An imam and a rabbi tour Berlin schools

This rabbi and imam travel together: Elias Dray (left) and Ender Cetin
Imam Ender Cetin and Rabbi Elias Dray regularly visit schools in Berlin. Will this idea catch on in other German states? (image: meet2respect)

Tensions are running high over the conflict in the Middle East. In German schools, as elsewhere, discussions are controversial and emotional. An imam and a rabbi are working together to promote dialogue and understanding in these turbulent times

By Christoph Strack

Ender Cetin and Elias Dray have been visiting schools in Berlin for almost seven years. One is a Muslim imam, the other a Jewish rabbi. It is something they do regularly, arriving on a tandem – always together. They are part of the "meet2respect" programme. 

But since the horrific attack by terrorist Hamas on Israeli civilians a month ago and Israel's massive military response in the Gaza Strip, everything has changed. "Now it seems we're constantly being asked to put out fires, like a fire brigade," says Cetin in interview.

Dray has the numbers: essentially, someone calls every ten minutes to enquire about the possibility of them visiting a school. This week, the pair have spent every day at schools in Berlin. And on Wednesday, they even took part in a round table discussion with German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier on the topic of "War in the Middle East: For peaceful coexistence in Germany!"

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Clergy tandems to school

The project was founded in 2013 by non-profit organisation Leadership Berlin – Netzwerk Verantwortung. A year earlier, a rabbi in Berlin had been insulted, beaten and injured on the street in broad daylight in front of his seven-year-old daughter. A whole slew of tandems now visit schools together. And from time to time there are also other activities aimed at fostering togetherness. In 2018, for example, rabbis and imams staged a fun bike ride with other clergymen through Berlin city centre – on tandems. Dray and Cetin are now friends, as they readily admit.

These joint school visits are unusual. This is especially true in Berlin, where, unlike most of the other 15 federal states in Germany, there is traditionally no religious education in schools and the topic of religion is not really discussed.

But things are now so serious that demonstratively cycling together is no longer enough. Stefan Duell, president of the German Teachers' Association, explains the extent to which terror and war in the Middle East are challenging teachers not only in Berlin, but throughout Germany. Of course, such issues, like all major events in the world, "have an impact on schools because there is a need for discussion". 

Imam Ender Cetin (left) and Rabbi Elias Dray on a tandem bike tour of Berlin in 2018
In the summer of 2018, rabbis, imams and other religious leaders rode tandems together through Berlin to express the importance of peaceful coexistence in Germany (image: DW)

According to Duell, the war in the Middle East, the existence of the state of Israel, the Palestinian question and, in a broader sense, questions of anti-Judaism or anti-Semitism are even an issue for younger pupils. "A fifth grader hasn't heard much about the Holocaust or the Shoah. This means that young people lack a certain amount of basic knowledge to be able to discuss these issues with their elders on an equal footing. That doesn't make it easy for teachers." 

Pupils with a non-German background have also never discussed "certain things" in their own families. "That's not their fault," emphasises the president of the teachers' association. "Muslim children naturally tend to be told in the world in which they live that what the state of Israel is doing is not right, that even its existence should be questioned."

Duell also mentions an appeal for donations from the Turkish mosque association Ditib in favour of the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, which used a map "that does not include the state of Israel at all". This fits with the overall perception. It is difficult to initiate a self-critical debate. "The younger the young people are, the more difficult it is. The older they are, the easier it is to address the issue in class," says the teacher. Then, from around year nine onwards, the relevant topics are covered by the curriculum. 

 Stefan Duell, President of the German Teachers' Association
Pupils feel the need to discuss events unfolding in the Middle East: according to Duell, head of Germany's Teachers' Association, the Gaza war is proving challenging for teachers, not only in Berlin, but throughout Germany (image: Joerg Ratzsch/dpa/picture-alliance)

Astonishment among pupils

This is the world in which Dray (46) and Cetin (47) live. Both say that they have never been personally insulted or severely criticised during their encounters in schools. "And we also meet pupils who have never seen a rabbi or a Jew before," says Dray. Cetin speaks of the palpable "astonishment" when the two clergymen appear in class together. "For the young people, an imam is always an authority, a reference person who is respected."

It is also important to both of them that their many years of commitment do not just focus on anti-Semitism among Muslims. The conversations they have in school classes without migrant children are also challenging. "Then it's about anti-Muslim racism," says the imam. And the rabbi also talks about the need to combat such Islamophobia in the spirit of an open society. 

Figures from the Federal Agency for Civic Education (bpb) give an idea of just how great the challenges are in the German education sector one month after the Hamas attacks. Many teachers tend to look to this federal organisation for teaching materials. Following a request by Deutsche Welle, the bpb summarised how demand for print products on the Middle East had developed during October. 

Compared to the first nine months of 2023, publications such as "New anti-Semitism? Continuation of a global debate", "Anti-Semitism – topic sheets in the classroom" and "Talking about Israel. A German debate" were ordered four times more frequently in October than in previous months.

Imam Ender Cetin gesticulates against a colourful background in a classroom setting
Cetin speaks of the palpable "astonishment" when the two clergymen appear in class together. "For the young people, an imam is always an authority, a reference person who is respected" (image: meet2respect)

Demand for teaching resources

The Federal Centre has also recorded "a marked increase in online access to topics specific to Israel and the background to the Hamas terrorist attack". 

The corresponding online dossiers on Israel and the Middle East conflict, which were already available before 7 October, have seen an increase in daily access figures of around 1,500 percent. The usage figures have therefore increased sixteenfold. 

This corresponds to the fire brigade image used by Imam Cetin. When an enquiry reaches the two clergymen, it is often the result of conflicts in the school playground, arguments about pictures or corresponding bans.

Are individual lessons enough? Pupils find them memorable, says Cetin, "that the imam and the rabbi come to their school and get on well". Sometimes they meet young people they were in class with three or more years ago. "And then we always get good feedback." Perhaps, says Dray, it is these conversations that "help to prevent the situation from exploding despite the prevailing mood".

Christoph Strack

© Deutsche Welle 2023