OBAT iftar for Rohingya Refugees: The power of interfaith engagement
May 25th saw a powerful display of interfaith service, when Muslim, Jewish and interfaith organizations joined together for a fundraising iftar for Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh.
It was a remarkable evening on May 25 at the Jewish Community Center. For the first time anyone can remember, the JCC hosted a Muslim Iftar, the breaking of the daylong Ramadan fast. Even apart from its venue, this was ordinary Iftar. Interfaith Iftars have become a common yet important part of the Ramadan landscape in Central Indiana. The Niagara Foundation organizes several. They are valuable opportunities for non-Muslims to learn about Islam, to talk with Muslims, and to show their solidarity with a minority religion that all too often feels vulnerable and besieged.
Saturday’s Iftar at the JCC was different. It might be called a service Iftar. What drew people of various religious traditions together was a commitment to help the more than a million persecuted Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh.
It may seem obvious that Muslims feel a need to help their fellow Muslims whose families have been murdered and raped in order to drive them from their homes in Burma. But why, for instance, do groups such as the Jews care so much about the Muslim Rohingya?
Aaron Welcher of the Jewish Community Relations Council and a driving force behind the JCC Iftar shares this statement from the Jewish Rohingya Justice Network.
Inspired by the Jewish commitment to justice, the Jewish Rohingya Justice Network (JRJN)* works to promote a robust U.S. and international response to the Rohingya genocide. Convened by American Jewish World Service (AJWS), we are the coalition of 19 American Jewish organizations that together encompass the support of millions of American Jews, including all four major branches of American Judaism. Together, we are committed to ending the atrocities against the Rohingya people.
“Today, we stand up as Jews and Americans against the ongoing genocide of the Rohingya people by the Burmese military, as we believe deeply from our own historical experience and understand from our ethical values that we cannot remain silent when any people are on the brink of destruction simply because of race, ethnicity or religion. American Jewish World Service, which provides direct support to the Rohingya and other oppressed ethnic minorities and human rights activists in Burma, is proud to join with the millions of Jews represented by the Jewish Rohingya Justice Network to demand that the killing cease and that justice is pursued, “ said Robert Bank, President and CEO of American Jewish World Service.
“The American Jewish community is united in the belief that the atrocities being perpetrated against the Rohingya people constitute a genocide—the deliberate and intentional destruction of a community based on ethnicity and religion,” said David Bernstein, CEO of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and a member of the Jewish Rohingya Justice Network. “Recently, JCPA’s members, which include the four denominations, unanimously voted to adopt a resolution expressing this belief and calling on the United States government and the international community to take immediate action.”
The Jewish Rohingya Justice Network recognizes that the Rohingya people are facing a genocide. “The Myanmar [Burmese] military has been slowly erasing the Rohingya for quite some time, fanning the flames of hate and dehumanization,” said Ann Strimov Durbin, director of advocacy and grantmaking at JRJN member Jewish World Watch. Burmese military forces escalated their coordinated campaign against the Rohingya people on August 25, 2017. Soldiers, along with Burmese civilians, burned Rohingya villages to the ground and indiscriminately massacred Rohingya men, women and children. More than 720,000 people were forced to flee to refugee camps in Bangladesh.
“We will not stand idly by while this calculated destruction of human beings continues apace. We are committed to calling this act of genocide by its name, and to taking action before it’s too late,” expressed Rabbi Jay Kornsgold, chair of the Rabbinical Assembly Social Justice Commission. Naomi Steinberg, Vice President for Policy and Advocacy at HIAS, said, “In the face of another genocide that aimed to rid a country of an entire ethnic and religious group, we must let our elected officials know where we stand. HIAS wants the U.S. to take a leadership role to help ensure that the rights of Rohingya refugees, and those still in Rakhine State, are respected.”
Credible reports from the UN Fact-Finding Mission, the Public International Law & Policy Group (PILPG), and The US Holocaust Memorial Museum, now say sufficient evidence exists that the Burmese military maintained a clear intent to destroy, in whole or in part, the Rohingya people – the legal hallmarks of the crime of genocide. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum confirmed: “compelling evidence that the Burmese military committed ethnic cleansing, crimes against humanity, and genocide against the Rohingya.” These statements are based on irrefutable facts.
