01/26/2011 10:57 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

International Holocaust Remembrance Day: Bringing Imams to Auschwitz

We are passing through a season of singular national distemper where, for reasons best understood by social psychiatrists, the American people have entered into what can only be described as "open season" on Islam. Mosques everywhere, not just the "Ground Zero" mosque, are under attack; voters in Oklahoma have amended their state constitution to forbid state courts from considering Sharia law in their decisions (not that they had any intention of mastering that sophisticated legal corpus); otherwise "liberal" communicators debate whether First Amendment protections extend to followers of the Prophet Mohammed; and Muslims everywhere worry (rightfully) whether they have a place in the American mosaic.

Saddest to me, as a Jew, are the number of my co-religionists who are riding point on this peculiar crusade. I think of the likes of Pamela Geller ('Stop Islamization of America') and, I am sorry to say, The New Republic publisher Martin Peretz, who dress up contempt for Islam as part of the defense of Israel; and Tea Party Rabbi Nachum Shifren proclaims, "We are at war with Islam." For its part, the Anti-Defamation League seems to want it both ways -- oppose the Ground Zero mosque, but support the idea that Muslims should have other places to pray. And we should not forget Orthodox groups like Aish HaTorah, which distributed through subsidiaries hundreds of thousands of DVDs of the "documentary" Obsession during the 2008 presidential campaign in an effort to scare American Jews and brand Democrats as weak on Islamic terrorism.

This is why I was so pleased to organize a visit to Dachau and Auschwitz for eight American Muslim leaders last summer. This journey of reconciliation gives the lie to the caricatures of Islam that have become so prevalent among American Jews. At the death camps, the Muslims spoke out forthrightly against Holocaust denial and anti-Semitism. And they have continued to do so since their return.

The trip was premised on the view that although knowledge about the Holocaust is central to both the modern Jewish and European experience, it is tangential to the experience of many in the Muslim world. They may be aware of the bare facts of the Shoah, but they likely do not relate to it personally. This is not surprising. I was aware that there was an earthquake in Lisbon in 1755 -- after all, Voltaire wrote about it. But the reality of the earthquake never resonated with me until I actually walked the city's cobblestone streets and visualized the fire and tsunami engulfing the city. That was the purpose of the camp visits. To learn the history and social context leading to the Nazi genocide, we met with survivors and heard their stories, which provided us with a powerful experiential reality.

Some say knowledge is not an antidote to prejudice or irrational hatred. But this trip proved that notion incorrect. On their return, the imams spoke about the trip at their mosques and at Ramadan iftars (evening meals). They raised the possibility of leading youth groups to the camps. They are writing about this trip in mosque newsletters and in Muslim magazines and have discussed it in Arabic with Al-Jazeera and other Arab media. They have proposed additional trips by imams from Europe and the Middle East. They have discussed holding panels on the infamous anti-Semitic forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion at their various conventions, and they have urged the creation of a Muslim-Jewish Scholars Conference to discuss substantive issues between the communities.

The most important result that already has come out of this trip is the statement the participating imams issued on anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial, which is reprinted in The Forward and The Washington Post online. In that statement, the imams testify to the historical accuracy of the Holocaust and condemn Holocaust denial as contrary to Islam: "We bear witness to the absolute horror and tragedy of the Holocaust where over twelve million human souls perished, including six million Jews. We condemn any attempts to deny this historical reality and declare such denials or any justification of this tragedy as against the Islamic code of ethics." Further, they condemn anti-Semitism as forcefully as one possibly can: "We condemn anti-Semitism in any form. No creation of Almighty God should face discrimination based on his or her faith or religious conviction."

And they spoke plainly about the killing of innocents. "In Islam, the destruction of one innocent life is like the destruction of the whole of humanity and the saving of one life is like the saving of the whole of humanity" (Holy Qu'ran, al-Ma'idah "the Tablespread" 5:32). In so doing, they were reiterating the position taken by the Fiqh Council of North America, which advises Muslim organizations on how to apply Islamic law, in a 2005 fatwa condemning Islamic extremism, which stated, "There is no justification in Islam for extremism or terrorism. Targeting civilians' life and property through suicide bombings or any other method of attack is haram -- or forbidden -- and those who commit these barbaric acts are criminals, not martyrs."

There is no doubt that continuing tension in the Arab-Israeli conflict has increased the level of anti-Semitism in the Muslim world. For centuries there was a legal place in the Islamic universe for Jews -- they were considered dhimmi (people of the book) -- although the practical restrictions accompanying that status varied significantly across time and place. Recently, however, we have seen in the Muslim world a spate of attacks on Jews -- odious references, for example, in Saudi textbooks, teaching that Jews look like "pigs and monkeys" -- all suggesting that there is no place for Jewish communities in the House of Islam. Some, like anti-Semitism scholar Robert Wistrich, have argued that this anti-Semitism is rooted in the origins of Islam, not merely its modern fanatical wings. This reductionist approach ignores the multiple worlds that encompass Islamic or indeed any religious civilization. And it ignores the possibility of mutual engagement and growth exemplified by journeys such as the one I took with American imams to the death camps.

Read the full statement from the Muslim American leaders here.

This article first appeared in Moment Magazine.