By JOHN DeMERS
More than 15 years ago, during a visit to the profound and unexpectedly beautiful city of Jerusalem, I was caught off guard by the amount of hope I suddenly felt for future relations among Muslims, Christians and Jews. There’s just something about the place that news reports of suicide bombings can’t communicate, something about its unique position as holy city to the Western World’s three great religious traditions, that makes the prospects of peace so, well, obvious.
Make no mistake: all these years later, the prospects are still obvious. Yet even after one or more important peace accords, most days the reality of peace anywhere near Jerusalem, Israel and the Middle East seems as far-fetched a concept as ever before. And that despite the fact that the root word for peace in both Hebrew and Arabic forms slightly more than the second half of Jerusalem’s name. You know, as in shalom.
Right now, though, the invitation to give peace a chance – borrowing a phrase from the late ’60s and early ‘70s – is not only real in Jerusalem but in Houston as well, thanks to our city’s own Holocaust Museum. Two different temporary exhibits in the Museum District focus on contributions to the welfare and understanding of Jews by the two other faiths. The combined impact is remarkable.
As the name implies, a Holocaust Museum anywhere is about a core act of modern Jewish life, remembering the lives lost (and though this can get awfully political) the lessons learned from the extermination of millions of Jews by the Nazis throughout the 1930s and 1940s. While this sometimes militant remembrance is fitting, considering the depth of loss involved, it does have a way of setting Jews apart, even in their own lifelong communities such as Houston. As long as the Holocaust is something “that happened to us,” it is something that didn’t happen to “them.” And as long as everybody else is “them” and nothing more, not much progress seems to be possible. That’s what makes these two temporary exhibits so important. And so powerful.
Opening Aug. 28, the exhibit called “A Blessing to One Another” focuses on the legacy left by Pope John Paul II in his relationship with the Jewish people. Over the two millennia that came before John Paul II, Catholic Popes didn’t usually win any humanitarian awards for their treatment of Jews or their quasi-theological statements about their role (or non-role) in salvation history. This Polish Pope shattered all that. In his 1993 appeal marking the 50th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto, he alluded powerfully to the shared kinship of Christians and Jews (along with Muslims!) as children of the biblical prophet Abraham, and he called for both faiths to “first be a blessing to one another.”
Gathered around this first-ever Pontiff since the first century to enter a synagogue, officially visit and recognize the State of Israel and formally express regret for the Catholic Church’s past treatment of Jewish people, “A Blessing to One Another “draws together about 70 artifacts on loan from 10 museums and private collections. It runs through Jan. 3.
If seeing Christians reach out to Jews is, for many, unexpected enough, in today’s political climate it seems even more so to see Muslims doing it. Yet that’s what we see in the exhibit called “Besa: Muslims Who Saved Jews During the Holocaust,” on view through Feb. 7. In a five-year project, Colorado-based photographer Norman Gershman set out to gather the names of righteous non-Jews who saved Jews during the Holocaust, and the names he found kept pointing him to Albania.
It was there, among largely ignored pockets of resistance to the Nazis, that nearly no Jewish lives were lost. According to the Muslim survivors and their descendants that Gershman photographed, the explanation that kept coming up was “Besa,” the deeply rooted code of honor that was incorporated into Albania’s version of Islam. As the photographer puts it: “There was no government conspiracy, no underground railroad, no organized resistance of any kind – only individual Albanians, acting alone, to save the lives of people whose lives were in immediate danger.”
Over the past 2,000 years or so, it’s a safe bet that individuals have always led the way in such efforts to just be humans under God in the same space. The “peace” half-hidden in the name Jerusalem is a painful reminder that our governments have only rarely lived up to those efforts.
Photo from ‘Besa’ Exhibition