Sisters in Peace
She walked through the streets of Poland, and what she saw disturbed and hurt her as it would any human being, Jewish or otherwise. There were obvious symbols of anti- Semitism everywhere. From racist graffiti to figurines openly sold in stores representing Jews as having long white beards and holding money bags with the trade mark side locks. The year was 2009, Sheryl Olitzky was visiting Poland and was horrified with what she saw. Especially since it seemed very socially acceptable. When she returned home she decide to form an inter faith group in 2010 engaging Muslim and Jewish women to fight hatred and negative stereotyping of various identifiable groups and above all to promote peace. This is how the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom came into being.
Seven years on they are a thriving community well known across the board for being active at many levels, political a well as social and are ever expanding.
With chapters active in many states in the USA, we are lucky to have a branch here in our Toronto. Cynthia Levine-Rasky and Sabreena Ghaffar Siddiqui are the co leaders of the Toronto chapter. They generously shared their thoughts about the current political climate and contribution of their organisation with The Link.
TheLinkCanada: The Sisterhood was born in New Jersey in 2010. Do you think the latest political developments south of the border make this initiative even more relevant than when it was conceived?
Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom: Building community and improving dialogue across groups is always relevant. The need for meaningful relationships is always acute. But coming together, whether we are women, men, racialized, Indigenous, a religious minority, sexually diverse, have a disability, or are poor, has taken on a particular significance now. A key way in which the US leadership sustains it popularity is by facilitating a nationalist movement against people they make as outsiders. Another key way is to fabricate lies through their own channels and to suppress mainstream media. Groups like the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom stand against these developments by demonstrating that we are all insiders, that the will to make outsiders carries political consequences, and that only the truth will serve our democracy.
TheLinkCanada: Many people draw parallels between what the Jewish population suffered in 1930s and what the Muslims living in the West are facing today. Do you agree?
Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom: There are parallels, but they are not equivalent. The concerted attack against Muslims in the form of the travel ban is state-sponsored oppression. This is because the state attempted to make discrimination against Muslims the law of the land. The implication that they are all potential security risks affects Muslims everywhere. As targets of racism, or what some prefer to describe as Islamophobia, Muslims are not only attacked by people on the street and discriminated against in our public institutions, they are also marginalized through subtle means everyday. There is no change since 9/11. Now however, it is socially acceptable to express hatred toward Muslims. It is normalized. All of this is similar to what happened to the Jews in 1930s Europe. The parallel stops at the construction of concentration and death camps for the genocide that the Jews were subjected to during WWII.
TheLinkCanada: Tell us about your personal experience with the sisterhood. What prompted you to initiate the Toronto chapter? How did it all start?
Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom: Immediately after the US Presidential election on November 8, 2016, Cynthia felt an urgency to take action. With countless others, she shared a fear of the inevitable consequences for minority groups. She saw a post by the Sisterhood on her Facebook page, and contacted the organizers who encouraged her to form the first Canadian chapter. In January, she asked her friends if they knew of a Muslim woman who might be interested in serving as a co-leader. A mutual friend introduced her to Sabreena who agreed immediately. We began recruiting members, and on March 5, we had our first meeting. We continue to attract wonderfully talented women of both faiths, and today we may be the largest chapter in North America with 100 members. And yes, our membership is still open!
TheLinkCanada: It is a bold statement, talking about Jewish Muslim Unity given the chequered history we share. Have you faced opposition from within and without? If yes, how do you deal with it?
Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom: It is a bold statement to which almost everyone reacts positively, we have found; at least all reasonable people who value the principles of equality and human dignity. Some individuals may look askance at us and are unprepared to accept us, and some are not ready to take such steps personally. But just showing that we exist is a valuable moment in public education for them. We have experienced opposition from extremists and racists including organized white supremacist groups and also deranged individuals, but our policy is not to engage them. We know we are stronger than them, and we gain strength from our sisters and from our families.
TheLinkCanada: How can everyone contribute to this initiative? What about including sisters of faiths other than Jewish and Muslim in your efforts? Or do you think that would dilute the message?
Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom: There is immeasurable benefit when women and men of all faiths move beyond words of support and take action together. We encourage all initiatives like this. We feel that there is something specific and unique, though, about the Muslim-Jewish relationship that impels our work. Our chapter’s view is to encourage solidarity of all groups whose belongingness in our shared world has been questioned. We all should stand together against the current threat. There is strength in numbers, and our numbers are legion. If someone is Muslim or Jewish and identifies as female, we accept her as a member. If someone is none of these, we accept them as an essential ally. Making a statement against exclusion when you do not have a personal stake in it as a member of that group is the most powerful thing someone can do.
TheLinkCanada: What has the sisterhood achieved so far? What further concrete steps need to be taken to substantially impact the society at large to highlight peace, love and co existence?
Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom: We are still a new group having formed earlier this year; our membership is growing every week. The group decides on what actions to take to get our message out. We don’t expect all of our members to agree on the best actions to take. Some engage in activism, some work on social service projects, and some prefer interfaith dialogue and religious ritual. Our chapter does all of these things, and we will continue to expand their scope. There is no shortage of ideas for how to engage the problem of racism against our groups, and how to support other groups in our common struggle. There is need for interventions of all kinds. But in the end, the most important thing is simply to stand together. Even if we do nothing else, that alone makes a powerful statement.