This coming weekend (November 21-23), forty communities (see list) throughout the U.S. will feature a local mosque and synagogue joining together to host a joint program on the subject of Islamophobia and anti-Semitism. The goal of this national project sponsored by the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding is to combat ethnic tension between Muslims and Jews. The event will also seek common ground between the two religious traditions so that members of two faiths can study their shared sacred texts and discover their common humanity.
While the heaviest conflict between Jews and Muslims plays out in the Middle East, that does not mean that here at home all is sweetness and light. There are numerous instances of rather acrid misunderstandings and even campaigns of hatred by Jews against Muslims and vice versa.
As an example, in this blog, I have been chronicling the anti-Muslim documentary films Obsession and Third Jihad produced by the Aish HaTorah offshoot Clarion Fund. The latter deliberately marketed the films during the election campaign in a failed effort to drive a wedge between Barack Obama and the Jewish vote. The Republican Jewish Coalition, in attacking Barack Obama, attempted to capitalize on rumors deliberately circulated by Daniel Pipes and others to cast suspicion on him by claiming he was Muslim.
In New York, under the tutelage of Jewish extremists Pipes and David Yerushalmi, a local Jewish group organized to force a Muslim-American woman, Debbie Almontaser, out of her job as principal of the first Muslim public charter school in New York and the U.S.
Prior to that a group of Jewish Barnard College alumni lobbied hard against Nadia Abu El Haj’s attempt to gain academic tenure. In all the above cases, perfectly reasonable, rational Muslims were targeted as Islamist extremists by frightened, ignorant Jews who believed the worst of them and their motives.
Conversely, here in Seattle, a Muslim-American lashed out against local Jews in a shooting at the Jewish Federation that left one staff member dead and several seriously injured. I am sure if I knew the Muslim community as well as I know the Jewish community, I could list other instances of Muslim hatred of Jews. Because our own communities here in the U.S. are a microcosm of the conflict playing out in the Middle East, it is necessary that we work hard to overcome our differences here at home as well.
The Foundation for Ethnic Understanding is the brainchild of Orthodox Rabbi Marc Schneier. It is his vehicle for international dialogue among Jews, Christians and Muslims. In his capacity as world Jewry’s foremost proponent of interfaith dialogue, he has met the Pope and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia.
Several months ago, Walter Ruby, the national director of the Twinning project and a freelance Jewish journalist whose work I greatly respect, asked me whether any synagogues in Seattle might be interested. This blog often deals with Muslim-Jewish relations including what drives us apart and what unites us. I wrote extensively about the Haq shooting. Like both communities during that tragedy, I was looking for common ground rather than focussing on the hate that might divide us, and which felled the mentally ill Haq.
For that reason, I was delighted when Walter contacted me. Truthfully, I had few friends or contacts in the local Muslim community. But I did approach Rabbi Jill Borodin, at Congregation Beth Shalom, where I belong. She was enthusiastic about trying to put together a Seattle twinning. We started by contacting the Idriss mosque in Northgate since it was closest to us geographically. Attempts to reach them were unsuccessful.
For a short time, a Muslim community leader offered to speak to our synagogue, though he was not an imam nor did he represent a mosque. I had never met, nor heard of the leader before, but I was grateful for his offer which we accepted until a mosque did finally come forward.
Earlier, I had found via a web search the Muslim Association of Puget Sound (MAPS), a mosque in Redmond. After several attempts, I finally reached their president, Hyder Ali, who consulted with his board and imam and received approval to go forward. All this took weeks. By the time Hyder came back with a positive answer, it was just after the High Holidays in October, and Rabbi Borodin didn’t feel we had enough time to pull off a successful, well-coordinated event for this coming weekend.
Walter persuaded her to persevere and she agreed to allow me to go forward with meetings with MAPS members to plan the event. I had a delightful lunch with two of them and found that I shared more in common with them in our respective approaches to our own traditions than I did with some Jews. They too grappled with aspects of traditional belief that troubled them. They too were eager to overcome suspicion of the other to make common cause in fighting bigotry in our society.
During this period last month, the rabbi was away on a ten day trip. It was then synagogue members began to ask questions about the event. A few were concerned when they heard that the local Muslim community leader I mentioned above would be the one speaking at our shul (even though by then we had moved on to working with MAPS as our partner). This leader was considered controversial by more conservative members of the Jewish community. Enough of a brouhaha had been stirred up, that when Rabbi Borodin returned from her vacation she decided that more prep work and education needed to be done within the synagogue.
That’s why the Seattle Twinning program will not happen this weekend. Instead, it’s planned for a later date possibly in December. This gives congregants a chance to ask any questions they might have about the program and our Muslim partners; and it gives the rabbi an opportunity to both answer the questions and explain the rationale for hosting the program. It also gives the Muslim-Jewish partners a chance to meet and fine-tune the program they’re planning.
While it’s true that suspicion and fear characterized the response of some members of my shul, I’m proud that this was overcome by a rabbi and synagogue leadership convinced that this project was the right thing to do. All of us are subject to the prejudices by our co-religionists. We are a product and microcosm of such attitudes. But we are not prisoners of them. We are able to liberate ourselves from them and reach across boundaries and barriers established that prevent such dialogue between Jews and Muslims.
If your Jewish community is hosting a Twinning program this weekend mazel tov to you for the vision and courage you have shown. If you’re not and would like to, ask your rabbi or imam to contact the Foundation in order to participate in future programs.