Bnai Brith Magazine Winter 2012 : Page 10
Jews and Muslims in America A New Flowering Amid the Tensions By Dina Kraft I n a New England synagogue with whitewashed pews and a sky-blue ceiling built almost a century ago as a Unitarian church, a group of Muslims and Jews gather on the bima, leaning forward to hear a rabbi chant from an open Torah. Together, they listen to the ancient Hebrew from the Book of Exodus, and, as the rabbi trans-lates, they hear the story of the Israelites’ escape from slavery in Egypt. Among the Muslims visit-ing from a neighboring mosque are women in headscarves and immigrants from the Middle East and East Africa. They have so many questions this Sunday afternoon that Andy Vogel, the rabbi of Temple Sinai, a Reform synagogue in the town of Brookline, bordering Boston, has to cut the event short so the group can join other members of both communities waiting in an adjacent hall for a dialogue session. Seated at small, round tables, they ask each other questions like: “Which holiday is most meaning-ful to you?” Such scenes, once an anomaly, are being replayed in synagogues and mosques across the United States, as a growing number of communities look for ways to push past mutual stereotyping, fear and mistrust. “I think we made an effort to make it happen because people were dissatisﬁed with the demoni-zation happening in other parts of the community and realized that it is in everyone’s interest to have strong relations with our neigh-bors,” says Vogel. But, it is not universal, or easy. “We very much want to be in dialogue and relationship, but there are red lines,” says Rabbi Greg Har-ris, immediate past president of the Washington Board of Rabbis. “For example, if I was in a relationship with a mosque and someone there starts saying that Israel shouldn’t exist, that’s a nonstarter. That’s the concern. This [relationship] issue is complicated for many different reasons. It is the third rail, and it really shouldn’t be.” It was 9/11 that sparked both an unprecedented level of distrust between Jews and Muslims and also something of an effort to improve relations. The 11 years since have seen twinnings of mosques and synagogues, a surge in grassroots dialogue gatherings, text study groups for rabbis and imams and joint social service projects, serving food at soup kitchens and building homes for the disadvantaged. In Los Angeles, young Jews and Muslims are being groomed to work together as community leaders in a program called NewGround. In Atlanta, a Jewish-10 WINTER 2012
Jews and Muslims in America
A New Flowering Amid the Tensions
In a New England synagogue with whitewashed pews and a sky-blue ceiling built almost a century ago as a Unitarian church, a group of Muslims and Jews gather on the bima, leaning forward to hear a rabbi chant from an open Torah.
Together, they listen to the ancient Hebrew from the Book of Exodus, and, as the rabbi translates, they hear the story of the Israelites’ escape from slavery in Egypt. Among the Muslims visiting from a neighboring mosque are women in headscarves and immigrants from the Middle East and East Africa.
They have so many questions this Sunday afternoon that Andy Vogel, the rabbi of Temple Sinai, a Reform synagogue in the town of Brookline, bordering Boston, has to cut the event short so the group can join other members of both communities waiting in an adjacent hall for a dialogue session.
Seated at small, round tables, they ask each other questions like: “Which holiday is most meaningful to you?”
Such scenes, once an anomaly, are being replayed in synagogues and mosques across the United States, as a growing number of communities look for ways to push past mutual stereotyping, fear and mistrust.
“I think we made an effort to make it happen because people were dissatisfied with the demonization happening in other parts of the community and realized that it is in everyone’s interest to have strong relations with our neighbors,” says Vogel.
But, it is not universal, or easy. “We very much want to be in dialogue and relationship, but there are red lines,” says Rabbi Greg Harris, immediate past president of the Washington Board of Rabbis. “For example, if I was in a relationship with a mosque and someone there starts saying that Israel shouldn’t exist, that’s a nonstarter. That’s the concern. This [relationship] issue is complicated for many different reasons. It is the third rail, and it really shouldn’t be.”
It was 9/11 that sparked both an unprecedented level of distrust between Jews and Muslims and also something of an effort to improve relations. The 11 years since have seen twinnings of mosques and synagogues, a surge in grassroots dialogue gatherings, text study groups for rabbis and imams and joint social service projects, serving food at soup kitchens and building homes for the disadvantaged.
