'The Only Chance for Europe’s Relationship With Islam Lies With the Refugees'

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A Syrian refugee couple hold a self painted poster as they attend a rally of the Pulse of Europe movement in Berlin, Sunday, May 7, 2017.
A Syrian refugee couple hold a self painted poster as they attend a rally of the Pulse of Europe movement in Berlin, Sunday, May 7, 2017. Credit: Markus Schreiber/AP
Shany Littman
Shany Littman
Shany Littman
Shany Littman

BERLIN – In sharp contrast to the great concern aroused by the hundreds of thousands of refugees who have arrived in Europe in recent years, to Dr. Samuel Schidem, they are the Continent’s hope.

Dr. Samuel Schidem. "The only chance for Europe’s relationship with Islam lies with the refugees."Credit: Cornelis Voogdt

“The only chance for Europe’s relationship with Islam lies with the refugees,” says Schidem, an Israeli Druze who has been living in Germany for 15 years. As part of his work in the Topography of Terror museum in central Berlin, he gives educational workshops to refugees and veteran immigrants of all ages from Arab and Muslim countries.

“After the incidents in Cologne [a reference to sexual assaults on New Year’s Eve 2015/2016 attributed to Arab refugees],” he says, “the refugee was perceived as a harasser and a danger to women, but that was one specific event. Most Syrians come from a civil society without any clear religious elements and they don’t come to Germany in order to stay here for the rest of their lives.

“They come here because Europe’s messages to the Arab world have been about human rights, equality and democracy,” Schidem tells Haaretz in a recent interview.

“They come here because they believe in democracy and think they can help stop the processes of radicalization of the younger Muslim generation in Europe. They can be a balancing factor. They have personally experienced religious extremism, because Islamic State (ISIS) often murders Muslims. The indoctrination in which they lived in Syria is collapsing. It’s no longer part of their identity. All of this is actually a huge opportunity for the free, enlightened, democratic world, for people who believe in human rights, to come and reach out. They [the refugees] are partners. But unfortunately, people don’t know how to take advantage of that.”

He adds: “Outwardly, Germany couldn’t permit itself to behave like other European countries and had to absorb the refugees, but what is happening domestically? According to the refugees’ rights law, Germany usually grants only a one-year residence permit and the refugees are not eligible for family reunification for three years. After three years, nobody knows what will happen; it will depend on what happens in the upcoming elections in September. From the outside, it seems that Germany has learned something, but internally things look a bit different.”

Syrian refugee Anas Modaman takes a selfie with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.Credit: Fabrizio Bensch / Reuters

Arrive with anti-Semitic perceptions 

Schidem, 42, whose first name was originally Issam, has been preoccupied with Syrian refugees in the past two years, since they began arriving in Germany en masse. More than a million refugees arrived in Germany in 2015 and 2016, a good proportion of them from Syria, and subsequently from other Muslim countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran. “They bought the message that Europe has conveyed to the Arab world about human rights,” he says, “but it’s a shame that Germany didn’t make an effort to inform these countries about what it did to its own minorities.”

Schidem claims that German curricula didn’t provide all the sectors of the population with access to information on Jewish history, the Holocaust and Nazism. The neglect of Muslims and Arabs is a serious mistake, he says.

He notes that many Arab refugees, especially Syrians, arrive in Germany with anti-Semitic perceptions that they absorbed during many years of political hostility between their homelands and Israel. But among the second and third generations of immigrants – those who were born and raised in Germany, some of whom barely speak the languages of their countries of origin, whether Arabic, Persian or Turkish – anti-Semitism and extremism are far worse than among the parents’ generation.

“These individuals were born into a very closed, conservative and racist society, according to UN research on schools and education in Germany,” he explains. “In this country there is institutionalized racism in the schools. Multi-kulti [multiculturalism] is something people don’t really want to see. Many people here think that Germany should not be a country of immigration. Immigrant children are channeled to vocational schools because of their low socioeconomic status. The third generation of Muslims is badly neglected and suffers from discrimination. Naturally, perceptions of others also become more negative. Even among non-immigrant German youth, according to studies, there is tremendous ignorance about the murder of Jews and the concentration camps, for example.”

Dr. Samuel Schidem and a visitor at the special exhibition "Luther's words everywhere..." at the museum Topography of Terror in Berlin, Germany, 2017.Credit: Gregor Fischer / dpa Picture-All

Schidem, who worked for many years as a guide and as an educator at the Jewish Museum of Berlin, believes that there is a big difference in Germany between what he calls the public self-flagellation over the Holocaust and the profound inability to let any feelings of guilt affect people’s daily lives: “There’s a difference between talking about anti-Semitism and getting to know a Jew and working with a Jew. Preoccupation with the Jews is abstract: it’s not something that’s alive. The German Jew is history. German’s politics toward Israel is the Holocaust and the State of Israel’s right to exist. Beyond that, the typical German knows nothing about Israel.”

