.
A A
RSS

Jewish-Muslim Relations in the 21st Century

Click here to download a printable pdf>>

Jewish-Muslim Relations in the 21st Century

by Yehezkel Landau

Faculty Associate in Interfaith Relations

Hartford Seminary

Several years ago, I was invited to give a lecture to the students at the Hebrew High School of New England on the subject of Jewish religious diversity in Israel.  The rabbi-director and the academic dean of this traditional Jewish day school in West Hartford, CT, invited me for a conversation in advance of my presentation, to discuss the format for my talk and the ensuing question-and-answer session.  At the outset of our luncheon meeting, I mentioned that I had just returned from a trip to Israel, where I lived from 1978 until I moved to Hartford in 2002 to assume my faculty position at Hartford Seminary.  When they asked me how my trip had been, I said that one of the highlights of my experience was the convergence of Chanukah, Christmas, and ‘Eid al-Fitr, the Muslim feast at the end of Ramadan.  Since they were not familiar with the Islamic calendar or tradition, they heard me say something else and responded in bewilderment:  “What, Adolf Hitler?!”

Before explaining to them what the ‘Eid is, I thought to myself, “What a striking example of how something sacred in one religious tradition can be perceived, out of ignorance, as demonic or perverse by adherents of another faith.”  We all have conditioned filters through which we hear or see, and try to comprehend, new information about the world around us.  Often those filters are given to us, and are reinforced over time, by our families and by the communities that help forge our identities and loyalties.  When ignorance is compounded by fear or suspicion, grotesque distortions of reality are easily taken as truth and can spread easily, unchecked, through whole communities.  For many Jews today, as well as for many Christians, Arabic words like jihad or shari’a or madrasa[1] take on sinister and frightening dimensions.  Similarly, for many Muslims throughout the world, terms like Israel[2], Zion or Zionism[3], and even, in some quarters, Jew (al-Yahud in Arabic) have negative associations.

In the past generation, since World War II and the Shoah (Holocaust),

Jewish-Christian relations have undergone a radical transformation.  One memorable sign of this sea change was the Jubilee pilgrimage of Pope John Paul II to Jordan, Israel, and Palestine in 2000.  Against the backdrop of almost two millennia of mutual estrangement, the Pope’s trip was an historic watershed in Catholic-Jewish relations.[4] Similarly, Christian-Muslim relations have progressed considerably in recent decades, although there are still conflicts between Christians and Muslims in various countries where religious loyalties are invoked to exacerbate intertribal and international disputes over land and other resources.[5] There have also been occasional setbacks.  One notable example was the speech delivered by Pope Benedict XVI in Regensburg, Germany, and its aftermath.[6] In considering the historical trajectory of Jewish-Muslim relations, a tragic irony emerges:  compared to the two other bilateral relationships, Jews and Muslims lived in relative harmony until the beginning of the last century, when their relationship turned antagonistic, largely because of the Israeli-Palestinian-Arab conflict and its international fallout.

This essay is an attempt to examine the state of Jewish-Muslim relations today, especially in North America, and to assess prospects for the years ahead.  Its focus will be on contemporary events and trends, rather than a broad historical survey or an exercise in comparative philosophy or theology.[7]

Contemporary Challenges Confronting Jews and Muslims

Given the worldwide manifestations of both Islamophobia and anti-Semitism, both communities, especially where they are minorities, have a common interest in combatting the ignorance and the fear that fuel such bigotry.  Congressman Keith Ellison, one of two Muslims serving in the U. S. House of Representatives, has expressed this point well within the American context:

Muslims and Jews are not bound together in a zero sum game.  As religious minorities their interests often run parallel.  What is good for American Muslims (e.g., religious tolerance, equal opportunity, anti-hate crimes legislation) is good for American Jews as well.  Muslims and Jews both have an interest in keeping public spaces open and free for all faiths.  In 2009, over 1,200 anti-Semitic incidents of violence, defacement, or desecration were reported.  There has also been a recent sharp rise in anti-Muslim incidents—by some accounts an increase of over 1,000 percent after 9/11.  Studies show that so often the same people hold biases against Muslims hold biases against Jews as well.[8]

Congressman Ellison acknowledges the differences and tensions between the two religious communities, “principally around the conflict in the Holy Land.”  But even on this most controversial and emotionally charged issue, he asserts, Muslims and Jews “are not as far apart as one might guess on this matter.  The Muslims I know support and accept Israel’s existence, though many take issue with certain decisions made by the Israeli government with regard to the occupied territories.”[9] Many Jews, for their part, accept the right of Palestinians to independence, are sympathetic to the injustices and hardships they have suffered, and support a two-state framework in principle; but they harbor fears and suspicions regarding the true intentions of Palestinian leaders, especially those in Hamas.  Can Jews and Muslims, inside and outside the Middle East, discuss these feelings and concerns without polarizing over the political impasse?  Where serious disagreements exist, can they be addressed with mutual respect instead of vitriol?

One encouraging indication that there are affirmative answers to these questions is the recent publication of the volume from which Congressman Ellison’s statements cited above are taken.  The various essays and speeches brought together by Reza Aslan and Aaron J. Hahn Tapper demonstrate that, in North America at least, religious leaders, educators, and activists in both communities have found ways to bridge the divisions separating Jews and Muslims.  In these published testimonies, the strong passions surrounding Israel/Palestine and the painful experiences of Muslims since September 11, 2001, are addressed without rancor, yielding valuable insights that further mutual understanding.  Omid Safi’s analysis of how the DVD “Obsession: Radical Islam’s War against the West” was distributed by the millions, and Debbie Almontaser’s candid account of how she was forced from her position as founding principal of the Khalil Gibran International Academy, are two examples of how Muslims can convey anger, disappointment, sadness, and, at the same time, hope.   Such honest expressions of deep feelings need to be shared if we are to conduct honest and fruitful conversations about our present situation and if we want to ensure a safe, healthy, and mutually beneficial future for all our children.  Beyond the sharing of hurts and hopes, both sides need to demonstrate active solidarity with the other, especially when either community is targeted by hate-mongers and demagogues.  Jews often say they need more public denunciations by Muslims of anti-Jewish rhetoric and actions on the part of Muslim extremists[10].  And Muslims often say that they, in turn, need Jews to counter vicious rhetorical attacks on Muslims, especially when other Jews are engaging in Islam-bashing.[11]

