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Cambridge Inter-Faith Programme

A tiny dragon sits on the back of a panda. Behind them are bamboo plants, a flock of birds, and in the distance mountains. This image includes an Instagram watermark: @bigpandaandtinydragon

On 16 November, during UK Inter-Faith Week, the Inter-Religious Relations seminar welcomed Derviş Hızarcı, Chairman of the Berlin-based Kreuzberger Initiative against Antisemitism – KigA e.V.

Hızarcı spoke in conversation with Professor Esra Özyürek [EO], whose own recent research explores the topic of empathy and Holocaust remembrance among Muslim-background Germans. The following is based on the transcript of their conversation:

EO: Until the early 2000s, Holocaust memory was seen as irrelevant to immigrants, including Muslim-background Germans. At the same time, Muslim-background Germans were not actively thinking about it (with the exception of some Kurdish-background novelists). Things have changed. Muslims have been increasingly accused of being the Antisemites. Some Muslim-background Germans took on the role of combatting Antisemitism and establishing solidarity with Jews.

Where are you coming from, and what is your motivation for this work?

DH: I was one of many young people in the Kreuzberg district of Berlin, one of several highly multicultural neighbourhoods, who reacted. Not in an organised way—but we were not going to accept any antisemitic uprisings in our neighbourhoods. So there was a demonstration, organised more-or-less overnight, to show solidarity with Jews in Berlin and also in Turkey: This was 2003, after an attack on the Neve Shalom synagogue in Istanbul. People came to say “No to Antisemitism. We are in solidarity with Jews in Berlin and Istanbul.” Although the demonstration attracted many people, they realised a protest, a demonstration, is not enough. We must do more and we must be more.

Now, regarding the question “what’s the best way to tackle Antisemitism?”, we found the answer: “education”. The Kreuzberg Initiative against Antisemitism (KIgA) was established in that context.

Nowadays there are many organizations and programmes countering Antisemitism in Germany and in Europe. But in 2003-04, this was unusual. We were one of the first programmes in Germany. Unbelievable, but true – in Germany, the country who was to blame for the Holocaust, it was hard to find German organisations who were dealing with the issue, the problem of Antisemitism. 

Migrant organisations, not exclusively migrant-led, but mainly, they were the ones who confronting Antisemitism through education in Germany. 

I was not a member of KIgA at this time I was a student at university, and an active member of the Muslim community in Berlin.

9/11 was a kind of watershed moment, and not just regarding Antisemitism. Some people from the world of academia say 9/11 was a breaking point for antisemitic conspiracy theories. This is true. But, in migrant communities, if you look at what happened only in regards to Antisemitism, you might miss the bigger picture.  Because 9/11 was also a watershed in regards to Islamophobia.

I am a second-generation Turkish immigrant to Germany, and I experienced my share of Islamophobic and discriminatory encounters especially after 9/11. For me that was something hard to deal with it. By coincidence, or by fate, I got the chance to learn about the phenomenon of Antisemitism: I was dealing with these conspiracy theories, asked myself “how could it have happened” Everything was flooded with theories on 9/11 as an inside job, done by great powers to put Islam and so-called Islamic countries in the target position. 

I experienced a mixture of attraction to antisemitic conspiracy and at the same time being discriminated as a Muslim. Confronted by these mixed feelings and challenging times, I started to educate myself on Antisemitism: What is the German Jewish history like? What was Antisemitism before it was Antisemitism, anti-Judaism…? I had a feeling this was such a huge topic: I can learn, I can dive into it. Retrospectively, I had a moment where I realised educating myself on Antisemitism helped me also to reflect my own experiences of discrimination. Fighting against Antisemitism and for the safety of Jews was easier for me than to fight against Islamophobia as a Muslim. This was how I went. 

Some say “That’s interesting. Bravo! You fight against Antisemitism as a Muslim”, but it helped me more than others.

EO: This is interesting. Many people may ask, is there something specific about Muslim Antisemitism. But I’m curious: What is specific about Muslim-background Germans fighting against Antisemitism v. German-background people fighting against Antisemitism? Something (not) done by your ancestors?

DH: You gave the answer to it! 

When I started working in the field of Antisemitism prevention, I thought what I was doing was a very singular thing, that there were just a number of [activists of] my type. This was not actually true. In the early 2000s, the AJC Berlin office had a task force against Antisemitism. This task force met in an office similar to [--gestures--] this one. Almost everyone in Berlin who was working against Antisemitism met there on a regular basis. A notable percentage of the members were also people with a migrant background. 

The Turkish population in Germany may be a little more than 3 million, in a country with 83 million people. In a room of activists against Antisemitism, the percentage with this background was much higher. 

There was an interest by migrant communities to fight against Antisemitism, but also to reflect on the Shoah and to find a way to be part of German commemoration or remembrance, because this is also part of German society’s identity. If you are excluded there, it means something is more-or-less wrong with you. I cannot say that people do something just for its own sake. There are also different motivations. 

The big difference between autochthone Germans and Germans with migrant backgrounds is not just the grandparents’ relation to the Shoah (victims, or perpetrators) but nowadays also the question: “do you belong to the ‘multidiverse’ Germany or not?” Our wish is, of course, to show that we belong to this society, and we must integrate in a different way. Not with negative finger pointing: “You do not remember”, or “commemorate”, and so on. But in an including, accepting way. These are the tensions, the emotional challenges.

