A Discussion with Chantal Suissa-Runne, New We

With: Chantal Suissa-Runne

August 3, 2016

Background: As part of the International Higher Education Interfaith Leadership Forum, in August 2016 Sara Singha conducted an interview with Chantal Suissa-Runne, who is the chief editor of New We, which is the biggest multimedia platform in the Netherlands for faith and interfaith related topics. Suissa-Runne reflected on her work with a Jewish-Muslim leadership program for young professionals, moving past fear to engage in dialogue, and the importance of celebrating multiple identities.
Please tell us about your current work/role, and in what capacity it influences/incorporates interfaith efforts?

I am currently the chief editor of New We (NieuwWij), which is the biggest multimedia platform in the Netherlands for faith and interfaith related topics. I also have my own business, which is about connecting people and communities in society predominantly around religion, ethnicity, and culture. New We is growing quickly, and we doubled our viewers last year, so it’s a well-known platform for in-depth knowledge about faith, diversity, and social justice matters, not just current affairs. It has huge networks in the interfaith world and within various communities. We actively push our content to communities and key figures that we think will find it interesting, so we have lots of people sharing our material. Forty percent of our viewers find our content through Facebook. I think this shows that although interfaith issues around the world have older people involved, with New We, since we have such a strong social media presence, we manage to involve youth as well.

How do you define interfaith service, and what are the essential components of interfaith service work?

For me, it has a lot to do with making it grounded and real, encouraging empathy, and having a deeper level of dialogue. In the work I’m in, the work is about touching on sensitive topics, listening to and embracing each other’s identity, culture, and religion, including the differences. There are some harsh differences, and Europe is under a lot of tension right now, so everything is under a magnifying glass, especially around religion.

Can you share a story about your personal background to illustrate how it inspired you to engage in interfaith service efforts?

On a personal level, I have a passion for interfaith work, education, and dialogue. I am the youngest board member of the Liberal Jewish Community of Amsterdam, and in that position I engage both interfaith and intrafaith work. I really love it because I grew up as a Jewish girl. We were very liberal, but we celebrated Shabbat and all of the other holidays, and I didn’t eat pork or seafood; I only ate kosher-style. I was always drawn to the “other” or to the different. There was one Muslim girl in my class at school, and one Asian girl, and they were both my friends. I was friends with the Dutch people in my class, too, but I especially connected with the people who also had a bi-cultural background or were different from mainstream society in some way.

Jewish history and experience is a significant part of my current work on interfaith issues. As a Jewish family, we have some negative encounters with being identified as Jewish. My grandmother suffered a lot; she survived five concentration camps in the Holocaust and did a six-week death march. And still, the woman taught me not to hate. She still loved life and saw the humanity and the good in everybody. When my father had to go work in Germany, she told me that she was sad, but that there are Nazis and that there are Germans, and that there is a distinction between them. In addition, you can never hate an entire people just because of what some of them have done to you. That was such a lesson to me. She taught me my first sentence in German, and it was “Do you want to play with me?”

My father’s background was also quite diverse, as the child of a Protestant Christian father and a Portuguese Jewish mother. While I had grown up in a liberal Jewish family, my husband had grown up with a more Orthodox Jewish tradition. So with our kids, we blended our traditions. We keep kosher style and maintain the rituals. Nobody goes out on Friday nights. My husband became a little more liberal and I became a little more traditional; at home we met in the middle. My kids know exactly what’s expected of them in both the Orthodox and the Reform communities.

Can you share some highlights from your academic and professional background?

I started a Jewish-Muslim leadership program for young professionals to receive 75 hours and a full weekend of interreligious training throughout the year. They took time out of their busy lives on Sundays to do this and came from a variety of professions. Many already had families, too, so it was a large time commitment. The most interesting thing about this group was seeing such a diverse group working together: orthodox, liberal, and secular from both sides. The friendships eventually are built around affinities and common interests and not along the lines of religion.

The biggest Muslim minorities in the Netherlands are of Turkish and Moroccan descent, and my Muslim co-trainer and I trained participants from those two groups, and some Kurdish people as well. Some were more secular, while others were more conservative, such as a theology teacher. The group was very dynamic, and we did a lot of really in-depth study and dialogue together. In one activity, we selected texts from the Qur’an, the Torah, etc., and we mixed them all together. We asked the participants to identify what resonated with each of them, and asked them to guess which text was from their own faith tradition. Quite often, everyone got it wrong.

When I first began recruiting for this program, many people involved told me I was crazy, and that at some point when I touched upon the Israel-Palestine conflict, it would be the end of the group. But I wanted this to be the first group in the country to handle this discussion respectfully. I started interviewing and recruiting the participants for this program during the Gaza war, and everyone told me I would fail. But we ended up with an amazing group! We had a variety of workshops and activities. The beauty of it was that we had a discussion on the Middle East, and it actually went well. Not everyone agreed, but they respectfully discussed and listened to each other. They decided that the conflict can’t solely identify them. I set them free to engage each other, and they had a big event about freedom of speech and how that was understood by the two communities. What excites me is seeing this kind of dialogue happening in front of my eyes. To take it to an academic level, I do the theory behind it as well, but I really love the community engagement and action part. This group now also works with refugees from Syria and teaches other dialogue groups using their own real life experiences.

I am also really proud that I encouraged our vice prime minister to switch from organizing separate round tables discussing anti-Semitism and Islamophobia to creating mixed tables to discuss these issues. I told him and his staff we could be stronger together, working for each other. This is something that actually took place, and I think we are able to have a more fruitful dialogue now. Real change comes from standing up and fighting each other’s fights, not just the ones that concern your own community.