Two historic speeches included in the Aslan-Tapper volume deserve to be cited at length, for together they offer a valuable framework for understanding where Jewish-Muslim relations are today and what challenges need to be faced as we look ahead.  Rabbi Eric Yoffie, then head of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), spoke to tens of thousands of Muslims at the annual convention of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) in Chicago on August 31, 2007.  Reciprocating this gesture of good will, Dr. Ingrid Mattson, then president of ISNA, addressed the URJ General Assembly in San Diego on December 16 of that same year.  The national director of ISNA, Sayyid Syeed, explains how the two speeches came about.  In the Aslan-Tapper book he writes[12] that, “in an effort to break down the barriers of mutual suspicion between us, I approached the largest single denomination of American Jews,” the Reform movement.  “After a few admittedly tense meetings with URJ leaders in New York City and Washington, D.C., it became clear that we Muslims were as religiously committed to opening a dialogue with Jews as we were with Christians.”  He continues:

ISNA had already made countless formal statements against acts of terrorism carried out in the name of Islam, deploring such actions as those of suicide bombers who have murdered innocent civilians.  But it was our common and passionate advocacy for peace in the Middle East and a respectable resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that brought us together with the URJ…Both ISNA and the URJ felt that we could build trust and goodwill between each other, ultimately using this positive cooperation to address injustices committed abroad. We both understood that our choice was either to do nothing and be confronted with the same tensions and mutual hatred being imported to the United States from overseas, or open up our communities to each other to promote mutual respect, understanding, and intercommunal partnership.

In the first of the two historic speeches that ensued,[13] Rabbi Yoffie expressed empathy with the American Muslim community and acknowledged the “abusive and discriminatory treatment” that some of its members had experienced since 9/11 “in the name of security.”  Asking aloud how such a state of affairs could have developed, he stated:

One reason that all of this has happened is profound ignorance.  Most Americans know nothing about Islam.  That is why we Jews must educate our members.  For this we will need your help.  We hope that in this process we will set an example for all Americans.  The time has come to put aside what the media says is wrong with Islam and to hear from Muslims themselves about what is right with Islam. The time has come to listen to our Muslim neighbors speak about the spiritual power of Islam and their love for their religion, from their heart and in their own words.

Rabbi Yoffie spoke of the joint curriculum which the URJ and ISNA were developing to teach their respective constituencies about each other:  “This unprecedented program will give synagogues and mosques the tools they need for constructive conversation with their neighbors.”  He continued:

The dialogue will not be one way, of course.  You will teach us about Islam and we will teach you about Judaism.  You will help us overcome stereotyping of Muslims, and we will help you overcome stereotyping of Jews.  We Jews are especially worried now about anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial.  Anti-Semitism is not native to the Islamic tradition.  But a virulent form of it is found today in a number of Islamic societies.  We urgently require your assistance in mobilizing Muslims here and abroad to delegitimize and combat it.

Rabbi Yoffie recognized that fanatics can be found in every religious community, including “a tiny, extremist minority [of Jews that] chooses destructive interpretations [of holy texts], finding in the sacred words a vengeful, hateful God.”  Acknowledging that Muslims are also appalled by the extremists in their ranks who “kill in the name of God, hijacking Islam in the process,” he declared:  “It is therefore our collective task to strengthen and inspire one another as we fight the fanatics within our communities, working together to promote the values of justice and love that are common to both our faiths.”

Rabbi Yoffie demonstrated exemplary candor and courage by addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and its impact on Jewish-Muslim relations in the United States, “because this, too, must be included in our dialogue.”  He referred to the “deep, profound and unshakable commitment to the state of Israel” shared by most American Jews, as well as the “ties of American Muslims and Arab Americans to the Palestinian people,” and declared:

The challenge that we face is this:  Will we, Jews and Muslims, import the conflicts of the Middle East into America, or will we join together and send a message of peace to that troubled land?  Let us choose peace.  Let us work toward the day when a democratic Palestinian state will live side by side, in peace and security, with the democratic state of Israel.

The Reform movement leader concluded his speech to the ISNA convention with these words:

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.

Sayyid Syeed reports that Rabbi Yoffie’s speech received a standing ovation and was covered in media reports worldwide.  Several months later Dr. Mattson, who has been my faculty colleague throughout my ten years at Hartford Seminary, delivered her own historic speech before the URJ General Assembly.[14] She first presented an overview of how the Muslim community in America, comprising both indigenous (mostly African-American) Muslims and immigrants from all over the world, has evolved in recent decades.  The interface of diverse cultural interpretations and expressions of Islam within the American context has yielded both discoveries and disagreements.  Some immigrants are deeply committed to retaining their cultural particularities, while others are “ideologically opposed to dialogue and change.”  Yet enough Muslims “have gone through the process of transformation, and embraced pluralism, [that] our community is now ready to engage in a meaningful way with Jewish communities” through the joint dialogue project undertaken with the URJ.  Dr. Mattson noted the excitement among fellow Muslims following Rabbi Yoffie’s speech at the ISNA convention.  “Many of our members,” she said, “have already established some connection between their local congregation and a nearby Jewish community.  Others are interested in reaching out, but do not know where to start.  Most of our communities are severely limited in resources to develop such programs.”

Since many American Muslim communities are still building mosques and organizing themselves, “Jewish communities can offer practical advice,” Dr. Mattson said, creating “a wonderful opportunity for constructive engagement.”  Both communities can benefit by becoming partners “in the struggle to uphold the constitutional separation of church and state, to promote civil liberties, to extend religious accommodations to minorities, and to counter prejudice and hatred.”  Acknowledging that Muslims bear the primary responsibility to “reclaim Islam from the terrorists and extremists,” Dr. Mattson lamented that, despite repeated efforts by ISNA representatives and other American Muslim leaders to condemn political violence and hate-mongering as Islamicly prohibited actions, “the sad reality is that no matter what we do, there are some who choose to continue to characterize us and our religion as essentially evil.”  She referred to the shared fate of Muslims and Jews in predominantly Christian countries over the centuries, suffering similar experiences of being caricatured and even demonized.   Generations of anti-Jewish stereotyping “softened the ground for the atrocities” in which “six million Jews in the heart of Europe were brutalized and murdered in the most despicable manner.”  Dr. Mattson forcefully declared:  “This is one of the greatest tragedies of modern history and ISNA will bear witness to this truth at anytime [sic] and to anyone in the Muslim world or otherwise who chooses to deny it.”

