ECCAR interview on the occasion of Purim with Rabbi Moshe David HaCohen on trust-building and religious diversity in the city

The Jewish holiday Purim (23rd and 24th of March 2024) comes this year at a time marked by increased antisemitic attacks in the public sphere, vandalism in Jewish places of worship, and discrimination against Jewish individuals. Since October 7th, there has also been a peak in anti-Muslim racism, as within rising political tensions, Muslims have not only been anew stereotyped as terrorists but also victimized by hate crimes and their communities’ safety challenged. Both communities are hurting as many have family ties with those under attack. 

In our present-day context, Purim’s historical background that is connected the history of resilience, perseverance, and survival of the Jewish people in the face of existential threat, remind us of the importance of the fight against hate crime and discrimination targeting Jewish communities, individuals, and people perceived as such. The local governments’ role in the fight against hate crime and discrimination targeting both Jewish and Muslim communities, individuals, and people perceived as such is now heightened. 

Now, more than ever, European local authorities have the critical task of creating cities where Jewish, and Muslim, citizens should feel safe living by their own beliefs and expressing their own religious identities. ECCAR strives to support its member cities in this objective. One of the partners in this work is the Swedish civil society organization AMANAH, known for its work in combating both and antisemitism and anti-Muslim racism under the leadership of Rabbi Moshe David HaCohen. ECCAR contacted the Rabbi and asked him to share his views on the current situation and how trust-building can be used as a tool to counter hate and discrimination, and to foster sustainable partnerships toward more inclusive cities. 

ECCAR: After October 7th, European city administrations face the challenge of upholding cooperation between themselves and the local Jewish and Muslim communities. What would you advise city administrations who want to act and foster dialogue? How can cities help build trust between communities despite political differences?

Rabbi Moshe David HaCohen: 

Before speaking of how cities can facilitate inter-communal trust, the cities must strengthen the trust the communities have in them as institutions. As stated, both Jewish and Muslim communities currently feel extremely vulnerable. Statements are not enough. Besides the basic security needs that must be provided, the cities can strengthen trust and partnerships in many ways. In Malmö, for example, there is a partnership deal with the Jewish community, which focuses not only on security but also on fostering future Jewish life through education and various events.

It is also essential that the support of one community does not come on account of the other. Antisemitism and islamophobia are not the problems of the Jewish and Muslim communities. They highlight the issues in the society that must be dealt with. We have a common fight, and the cities can help support them.

Once the internal trust between the cities and the communities has been strengthened, it will be possible for the cities to facilitate safe spaces for inter-communal meetings. It is up to the communities to decide whether the city officials should be present. The cities must not act as the “big brother” but rather allow space for trust building. 

Cities, unlike organizations, serve every respective member and neighborhood. This enhances the possibility of outreach to the more extreme elements of society, and bringing them forward to the table is of the essence. Having coffee with the nice ones will not make any change.

ECCAR: This year, the City of Frankfurt’s decision to put up Ramadan lights faced criticism and claims of “Islamization” of the German urban city space. Last year, a Polish far-right politician extinguished Chanukkah candles in the parliament. The same politician has allegedly spread conspiracies of Poland becoming a “Jewish state.” AMANAH’s work is based on a belief that religion and roots are a source of connection rather than division. How can cities, in their roles as democratic institutions, ensure fair representation while, at the same time, religious freedom is under attack?

Rabbi Moshe David HaCohen: Unfortunately, there is a massive lack of knowledge regarding religion, which is then exploited by societal actors interested in its polarization. Appreciating each person in society is essential for a truly cohesive society. Therefore, cities should not avoid this goal but rather find ways to disseminate this knowledge to society. Understanding what is important to someone does not mean I am preaching religion but rather enhancing trust and appreciation. 

In Sweden, we discuss whether a child should be allowed to fast during Ramadan. No one asks the children in the classroom to share what Ramadan means to them. This leads to a split identity when something very meaningful happens at the child’s home and community but does not receive recognition in the public sphere. I suggested to Malmö city that they have an Appreciation Street, which each week takes on teaching about a different culture.

ECCAR: For years, your organization has successfully cooperated with the city of Malmö to foster dialogue between the Jewish and the Muslim communities. At the same time, you are a Rabbi and have a role as a religious leader. What is your message to civil society actors and community leaders who might feel that the relationships they built so far are now endangered, if not completely cut off? What is the way forward?

Rabbi Moshe David HaCohen: Right now, with all the political tensions and emotions affecting the communities, it is challenging to have public dialogue, and in my opinion, it is not recommended. As leaders, we must understand the narrative of the other, not to have a dialogue about it, but to understand what is affecting them and how their communities are acting. No assumptions should be made about the other before listening to them. If we do so, we will lose trust in good people who want a better future for us all. Conclusions should not be made in a time of war when emotions are triggered. But at the end of the day, we need to understand whether those we have or had relationships with can agree to a common code of ethics, which we can trust to protect us and our communities and build a better future together. As leaders, we must constantly ask ourselves if our messaging is only protecting us or spreading positivity and hope that is desperately needed, both by our community members and the whole society. 

About Amanah: Amanah goes beyond the concept of tolerance and aims to build a relationship of trust between the Muslim and Jewish communities - as well as in the majority society. We create tools to combat all forms of discrimination and hatred, focusing on antisemitism and islamophobia that directly affect our communities. For further information visit