As a journalist who has reported from conflict zones for over two decades, cynicism is easy. And as war and terror make global headlines, and the numbers of displaced are higher than ever, apocalyptic narratives are seductive.
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But as I’ve discovered while researching a documentary on interfaith solidarity, there seems to be a growing trend toward reversing familiar cycles of hate – in effect, subverting them through unexpected shows of unity.
Consider how – despite the background of ongoing racial violence in the United States – the murder of nine parishioners in Charleston, South Carolina did not meet assassin Dylann Roof’s stated aim of igniting a race war, but rather sparked unprecedented shows of forgiveness, love and unity between blacks and whites. Or how a recent attack on a Catholic church in Ontario, Canada by a mentally ill young Muslim man, was met by an immediate show of solidarity and a pledge of repair funds by a local mosque. Or even how the recent arson attack in Israel on the historic Church of the Loaves and Fishes by Jewish extremists was met by an online Israeli campaign to raise funds for its repair.
But can small acts of kindness make a difference in a world full of hostilities?
Just ask Rabbi Miriam Berger, of the North Finchley Reform Synagogue in London. On Sunday – the 17th day of Ramadan, and the 17th day of the Jewish month of Tammuz- she hosted an interfaith iftar with a group of Somali Muslims. The Somalis – members of the Bravanese minority – had their community center destroyed in a racist attack in June 2013, during a week of violent Islamophobic acts throughout the UK following the murder of private Lee Rigby.While a suspect was caught on video lighting fires inside the centre, and EDL - the acronym for the English Defence League - was found scrawled outside, no arrests were made.
While the Bravanese are still waiting for the local council to allocate new premises, the synagogue has been hosting their evening prayers every night for the third Ramadan in a row. In an unexpected consequence of a violent act, members of both communities have bonded over shared meals of gefelte fish and Somali cuisine, and even held a joint Sukkot celebration to raise awareness of the plight of the Bravanese and their center.
Charlotte Fischer, members of the Bravanese Comunity, and Rabbi Berger. Photo by Hadani Ditmars
Their interaction suggests a model that could well move beyond the confines of their North London neighborhood.
“We have received as much as we have given,” says Rabbi Berger. "In addition to escaping 'the trap' of “perceived relationships between Jews and Muslims globally, there is something incredibly powerful about facilitating other people’s rituals.”
There is also something very resonant about the experience of both communities – and not just in terms of the Abrahamic tradition. Rabbi Berger sees incidents of Islamophobia and anti-Semitism in the U.K. as opportunities for solidarity.
Many members of the synagogue are refugees from 1930's Europe, or descendants of refugees. The local Jewish community's response to the arson attack was visceral, says Rabbi Berger: “It was hard not to think of Kristallnacht.”
For Bravanese community leader Abubakhar Ali, it was hard not to think of Somalia, and the persecution his community had fled.
Ali first came to the U.K. from war-torn Somalia in 1992. He settled in Finchley because he had a cousin there, and he never dreamed he’d one day find an extended family among the local Jewish community. As the Finchley Bravanese community swelled to some 2,000 members, they raised 100,000 pounds from local businesses and other donors to renovate a derelict building into a thriving community center. The center offered English classes for immigrants, a nursery school, job training and crime prevention for youth as well as special programs to help immigrant women integrate into English society.
The day the center was torched, “my brother pounded on my door at 5 A.M. and told me the center was on fire. I ran over to see what was going on and saw the whole place in flames,” recalls Ali. The center was completely destroyed. “I felt like giving up,” recalls Ali.
But an email Rabbi Berger sent expressing condolences, concern and offering help, restored his hope.
Now, two years later, the interfaith iftar, where a packed room of Muslims and Jews sang “salam/shalom” together, happened the day after a neo-Nazi rally protesting the “Jewification” of Britain was thwarted by a robust response from progressive protestors of many faiths.
Rabbi Berger recently commented, "I could give a litany of examples of recent events in the world which are all the worst examples of 'sinat chinam', senseless hatred.
“The only antidote for ‘sinat chinam’ is ‘gemilut chasadim’, acts of loving kindness, and there is no better example than the relationship we have built up with the Somali Bravanese community. Who would have thought that out of an expression of hate such as the arson attack on their community center in 2013, would come something that gives us such hope?”
What began as a small scale community initiative has already been transmitted globally. The iftar was filmed by a BBC Somalia crew and was broadcast on Monday to the strife-ridden nation.
While it’s easy to feel like “giving up” in the midst of so many conflicts worldwide, it’s comforting to know that small steps can lead to major milestones. Let’s hope there are many such “copycat” acts of solidarity to come. Things can only get better.
Canadian journalist Hadani Ditmars has been reporting on peace and reconciliation in the Middle East and Africa for two decades. She is the author of "Dancing in the No-Fly Zone: a Woman's Journey Through Iraq," and is currently working on a political travelogue of Iraqi ancient sites as well as a documentary film on interfaith solidarity in the face of terror.