In your opinion, what is some of the most important work that’s being done in terms of interreligious studies or efforts?

I think it’s important to build networks and alliances that are not exclusively intellectual and academic. Studying texts and discussing scriptural reasoning is an important component of dialogue. But I think change is going to come from action. Safety pacts are one thing that is growing in the Netherlands—where various minorities sign this decree that they promise to stand up for each other’s buildings, communities, and safety. We are in a situation with real threats; for example, pig heads were thrown into a mosque. My own children, who attend the only Jewish elementary school we have in our country, have royal marshals and armed police in front of their school to guide them and keep them safe. This is what my kids have to see everyday to just go to school, and they are only 4 and 7 years old.

So I think we’re past just talking. The time has come to really stand up for each other. I’m known as someone that stands up for Muslim rights. I was the only Jew on the Islamophobia table in our vice prime minister’s office, and I think that’s ridiculous. I think everyone should do it. Real change will only come if we have empathy for each other and stand up for each other’s rights. I think in the United States, it’s a lot easier to work together. When I came to the State Department’s Faith and Service International Visitors Leadership Program last year, I saw faith groups working together because they had a common goal, like fighting poverty. I think we compartmentalize, but there’s a whole field where we could and should work together.

To what extent should higher education institutions play an active role in interfaith service work and projects?

I think they should play a big role, because in universities, there’s a meeting space, and it’s an excellent place to meet others and exchange ideas. Our universities are rapidly becoming more diverse and less elitist. There’s a new initiative called New Connective trying to connect students nationwide under different identities to create a platform for dialogue for them. We’re picking up on that, and I’m on their board of advisors. The networks are the key. We used to have a Christian, Jewish, and a Moroccan student organization, but they were very fragmented. This new initiative is very interfaith-oriented.

What is one thing you would like to see change in your community in terms of interreligious relations and understanding?

In the Jewish community, there’s a strong sense that we need interfaith dialogue and that it is important, but I think our flaw as a community is that we engage less than we could out of fear of anti-Semitism, and because of tensions around the Israel-Palestine conflict. We need to stop projecting our fears to other people and start opening up more. We are slowly moving towards that. There are a lot of people watching the news, thinking terror is going to hit us, and there is extreme security. But that shouldn’t stop us; it should push us harder towards these interfaith efforts. One of the important components of security is trust and relationship-building. It enriches your life, it’s interesting, and also just really fun.

At the Liberal Jewish Community, we have, for example, organized a dialogue seder evening at Passover for all our dialogue contacts in the country, inviting interfaith leaders, imams, priests, community workers, social workers, youth, and this year, for the first time, refugees from Syria. We all have a role to play in this—if you look at the refugee issue now, it’s something we’ll have to deal with for decades. There’s a lot of fear, but so many opportunities to interact with the Syrian and other refugees. If you really talk to them, they have so many questions about things that are normal to them, or that make sense to them in their context. For example, they asked me questions about the Holocaust that if anyone else asked me, I would be shocked. One man told me he saw in documentaries that Hitler hated the Jews because they allegedly stole all the important positions in Germany back in the 1930s, and he asked me if this was true. He had never met a Jewish person in real life before. It was a genuine question from a 25-year-old, fourth-year law student. The only way to progress is to openly and honestly answer each other’s questions. This man was considered to be the elite of his refugee center; he was one of only four who spoke English. I answered him with historic facts and explained the mechanisms of prejudice and hate crime in European history. He became my friend and asked my opinion on sensitive topics such as Palestinian and Middle East politics, and we were able to joke about things like that over time—humor is good.

With the Christian community, I think there’s a lot of work there too. I think active Christian believers are also, in their way, a minority, because my country is super secularized. Sometimes spirituality comes in the place of religion, and that’s fine, as long as everybody respects one another. But some people see religion as backwards. In our talk shows, it’s predominantly male, white, secular guys in their 40s or 50s who think that religion is ridiculous anyway, and if any conflict comes up, they radicalize it. This is something I am also trying to change, to open that discussion: What does religion bring, rather than what is wrong with it?

In the United States, it’s normal to have a bi-cultural identity, such as African-American or Muslim-American. Here, we still address people as “Moroccan,” even if they’re fourth generation. We just fail to call them Dutch. There’s a problem with self-identification too, and they don’t call themselves Dutch either. Under the American flag, you can have other identities, like being gay, lesbian, Muslim, or Hindu. We’re only proud of the Netherlands when we play soccer and win. I am on an opinion panel on national television on issues to do with interfaith and identity. Why can’t we use the hyphen?

What are some best practices you have seen or heard of for interfaith work that you would like to share with others in your field?

I think this New Connective student organization working on identity issues and interfaith together is great. It’s a joint effort combining students from various universities in the country. It’s nationwide now, although it started from a university in Amsterdam. I think, also, that the Muslim-Jewish leadership project was a good example, because they functioned well as a group and took it to the next level, setting the example. They contribute to the interfaith discussion and provide a certain level of integration for young people into the community. Lastly, New We trainers are working on educating people on diversity, equality, empowerment, current affairs and interfaith issues. We will send them to schools, businesses, and communities as an “impact everywhere” plan. We already have 60 participants for the next year who are all experienced trainers or promising figures in their field, but need additional knowledge and schooling in interfaith work. We have different methodologies to put this subject on the map in a very interactive and accessible way. My goal is to start at a very young age and involve and engage young people everywhere.

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