Such an unequivocal statement of historical truth-telling is reassuring to Jews who fear that a denial of the horrors committed by the Nazis and their henchmen may presage future atrocities against their coreligionists.  Dr. Mattson said that she does not fear such crimes being perpetrated against American Muslims, but “I am anxious,” she admitted to her Jewish audience, “about the degree to which my community is also being dehumanized.  I am worried that it is politically correct to mock and insult Muslims in the media and in the public.”  The projection of conspiratorial fantasies onto Muslims, seeing them as nefarious and threatening, is deeply disturbing, she said.  “Such beliefs can quite easily justify violence against Muslims” and she argued that such a mindset “has already laid the groundwork for general American apathy regarding the waterboarding, sensory deprivation, and other forms of torture inflicted upon Muslim detainees, some of whom have even been American citizens.”

Dr. Mattson went on to cite an incident in which a Muslim man in New York City intervened to protect Jewish victims of a hate crime, saying that it “highlights our common threat just as it highlights our common interests and shared humanity.  This is why I am delighted that ISNA and the URJ are embarking on this dialogue project, allowing our communities to learn about each other to rid ourselves of the ignorance we have of the other, and to move on, God willing, to work together for the greater good.”  Asserting that she was “not naïve about the challenges we face,” she acknowledged that anti-Jewish prejudice existed in the past among Muslims (though “it was never like European Christian anti-Semitism”) and that “there are ambitious political rulers in the Muslim world who currently manipulate religious sentiment against Jews in an effort to extend their authoritarian rule.”  She continued:

At the same time, American Jews need to recognize that the concerns of American Muslims regarding the suffering of the Palestinian people [are] both genuine and justified.  We need you to refrain from assuming that such concern originates from a hatred of the Jewish people…If religion is about anything, it should be about the ability to extend empathy beyond our own family or tribe or community to humanity at large.

Looking toward the future, Dr. Mattson said that Jewish and Muslim children in America are getting to know one another as schoolmates and as athletes competing in sports events.  “The question we need to address,” she declared, “is whether or not the religious teachings that we impart to our children will serve to expand their empathy and encourage solidarity with others at the same time that these teachings give them a deep sense of attachment to their specific communities and traditions.”  She concluded her remarks to the URJ assembly with these words:

If our religious traditions are going to survive, they have to demonstrate not only that they are good in themselves, but also that we are good together; that religious differences do not necessarily lead to conflict and disorder in society, but rather serve to enrich our collective understanding of the Creator, the one who is beyond the comprehension of any created being.  The Qur’an states, “To each among you have we prescribed a law and an open way.  If God had so willed, He would have made you a single people, but (His plan is) to test you in what He has given you; so Strive as in a race in all virtues.  The goal of you all is to God.  It is He who will show you the truth of the matters in which you now dispute” (5:48).  Let us strive for good in order to improve each one of us, and this improve all of us.  May God help us in this effort.

Building Jewish-Muslim Solidarity at the Grassroots Level

The perspectives of these two national leaders serve to frame the macro-reality of Jewish-Muslim relations, as perceived in the United States but with global implications.  The positive outlooks conveyed by Rabbi Yoffie and Dr. Mattson—even as they honestly acknowledged the obstacles in the way of mutually trusting and caring relations—has yielded concrete results in the educational materials issued by ISNA and the URJ for use in mosques and synagogues.  Such resources, jointly conceived and produced, are needed to concretize the vision of increased understanding at the local level.  There are many other grassroots initiatives that are under way, too many to mention here.[15] Some are undertaken by courageous individuals, some are joint efforts by small teams of activists and educators,[16] while others are the fruits of established organizations.

A few examples of Jewish-Muslim cooperation are worth noting, as illustrative models of the range of initiatives currently taking place.

In Minneapolis/St. Paul, Minnesota, Rabbi Amy Eilberg directs an Interfaith Conversations Project that brings together synagogues, Islamic centers, and churches for various educational programs.  Her work with Muslims, in particular, is meant “to cultivate positive, trusting relationships” that are able to address the challenges that arise in Jewish-Muslim encounters.  The two that Eilberg identifies in an essay on the subject[17] are the conflict in Israel/Palestine and different “theologies of revelation.”  She reports:

The first issue plays a significant role as a threshold issue, affecting the decision of Jews and Muslims to even participate in programs of interreligious learning.  It also predictably arises, whether as an unspoken concern or as an explicit dynamic, whenever Muslims and Jews develop relationships with one another.  The second issue involves the differences between the two communities’ views of the authority of their sacred scripture.  My experience suggests that the difference between theological traditionalists and liberals may be a greater divide between the groups—and a greater challenge to mutual understanding—than the fact of religious difference alone.

Regarding the Middle East conflict, Eilberg recommends that this issue not be addressed until a sufficient level of mutual respect and trust is established.  “Once this foundation is built,” she writes, “contentious issues can then be explored constructively without endangering relationships.”  She adds:

At the same time, leaders must be both flexible and skillful enough to respond to the issue of the conflict if and when it arises spontaneously.  Ultimately, it is my belief, and that of many participants, that intercommunal conflict is a key positive reason to engage in such encounters.  Once relationships are strong enough to be sustained in the presence of conflicting views, Jewish-Muslim dialogue may hold its greatest promise.

