By Colby Itkowitz
After the desecration of a Jewish cemetery in St. Louis over the long holiday weekend, an incident in which more than 150 headstones were toppled or damaged, two American Muslim activists started a fundraiser to help pay for needed repairs.
“Through this campaign, we hope to send a united message from the Jewish and Muslim communities that there is no place for this type of hate, desecration, and violence in America,” the fundraising page on the site LaunchingGood reads. “We pray that this restores a sense of security and peace to the Jewish-American community who has undoubtedly been shaken by this event.”
Within a few hours of going up Tuesday afternoon, the page had exceeded its goal of raising $20,000.
Tarek El-Messidi, who created the campaign with fellow activist Linda Sarsour said when he saw the news about the vandalism at Chesed Shel Emeth Society cemetery in the St. Louis suburb of University City, he was reminded of a story about the prophet Muhammad, who had stood up when a Jewish funeral procession passed. When asked why, he said, “Is it not a human soul?”
“That story goes to show more than anything the humanity of the prophet. … We should bring the story to life here and show every person deserves to rest in peace,” El-Messidi said. “This is a great way to show respect and honor for our Jewish cousins.”
Through his nonprofit, Celebrate Mercy, El-Messidi’s mission is to not only educate people about the prophet’s teachings but also to rally Muslims to respond to evil with good. A national Muslim leader in Knoxville, Tenn., he helped launch a Muslim-led fundraiser for the victims of the San Bernardino terrorist attack in 2015 that ultimately raised more than $215,000. In 2012, after the attacks on U.S. diplomatic facilities in Benghazi that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans, El-Messidi called on Muslims to write condolence letters to the Stevens’s family and presented 8,000 of them to Steven’s sister that Thanksgiving.
Since the rise of hate crime incidents after the November election, both Muslim and Jewish communities in the United States have been targeted, their institutions are threatened, their people bullied. It’s a shared experience that is bringing them together in solidarity, El-Messidi said.
“This is really a human issue,” he said. “But out of this horrible election cycle, something beautiful has come out of it and [Muslims and Jews have] bonded together to support each other and stand up to this hate. Politics can get in the way of our basic humanity; I hope this breaks through all those walls, no pun intended, to help bring us closer together.”
To underscore this point, El-Messidi shared a message he received from a woman named Barbara:
You have helped to heal the pain in my heart. I live in Los Angeles but was born and raised in St. Louis. I have family buried in that cemetery and was heartbroken seeing the desecration of the final resting place of some of my loved ones. Your kind and loving spirit gives hope to me that we can have mutual respect and tolerance of our differences and shared humanity. Bless you.
El-Messidi said he has been communicating with the director of the cemetery who was going to send him an exact estimate of the damages, but he doesn’t have that figure yet. If they raise more than is needed, he said they will keep a leftover fund that will be used to counter anti-Semitic hate.
First posted on washingtonpost.com