“In the Talmud, our sages teach that if we can speak out against injustice but choose not to, we become complicit in said injustices. Our history as the Jewish people has shown us the grave consequences when people fail to act in the face of genocide. Now, as we witness the genocide of the Rohingya people, we call upon the United States government to hold those responsible accountable and work toward ensuring the complete restoration of human rights for the Rohingya community,” said Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.
Throughout Jewish history, we have known what it is like to face genocide, expulsion, and exclusion from society. The persecution and government-sanctioned brutality against Rohingya people echo the persecution suffered by Jews throughout history. The JRJN is acting powerfully on our promise that “never again” means no genocide ever again against any people.
The Jewish community calls upon the U.S. government to respond to the magnitude of this genocide by leading in bringing justice for the Rohingya people. We will continue to be at the forefront of this fight, working together to build a unified response to the Rohingya crisis.
The Jewish Rohingya Justice Network is the powerful consortium of Jewish NGOs advocating for the rights of the persecuted Rohingya people of Burma. JRJN’s membership includes 19 organizations and all four major branches of American Judaism.
*Members include American Jewish World Service, Jewish Council for Public Affairs, American Jewish Committee, Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, Union for Reform Judaism, HIAS, Anti-Defamation League, Jewish World Watch, JACOB, The Orthodox Union, T’ruah, Reconstructing Judaism, Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, and the Rabbinical Assembly. Allies include Hebrew College, The New York Board of Rabbis, Uri L’Tzedek, Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, The Shalom Center.
Jewish organizations and people vividly recall a history of persecution, homelessness, and attempts to extinguish them as a people. They are right to say “Never again” to any group forced to experience this today.
An interfaith service iftar requires more than good intentions and a desire to donate money to a worthy cause, for instance, the Jewish Rohingya Justice Network or Muslim AID USA. What made the iftar at JCC unique was Indianapolis-based OBAT Helpers, one of the most important groups working in the Rohingya camps.
For fifteen years, OBAT has been working with another group of nearly stateless people, the Urdu-speaking supporters of Pakistan left stranded in squalid camps since the Bangladeshi War of Independence in 1971. Within days of the hundreds of thousands of refugees flooding into Bangladesh, OBAT was prepared to start addressing the most urgent needs of the Rohingya. This meant more than members of OBAT’s team in Bangladesh being in the camps providing food, water, shelter and medical relief.
It meant that people like the Glickmans could travel to Bangladesh from their home in Connecticut, and plug directly into OBAT’s network to start making a difference immediately.
What connects people of different traditions to one another? Shared values about compassion, protecting the vulnerable, fighting for justice, empathy translated into action. What about food? The meal at the breaking of the fast was prepared by a kosher caterer, but it was halal as well. The fast was broken in a traditional manner, with cold water and dates (plus a samosa).
Another connection between various religious traditions were the kids. There were lot at the iftar, playing and chatting with each other regardless of whether were were Muslims, Jewish, Christian, or none of the above. “Playing” is the right word. When the Glickmans were in the camps, they saw that the only resource not in short supply was bamboo. Using bamboo to build quick shelter leaves a lot of scrap bamboo behind. Mindy Glickman, an accomplished flutist, saw hundreds of potential bamboo flutes in the camps, if the camp-dwellers had access to professionally made bamboo flutes so they could get the flutes’ properly sized and spaced. A bamboo artisanal flute-making collective in Connecticut donated flutes to the Glickmans so they could use them as templates for the Rohingya to make their own in the camps.
Mindy and Rabbi Jeff brought a couple of dozen of these flutes to the iftar. Families that donated $250 or more for camp projects were given one of the flutes. Soon the Laikin Auditorium at the JCC echoed with the sounds of little girls from different faith traditions playing (imperfectly, of course) together. It’s nice to think that in ten years Indianapolis has a first-rate interfaith bamboo flute ensemble playing together.