Eilberg recalls a planned Jewish-Muslim encounter in January, 2009, during the war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza.  The conversation confirmed the mutual appreciation that had been cultivated, as participants shared their “feelings of pain, outrage, fear, shame, and ambivalence.”  What it also confirmed was that “the time of external conflict makes our work more urgent and meaningful…In fact, we feel closer to one another than ever before, more devoted to our shared work as a result.”  From my own experience in such encounters, I would agree with Rabbi Eilberg that it takes skilled and sensitive leadership, and a willingness on the part of participants to be vulnerable, if Jews and Muslims are to succeed in forging bonds of mutual solidarity during times of violent conflict and the anguish that is evoked.   Those who do succeed can set an example for others who may be apprehensive about honestly sharing pain, passions, and group loyalties.  The risks in such open exchange are real, and yet the rewards are great, especially for our two communities that are suffering because of the unhealed conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

In regard to the second issue that Eilberg raises, the authority of scripture, she observes that Jews are, on the whole, more comfortable than most devout Muslims wrestling with a sacred text and raising questions about what God or a prophet may have done.  Both Jews and Muslims can be surprised, even taken aback, when either group offers views on how one should read and interpret scriptural texts.  Jews may view their Muslim dialogue partners as “fundamentalist,” with harsh, critical judgments, while Muslims may view Jews who are more liberal in their views as “theologically superficial, or simply fatally wounded by the much-celebrated Western Enlightenment.”  Eilberg notes that this “largely unspoken set of contrasting assumptions may impede understanding between the two groups.”  Again, skilled and sensitive facilitation is required[18] so that neither group becomes defensive as it tries to explain its connections to sacred scripture and to the community which validates and reinforces the criteria for deciding what is normative.  In the end, to cite the dedicated Rabbi Eilberg, “those who labor in the field of Muslim-Jewish relations invest much time and passionate energy in the hope of fostering real reconciliation between tragically estranged members of an ancient family.  Such work does not come easily.  But it is the only way to peace.”

In Los Angeles, California, various initiatives are under way to forge better relations between Jews and Muslims.  One, called NewGround, is co-sponsored by the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) and the Progressive Jewish Alliance.  Its Website[19] states that the project is a “Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change” and stems from the “skillful leadership” of two women “dialogue facilitators,” co-directors Malka Fenyvesi and Aziza Hasan.[20] According to MPAC President Salam Al-Marayati, NewGround “is preparing the next generation of Muslim and Jewish leaders…to have a better chance of effectively engaging issues of mutual concern.”  The program “provides opportunities for young Muslim and Jewish professionals of all backgrounds to build honest, authentic relationships with one another, to establish a common commitment to change, and to become a new cadre of leaders who inspire hope in a troubled world.”  This attempt to build interfaith relationships among the younger generation has been praised by veteran religious leaders in the Los Angeles area. Rabbi Laura Geller of Temple Emanuel calls NewGround “a model that should be duplicated all over the country,” while Shakeel Syed, executive director of the Islamic Shura Council of Southern California, has said:  “Mending bridges and building bonds is an Abrahamic legacy, radically different from the prevailing culture of building walls and burning bridges.  The NewGround project is a twenty first century version of that Abrahamic legacy!”  Al-Marayati sees political benefit in creating these interpersonal bonds between American Muslims and Jews.  He believes that “Muslims and Jews need to create a peacemaking constituency to support the U.S. government’s Middle East peacemaking initiatives, or they will be viewed as supporting violence over peace in the region.”[21]

Working with NewGround is another Los Angeles-based institution called the Center for Jewish-Muslim Engagement, co-founded and co-directed by Rabbi Reuven Firestone of Hebrew Union College (HUC).  The Center is a partnership linking HUC, the Omar Ibn Al-Khattab Foundation, and the University of Southern California’s Center for Religion and Civic Culture.

According to Firestone, in the winter of 2009 his Center and NewGround jointly sponsored “a novel program using Islamic and Judaic religious texts to foster intergroup dialogue and intentional conversations with the aim of enhancing and bridging relationships between the two communities.”  In an essay reporting on this pilot program, Firestone and his colleague Hebah Farrag share their experience in order to “provide guidance for those who are interested in considering intergroup dialogue through text study.”[22]

Firestone and Farrag launched their program at area synagogues and mosques just after the Israel-Hamas conflict in Gaza mentioned earlier.  The program was designed for the general public, not trained clergy or academics.  They note that the “surprisingly positive response to the call for applications served not only to strengthen the organizers’ internal resolve to continue with the program, but also illustrated compelling evidence that members of both communities longed for constructive engagement outside of the lens of international politics alone.”  A key principle underlying the effort was “a strict adherence to absolute parity between Jews and Muslims at all levels, from planning to implementation to evaluation.  As such, Muslims and Jews were equally represented among the program’s designers, educators, facilitators, and student-participants.”  No background readings were assigned, and at each of the four sessions texts (in Hebrew or Arabic, with English translations) were disseminated without prior notification, so that participants could read them afresh and serve as interpreters for one another.

Aside from the explicit aim of studying sacred texts together, the organizers hoped that this undertaking “would also demystify the religious ‘other’ and create a deeper understanding of how meaning is constructed in both religious traditions.”  Assessing the impact of the program, Firestone and Farrag describe how relationships grew and deepened over the course of the four study sessions. “It became clear that the program not only increased participants’ interest in intercommunal relations, but also inspired most to recommit themselves to religious learning within their own traditions… Participants eventually felt comfortable learning from the religious ‘other’ without feeling the need to come to final agreements over the issues.”

After the four-part program concluded, a dinner was organized for participants and members of the general public, “to publicize the program, garner community support, and model the experience for the larger community.”  Firestone and Farrag report that program participants “continued to meet independently to discuss religious topics and continue and deepen friendships.  The continued activity has been the most important measure of its success.”

Yet another exemplary initiative has emerged In the Toronto metropolitan area.  According to its co-chairs, Shahid Akhtar and Dr. Barbara Landau, the Canadian Association of Jews and Muslims (CAJM) was founded in 1996 “to bring members of the Jewish and Muslim communities in Canada closer, to promote positive interaction between them, and to work together to combat problems faced by both communities…Since September 11, 2001, we have been meeting regularly with a reinvigorated sense of purpose to create a model in Canada for Jewish/Muslim bilateral co-operation in fighting an increase in hate crimes, stereotyping, backlash, discrimination, anti-Islamism and anti-Semitism faced by our communities.”[23]

Akhtar and Landau affirm:

Our most important strength is that whatever position CAJM takes, we do it jointly, and in the true interest of both groups.  We may speak out in favour of a particular viewpoint, but only with agreement and understanding of members of both  communities…CAJM intends to play an educational role in conveying its message in a visible manner to the general public…Our approach to relationship building between our communities takes place through a variety of avenues such as seminars, special events, cultural exchanges, publications, youth activities, and an exchange of speakers and community leaders.  We continue to work on the goals of mutual understanding and respect and are seen as a model of cooperation between Jews and Muslims.