The Syrian refugees in Germany, he adds, “share this perception, because the difference between Jews and Israelis doesn’t exist in the Arab world either. For the people who come here from Arab and Muslim countries and bring anti-Semitism from home, these seem to be perceptions that flatter the Germans.”

Some six years ago, after leaving the Jewish Museum, Schidem started to focus on one particular aspect of German-Jewish history in his work: the Nazi regime, its perpetrators and activities. These phenomena are documented in the Topography of Terror museum, which was built on the ruins of the central headquarters of the Gestapo and the SS.

“Topography of Terror doesn’t focus on the victim,” he says. “The Nazi German regime is an ideology and a process took place before they came to power. I’m studying a process that led an enlightened and developed society to become a society of blind and passive people who didn’t accept responsibility, some of whom were murderers. I’m not Jewish and I don’t have a family of Holocaust survivors. I have a different approach.”

Cabins inside Hanger 4 of the former airport Tempelhof in Berlin. "doesn’t function as an absorption facility, but as an organized prison camp that lacks transparency."Credit: AP

Today Schidem gives workshops for recent refugees and veteran immigrants from Arab countries, prepares educational programs and conducts tours at the museum.

“I deal with the question of how power is shaped by the use of methods of crowd control, demagoguery and murder, by a group that thinks that it is superior  to and has the right to rule over others. Obviously, this has something to do with my biography and with Middle Eastern politics,” he explains. “What interests me is what we learn from history, more than the historical event itself.”

Minority identity

'They come here because they believe in democracy, that they can help stop the processes of radicalization of the younger Muslim generation in Europe. They can be a balancing factor.'

Beneath the relaxed and smiling facade of this exiled Israeli intellectual, it turns out that Samuel Schidem's life story fated him to live between worlds in a process of ongoing migration that causes considerable emotional turmoil. Schidem was born in the Druze village of Isfiya, in northern Israel. At home he heard stories of the Zionist heroism of his grandfather, who fought alongside the Palmach Jewish militia in 1948 and, according to family legend, was among the forces involved in breaking through to besieged Jerusalem.

For the past 12 years Schidem has lived with a Christian woman, with whom he had a son six months ago. This situation has caused a tremendous rift at home since, as a member of the secretive, tightly knit religious Druze sect, which originated in Egypt 1,000 years ago, he was expected to marry within the community. Being part of a minority prevented him from identifying fully with Israeli society, he says now; moreover, as a committed feminist he was always  repelled by Israel’s militarism. Yet he says he can identify with the Jewish story, the story of being a minority in Europe.

After serving in the Israel Defense Force’s Armored Corps, Schidem traveled to Germany at the age of 24 as part of a youth movement delegation, and later received a scholarship to study German in Düsseldorf. He returned to Isfiya afterward, then traveled in France and Spain, and in 2003 began studying medicine at the University of Heidelberg. He switched to philosophy and ended up studying Judaism, including the works of the 12th-century philosopher Maimonides.

The "Topographie des Terrors" (Topography of Terror) museum in central Berlin. The new museum is built on the site of the former headquarters of both the feared Gestapo and Hitler's elite SS force.Credit: AFP

“The time I lived in France strongly influenced me, because the guy I lived with was from a Jewish family of Holocaust survivors,” he says, adding that after completing a master’s degree in Heidelberg, he moved to Berlin and went on to do a doctoral dissertation at the University of Potsdam on the relationship between religion and the state in Judaism, as compared to Shi’ite Islam, as practiced in Iran. While writing his dissertation he worked as a guide in the Jewish Museum.

Schidem claims that the German curriculum has not provided all sectors of the population with access to information on Jewish history, the Holocaust and Nazism. Muslims and Arabs in general are particularly neglected when it comes to being educated in these subjects, which is problematic because Hitler is still seen as an admirable figure in Arab countries. Schidem believes that responsibility for fighting Islamic societies’ reluctance to deal with this part of history should not only fall to Germany, but to Arab intellectuals as well.

“No one wants to be blamed for this situation, and in recent years [efforts to change it] were hurt by the fact that Benjamin Netanyahu, for example, spoke of [Jerusalem mufti] Haj Amin al-Husseini’s meeting with Hitler and presented the Muslim attitude toward the Holocaust through this story. Many people met Hitler, not only the mufti. That’s not the way to address a population which is also a minority that is trying to find itself here in Germany.

Among the second and third generations of immigrants, anti-Semitism and extremism are far worse than among the parents’ generation, he says.

“In order to deal with history you also have to find positive points, and there were such points – for example, the story of the Egyptian doctor in Berlin who helped Jewish families and was declared a Righteous Among the Nations. And there were Druze soldiers who fought alongside the British in World War II. So there are other stories that can be told,” says Schidem.

