Toward Muslim-Jewish Understanding

By Maha Elgenaidi, Executive Director.

This speech was delivered at the public symposium “A Golden Age in the Golden State? Muslims and Jews Creating a Culture of Understanding” at the Osher Marin Jewish Community Center on November 5th, 2017.

Now I want to bring the topic of Muslim-Jewish relations into the present. Islamic Networks Group, the organization that I work for, has done much in the last decade to build understanding and friendship between Muslims and Jews.

As a Muslim, I am guided by Islamic scripture and prophetic traditions that convey that Jews and Christians are Ahl-Al-Kitab or “people of the Book”, who worship the same God, and that human beings were created as nations and tribes so that we may know one another. So it was natural for me to extend the work I do for Muslims by engaging with people of other faiths.

Since 2005, ING has presented numerous interfaith panels with Jewish speakers titled “Muslim-Jewish Relations in the U.S. – Living in the Shadow of the Middle East Conflict,” a long title, which reflects our decision not to define Muslim-Jewish relations by the Mid-East conflict, but rather by our shared values, interests, and concerns that both communities face as minorities in a culture that is majority Christian or secular. Our panel topics have mainly focused on anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. Jews also participate in our other interfaith panels with Christians, Hindus, and Buddhists on topics such as Shared Values, Living the Faith, Women, Extremism, and a host of other contemporary topics. We’ve conduced hundreds of these interfaith panels in the Bay Area for nearly 12 years.

Furthering the work of Muslim-Jewish relations, five years ago, after my own reading of the Torah with Jewish scholars in grad school, my organization initiated our Halaqa-Seder program that brings Muslims and Jews together to look at the Exodus narratives in the Hebrew Bible and the Qur’an. To date, we’ve held 5 such events, which, combined, were attended by over 1000 people from the Jewish and Muslim communities.

And since the presidential elections, Muslim and Jewish relations really took off in the Bay Area, with thanks to the initiative of Rabbi Nat Ezray, and gave birth to Muslim-Jewish Connect, an ad-hoc group that is building relationships among Muslim and Jewish institutions on the Peninsula and South Bay.

Other organizations are likewise working to build closer connections between Muslims and Jews all around the country.

The American Jewish Committee, one of the leading Jewish organizations nationally, has an initiative specifically devoted to Muslim-Jewish relations. The Sisterhood of Salaam-Shalom is developing relationships and common action between Jewish and Muslim women. And in January of this year, the Shalom Hartman Institute held a conference titled, “Jews and Muslims in America Today: Political Challenges and Moral Opportunities” that brought together national leaders from both communities to chart a common path through today’s political environment.

It is precisely the social and political turmoil of the present moment that has brought American Jews and Muslims closer together than ever before.

While American Jews and their organizations protested and resisted the refugee and Muslim bans, Muslim were coming out in force to help repair desecrated Jewish cemeteries raising money for restoration.

Numerous solidarity events between Jews and Muslims have taken place since; many of them in the Bay Area.

At the root of these common efforts is the growing realization that both communities face bigotry—anti-Semitism and Islamophobia—sometimes emanating from the highest levels of government.

Both communities are showing admirable dedication and courage in standing up for one another, in the best American tradition of respect for religious freedom and pluralism.

I have never seen better Muslim-Jewish joint efforts or a better time than today to forge these relations in the face of the bigotry that both our communities confront. Charlottesville was emblematic of what Jews confront in anti-Semitism, and the narratives about Muslims in the presidential elections were emblematic of what Muslims confront in Islamophobia.

Despite this shared context in the United States, and the compelling reasons for working together, Muslim-Jewish relations are also never more threatened.

Two observations I’ve noticed:

One, is that as we invite more and more Muslims and Jews around the table, particularly Muslim institutions, it’s become impossible to focus only on our relationship in the US without reference to the simmering violence between Palestinians and Israelis in the Middle East, and the contributions each Jewish and Muslim partner makes to that conflict. People want to know where you stand on the conflict, and the history of your organization’s relationship to that conflict, basically defining, once again, Muslim-Jewish relations in the US by the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, which takes us back a few decades when Muslims and Jews didn’t talk to each other.

The second observation is that because, we, the moderates in this room who are engaged on Muslim-Jewish relations, are not addressing the Mid-East conflict, because we’ve been setting it aside, and even in some cases tamping down discussion of it, we’ve inadvertently let so-called extremists on both sides take over the narrative. And these extremists have a lot of influence on the rest of the Muslim and Jewish communities.

Who are these extremists?  It depends on whom you ask. In the US, the extremists from the Jewish perspective are those who support BDS; the Boycott-Divestment-Sanctions movement against Israel and anyone working with anyone supporting BDS.

From the Muslim perspective, it’s anyone against BDS or anyone working with anyone against BDS.

The nuanced idea that you could be pro-Israel but not against a Palestinian homeland on one hand, or against Israeli human rights violations but for Israel’s existence is lost on the Pro-BDS and Anti-BDS advocates who represent the majority of influencers in both communities.

So, evading discussion of this conflict, or giving obtuse conditions for how we talk about it, because you know that if you don’t do it just right, you’ll be tarred as anti-Semitic or as an Islamophobic bigot; this has actually ceded control to the extremists on both sides of this conflict.

And that’s where we’re at: we’ve hit a wall.

So how do we move forward; how do we expand participation in Muslim-Jewish relations given that we have all the right conditions in the US for Jews and Muslims to be each other’s strongest allies, while taking into account that both our peoples care deeply about what’s happening to Israelis and Palestinians? We don’t just have the right political and social conditions; we also have a shared heritage and traditions. We’re believers in the God of Abraham and in the covenants we have with God; and we Muslims see Jews as “People of the Book,” sharers in authentic revelation.