In recent years, CAJM has participated in an international network of Jewish and Muslim institutions organized by the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding (FFEU)[24].  Since 2008, FFEU has sponsored an annual “Weekend of Twinning” which brings together hundreds of mosques and synagogues, along with cultural centers, Muslim and Jewish university students, and social action groups.  These relationships are being fostered through FFEU’s ties throughout North America, Europe, the Middle East, Australia, Latin America, and Africa.  Rabbis and imams[25], lay leaders, women’s groups, and social activists are all involved in this multi-faceted Jewish-Muslim network.  In Toronto, CAJM co-chair Barbara Landau joined with other Jewish and Muslim women to sponsor, together with FFEU, a Women’s Interfaith Symposium entitled “Sharing Our History—Shaping Our Future.”  Dr. Landau reported that the symposium “included women of all ages who are passionately committed to peace, equality, human rights and social justice, and we are very happy with what was accomplished.”  The women who took part intend to continue working together, focusing on the issue of domestic violence and engaging rabbis, imams, and other religious leaders in a struggle to end violence against women and children.

Walter Ruby, Muslim-Jewish Relations Program Officer for FFEU, said that he was “gratified that the Women’s Interfaith Group in Toronto chose to take on such an important societal issue—domestic violence…I think that will be a wonderful model for other communities—to raise the awareness that Jews and Muslims can work together on an ongoing basis on a social problem that plagues both communities and society at large, and be active agents together for needed social change.”  Ruby, who has coordinated the annual “Weekend of Twinning” (WOT) programs, at times assisted by Muslim advisor Mehdi Eliefifi, had this to say about the 2011 round, held on November 18 to 20:

Globally this was the most successful WOT so far, in terms of the numbers of participating groups (well over 250 Muslim and Jewish congregations and organizations in 130 twinning events in 12 countries—plus people from another 14 countries to take [part] in the Virtual Twinning [allowing young Jews and Muslims to connect via computer links] the following week) and also in terms of focus and direction.  In many events, there was a focus on tikkun olam/islah—the moral imperative for both Jews and Muslims to repair the world and reach out a hand to those in society who are in need.[26]

Personal Journeys of Transformation

In addition to exemplary organizations like the ones cited, the stories of extraordinary individuals can also serve as inspirational models for other Jews and Muslims seeking to build bridges between their two communities.  One Muslim educator, activist, and advocate who is an increasingly influential leader and role model in Jewish-Muslim peacebuilding efforts is Imam Abdullah Antepli.[27] Imam Antepli, originally from Turkey, is currently Muslim Chaplain and Adjunct Faculty in Islamic Studies at Duke University.

In August, 2010, together with Rabbi Jack Bemporad of the Center for Interreligious Understanding in Carlstadt, New Jersey, and Marshall Breger, an Orthodox Jewish law professor at Catholic University, Imam Antepli helped lead a delegation of American Muslim leaders to Germany and Poland, including a visit to Auschwitz.  After their return, Imam Antepli and others reported on their experiences before a Congressional committee in Washington, D.C.[28] This remarkable trip elicited a range of positive media reports, including Jewish newspaper accounts.  One particularly moving article, written by Jeanette Friedman, appeared on the New Jersey Newsroom Website.[29] It describes a talk Imam Antepli gave on November 14, 2010, before an audience at Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey.  After some initial pleasantries (Antepli often introduces himself as a “Turkish delight”), he turned very serious, admitting that he was “a recovering anti-Semite,” having worked hard to rid himself of anti-Jewish prejudices he had absorbed as a boy and adolescent.  Negative stereotypes of Jews, conveyed in The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and other mythic fabrications are poisoning the minds of children throughout the Muslim world, Antepli said.  He himself had been one of them.  “It is very insidious,” he said.  “It convinced us that there is something vile about the religion and something inherently wrong with Jews and Judaism, and I hated the Jews.”  It was only when he came to America, where he met and befriended Jews, that he began to question and ultimately renounce his conditioned attitudes and feelings.

Imam Antepli described his personal journey toward a truer understanding of Jews and Judaism.  With all he read and encountered, and even after taking groups of Jewish and Muslim students to Turkey and Israel, he felt “something was still ‘missing.’”  He read books and saw films about the Holocaust, but it was only when he traveled to Auschwitz that he realized the enormity of the horror and its import.  Referring to himself and his Muslim colleagues on the trip, he said “the trip was a slap in the face for all of us.  We never understood the depth of human failure.  If God ever shed tears, it would have been in this case…For six years people worked to kill people as efficiently as possible.  In Auschwitz it took just three hours to turn them into ashes.”

“Since then,” Antepli related, “I have lost my taste for many things.  We saw hills of human hair…One of the most beautiful things I have in my life is to touch my daughter’s beautiful hair.  Now I cannot take pleasure from it because I see those hills of human hair…”

Imam Antepli recalled that Muslims in the Balkans had saved Jewish lives during the Holocaust.  And he expressed his empathy for survivors in the audience who had witnessed the destruction of entire Jewish communities in Europe.  According to Friedman’s account, Antepli “then issued a call for action, for solutions, for antidotes.  ‘We can’t prevent it with lip service.  Holocaust denial is against Islam…It’s another face of evil…I hear people say, ‘I am glad it happened and someone should finish the job.’  We have to try hard to convince everyone how unethical and immoral this is.  Moderate people have to become radical peace makers.  My hope is to mobilize the lazy moderates in our societies, to give them a push to eliminate sources of hate from society and fulfill the faith of the Abrahamic traditions for all our families.”