To that end, he develops content and organizes workshops at the Topography of Terror museum for newcomers and German-born descendants of immigrants from Arab countries, which focus on concepts such as war, homeland, refugees, society, family and love, using citations from the Koran and the Talmud. For the most part the information is completely new to his listeners, who express views such as “Hitler was a good man who helped Muslims against the Jews,” “Aryans are Muslims,” or “Jews invented the Holocaust to win the sympathy of the world.”

German Chancellor Angela Merkel looks at the culinary delicacies on offer during the Hesse Festival in the Hessian State Representation in Berlin, Germany, Wednesday, June 21, 2017. Credit: Wolfgang Kumm/AP

In seminars he organizes for Muslim clerics, for example, he brings in the subject of Nazi ideology as it relates to contemporary family values. This may seem strange, but Schedim argues that the subject is universal and is a good opening for discussion: “This way we can talk about the structure of power relations between a man and a woman. The Nazis defined the woman’s living space through the patriarchal idea of the 3 Ks – Kinder, Küche, Kirche – children, kitchen, church.”

Do his seminars help his listeners change their thinking? Schidem says it’s not that simple. “It is easy to refute certain perceptions with historical facts, but that’s not what helps. What’s more significant is that the participants learn critical thinking and discuss these questions themselves.”

‘In danger of extinction’

Schidem is involved not only in educational pursuits, but has also dealt more directly with the plight of refugees. Six months ago, he and a partner established a new aid organization for refugees, called ME-MENTSCHchkg, which assists newcomers with finding work, legal representation, obtaining residency and work permits, and other bureaucratic matters. The organization is already active in two refugee shelters, one in the Lichtenberg neighborhood and the other in Neukoln – two of the most problematic centers, he says. At this stage, the organization assists only Arab-speaking refugees, but Schidem is also trying to recruit volunteers who speak Farsi and other languages. In addition, he served until recently as Germany’s director of the Israeli relief organization IsraAID.

Many aspects of the global humanitarian-aid industry are problematic, says Schidem, because these efforts can sometimes become fertile ground for corruption and profiteering. In this context he mentions the largest refugee center in the country, located at the abandoned Nazi Tempelhof Airfield in Berlin. After the company operating Tempelhof received its municipal license to work there, he accused the municipality of a lack of transparency and claimed that the operator was motivated by economic interests at the expense of the refugees’ welfare. He is currently working with an organization that seeks to improve the lot of refugees at the center, called Templehofer Berg.

Dr. Samuel Schidem in Berlin.Credit: Cornelis Voogdt

“Tempelhof doesn’t function as an absorption facility," he says, "but as an organized prison camp that lacks transparency. The violence in the area is a result of overcrowding and a failure to understand the refugees’ culture. For example, they separate the men from the women, so that a married couple can’t live together. Most of the refugees there are Afghans whom the state treats as grade Z refugees, and they are usually designated for expulsion. I tried in the past to infiltrate the place as a refugee and I was caught because one of the guards, a Lebanese Palestinian, recognized me. But Tempelhof will be closed in the end.”

In addition to all his activities, one of Schidem’s main concerns remains the fate of Druze refugees from Syria, who he says are in danger of extinction: “According to the Druze ethos, a Druze doesn’t leave and doesn’t flee; that’s what happened with the Druze on the Golan Heights. Now for the first time there are Druze refugees. The Druze are in danger like the Yazidis, in danger of genocide. They’re trapped in Syria and can’t leave for Lebanon or Jordan because they have to pass through a Sunni area.

“In addition, according to the testimonies of people who have arrived here, the Iranians are buying up Druze land in the area that’s served as a buffer between Syria and Israel, and they want to turn it into an area of combat against Israel, like South Lebanon,” he continues. “They want to use the Druze as a human shield. The Druze are trying to escape, they don’t receive humanitarian aid, and those who come here tell of acts of murder. Because they’re a minority in danger of extinction, you can’t tell them: ‘Don’t bring the family over,’ because that’s a death sentence. Germany and other European countries are in a way responsible for the fact that my people are on their way to being erased from the authentic landscape of the Middle East.”

Schidem insists that he’s not part of the typical Druze narrative popular among Israelis, and “I’m not in favor of the Palestinian Druze, which has become something new and very fashionable. I feel that I’ve disappeared in this whole story. That’s the tragedy of the Druze everywhere. Perhaps it’s the fate of the minority, which always tries to integrate but forgets that it must define itself, too.

“The minority is constantly looking outward, wanting to improve, to be good,” he says. “Fear is embedded in the genes of the Druze. It’s no wonder they get along with the Jews: Both are persecuted and fearful people. We have to sit together on the trauma bench and undergo treatment.”