U.S. Muslim-Jewish Relations in the Context of Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: What We Can Do

July 27, 2017 by Maha Elgenaidi, Executive Director

This piece originally appeared at the Huffington Post

“Differences in narratives of Palestinian-Israeli conflict held by American Muslims and Jews may seem unbridgeable, but I know we can work together.”

Recent violence and loss of life in Jerusalem[1] once again reminds us of how much we need to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. It also highlights the lack of imagination and political will of the parties most directly invested in the conflict, who for all the proposals made, meetings held, and declarations signed have not moved an inch closer to peace. They seem to be comfortably entrenched in their positions waiting for the inevitable to happen, which I am sure works out differently in the minds of each opposing group.

Two imams in California, of all places, have given us a taste of what that “inevitable” might be, as they angrily responded to the violence in Jerusalem with appalling invective against Jews. One, in Davis, prayed that God “would liberate al-Aqsa Mosque from the filth of the Jews” and “annihilate them down to the very last one.” The other, in Riverside, spoke of a supposed plot by Jews to extend their conflict with Muslims beyond Palestine and called on God to “destroy them… disperse them and rend them asunder.”

I, together with the vast majority of Muslims worldwide, can see such statements only with the utmost horror, finding them totally contrary to the respect for Jews and those of other faiths that the Qur’an and the whole mainstream Muslim tradition enjoin upon us, as a recent article published by the Yaqeen Institute, “The Myth of an Anti-Semitic Genocide In Muslim Scripture,” proves.[2] I cite them here only to point up the seriousness of a situation that can, even among a small minority, provoke such outrageous sentiments. We cannot allow the current stalemate to fester, as it continues to drive increasing numbers on both sides to extremism.

Even among the majority of those in the various communities invested in the conflict who are not driven to extremism and violence, the seeming intractability of the situation has naturally produced long-standing suspicion and tension between these various groups—including American Muslims and Jews.

What We Need to Understand About the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict in the Context of Muslim-Jewish Relations in the United States

As someone who is invested in interfaith relations in the United States and has worked for more than a decade to build Muslim-Jewish relations between mainstream individuals and groups, there are three things that we have to understand about each other, based on my own experiences:

One: regardless of how hard mainstream Muslim and Jewish groups work not to define their relationship by the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, we can’t escape having our relationship so defined by our respective community members who call into question our loyalties either to the suffering of the Palestinians or to the threats against Israel, especially during breakouts of violence between Palestinians and Israelis. This is why any efforts between American Muslims and Jews are usually put on hold or suspended for a period of time until tensions in the Middle East cool down.

Two: as much as we understand and believe that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is rooted in politics, not religion, one can’t escape the religious pull and influences on the conflict, since each side now claims near-divine authority over the land, although no legitimate Islamic authority that I am aware of would ever advocate killing someone or committing violence over a piece of land. Both sides on this conflict argue for their point of view as if it’s a matter of religious duty and/or life or death.

Three: while both the American Muslim and American Jewish communities are diverse and not monolithic, we should understand by now that the dominant narratives on each side of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict tend to be radically divergent, generated as they are by very different news sources. I share them here not to upset either side of this conflict, but rather to encourage each community to understand how the other sees the situation, based on what I’ve heard both tell me over the years.

The narrative of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict which I hear from my Jewish friends and partners seems something like the following: The state of Israel is a small country surrounded by hostile powers, some of whom, at least, seek its annihilation and want us 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 in Europe[3] and the US,[4] 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.” A Jewish high school student recently told me that “there is nothing more that says to the Jewish community that you’re not interested in Israel’s survival like working with the JVP.”

Less forthright in the Jewish community are Jews who have disengaged from the conversation on Israel altogether because of the same conflict fatigue I describe below among Muslims. Finally, in all my conversations with Jewish Americans, Muslims should know that I have never heard anyone calling for the annihilation of Palestinians or their removal from Gaza or the West Bank. On the contrary, I’ve only been asked to join peace efforts to bridge the two groups in the Middle East towards a resolution of the conflict.