In Los Angeles, young Jews and Muslims are being groomed to work together as community leaders in a program called NewGround. In Atlanta, a Jewish- Muslim women’s baking circle produces baklava, rugelach and conversation. And, some are even sharing prayer space, like a synagogue in Northern Virginia that has opened its doors to local Muslims for Friday afternoon prayers.
“The extremism demands a response by reasonable people,” says Ingrid Mattson, who is the chair of the Islamic Studies Program at Huron University College of The University of Western Ontario. “We had to respond to save the image of Islam and counter Islam being used in a geopolitical conflict, and the same thing I felt happened in the Jewish community,” she says.
Mattson, the former president of the Islamic Society of North America, the largest umbrella organization for Muslim groups, adds, “Because responsible Jewish leaders have stepped up, I think it’s actually made relationships between Jews and Muslims in America better.”
The two communities, specifically the more socially liberal ones, are finding common ground on domestic issues such as civil rights, immigration, hate crimes and religious freedom. They are also coming together as fellow minorities looking to each other for ideas on how to preserve their own culture, from whether or not to permit one’s children to trick-or-treat on Halloween to intermarriage.
“I think in the elites of both communities, which is a small number, there is respect and understanding, particularly of the grievances and concerns and persecution the Muslim community is going through right now, because as Jews we’ve been through it,” says Rabbi Steve Gutow, president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. “But, when you get below [the elites], there is a lack of connectivity, mistrust. A lot of work needs to get done to eliminate that. There’s an opening, but it takes aggressive and affirming leadership by rabbis, Jewish leaders, Islamic leaders as well.”
From a global perspective, Muslims and Jews have a checkered history. Some argue that passages in the Koran, Islam’s holy book, are anti-Jewish. For refusing to recognize Muhammad as The Prophet, Jews were killed in current-day Saudi Arabia in the seventh century of the Common Era. But, Jewish culture flourished in Spain under Muslim rule during the Middle Ages. Jews even prayed in Arabic and, before entering a synagogue, washed hands and feet, as is Muslim custom before entering a mosque.
Most complicated, and often painfully sensitive, is when the conversation turns to the IsraeliArab conflict. Virulent anti-Semitism has emerged within some Muslim countries as a byproduct of the conflict, and one of the goals Jewish leaders say they have in their outreach to their Muslim counterparts in America is to combat and delegitimize the phenomenon.
Abdullah Antepli, an imam and one of a handful of Muslim university chaplains, says extremist positions are not being countered forcefully enough.
“If we think we are representing mainstream Judaism and Islam as more responsible leaders of the faith community, we should be working as hard as [those who demonize others.] But, I don’t think that’s the case,” says Antepli, of Duke University.
“The worst form of their message is that something is ‘wrong’ with ‘these’ [other] people, so there is nothing to be done because [the other] is poisoned,” says Antepli.
Meanwhile, as many American Jews look at an Israel they view as increasingly isolated and under regional threat, discussion can easily dissolve into volatile, defensive encounters.
“American Muslims are sympathetic to the plight and human relationships of Palestinians, and American Jews often have knee- jerk reactions and see [disagreement] as something against them,” says Yehezkel Landau, who teaches at the Hartford Seminary in Connecticut where he directs an interfaith training program, Building Abrahamic Partnerships.
“In my experience it’s better not to talk politics at the beginning of trying to create relations between Muslims and Jews,” says Landau, who is Jewish.
Approximately 3.5 million Muslims (and about 5.5 million Jews) live in North America. Muslims represent a diverse group, with a large and growing influx of immigrants. Even within individual mosques, it’s not uncommon to have a population ranging from Yemenis, Somalis, Egyptians and Pakistanis to native-born converts. Internally, mosque leaders often have a lot more juggling to do than outside communities realize.
They are also at the beginning phases of building up institutional life and leadership, something for which they are looking to the Jewish community, well ensconced in American life for more than a century, as a model.
Since 9/11, mosques and Muslim student groups feel and often know they are under counterterrorism surveillance and observation by the authorities.
As hate crimes and reports of discrimination increase against Muslims, Jewish leaders have been quick to speak out.