EO: What are some of the things you did with the Kreuzberg Initiative against Antisemitism? 

DH: This is a question of how you understand yourself. I said I was engaged against Antisemitism at the beginning because I thought it was important to be in solidarity with other minorities. I also wanted to be in solidarity with minorities where the attacks came from, groups I am connected to. It was not like “I see non-Turkish or non-Muslims fighting or attacking Jews. I must be in solidarity with them.” There is also the truth that some threat and danger towards Jews, also originates from Turkish or Muslim migrant communities. One of my motivations was to say “I want to change this picture”. But I want to also show that you cannot generalise, you cannot say that there is only negativity from Muslim-migrant communities. Because if you reduce the picture only to this, that would clearly be anti-Muslim racism. 

Rabbi Hillel said, If I’m not for others—If I’m only for myself—what am I? So I asked myself: who am I? Being in solidarity with others belongs to the core identity of human being. Rabbi Hillel questions the humanity of someone who is just for her or himself. 

With this philosophical attitude and approach, KIgA tried to develop educational programmes, centred around three keywords: empathy, encouraging people to be empathetic as much as possible; change of perspective, recognising not just your angle but that there are different views, shades of grey, rather than one truth—(the goal here was also political, to explore controversies in discussion and debate); and tolerance-for-ambiguity

This last element was an unusual approach. We encouraged work with people whom in a normal context you would disqualify (because they said antisemitic things). Showing tolerance for ambiguities, especially in educational settings, means to confront them with irritations and try to catch them that way. Maybe because we are also concerned with religion, with belief. 

Like when Jesus said, “turn the other cheek.” … Do not turn your back and go. Instead say, “Okay, listen, why are you doing this? Why do you think Jews…?” Always try to go into things, even if it’s hard and, in other contexts, maybe it’s also wrong. 
I do not say this (tolerance for ambiguity) is the right way in a political context, but at schools and in educational contexts, you must use the platform of education to deal with it. 

At that time, we realised education is important but cannot solve everything. Many people who are educated, do not do good or logical things. We realised we need to widen our approach. We developed the so-called 3B model: Bildung (Education), Beratung (Counselling), Begegnungen (Encounters). 

We started thinking about Jewish-Muslim dialogue, with a specific motivation, to fight Antisemitism. With Jewish-Muslim dialogue, we sought to develop a tool or create a way to address Antisemitism. Doing this, by inviting Jewish and Muslim people to places where they can meet each other and learn more about each other, after a couple of times I realised we cannot just use this as a tool for something else. This must be the goal. Jewish-Muslim dialogue should not be reduced to a methodology. This must be where we want to go.

A couple of days ago my daughter shared a picture with me: a panda and a dragon walking on a path. You see some piece of jungle or forest. The panda asks the dragon, “What is more important the journey or the goal?” The dragon, which is obviously wise, answers: “The company.” Jewish-Muslim dialogue started as a journey. When I started thinking “No, this must be the goal”, a little dragon helped me to understand and change the whole picture: “No, it’s the companions.” We need Jewish-Muslim dialogue, encounter, coalitions, because we should want us (one another) as companions. This changed my whole attitude.

This was not easy in Germany, creating Jewish-Muslim coalitions, because of many things. There was no openness, no willingness, on each side to come together. To share things and to think of creating maybe an alliance so that we started thinking, “Where can we learn more about dialogue activities, coalitions and alliances?” 

The Prophet Muhammad said, “If knowledge is in China, go to China.” For our case we knew there’s a huge amount of experience on coalitions in the United States, so we took his advice to go far to get knowledge. We started creating a transatlantic bridge, mainly with the United States Holocaust Memorial rial Museum, who brought us together with organisations experienced in forming coalitions. We tried to learn from them and develop them in Germany, and we created several trans-Atlantic and intersectional networks. 

EO: Why do you think forming coalitions is more difficult in Germany than in the United States?

DH: In the USA, the Jewish part—I need to generalise a bit (which is never a good thing, you must differentiate as much as possible, but some questions need short answers)—the Jewish part in the US is more left, more liberal and democratic, and it is more established and bigger than the Muslim counterpart. We have around 200 000 Jews living in Germany. The biggest portion are of a Russian, a former Soviet background. So the constellation is different than for Jewish people in America, who have experience with other kinds of coalitions. These experiences do not exist in Germany. 

Additionally, in Germany but also in Europe, the answer of almost two thirds of Jewish people when asked about the biggest threat to them, they see it in Muslim migrants. A similar survey aimed at Jews in the United States would certainly show different results. It’s much harder for them (European Jews) to overcome this experience, the emotional experience, and to think of dialogue and even a step further to create coalitions. 
There’s no other way than to create unnatural spaces to bring them together. This is something I try to do many times. Because you cannot expect from someone to get into dialogue or the idea of creating coalitions if they cannot identify themselves with the issue, with the topic. It’s a bit difficult.

The prejudices, or wish to keep distance from the other party, is much higher than in the US. The question is how can we overcome it.



We are grateful to writer-illustrator James Norbury and his agents for permission to reproduce the featured image from his book Big Panda and Tiny Dragon (Michael Joseph, 2021).

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