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 Gaza and “Occupied territory,” or by human rights reports. They view the U.S. media as censoring news on the conflict and the U.S. government as not being a balanced arbiter nor having the will to resolve the conflict,[5] 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 and incarcerations, and house demolitions.[6]

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.[7] A few in this group (mostly of Arab origin as well as college students) are aligned with the Boycott-Divestment-Sanctions (BDS) movement, but generally, many American Muslims, especially those not regularly involved in a mosque (as the majority of American Muslims are not) are not thinking about or dealing with the conflict. In a recent poll of American Muslims, only 3% named “foreign policy/foreign affairs” as a top concern for the nation.[8] They’re very critical of Israel if the issue comes up, but they’re also very sensitive about not being viewed as anti-Semitic in doing so; in fact, the majority of them support the existence of the state of Israel.[9]

American Muslims are also experiencing mental and emotional fatigue as a result of anti-Muslim hate in the US, the Islamophobia industry that influences large segments of the media and domestic politics, and the many conflicts involving Muslims in various parts of the world today. Nonetheless, the dominant Muslim narrative of the Palestinians and Israel remains alive, I think, just below the surface, and comes to the fore in times of crisis — which is precisely when dialogue between Jews and Muslims is most crucially needed.

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 as nations line up to take sides. The implications are also found in lost opportunities to build relationships between Muslims and Jews everywhere, despite the fact that the two faith communities have more in common than they have differences. The result is that Muslims and Jews are not contributing as much as they could by working together for the common good—a duty imposed by both religions.

How American Muslims and Jews Can Help Resolve the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict and Grow Muslim and Jewish Relations in the United States for the Common Good

The differences in the narratives of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict held by American Muslims and Jews may seem unbridgeable, but I remain convinced that American Muslims and Jews can do a great deal together. I put forward the following considerations both to address the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and to grow American Muslim-Jewish relations:

First and foremost, I believe that we should urge the two groups to talk with each other, pro-BDS people with defenders of Israeli policy, Israeli and other Jews with Palestinian Muslims and Christians; indeed, all groups with a stake in the conflict need to find a way to talk peaceably and with mutual respect even in the face of — indeed, precisely because of — their profound and passionately held differences. As a Muslim, for example, I have a stake in Al-Quds (the mosque constructed on the site of the Second Temple) which I’d like to make pilgrimage to someday, but I am certainly not willing to die or kill for it. The point of such conversation, at least initially, should be to listen to and understand each other’s narrative of the conflict and to allow one’s own view to be tempered by such understanding—to be ready, that is, to see at least some elements of truth in narratives other than our own.

I believe, for example, that Jews — not just individually (as many already do), but in the mainstream organizations of their community — need to acknowledge and speak out against serious injustices suffered by the Palestinians instead of seeming to conceal them[10]. Similarly, I believe that Muslims must learn to acknowledge and respect the Jews’ deep, at least two-millennia old, devotion to the land and their very real — and by no means unjustified — concern for their security, in Israel and elsewhere. If we, American Muslims and Jews together, can listen to one another in this way and take seriously what we hear, rather than confining ourselves to our familiar narratives, then I believe that we, precisely because of our shared heritage and our long history (and present reality in many cases) of friendly and mutually supportive relations, can make a substantial contribution to peace between Israelis and Palestinians — and to peace elsewhere in the world.

In this process of hearing out each other’s narrative, also consider the following:

  1. Because you’re relying on different news sources, the information which you have about the other is always going to be biased and tainted.
  2. Apply the same standards to all in human rights. Enjoin the good, but understand that you must also speak out against what is evil, sinful, and wrong, no matter by whom it is committed.
  3. Listen to the critics in your own community, such as the Jewish Voice for Peace for Jews and Muslim Leadership Institute for Muslims. Those groups are made of human beings, intelligent people who are flesh and blood, your co-religionists, who have a lot to offer in terms of varying perspectives that can teach us something.
  4. Read up on what independent organizations are reporting about the status of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank: Human Rights WatchAmnesty InternationalRabbis for Human Rights, to name a few.
  5. Own the fact that leadership in Israel and Palestine has not always acted for the good of their people. Hamas lobbing bombs over the border when they know that Israel is going to respond in a way that will kill a lot of civilians is unconscionable. It’s also unconscionable for the Palestinian Authority to cooperate with the Israelis in subjecting the civilians of Gaza to terrible deprivation in order to defeat Hamas politically.[11] For both Palestinians and Israelis, it’s sinful to put innocent children, men and women in harm’s way for the sake of political gain.