“We’ve made it clear we think Muslims are part of the American fabric,” says Mark Pelavin, who heads the Commission on Interreligious Affairs of Reform Judaism. Sixty-six percent of American Jews surveyed said Muslims should be considered an important part of the country’s religious community, he notes, citing a 2012 public opinion poll of American Jews by the nonprofit Public Religion Research Institute. Thirty-two percent disagreed, and 22 percent also said they believe that American Muslims ultimately want to establish Shariah or Islamic law as the law of the land in the United States. But, these, he stresses, are minority views.
“I would say that what has changed a lot in the last five to six years is that the American Jewish community has developed a more sophisticated understanding of the American Muslim community,” says Pelavin. “Certainly, there are extremist individuals and organizations, but the overwhelming majority of Muslims in America are looking for the same things other Americans are looking for: building a country for themselves and their children.”
Overall, the “crisis environment” as Mattson, the Muslim leader, describes it, “forced those of us who are not extreme into each other’s arms.”
To be sure, not everyone in the Muslim and Jewish communities has celebrated this embrace.
Suspicions and Charges
On both sides of the interfaith aisle, there are suspicions and charges that their co-religionists are being nothing less than naive and too dangerously politically correct.There are also stories of communities that have rebuffed each other’s overtures or of dialogue groups that have broken down. Among the most high-profile doubters of the goodwill train is Pamela Geller. Her message is that it’s impossible to separate Islam from the terrorism that has been perpetuated in its name.
She came into the mainstream media spotlight in 2010, as she and fellow conservative blogger Robert Spencer together fought against the planned Park51 Islamic community center and mosque in Lower Manhattan, which they dubbed the “Ground Zero Mosque,” although the site is two blocks from it.
This past summer, Geller was in the fray again. This time it was with provocative ads her organization sought to post in the transit systems of New York City, San Francisco and Washington. In white letters against a stark, black background, the ad declared: “In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man.” Underneath are two Stars of David and text that reads: “Support Israel. Defeat Jihad.”
Opinions differ on whether the ads were intended to condemn all Muslims, but, based on its broader, less threatening interpretation of “jihad,” the Jewish Council for Public Affairs termed them “bigoted, divisive and unhelpful.”
Charles Jacobs in Boston, who co-founded Americans for Peace and Tolerance, an interfaith group to expose and challenge radical Islamic organizations, does not believe that Islam is inherently linked with radicalism. But, Jacobs, also Jewish, does assert that “historically moderate Islam” is being compromised by fundamentalist elements.
It was Jacobs who led the ultimately unsuccessful fight against the building of the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center, the largest mosque in New England. It opened in 2009, after years of dispute and litigation that raised tensions between local Muslims and Jews and divided the Boston Jewish community.
“We believe that Muslim communities here are now largely led by radicals and extremists who pose as moderates and are largely accepted as such by American society,” he says.
It was Jacobs’ organization at the time, a campus Israel advocacy group called The David Project and its associates, who were sued for defamation by the Islamic center after they accused it of being a Saudi-funded project with ties to terrorists. The lawsuit was eventually dropped, but the bitterness continues. The Boston Globe reported that payments of $500,000, and possibly more, were contributed by a Saudi-based bank.
On a national level, the episode touched the raw nerve in Muslim and Jewish communities sensitive to suspicion that politics and money from the Middle East are seeping into local affairs.
A delegation of rabbis attended the inauguration of the $15.6 million mosque as a gesture of reconciliation. Members of the more liberal sectors of Boston’s Jewish community were outspoken in criticizing Jacobs as an Islamaphobic troublemaker.
Others, however, including, Boston Jewish Federation leaders, said that Jacobs had uncovered serious concerns about the original leadership of the mosque but expressed hopes that the communities could repair the damage and move on.
“This is a most sensitive, fascinating and frustrating topic,” Jacobs says of Jewish outreach efforts to Muslims that he thinks may be suspect. “As the primary targets of Islamist hatred and terror around the world, Jews should be among the best vetters of Muslim leaders who present themselves as moderates. Instead, Jewish fervent adherence to political correctness blinds them and paralyzes them and leads them to making serious, potentially dangerous errors.”
Today, the sprawling mosque of red brick and concrete with a minaret overlooks the edge of the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston, a predominately African-American and Latino area that had once been largely Jewish.
