US Muslims and Jews strengthen bonds amid bigotry

Sunday 02/04/2017
New dynamic? Members of the Sisterhood Salaam Shalom talk after a unity vigil at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, on February 16th. (AP)

New York - They sat on either end of the congressman’s couch, one a Jewish health care executive whose parents fled Ger­many in 1936, the other the Kash­miri Muslim chairman of a well-known American furniture chain. The men, Stanley Bergman and Farooq Kathwari, wanted to draw attention to an outbreak of hate crimes.
Bergman and Kathwari, how­ever, said they hoped their joint appearance would also send a broader message — that US Jews and Muslims could put aside dif­ferences and work together.
“What drove us was the grow­ing prejudice that has emerged in the United States,” Bergman said. “What starts small, from a histori­cal point of view, often grows into something big.”
The men lead the Muslim-Jew­ish Advisory Council, created last year by the American Jewish Com­mittee and the Islamic Society of North America amid a flowering of alliances between members of the two faiths. US Muslim and Jew­ish groups have been trying for years to make common cause with mixed success, often derailed by deep divisions over Israel and the Palestinians.
Bigoted rhetoric and harassment targeting both religions since the presidential election has drawn people together. Jews have do­nated to repair mosques that were defaced or burned. Muslims raised money to repair vandalised Jew­ish cemeteries. Rabbis and imams marched together against US Presi­dent Donald Trump’s travel ban tar­geting majority Muslim countries.
“I would never have thought I would see some people in con­versation, or anywhere near each other. Then I saw people on Face­book standing next to each other at protests — Muslims and Jews,” said Aziza Hasan, executive director of NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change in Los An­geles, which has had community relationship-building programmes for more than a decade.
Despite this surge of goodwill, questions remain about whether the new connections can endure. The sense of vulnerability Muslims and Jews share and their need for allies at a difficult time have not erased tensions that in the past kept them apart.
“This is a start and we’ll see how it goes,” said Talat Othman, a financial industry executive and Muslim-Jewish Advisory Council member, who offered an Islamic prayer at the 2000 Republican Na­tional Convention. “We are hope­ful.”
Over the years, many initiatives on improving relations between the two faiths were organised in­ternationally by governments and peace groups and some American synagogues and mosques attempt­ed to build friendships locally. Some progress was made, yet re­lations were often derailed when violence, war and policy disputes erupted in the Middle East.
Since Trump’s election, mem­bers of both faiths seem more will­ing to set aside such differences as they work on civil rights and other issues, said Abdullah Antepli, who was the first Muslim chaplain at Duke University and is co-director of the Shalom Hartman Institute’s Muslim Leadership Initiative.
It is impossible to know defini­tively whether harassment based on religion has increased. The FBI’s most recent data on hate crimes are from 2015. Still, the last year or so has seen dramatic examples of bigotry, including the waves of phoned-in bomb threats to Jew­ish community centres around the country. Mosques in Florida and Texas have been set on fire and authorities were investigat­ing whether the suspected arsons could be considered hate crimes.
“It’s particularly a Trump effect,” Antepli said. “External forces make the Muslim and Jewish communi­ties need each other’s friendship.”
When New York Arab-American activist and Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) supporter Lin­da Sarsour recently helped raise more than $150,000 for damaged Jewish cemeteries, some Jews de­bated whether it would be ethical to accept the donation. In a sign of changing attitudes, though, sever­al mainstream Jewish leaders who had worked with her previously defended her.
This new dynamic was evident at a recent New York vigil organ­ised by the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom, a national organisation of Muslim and Jewish women. The gathering at the Jewish Theologi­cal Seminary was part of the or­ganisation’s response to Trump’s travel ban. At the vigil, participants walked to the front of the room in pairs — a Muslim and a Jew — to of­fer readings and prayers in Arabic and Hebrew. After the ceremony, the women hugged and posed for selfies.
“There’s a sense of immedi­ate rapport and connection,” said Donna Cephas, a national board member of the Sisterhood, which has added dozens of chapters in the past year. “There is a signifi­cant yearning to be in community with people who stand for what we stand for.”
(The Associated Press)