(October 31, 2022 / JNS) On Oct. 27, the fourth anniversary of the Tree of Life shooting in Pittsburgh, the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in U.S. history, hatred of Jews was a palpably inescapable reality in America—from the Kanye West scandal, to a series of anti-Semitic incidents in Los Angeles, to the discourse surrounding the U.N. Commission of Inquiry.
Yet those in search of a more uplifting message on that same day could find one at Congregation Beth El in La Jolla, Calif., where a delegation from the Sharaka NGO participated in a town hall meeting to articulate their vision of turning people-to-people peace into a reality.
Sharaka (“Partnership”) works to realize the potential of the Abraham Accords by building bonds between young leading voices of Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco to strengthen peace, trust and cooperation. In an interview with JNS before the San Diego-area event, Sharaka representatives shared the NGO’s plan to launch a Holocaust education program in 2023.
The seeds of the idea were planted this past April, when Sharaka brought Muslim participants from across the Islamic world on the International March of the Living, the annual 1.9-mile walk from the concentration camp at Auschwitz to the extermination camp of Birkenau in Poland to commemorate the victims of the Holocaust. The group included Saudi, Bahraini, Syrian, Lebanese, Moroccan and Turkish participants, in addition to Arab Israelis and Palestinians.
“If we don’t stop anti-Semitism at a certain point, it will spread,” Ahmed Khuzaie, Sharaka’s director of U.S. affairs, told JNS, calling the Holocaust “a human story. It’s not just about the Jews.”
Since the trip to Auschwitz, the visitors from the Islamic world “have wanted to do more [to counter anti-Semitism and spread Holocaust education] in their communities…every person who went there is an ambassador of the story,” said author Fatema Alharbi, Sharaka’s director of Gulf affairs, who was the first Bahraini youth to visit Israel after the signing of the Abraham Accords.
Sharaka’s forthcoming initiative aims to equip individuals from around the Arab world to launch Holocaust education programs in their countries, while using the Shoah as a vehicle to help people understand extremism in a broader sense.
“It’s important for us as Muslims, because fighting anti-Semitic acts is part of countering extremism,” Alharbi said. “We try our best through the programs we organize to raise more awareness about Jews and anti-Semitism happening all over the world. And we try educating our community so that they will not be part of the problem of anti-Semitism.”
The La Jolla event was hosted by the Jewish Federation of San Diego County, while the Consulate General of Israel to the Pacific Southwest brought the Sharaka representatives to the U.S. It also featured remarks from San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria, Consul General Hillel Newman and the federation’s President and CEO Heidi Gantwerk.
The mayor’s attendance, as well as the participation of U.S. state governors, members of Congress and other influential political leaders at previous Sharaka events, “speaks a lot to the fact that this has to be a movement at levels, that peace and dialogue is the way forward against hatred and against extremism,” said Dan Feferman, Sharaka’s director of communications and global affairs.
“International politics filters to the local level,” Feferman said, “and it also means that major cities today are as important as some U.S. states and even some countries [in global efforts to combat extremism]. They have added responsibilities in that regard, and it’s good to see them take it seriously.”
Khuzaie said that political leaders’ participation in events promoting the Abraham Accords at a time of rising anti-Semitism “is beneficial solidarity…and a reflection of their interest in either raising awareness or fighting anti-Semitism, and of making sure that the public and the official side are on the same page, and that such sentiments of hate are not representing the nature of the community.”
Another member of the Sharaka delegation, Ibtissame Azzaoui, is a former member of the Moroccan parliament. When it comes to building on the momentum of the Abraham Accords, she said that her political experience “gives me a deeper view on Morocco’s relations with the world,” emphasizing the importance of “the values that I am defending either as a politician or as a civil society activist.”
Morocco’s rapprochement with Israel was a renewal of relations rather than a first-time normalization agreement, meaning that “we have to link it with the distinguished historical relationship” between the country and its Jewish community, Azzaoui said. Morocco is the only Arab country whose constitution recognizes Judaism as an identity referent, alongside Islam and Christianity.
“Our role, and what I see as the most important step to make these relations sustainable, is to invest in the people-to-people ties and build more bridges between the Israeli and Moroccan people,” she said.
Alharbi recalled the initial backlash she experienced over her participation in Abraham Accords-related efforts in 2020.
“It was harsh. People said all sorts of stuff like, ‘You’re not Muslim, you’re not Arab, you shouldn’t be going there [to Israel],” she said.
Yet by 2021, when Alharbi took the first Bahraini youth delegation to Israel, “so many people wanted to join, it got easier, and there was not as much backlash,” she said. And most recently, when Sharaka launched its Bahraini chapter, she increasingly saw that “people didn’t mind being pictured in connection with an organization associated with Israel, and more people are asking about visas and flights to Israel.”
The Sharaka delegation’s visit to Southern California also included a stop at the University of California, Los Angeles, one of the many campuses across the U.S. that has become known as a hotbed of anti-Semitism. Yet at UCLA as well as the other colleges and universities where Sharaka has held events, even those where anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism are chronic issues, Feferman said that “the challenging questions were respectful.”
In September, a Sharaka-organized delegation from Pakistan visited Israel, building momentum for possible normalization between the countries. The trip “sparked a major conversation in Pakistan” about the multifaceted benefits of relations with Israel, Feferman said.
Meanwhile, in regard to the Abraham Accords’ impact on efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Azzaoui said, “I think by opening doors, by having everybody around the table, we can reach that lasting peace that we want for everybody.”
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