In referring to Marshall Breger, Friedman reported that “mainstream American Jewish organizations didn’t approve of the imams he and Bemporad brought to Poland.”  Apparently they had made controversial statements or had not shown sufficient solidarity with Jews or with Israel.  One imam had even expressed doubt about the magnitude of Jewish suffering in the Holocaust.  (He later apologized for his statements).  Breger’s approach was clear:  “Why should we bring imams who already know the truth? The fact was we needed to show Auschwitz to doubters and deniers.”  To give the trip added credibility, funding came from the Konrad Adenauer Foundation in Germany.  Accompanying the group were Ambassador Hannah Rosenthal, the U.S. special envoy on monitoring and combating anti-Semitism, and Ambassador Rashad Hussain, U.S. envoy to the Organization of the Islamic Conference.

The testimony of Imam Antepli, and his cooperative partnership with Rabbi Bemporad and Professor Breger, illustrate the potential inherent in such strategic alliances between Muslims and Jews.  We need more newsworthy initiatives like the delegation to Auschwitz to counter the misinformation that fills the media, not to mention the dehumanizing and demonizing poison being disseminated via the Internet.

Another inspiring personal story, from the Jewish side, is that of Israeli journalist and author Yossi Klein Halevi.  Halevi’s first book, Memoirs of a Jewish Extremist: An American Story[30], chronicled his youthful involvement in Meir Kahane’s Jewish Defense League, his gradual disillusionment with this partisan and belligerent activism, and his eventual conversion to the path of interreligious reconciliation.  His second book, At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden:  A Jew’s Search for God with Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land[31], tells the remarkable story of his two-year journey into the devotional lives of Christians and Muslims in Israel/Palestine, in search of spiritual remedies for the tragic conflict in that land.  As Halevi explains in the new foreword to the paperback addition:

In its essence, this journey was an experiment in what could be called “radical monotheism.”  Taken to its ultimate conclusion, monotheism is frightening in its uncompromising inclusivism:  If God is literally one, and all of creation is a projection of that unified will, then every living thing exists within the same organism, is in effect a cell in the divine “body,” as mystics insist…For the radical monotheist, empathy is the only possible state of being:  Human oneness isn’t a philosophical notion or a moral imperative but simply a fact.[32]

In that new foreword, written after the outbreak of the second Intifada and the atrocities in the U.S. on September 11, 2001, Halevi’s tone is pessimistic yet ultimately hopeful.  He laments:  “Much of the Muslim world seems intent on reviving the demonization of the Jews abandoned by the Christian world after the Holocaust.  The Muslim-Jewish relationship, which has known glorious moments in the past, seems to be descending into an abyss.”  Halevi notes, with no small amount of irony, that it is “hardly a propitious time to be publishing a book about a Jew’s love for Islam.”[33]

“Still,” Halevi asserts, “in my better moments, when I manage to overcome the desperation that surrounds and often overwhelms me, I realize that this is precisely the time to try to counter the pathological alienation growing between our two faiths, which risks turning the Arab-Israeli conflict into a Muslim-Jewish war.”[34]

Halevi concludes his new foreword, written in April, 2002, with this statement:

As I write, peace seems more distant than ever.  But even as we brace for more terrible conflict, I believe that this war will ultimately exhaust itself, and the beauty of Islam that I glimpsed will become manifest.  Islam, after all, contains those qualities necessary for peacemaking—humility before God and an acute awareness of mortality.  Some day, Jews, Muslims, and Christians will be able to share wisdom, if not doctrine.  And so I offer, for the future, this account of one pilgrim’s journey into an alternative Middle East.  A gesture of hope.  A prayer.[35]

I should note, in candor and fairness, that Yossi Klein Halevi and I have been close friends for many years, despite our political disagreements.[36] During his November, 2011, speaking tour of the United States, I went to hear his public lecture at Hebrew College in Newton Centre, MA.  He began his remarks by declaring that “the last ten years have been brutal for Jewish-Muslim relations,” with political developments “overshadowing” the positive dimensions of his interreligious journey.[37] Still, he remained convinced that the “transcendent, transformative, and personally redemptive moments” he had experienced, even if “inconceivable today,” were steps on the way to a better future for all of us.  He called on his audience to make the effort, as he had, to undertake journeys of religious empathy, even if the borders were difficult to cross.  The crucial distinction he made was between “theological truth claims” and “devotional truth,” asserting that the latter was the foundation for building spiritually authentic relationships that can transcend both theological differences and political polemics.

Halevi stated that we are all in a new historical era:  “We are all in the same leaky religious boat, implicated in each other’s desecrations.”  This sobering reality necessitates that we take our responsibilities toward one another seriously and take advantage of emerging opportunities to experience the inner life of other religious communities as a way to ground mutual care and solidarity.  “The interfaith journey is one of the great religious adventures of our time,” he declared.  For Jews, pluralism should not be too difficult a notion to embrace, since Jewish particularism allows, in principle, for other particularistic expressions of faith.  Pluralism, Halevi suggested, might be more challenging for Christians and Muslims, since their faith traditions have been more universalist than Judaism.

At the same time, the historical memories carried by Jews make it difficult for them to open-heartedly engage Christians and Muslims (as opposed to, say, Hindus or Buddhists, who have not harmed Jews in the past).  “You can not ignore this history,” Halevi said.  “You have to go through it” in order to “expand the sense of sacred space” and experience how Muslims and Christians experience the Divine Presence in a mosque or a church.  For Halevi, joining a Muslim prayer line and sharing in that “whole-bodied, choreographed devotion,” was powerful and transformative.

Halevi sees political ramifications in this sort of spiritual empathy and mutual affirmation.  Muslims, he hopes, can come to see Israel as a vessel for Jewish collective self-expression, spiritually and culturally, the political means for living out centuries of Jewish prayers and hopes.  In essence, this means recognizing Jewish Israelis as a people that has returned home rather than as usurpers from outside.  Jews, for their part, need to learn about Islam and Arab culture in order to honor them, so that Israel can be truly integrated into the wider Middle East.  “Jews have returned to the Middle East, not just to the land of Israel,” Halevi stated, and this requires a shift in perspective by world Jewry.

Halevi concluded his talk with an invitation to imagine “new archetypes of each other” to replace negative and threatening archetypes like “Arab Nazis and Jewish crusaders or colonialists.”  All of us, he said, need to practice the radical hospitality exemplified by our common forefather Abraham/Ibrahim, so that we can share a common tent, a common land, and a common monotheistic and prophetic heritage.