Furthermore, despite the appeals to our respective religions, we have to understand that this is a conflict that is in fact rooted between Israelis and Palestinians, not between Jews and Muslims. The tensions it has produced between Jews and Muslims in this country and elsewhere have to be seen as departures from the historically much more common friendly relationships between the two faith communities. And those positive relations are in fact not just a matter of history. Jewish communities were among the first to speak out and to act against the current administration’s refugee and Muslim bans.[12] Muslims in turn have raised money for Jewish communities hit by recent hate crimes.[13] The wave of bigotry and hate crimes in the wake of the 2016 presidential campaign and elections brought both communities together in expressions of solidarity.[14] There are also hundreds of efforts between Jews and Muslims all across the country in towns and cities. Right here in the Bay Area, Islamic Networks Group’s Muslim-Jewish panels[15] and Halaqa-Seder programs,[16] which bring Jews and Muslims together for conversation and mutual learning, are highly popular in both the Jewish and Muslim communities and have contributed to mutual understanding and respect.

I think if we enter American Muslim-Jewish relations more knowledgeably and with these ideas in mind, 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?

[1] Isabel Kershner, “Deadly Violence Erupts in Standoff Over Mosque in Jerusalem,” New York Times, July 21, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/21/world/middleeast/jerusalem-israel-protests-al-aqsa-mosque.html.

[2] Nazir Khan, “The Myth of an Anti-Semitic Genocide In Muslim Scripture,” Yaqeen Institute, March 28, 2017, https://yaqeeninstitute.org/en/nazir-khan/the-myth-of-an-antisemitic-genocide-in-muslim-scripture/.

[3] Abraham Foxman, “Rising Anti-Semitism in Europe: History Repeating Once Again,” HuffPost, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/abraham-h-foxman/rising-anti-semitism-in-e_b_7835610.html.

[4] “U.S. Anti-Semitic Incidents Spike 86 Percent So Far in 2017 After Surging Last Year, ADL Finds,” Anti-Defamation League, April 24, 2017, https://www.adl.org/news/press-releases/us-anti-semitic-incidents-spike-86-percent-so-far-in-2017.

[5] For a brief perspective on this question, see John Cassidy, “The United States and Israel: What Now for the ‘Honest Broker’?” The New Yorker, April 16, 2014, http://www.newyorker.com/news/john-cassidy/the-united-states-and-israel-what-now-for-the-honest-broker.

[6] “Israel: 50 Years of Occupation Abuses,” Human Rights Watch, June 4, 2017, https://www.hrw.org/news/2017/06/04/israel-50-years-occupation-abuses.

[7] Sarah Helm, “Bitter Palestinian rivalry adds to the agony of Gaza’s vulnerable,” The Guardian, July 22, 2017, https://amp.theguardian.com/world/2017/jul/22/gaza-electrcity-shortages-hamas-israel-blockade-children.

[8] Dalia Mogahed and Youssef Chouhoud, American Muslim Poll 2017: Muslims at the Crossroads, Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, 7.

[9] Muslim Americans: No Signs of Growth in Alienation or Support for Extremism, Pew Research Center, August, 2011.

[10] http://www.jta.org/2017/07/26/news-opinion/politics/state-department-defends-controversial-terrorism-report

[11] Helm, “Bitter Palestinian Rivalry.”

[12] See for instance Taly Krupkin, “Hundreds of Jewish and Muslim Protestors March Against Netanyahu and Trump in New York,” Haaretz, February 16, 2017, http://www.haaretz.com/us-news/.premium-1.772071. The Anti-Defamation League has consistently opposed Trump’s “Muslims ban” executive orders and filed an amicus brief in support of challenges to them: “ADL Files Amicus Brief in Support of Challenge to President’s Executive Order on Immigration and Refugees,” Anti-Defamation League, February 6, 2017, https://www.adl.org/news/press-releases/adl-files-amicus-brief-in-support-of-challenge-to-presidents-executive-order-on.

[13] See, for instance, “Muslims raise over $91,000 for vandalized Jewish cemetery in Missouri,” Reuters, February 22, 2017, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-security-cemetery-idUSKBN16129D.

[14] Max Cherney, “Jewish and Muslim groups draw closer in heightened atmosphere of hate,” JWeekly, March 3, 2017, http://www.jweekly.com/2017/03/03/jewish-and-muslim-groups-draw-closer-in-heightened-atmosphere-of-hate/.

[15] https://ing.org/schedule-an-interfaith-panel/

[16] https://ing.org/introduction-halaqa-seder/