A debate in Abu-Dhabi: Why talk to Muslims about the Holocaust?


A round-table discussion about the past, present and future of Jewish-Muslim relations brought together on April 26 Aladdin Project President Anne-Marie Revcolevschi, Abu Dhabi Sorbonne Vice-Chancellor Eric Fouache, former French Ambassador to Yemen Gilles Gauthier, Moroccan publisher Abdelkadir Retnani and Abu Dhabi New York University’s Professor Justin Stearns.

The magnificent building of “Paris-Sorbonne University Abu Dhabi” was the venue of a round-table discussion on April 26 about the past, present and future of Jewish-Muslim relations. The Sorbonne’s campus in the United Arab Emirates seeks to highlight the importance of “dialogue between cultures and the exchange of knowledge,” which is why the university’s vice-chancellor, Eric Fouache, agreed to host this event for the Aladdin Project on the opening day of the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair.

Moderating the discussion, Aladdin Project Executive Director Abe Radkin said those working to promote better relations between the West and the Muslim world, and more specifically between Jews and Muslims, were facing increasing challenges in an environment where radicalism and rejection of the Other were on the rise. He invited the panelists, with their rich and varied experiences, to comment on how the recent changes in North Africa and the Middle East, widely referred to as the Arab Awakening, would impact these relations in the near and long term.

Anne-Marie Revcolevschi, the Aladdin Project’s President, told the meeting that serious investment in civil society action was needed to prevent extremists and radicals from dooming relations between the West and the Muslim world. We are facing a clash of ignorance, rather than a clash of cultures or civilizations, she said, and the answer to this is to promote knowledge of the Other. This was particularly true in the case of Jewish-Muslim relations. It was thus important, she added, that the millennial history of Jews living in Muslim lands be taught to young Arabs and Jews in a non-ideologized way. She also saw no justification for excluding the Arab world from the global discussion about the lessons learnt from the history of the Holocaust.

Gilles Gauthier, recently appointed as diplomatic advisor to Jack Lang, president of the Paris-based Arab World Institute, conveyed to the participants the greetings of Jack Lang and his expression of support for the Aladdin Project. As a diplomat with long experience in the Arab world and also as a translator, Gauthier said he found it a pity that across the Arab world, little remains of the long history of Jewish communities. Today, he said, the Arab perception of Jews was dominated by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the man in the Arab street made no distinction between a Jew and an Israeli. He emphasized the importance of translation into Arabic as a way of stimulating public debate in the Arab world about issues such as universal values and said the recent changes in the Arab world created a climate that was more conducive to such debate than before.

Abdelkader Retnani, Chairman of the Association of Moroccan Publishers, said he had accepted to partner with the Aladdin Project in this endeavor, because he was convinced that the only way to promote better relations between Jews and Muslims was to increase what they know about one another’s historical, cultural and religious identity.

Justin Stearns spoke briefly about the interesting research he had conducted into the way three contemporaneous Muslim powers, namely the Ottoman, Safavid and Mughal empires, treated the Jewish and Christian minorities living under their rule. Going over the history of Jewish-Muslim relations in different historical periods, he dismissed the notion of “Golden Ages”, but emphasized that within the limits of their inferior legal status, Jews had fared much better, in general, under Muslim rule than under Christian domination in Europe. Professor Stearns also addressed the issue of Holocaust education in Arab countries and said he found it regrettable that his children studying in schools in the UAE were deprived of the benefits of learning about one of the darkest pages in the history of humanity.

Abe Radkin concluded the discussion by proposing that the Aladdin Project and the Abu Dhabi campuses of the Sorbonne and New York University work together to organize a larger conference on Jewish-Muslim relations for the Emirati public.