Jews and Muslims as Partners in Peacebuilding

Following the traumatic events of September 11, 2001, the outbreak of the second Intifada, and the war in Iraq that began in 2003, I co-authored a public statement with my Palestinian-American friend and colleague, Imam Yahya Hendi, who serves as the Muslim chaplain at Georgetown University.  We called on “our fellow Jews and Muslims to join forces with concerned Christians to transcend this cycle of death and destruction.” In our joint statement, we asserted:

Jews and Muslims should be spiritual allies, not adversaries.  Any student of comparative religion knows that Judaism and Islam are as close to one another as any two faith traditions can be…It is only in the past hundred years that the conflict over the Holy Land, whether called Israel or Palestine, has engendered competing nationalisms and the violation of basic human rights affirmed as sacred by all three faith traditions.  The conflict has also undermined the historic cross-fertilization of these traditions.[38]

Imam Hendi and I lamented that Middle East diplomacy lacked a spiritual dimension, that the Oslo Accords, along with other peace plans and “road maps,” were secular impositions on a Holy Land.  In that land, large minorities of Israelis and Palestinians harbor deep religious convictions that need to be addressed in any genuine and effective peace settlement.  We argued that “if religious leaders from the three faiths had been brought together from the outset to help make peace possible, the diplomacy would have had a much greater chance of success.”[39] We continued:

Instead, Israeli and Palestinian leaders, with the endorsement of American and European diplomats, labeled Islamic militants and ultra-nationalist religious Jews as “enemies of peace.”  The dynamic that ensued, with fervent Muslims and Jews feeling threatened by a “peace process” that excluded them, has contributed to the dreadful impasse in which we are all caught.  Religious issues important to both sides were pushed aside and not properly addressed.  These include sensitive issues like Jerusalem and the status of what Jews call the Temple Mount and Muslims call the Haram al-Shareef.

We called on our coreligionists to work together for a just peace in the Middle East:

Both communities, guided by wise leadership, need to overcome longstanding prejudices and resentments.  Each tradition has sacred teachings that can be enlisted to build bridges of respect, reconciliation, and cooperation.  Wise religious leadership consists of identifying those teachings and educating both peoples in that spirit.  There will be no political peace in the Middle East without a spiritual underpinning reconciling Jews and Muslims.  At this critical moment in our history, with heartbreaking suffering and loss on all sides, we need to be inspired by the Divine light that shines forth from the holy Qur’an and the holy Torah.  They both affirm life, not death.  They both teach compassion, not callousness or hatred.  They both call for a richly diverse human family under the sovereignty of the One God.

As a fitting conclusion for this essay, I cite the words with which Imam Hendi and I closed our reflection:  “We both pray that—insh’Allah, b’ezrat Hashem, with God’s help—people the world over who are suffering in the midst of violent conflict will experience genuine peace and security, starting with all the children, women, and men in our common homeland, Israel/Palestine.”


[1] These Arabic words mean, respectively, struggle or striving (including, in prescribed instances, military combat), normative Islamic law and ethics (comparable to Rabbinic law or halakhah), and a school or academy (comparable to yeshiva or beit midrash).

[2] The term “Israel” can, depending on the context, refer to the Jewish people (Am Yisrael), the holy land (Eretz Yisrael), or the modern nation-state (Medinat Yisrael).  This multiple usage can easily sow confusion.

[3] “Zion” (tzion in Hebrew) is a poetic Biblical reference to the land, often with redemptive associations (see, for example, Isaiah 1:27); “Zionism” is the commonly used term for the modern political movement, and the ideology behind it, that sought the restoration of the “exiled” Jewish people to the ancestral homeland of Israel.

[4] See Yehezkel Landau, “Pope John Paul II’s Holy Land Pilgrimage: A Jewish Appraisal,” in John Paul II in the Holy Land: In His Own Words (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2005), pp. 129-156.

[5] See Eliza Griswold, The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line Between Christianity and Islam (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010).

[6] A positive outcome of this unfortunate incident and its aftermath was the conciliatory initiative on the part of Muslim leaders worldwide called “A Common Word Between Us and You.” See Miroslav Volf, Ghazi bin Muhammad, and Melissa Yarrington, eds., A Common Word: Muslims and Christians on Loving God and Neighbor (Grand Rapids/Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2010).

[7] For historical and comparative perspectives, see Mark S. Wagner, “Islam and Judaism,” in Roger Allen and Shawkat M. Toorawa, eds., Islam: A Short Guide to the Faith (Grand Rapids/

Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2011), pp. 116-125; Nissim Rejwan, “Islam and Judaism: Cultural Relations and Interaction through the Ages,” in John Bunzl, ed., Islam, Judaism, and the Political Role of Religions in the Middle East (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2004), pp. 28-57; Mark R. Cohen, Under Crescent and Cross: The Jews in the Middle Ages (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994); and two volumes by Reuven Firestone: Children of Abraham: An Introduction to Judaism for Muslims (Hoboken, NJ: Ktav Publishing House and the American Jewish Committee, 2001) and An Introduction to Islam for Jews (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 2008).

[8] Congressman Keith Ellison, Foreword to Reza Aslan and Aaron J. Hahn Tapper, eds., Muslims and Jews in America: Commonalities, Contentions, and Complexities (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), p. viii.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Unfortunately, few Jews make the effort to explore Websites like that of the Islamic Society of North America (www.isna.net), which offer clear statements from Muslim leaders denouncing political violence in the name of Islam.

[11] Muslims are well aware that some of the most prominent critics of Islam and Muslims are Jews (though they sometimes insist they are combating “Islamists” rather than Muslims in general), including Daniel Pipes, Pamela Geller, David Yerushalmi, and David Horowitz.  (See the August 2011 report from the Center for American Progress entitled “Fear, Inc.: The Roots of the Islamophobia Network in America,” accessible through www.americanprogress.org). Greater trust between the two communities requires a concerted and consistent effort on the part of Jewish leaders to counter this anti-Islam rhetoric and to offer alternative, constructive approaches to Jewish-Muslim relations.

[12] Sayyid. M. Syeed, “Introduction to Speeches by Rabbi Eric Yoffie and Dr. Ingrid Mattson,” in Aslan and Tapper, op. cit., pp. 117-119.