Inside the mosque, just past a gift shop selling prayer beads and head coverings, the new imam, a 41-year-old convert to Islam named Suhaib Webb, holds office hours. In a study lined with bound leather books of Islamic scripture, Webb, a personable man with a light-blond beard who grew up in Oklahoma attending church as the grandson of a preacher, talks about the Jewish community figures he has met in Boston.
“On a certain level, we are still feeling each other out,” he says. Noting the divide within both communities between the more liberal and the more culturally or religiously conservative, he says, for some, “the door is still closed.”
“We say this is a spiritual ailment when you look down at people because of who they are,” says Webb, who traveled to Auschwitz, the Nazi death camp, with Muslim clerics and Jewish leaders.
“I’m not Bin Laden. I like the Celtics. I have friends of all persuasions, and I’ve never been trained to blow things up in my life. But, there is this irresponsible nature of those who present bad archetypes,” including he says, religious leaders. “We just need to sit down and talk and humanize ourselves.”
“When I hear, ‘I don’t want your mosque there,’ I can easily hear, ‘I don’t want your synagogue here.’ I think we have to stand up for our Muslim brothers and sisters the way we would want them to stand up for us,” says Burton Visotzky, a professor at the Conservative Movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary in New York where he directs the Milstein Center for Interreligious Dialogue.
Islam has been part of the fabric of American history since colonial times, he recounts. A number of the slaves that were brought over from Africa were originally Muslim. Most converted to Christianity, but not all. Thomas Jefferson owned a copy of the Koran that he kept in his library in Monticello.
Until the 20th century, there was only a tiny Muslim population in the United States that came over mostly from regions of the Ottoman Empire and South Asia.
Starting in the 1930s, the Nation of Islam, an African- American movement, began to attract converts, but, for decades, it had little to do with Islam as it was practiced by the majority of the world’s Muslims, according to Amir Hussain, a theology professor at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, noting they did not, for example, read the Koran, observe Ramadan or observe ritual prayers.
Later, the movement, influenced by Malcom X’s “second conversion” to Islam in 1964, became part of the Sunni mainstream. (A breakaway version of the Nation of Islam that shares the same name, is led by vocal anti-Semite Louis Farrakhan; it has just 30,000 members.)
Today, the vast majority of African-American Muslims are mainstream Sunni Muslims. There are no precise figures, but at least 25 percent, or roughly 1.5 million American Muslims today are African-Americans, says Hussain.
Meanwhile, a large wave of immigration boosting the Muslim population came later in the last century, much of it from the Middle East and South Asian countries like Pakistan, Malaysia and Indonesia.
Those from non-Arab countries tend to have fewer preconceived notions about Jews, says Visotsky.
Rabbi Reuven Firestone, another prominent figure in outreach, co-directs the Center for Muslim-Jewish Engagement at the University of Southern California.
“I think Jews generally before 9/11 did not have terrible antipathy toward Muslims. I think the growing antipathy toward Arabs is strongly influenced by the Israeli-Arab conflict, which has become increasingly couched in terms of religion rather than competing nationalisms,” says Firestone who is also a professor of Medieval Judaism and Islam at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles.
“For those Jews really anxious about Islam, 9/11 confirmed all their fears. Meanwhile, more liberal Jews made the argument that those crazy people who crashed the planes were Muslim but that their act was not an indictment against Islam in general,” he says.
Leading the Way
Leading the way for mainstream dialogue have been the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) and the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA).
In 2007, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, then head of the URJ, spoke to several thousand Muslims at ISNA’s annual convention. A few months later, Mattson, then the president of ISNA, addressed the URJ General Assembly in San Diego.
The speeches came after a long series of meetings, some of them reportedly tense.
Mattson, who had spoken to Jewish audiences before, recalls being nervous about how Yoffie might be received. But, the crowd rose in a standing ovation, as he closed with this message:
“Our agenda is long and difficult. There is nothing simple or easy about the project that we are about to undertake. But, interconnected since the time of Abraham, thrust into each other’s lives by history and fate, and living in a global world, what choice do we really have? Surely here, in this land, we cannot permit fanaticism to grow or prejudice to harden. Surely here, in America, as Muslims and Jews, we have a unique opportunity to reclaim our common heritage and to find a new way and a common path. Brothers and sisters, let us begin.”
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