I submit that we have to begin to address the conflict, understanding and respecting that while the American Muslim and American Jewish communities are diverse and not monolithic, and therefore have many different understandings of the conflict, there are however dominant narratives on each side of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict that tend to be radically divergent, generated as they are by very different news sources and very different understandings of the origins of the conflict.

I share them here very briefly to encourage each community to understand how the other sees the situation, based on what I’ve heard both tell me over the years.

From the Jewish perspective, the state of Israel is a small country surrounded by hostile powers, some of whom, at least, seek its annihilation and want Jews dead. American Jews are deeply invested in the survival of the state of Israel, which many see as a sanctuary because of the Holocaust and a long history of anti-Semitism that keeps reappearing, as we’ve seen recently with terrible clarity, in Europe and the US, and also because of the sacredness of the land in Jewish tradition. This feeling leads to a variety of actions: a close relationship with Israel through regular trips of various kinds and purposes, financial support of Israel through dozens of groups that support it, and a reluctance or outright refusal to criticize Israel in public, which is considered threatening to the survival of the Jewish state. As one rabbi friend told me, “There is a price to be paid for criticizing Israel. Groups like the Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) or people like Peter Beinart [columnist and writer] are persona-non-grata in the Jewish community for that reason. They threaten the survival of Israel.”

The American Muslim and Arab communities, by contrast, are generally focused on “the plight” of the Palestinians, whom they consider to be deeply oppressed by the Israelis, a viewpoint which is generated by news from close family in the region, or by human rights reports. They view the U.S. media as censoring news on the conflict and the U.S. government as neither being a balanced arbiter nor having the will to resolve the conflict, since it sees US strategic interests as dependent on Israel’s ability to control the situation and to that end supplies Israel with more aid and weapons to sustain and expand the Occupation through increasing settlements, while supporting Israel’s draconian military justice system that continues to humiliate and abuse Palestinians by measures such as checkpoints, arrests, incarcerations, and house demolitions. Meanwhile, Palestinians under these circumstances, and without much support from Muslim or Arab nations, continue to be divided among themselves and to find themselves on the losing end of this conflict, sometimes committing terrorism in their defense, and always enduring terrible suffering and loss of life.

What is interesting about these two different narratives is that they never address each other’s interests or points of contention; it’s as if they exist in completely different worlds. And in the process of never addressing the other community’s viewpoint, we continue to watch Palestinians and Jews suffering from the conflict, a conflict that has widespread implications not only in the Middle East but around the world including right here in the Bay Area affecting Muslim-Jewish relations.

In order to sustain and grow Muslim-Jewish relations in the US, if that is our interest, then we have to put an end to evading free and open discussion of this conflict. Our refusal to discuss it has kept the work between us limited and narrow in participation.

To expand Jewish-Muslim relationships, to do more work together, and to have more people participating, we need to be open to the conversation on the conflict. I suggest the following guidelines:

  1. We have to listen to and acknowledge each other’s narrative, with an open mind and heart, and with respect.
    • As part of this effort, consider the counter-narrative within each of our communities—for instance, that of Jewish Voice for Peace in the Jewish community and the Muslim Leadership Institute in the Muslim community; this will help each of us to understand the narrative of the other.
  2. We have to confront bigotry in our own ranks. We Muslims need to acknowledge and denounce the anti-Semitism in the Muslim community. That bigotry is very much present among us, even here in California. In a recent article I wrote for Huffington Post, I started by expressing the horror I felt at two imams right here in California who uttered thoroughly insulting denunciations of Jews as a people. While I’m convinced that most Muslims worldwide would share my horror at this, the mere fact that imams would make such statements points to an undercurrent of anti-Semitism in our community that we need to confront. And, of course, the same goes for Jews and Islamophobia.
    • In addition to confronting open and deliberate bigotry, we need to be ready to call out expressions of unconscious or unthinking bigotry. If you hear something that sounds anti-Semitic or Islamophobic, say so. Seek to educate: be ready to explain how the statement is bigoted and how your conversation partners can express their legitimate concerns without giving voice to the prejudicial attitudes that are so much part of our social life today.
  3. Be prepared for sharply critical questions. Do your best to be open to respond without defensiveness and to hear the legitimate concerns they seek to voice.
    • Muslims will ask Jews, “Why aren’t you condemning the violations of Palestinian human rights, when you do so much good work everywhere else?”
    • Jews will ask Muslims, “Where were you when Israeli civilians were being hit by terrorism? Why is it that it’s only after 9/11 that we heard you denounce terrorism?”
  4. Be ready to acknowledge the truth of your partners’ narrative and the omissions and inadequacies of your own.
  5. Recognize that there is already some common ground. Polls of Muslims in the U.S. and worldwide have shown that the majority believe that it’s possible to make peace with the state of Israel. And majorities of Jews likewise are ready to accept a Palestinian state. In short, there is majority support in both communities for a two-state solution, and that gives me hope.

In closing, I think if we engage in conversation on this basis, not only will we grow Muslim-Jewish relations in the US, perhaps one day, ordinary Americans — Muslims, Jews, and Christians — can help resolve the conflict by sending delegations to forge a peaceful agreement between Israelis and Palestinians.

This vision is not as far-fetched as you might think. What’s sad, cynical, and disturbing is the inability of people to consider their role in peace-making, or the possibility of peace between these two warring groups.

Palestinians and Israelis need our help. We have no excuse for not giving it, living as we do in the richest and most abundant nation in the world.

And, perhaps, together Americans of Muslim, Jewish, and Christian heritage can do the same for other conflicts by living out our shared imperative of peacemaking. Who can set limits when people come together to talk — and to live — peace? No one can set limits other than God. And God is on the side of the peacemakers. So let us be the peacemakers.