[13] Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, “Inaugural Address at the Forty-fourth Annual Convention of the Islamic Society of North America,” in Aslan and Tapper, ibid., pp. 121-125.

[14] Ingrid Mattson, “Address at the Sixty-ninth Conference of the General Assembly of the Union for Reform Judaism,” in Aslan and Tapper, ibid., pp. 127-132.

[15] Sometimes local Jewish-Muslim initiatives attract much needed media attention.  Two recent examples are: (1) Bill Hutchinson and Mark Morales, “Muslim cab drivers rescue New York City’s oldest Jewish bagel bakery from closing, plan to keep it kosher,” New York Daily News, November 4, 2011, accessible at http://en.islamtoday.net; and (2) Ted Regencia and Lindsay Minerva, “A Bronx Tale: After the congregants of an Orthodox synagogue could no longer afford their rent, they found help in the local mosque,” accessible online at http://www.tabletmag.com/life-and-religion/88849/a-bronx-tale-3/

[16] Among the creative collaborations of Jews and Muslims, often together with Christians, are musical groups such as the Boston-based Dunya ensemble, comedy acts like Rabbi Bob Alper and Ahmed Ahmed, and teaching teams like the “The Interfaith Amigos” from Seattle (Rabbi Ted Falcon, Imam Jamal Rahman, and Pastor Don Mackenzie) and the co-authors of the book The Faith Club (Ranya Idliby, Suzanne Oliver, and Priscilla Warner), and book groups like the Daughters of Abraham in Massachusetts, Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas, and elsewhere.

[17] Rabbi Amy Eilberg, “Children of Abraham in Dialogue,” in Aslan and Tapper, op. cit., pp. 33-44.

[18] In a footnote to her essay (p. 44), Rabbi Eilberg writes:  “Regarding general facilitation models, I have found most useful the materials designed by the Public Conversations Project/Jewish Dialogue Group, The Compassionate Listening Project, and Conversation Café.  In addition, the Jewish-Muslim curriculum created by Abraham’s Vision, more than one hundred lessons and five hundred pages in length, is without parallel.”

[19] www.muslimjewishnewground.org accessed January 22, 2012.

[20] Since this essay was written, I have learned that these two founding co-directors have become consultants to NewGround, and that the executive director is now Rabbi Sarah Bassin.

[21] The citations in the preceding paragraph are from Salam Al-Marayati, “Challenges and Opportunities for Muslim-Jewish Peacemaking in America,” in Aslan and Tapper, op. cit., pp. 145-156.

[22] Rabbi Reuven Firestone and Hebah H. Farrag, “Sacred Text Study as Dialogue between Muslims and Jews,” in Aslan and Tapper, op. cit., pp. 177-189.

[23] This and other statements cited come from documents provided via e-mail by CAJM co-chair Dr. Barbara Landau (no relation to this writer) in December, 2011.

[24] See the foundation’s Website, www.ffeu.org

[25]Another international organization bringing rabbis and imams together is the Hommes de Parole Foundation, founded and headed by Alain Michel.  With offices in Geneva, Paris, and Jerusalem, this foundation has spearheaded the World Congress of Imams and Rabbis for Peace, which has met three times—in Brussels (2005), Seville (2006), and Paris (2008).  The fourth gathering is planned for Bangalore, India, in 2012.  For information, see www.hommesdeparole.org or www.imamsrabbisforpeace.org

[26] Walter Ruby’s statements are found in the documentation provided by Dr. Barbara Landau of the Canadian Association of Jews and Muslims.

[27] Imam Antepli has been a close friend and colleague for several years, since his time as assistant director of the Islamic Chaplaincy Program at Hartford Seminary.  He also taught in the interfaith training program that I direct there.  For a case study of that Jewish-Christian-Muslim educational laboratory, see Yehezkel Landau, “Building Abrahamic Partnerships: A Model Interfaith Program at Hartford Seminary,” in Changing the Way Seminaries Teach: Pedagogies for Interfaith Dialogue, edited by David A. Roozen and Heidi Hadsell (Hartford: Hartford Seminary, 2009), pp. 87-123.

[28] The public statement issued by Imam Antepli and the other Muslim leaders who

traveled to Germany and Poland can be found on the Website of the Center for InterReligious Understanding; see http://www.faithindialogue.com/imams-statement/ accessed November 24, 2011

[29] Jeanette Friedman, “Imam Abdullah Antepli confesses, at Seton Hall, to being a recovering anti-Semite,” 15 November 2010,  http://www.newjerseynewsroom/style accessed November 24, 2011

[30] Yossi Klein Halevi, Memoirs of a Jewish Extremist: An American Story (New York: Little Brown and Company, 1995).

[31] Yossi Klein Halevi, At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden: A Jew’s Search for God with Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land (New York: William Morrow, 2001).  For the paperback edition, published by Perennial/HarperCollins in 2002, the word “God” in the subtitle was replaced with “Hope.”

[32] Ibid. (paperback edition), p. xvii.

[33] Ibid., p. xv.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Ibid., p. xvii.

[36] Halevi wrote about our relationship in an article for Moment magazine (January/February 1984) entitled, “Security and Morality on the West Bank? Israel’s religious doves bring spiritual language to the territorial debate.”  I was then serving as the information secretary (later the director) of the Oz veShalom-Netivot Shalom religious peace movement in Israel.

One of the key lessons I draw from our ongoing dialogue is that all of us involved in interfaith work need to remain grounded in our respective communities, and this commitment includes continually engaging in intrafaith conversations with our coreligionists as we are building bridges between faith communities.

[37] Citations are from Yossi Klein Halevi’s lecture at Hebrew College on November 9, 2011.

[38] Yehezkel Landau and Yahya Hendi, “Jews, Muslims, and Peace,” in Current Dialogue (World Council of Churches), No. 41, June-July 2003, pp. 12-13 (and disseminated through various Websites).

[39] Among those who share this lament is former Israeli Knesset Member Rabbi Michael Melchior.  See excerpts from my interview with him, when he served as Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister, in my research report, Healing the Holy Land:  Interreligious Peacebuilding in Israel/Palestine, Washington, D.C.: U. S. Institute of Peace, Peaceworks monographs No. 51, September 2003, accessible at www.usip.org/files/resources/pwks51.pdf