Dr. Mehnaz Afridi was about to moderate an interfaith panel at a Muslim women’s conference in November 2006, when a colleague stopped her on the way to the podium.
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“Since you study contemporary Judaism and Islam, isn’t true that only two million Jews died during the Holocaust?” Afridi recalls her asking.
“Only two million,” she says, still haunted by the incident more than 10 years later. “As if that’s somehow okay or palatable.”
That experience, which she relays in her new book, “Shoah through Muslim Eyes,” served as a catalyst, prompting her to pursue what she felt was a moral obligation to defend the veracity of the Holocaust to her fellow Muslims. This hasn’t made life easy for her.
“Jew lover,” “traitor”—Afridi, 46, who is now director of the Holocaust, Genocide and Interfaith Education Center at Manhattan College, has heard it all. But what troubles her more than such name-calling is the refusal by some of her fellow Muslims to accept the Holocaust as historical fact, while often exploiting its terms to depict Jews and Israel as genocidal oppressors and Palestinians as Shoah-like victims.
Born in Pakistan to Muslim parents who fled the hidden genocide that divided India from Pakistan, Afridi grew up in Dubai, the United Arab Emirates, as well as Switzerland, England and suburban New York. She understands post-Holocaust displacement or diaspora, what it feels like to long for elusive roots, the stigmatization of being a stranger in a strange land, of trying to hold on to your heritage in a multicultural environment, of blending in without losing your identity.
Her journey into Holocaust studies began in college with a bold leap of faith, one that was met with great trepidation by her parents. She decided to go on a study-abroad program at Hebrew University in Israel, encouraged by Alan L. Berger, a Syracuse University professor specializing in Holocaust literature, for whom she became a teaching assistant.
“I remember standing by the Wailing Wall in 1995, and I had an out-of-body experience,” she says. “The sacred reality of being there, the peace I felt—it was incredible. I felt lucky to go to the Palestinian territories, which I could do because I’m a Pakistani Muslim, as well as the Jewish area, and have conversations with both sides.”
Her takeaway? “Each wanted to be humanized by the other,” she says. “The trip to Jerusalem changed my life.”
It also solidified another goal—to foster better Jewish-Arab relations by setting the record straight on a few things. In her book, she asserts the veracity of the Holocaust and the legitimacy of the state of Israel. She argues that Muslims’ refusal to accept Israel is one of the main reasons for their Holocaust denial, and that by minimizing one group’s suffering, humanity as a whole suffers.
One chapter strikes a personal tone, describing what it feels like to be a lone Muslim at Dachau, which she visited with her husband and baby daughter during a conference in Germany about a decade ago. In a chapter entitled “Is Islam Anti-Semitic? No,” she recounts little-known stories of Muslim rescuers of Jews during the Holocaust, and asserts that the main conflict between Jews and Muslims began in the 1920s, when Jewish immigrants began flooding into Palestine and countries like Egypt responded by becoming hotbeds of nationalism and fascism, adopting Nazi ideology.
In another chapter, “Muslims and the Memory of a Colonial Holocaust,” Afridi writes that it’s time for Arab countries to own up to their part in ignoring, and in some instances enabling, the Holocaust's spread. For example, she points to the labor and concentration camps in French-speaking countries Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria, where Jewish citizens were imprisoned when they were invaded by Nazi Germany or France's Vichy government.
Articulating the impossible
While writing the book, Afridi wondered whether it would be accepted among Jewish readers and Holocaust scholars. After all, her appointment at Manhattan College was met with a huge outcry by the likes of far-right blogger and Islamophobe Pamela Geller and New York Assemblyman Dov Hikind of the Orthodox Borough Park section of Brooklyn, himself a child of Holocaust survivors.
After Afridi’s appointment, he wrote to the Manhattan College president, “The term Holocaust should only be associated with the Jews. Only the Jews were targeted by the Nazis for utter and complete annihilation, and only the Jews were subject to the ‘Final Solution.’ The addition of Dr. Afridi and the expansion of the Center's mission diminish the magnitude of the Holocaust as a defining Jewish event.”
Afridi was able to drown out her detractors, turn to her faith and squarely soldier on. “The school was brave and courageous and stood by me,” she says.
Afridi’s ability to dissect the semiotics of the Holocaust, cast a different lens on well-trod turf and tap into that duality of being present and absent, insider and outsider, victim and oppressor—that gray zone, as Primo Levi once wrote—make “Shoah through Muslim Eyes” a compelling, different and important read.
