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Photo: Peter Dejong/AP Photo

As politicians play to ethnic divisions, Salaam-Shalom celebrates multicultural communities

Berlin, GERMANY — In August 2012, Rabbi Daniel Alter was walking with his 6-year-old daughter in Berlin’s Friedenau district when four Arab-German youth jumped and beat him, fracturing his cheekbone. Alter, who is now a prominent voice warning against rising anti-Semitism in Germany, said the attackers asked, “Are you a Jew?” and threatened his daughter’s life. Five years later, in the same neighborhood, a 14-year-old Jewish boy transferred out of his school to escape anti-Semitic bullying. Many argue that the German capital and the country as a whole are facing not only a resurgence of anti-Semitism, but especially high levels of anti-Jewish sentiment among Muslim minorities.

Berlin once epitomized the divided city, sliced down the middle by the barrier that separated the Eastern bloc from the West. Despite the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, other divisions have risen, as they have across the country and throughout Europe. Political polarization spanning the continent today largely centers on three interlinked issues: migration, religious minorities and diversity. The “question of Islam” dominates debates on European identity, as Europe faces a refugee crisis, a growing surge in right-wing populism and a European Union shaken by the vote for Brexit.

For instance, the 2016 French election pitted now-President Emmanuel Macron against right-wing politician Marine Le Pen, who favors nativist policies. Her “eat pork or go hungry campaign” pressured schools to stop offering alternative meals to their Muslim students. After the Brexit campaign capitalized on anti-Islam sentiment, Muslims have been told to “get out, we voted leave!”. Across the United Kingdom—once hailed as a glowing example of multiculturalism—hate crimes are up 57%.

In Germany, Cologne was the site of violent far-right protests after German Chancellor Angela Merkel opened the borders for refugees in 2015. Berlin is also dealing with a politically divided present, but as the city’s Jewish and Muslim minorities increasingly cooperate, they’re building bridges rather than walls.  

The Salaam-Shalom Initiative was founded in 2014 by Armin Lager, a long-time Jewish Berliner, in response to rabbi Alter’s claim that the southeastern Neukölln district in Berlin had become “no-go areas” for Jews, made dangerous by a large Muslim populace.

Lager wanted to demonstrate the interconnection of Jewish and Muslim minorities in Berlin at a time of both rising anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim sentiment. He focused on “multicultural cohesion”—an alliance that respects and upholds the diversity of its members—and bringing members of both communities together. For the first two years, meetings were held in local cafes as well as the Sehitlik Mosque, located at the former site of the Berlin Wall.

Friday prayer at the Sehitlik mosque in Berlin. Markus Schreiber/AP Photo

Salaam-Shalom spreads its message of connection through public campaigns, art exhibits and social media. In 2014, I attended an art installation in Jewish and Muslim homes throughout Neukölln. I found myself in an unidentifiable apartment—a mezuzah protecting the entryway, Qur’anic verse inscribed on the walls. The point of the installation? To build empathy while deconstructing stereotypes, showing the mundane similarities shared by neighbors of all creeds.

After a headscarf-donning Sehitlik youth leader was blocked from a traineeship in the Neukölln legislature solely for wearing the religious symbol, Salaam-Shalom organized “My head, my choice,” in which Muslim and Jewish women posed in photographs and explained their choice of headgear on social media. While some wore a scarf for religious or solidarity reasons, others did not.

“It is social justice that I care about,” says Lager, sitting inside a Turkish-run cafe. “I think that I, as a Jew, have certain responsibilities. And I don’t see any other option. I won’t sit at home and watch the country going down … I don’t believe we can change everyone. … But there is a gray zone which we can change.”

One obstacle to more understanding is a simple lack of exposure to people from different minority groups. “Many people don’t have the privilege to experience this. They lack connections, friendships with people from different backgrounds,” says Haider, director of Zahnräder Netzwerk, a network of “changemaker” Muslims across Germany. “We need to create more space for people who didn’t have the chance to be in contact with someone different. … Salaam-Shalom is a way to build these bridges.”

Bridges are a fitting metaphor for the organization. They connect, they provide access, and they require support on both sides.

“I do believe we have an impact,” Lager says with a smile. “Up to three years ago only one voice [was] heard, that anti-Semitism is a problem of the Muslims. Now the mainstream media asks our opinion and our view—we managed to bring another perspective into the mainstream.”

Dervis Hizarci, managing director of the Krezuberg Initiative Against Anti-Semitism notes, “It’s good to have Armin on the other side,”pushing back against the unsubstantiated presumption that Muslims are to blame for anti-Semitism.

By introducing neighbors of different religions to one another and regularly breaking bread together, Salaam-Shalom has forged a tight-knit Jewish-Muslim Berlin community. Through far-reaching public campaigns covered by mainstream German news outlets and North American media, they are making these connections and models of coexistence visible and recognized.

This counter-narrative has proven powerful. “Obviously there is anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim racism, but there are also many cases where Muslims and Jews do get along,” Lager says. “We need to speak about this, to present good examples, because they are also there. You just have to see them.”