on a synagogue in the town of Wuppertal, and hate speech against Jews appeared in Berlin demonstrations against Israel’s operation in Gaza.
“We are not soldiers standing against each other on the front. We are average people living in the same city,” said Langer, a Hungarian Jew who attended a yeshiva in Jerusalem and moved to Berlin to continue his religious studies. “Of course we all feel sorry for what’s going on there and we have relatives and friends in Gaza and in Israel and in the West Bank. But maybe we can build up something more peaceful here in Berlin.”
Salaam-Schalom started operating one year ago. It has grown from four founding members to dozens of active participants, including Muslims, Jews, Christians and secular individuals. The group has organized street events and panel discussions in mosques, synagogues and community centers throughout Berlin. They received extensive media coverage in Germany, and in August were invited to a meeting with German President Joachim Gauck.
Salaam-Schalom hosted a lunch with the Neukollen community and German First Lady Daniela Schadt, wife of President Joachim Gauck / Yermi Brenner
In July, after a Berlin Imam called for the murder of Zionist Jews, Israeli ambassador to Germany Yaakov Hadas-Handelsman said Jews are being pursued in the streets of Berlin “as if it were in 1938.” The president of Germany’s Central Council of Jews, Dieter Graumann, said the country’s Muslim community should “do much more than they have in the past to finally and robustly tackle the catastrophic anti-Semitism that is evident within their ranks.”
One of Salaam-Schalom’s most high-profiled actions came in response to the anti-Semitic slogans that appeared in Berlin’s pro-Palestinian protests. The group cooperated with the Sehitlik mosque to set up a human chain at a festival marking the end of Ramadan. On July 31, 1800 miles away from the Gaza Strip, hundreds of Berliners of all religious backgrounds gathered outside the Neukoelln town hall and held hands to symbolize their united battle against all kinds of racism.
“Our goal is to create dialogue,” said Adi Liraz, an Israeli-born, Berlin-based Salaam-Schalom member. “Not a dialogue that is behind closed doors but rather an open, public dialogue, to show the German society that such a dialogue is possible, that it exists, that it also makes sense.”
Israel-Germany street art on the Berlin Wall / Yermi Brenner
Liraz relocated to Berlin in 2003. She pointed out that for the most part Jews are in a privileged place in German society because of what happened in the Second World War, while Muslims suffer from discrimination and negative attitudes in the German mainstream. Her view is in line with a Pew Research Center report that found that a third of Germans have an unfavorable view of their fellow Muslims.
Much of Salaam-Schalom’s work has been focused on challenging negative German stereotypes about Muslims. The group organized public panels with titles like “What would Moshe do in a mosque?” and “Between anti-Semitism and Anti-Muslims,” drawing crowds to synagogues and community centers throughout Berlin. For Liraz, Salaam-Schalom has become a community, one in which people share a common goal regardless of their native country.
“There is a big community of Israelis here and there is a big community of Palestinians or Muslim immigrants in general,” Liraz said. “We all fall into the category of immigrants or foreigners, and we are all just trying to find a way to connect to this place we are living in.”
Yermi Brenner is a frequent contributor to the Forward. Follow him on Twitter @yermibrenner