An Unprecedented Jewish/Muslim Dialogue

By Nancy R. Goodman, PhD
and Batya Monder, MSW, BCD


Dr. Akbar Ahmed (second from right) and participants in the dialogue

An unprecedented Jewish/Muslim dialogue took place on May 5, 2007 at a conference on Fear and Trauma: Ruptured Souls; Ruptured Cultures. Two speakers, one Jewish the other Muslim, were addressing the large subject of Fear and Trauma from the perspective of their own backgrounds and their very meaningful contributions to the understanding of these profoundly disturbing subjects.
A psychoanalyst and scholar of the Holocaust, Dori Laub, MD and a scholar of contemporary Islam, Akbar Ahmed, PhD presented papers and entered into dialogue inviting participation from an esteemed audience of psychoanalysts, mental health professionals, academics, and leaders of organizations interested in Islam and the Holocaust.
The conference on Fear and Trauma allowed for the suffering of the Holocaust and the suffering in the world of Islam to be discussed together for the first time.
The New York Freudian Society, Washington, DC Program and the School of International Service of American University in Washington, DC collaborated in bringing together knowledge of trauma from psychoanalytic study of Holocaust survivors and the contemporary conflicts between Islam and the West.
Dr. Nancy Goodman, the moderator of the program, opened the conference with comments about the importance of hearing from two scholars who have been courageous witnesses to the truths of unspeakable traumas: the destruction of the Nazi era and the terror facing us today in the contemporary conflicts within the world of Islam and between Islam and the West.
Dr. Dori Laub and Dr. Akbar Ahmed created a double narrative as they spoke from extensive knowledge of their fields of interest and from their personal experiences as children.
Dr. Laub, a child survivor of the Holocaust, spent the better part of his professional life working with victims of massive trauma and writing about therapeutic work with severe trauma. Dr. Ahmed, a child on one of the trains during the mayhem of the Pakistani partition, and holder of the Ibn Khaldum Chair of Islamic Studies at the School of International Service at American University, is a prolific writer on the world of Islam and a creator of interfaith dialogue. Both scholars have the tenacity to know, study, and teach about ruptures of soul and culture. They are each dedicated to creating ways to hear about the unspeakable and to facilitate creation of narrative as individuals and groups learn to listen to each other.
Psychoanalytic commentaries further enriched understanding of how narratives and dialogues develop out of terrifying experience and were presented by Paula Ellman, PhD, Arlene Kramer Richards, EdD and Robert Rovner, PhD. The three clinical papers focused on otherness in one form or another and meshed beautifully with the topic of Fear and Trauma. Each commentary included exquisitely sensitive work with traumatized patients.
Dr. Dori Laub presented a paper on “Knowing the Unknowable of the Holocaust”. He spoke eloquently about the place of testimony as an alternative to dramatic fragmentation. Only in the creation of testimony could the knowing take place. “Testimony,” said Dr. Laub, “can only emerge in the presence of a passionate listener.”
He presented examples of the incapacity of mothers to have any memory of what happened to their children when the events involving their deaths were too horrifying. Massive psychic trauma lacks a beginning, middle and end. It weaves its way into the memories of several generations as is internalized by the children of those who were victims. Many survivors were unable to speak because of their inner speechlessness, having split off their traumatic experiences both emotionally and cognitively. Dr. Laub noted that a good object is essential for survival. Survivors don’t know what they know till they give testimony. Dr. Laub spoke of the urgency he experienced to co-found the Holocaust Video Archives Project at Yale University in 1979 as a living memorial for testimonies of survivors.
Dr. Akbar Ahmed presented a paper on “Creating Dialogue when Cultures Rupture”. Akbar Ahmed began his talk by noting the uniqueness of the Holocaust which has no parallel in the Muslim world and the importance of a Jewish-Muslim dialogue. He stressed the need for a narrative about Muslim history and the urgency for the West to understand what is happening in Muslim society. The enormity of unrest was underscored by his remarking that of all the refugees in the world today, 80% are Muslims. He went on to say that in Iraq alone four million refugees have been created by our involvement there. We lament the approximately 3000 American deaths but do not register the far greater number of Iraqi fatalities, estimated by the British to be 655,000 and by the Iraqis to be 1.5 million.
Akbar Ahmed provided more details about his own history. In 1947 there was madness in North India. With the creation of Pakistan, 15 million people were displaced and two million people died. Hindus went to India and Muslims to Pakistan. The intense intimacy of these peoples was converted into violence overnight. He also spoke about the rising tide of Anti-Semitism and the mistaken belief throughout the Muslim world that Israel is behind 9/11. He closed with the plea for Christians and Jews to help Muslims tell their stories and for the repeated need for dialogue between Muslim and Jew.
As they spoke together about the incomprehensible terror they have each witnessed in their work and in their lives, exquisite need for conversation and knowing the narrative of the other was evidenced. The audience responded with gratitude for learning more about the ruptures of soul and culture which often get submerged when fear and trauma create silence. The papers, the psychoanalytic commentaries, and the dialogue between speakers and with the audience exemplified the way that fear and trauma can become known and the importance of this knowing to prevent continuous repetitions of horrifying cataclysmic events.

 

 

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Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
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