For example, she discovered that one of the most iconic images of Auschwitz is that of the Muselmann—the term used to describe the camp’s inmates on the verge of death who lay prostrate, submitting to god—which she notes means “Muslim.”
“Did Jews see Muslims as dead men, with no backbone?” she asks. Whatever the case, “the Muslim (even if negative) was present and absent at the most horrific death camp: Auschwitz. Muselmann was a term that travelled in the camps, along with the perception of the Muslim as ‘the other.’”
However negative the image, Afridi concludes it gives her entry into this turf. “How can Muslims understand that they too were part of the consciousness in death camps and were seen as the fatalistic ones that had no will, or even moved into a place of no human will?” she wonders.
Despite these insights, she still has a hard time overcoming the sense that she’s intruding on territory that isn’t rightfully hers. This became apparent when she decided to interview survivors. She first had to win over Elana Samuels, coordinator for Shoah survivor talks at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, who has called her “an angel sent from god,” and introduced her to her first subject in 2008—French-born actor Robert Clary (real name Robert Max Widerman), who played Corporal LeBeau on “Hogan’s Heroes.” He never spoke of his experiences at Buchenwald until decades after he was liberated because he wanted to forget and enjoy his life, and then informed her “this is the first and last” interview he’ll do with a Muslim woman andthat he only agreed because he admired what she was doing.
“If she didn’t exist, we’d have to invent her,” says Holocaust scholar Michael Berenbaum, who played a leading role in the creation of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and who served as an adviser on Afridi’s book. “If there’s any hope for peace, it has to come from those segments of the population who express a more moderate, tolerant voice. She’s done an admirable job of trying to articulate the impossible thing—what it’s like to have this knowledge of Jews and the Holocaust in a community that’s hostile to any mention of either.”
‘Zionism is not apartheid’
Indeed, Afridi goes way out of her comfort zone to explore the other’s truths. While visiting Dachau, she found herself overcome with emotion at the entrance of the crematorium. As she struggled for meaning, she started to pray in Arabic: “Inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi raji’un” (“Surely we belong to God and to him shall we return”).
She wears her faith with pride, but also refuses to pander to stereotypes. She’s devout, but a moderate, never resorting to slogans or armed with an agenda. “I don’t wear a hijab,” she says. “I never did and don’t feel I need to play a part now.” Her detractors, meanwhile, have accused her of not being Muslim enough, but that doesn’t bother her.
She’s too busy trying to figure out how to challenge Muslim Holocaust deniers and “relativists” in a non-confrontational capacity, especially given that groups like BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) and SJP (Students for Justice in Palestine)—both of which are active on college campuses—equate Zionism with Nazism and claim Israel is committing a Holocaust against Palestinians.
Afridi doesn’t refer to Israel as an occupation, “because that’s not factually correct,” she says, while acknowledging that the Palestinian territories are occupied.
“Does that mean I don’t take issue with the current government? No. But you can’t get anywhere by promoting falsehoods. Zionism is not apartheid. Israel has a right to exist. Its people also should acknowledge the Nakba, the displacement of Palestinians in 1948 when the State of Israel was founded.”
She also takes issue with Linda Sarsour's statement that Zionism is antithetical to feminism.
“If you listen to her rhetoric, she says that anti-Semitism is horrible, that Jews are her brothers and sisters, but then she vilifies Zionism, that every people has a right to self-determination except for Jews,” Afridi says. “She doesn’t understand that most Jews are Zionists, they believe in Israel, even if they don’t agree with the current administration."
The often-exclusionary tactics of some progressive groups on college campuses will only further alienate people, Afridi says, as will the Trump administration’s anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant rhetoric and actions.
“These are kids,” she says of her students. “They need to make valuable connections that humanize the other. Dehumanizing the other is what leads to genocide.”
For now, her journey remains gratifying, but arduous, paved with barbed wire and Nazi signs, flashes of the past that have shockingly reappeared, often in places where she least expects them. Does she ever feel like throwing in the towel?
“Sometimes I do wonder—it would be nice to go to Cancun and read trashy novels,” she says, with a laugh. “Then I think, who am I kidding?”
“Shoah through Muslim Eyes,” by Dr. Mehnaz Afridi, Academic Studies Press, 254 pp., $65