Faces of US Muslim and Jewish dissent

Those who disagree with their faith groups on the Mideast crisis keep silent or band together.

Hamza Khan knows the price he pays for supporting Israel. A few years ago, he was impeached as president of his high school Muslim Student Association for suggesting a condolence letter be sent to the Israeli Embassy after a suicide bombing. Since then, he's received hate mail for his unabashedly pro-Israel views.

Today, as Israel's bid to vanquish Hizbullah militants in Lebanon enters its fourth week, the college sophomore is again at odds with the majority of his fellow Muslim-Americans who condemn Israel for using disproportionate force that has killed nearly 650 Lebanese civilians.

That means he stays silent in conservative circles. "If I were to speak out, I think it would be ugly," he says.

Amid tense relations between Muslim and Jewish communities in America over the current conflict, dissent is scarce. But if war has strained interfaith dialogue, it hasn't stamped out intrafaith debate, observers say. Indeed, dissenters in both communities say that there's a growing willingness to consider the fighting from the other side's point of view.

"When something big happens in the Middle East, it creates a more tense environment in general, and one of the most surprising things is that it creates tension within religious/ethnic groups, almost as much as it does between groups," Vicki Armour-Hileman, a rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles, wrote in an email interview.

Jewish-American groups opposed to Israel's policies toward the Palestinian territories say their ranks have swelled recently with those opposed to Israel's bombing.

"I think this is a pivotal moment in the Jewish peace movement," says Cecilie Surasky, spokeswoman for Jewish Voice for Peace in Oakland. "This is energizing people who were being quiet before." Over 2,000 people have joined the group's e-mail list since fighting began, bring the total to 15,000.

In Boston this week, some two dozen Jews wore black clothes and lay motionless at the South Station train terminal to protest Lebanese civilian losses from Israel's bombing campaign. The signs on their chests read: "Not all Jews support Israel's actions!"

The demonstration drew its share of counter-protests. "Most Jews do support Israel," one yelled. But many stopped to thank them for taking a stand against the aerial attacks.

"I have to endure some shouts; it's little compared to what people in Lebanon endure," said protester Marjorie Kent. "So I'll take the shouts."

Insults have been hurled online and at demonstrations across the country. Last week, a gunman claiming to be a Muslim-American killed one person at the Jewish Federation building in Seattle, while at a rally supporting Israel in suburban Detroit, a Jewish driver side-swiped a Lebanese-American counter-demonstrator, nearly hitting her, according to ArabAmericanNews.com.

Images of the war have so far cemented solidarity in Jewish- and Muslim-American communities. "There is always some fractiousness within the Jewish community," says David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee in New York. "But if Israel's very existence is at stake, then petty partisan differences are easily put aside and the community rallies with its full support behind Israel."

Muslim-American leaders say the same for their community. "I think it's had a tremendous unifying effect in bringing Muslims of all persuasions together," says Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Washington.

Indeed, Muslim dissent has been rare. But comments from those who do speak out in support of Israel reflect the community's growing acceptance of Israel's place in the Middle East.

"I have no reason to believe that Israel is not doing anything but just protecting itself from forces that are using homes north of it to bomb northern Israel," says Zuhdi Jasser, who is active with the Muslim community in Scottsdale, Ariz. He regrets the loss of life in Lebanon but says Israel is taking precautions to spare civilians.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations says it does not reject the existence of Israel, but it does reject Zionism, the philosophy on which it says Israel is based. Many Muslim-Americans, while perhaps not agreeing with how Israel was created, have come to accept Israel – and a two-state solution for Israelis and Palestinians.

"Most accept Israel as a reality that they are willing to work around to achieve their No. 1 concern, which is the well-being of the Palestinians," explains Shahed Amanullah, editor of AltMuslim.com. But there are also Muslims whose support for Israel runs deeper. "My main difference with the majority of Muslims is the belief that a Jewish homeland is an important progress for all of us, especially one in their ancestral land of Israel," says Afdhere Jama, a writer in San Francisco, in an email interview.

Muslims in the United States must decide whether they see groups like Hamas and Hizbullah as legitimate resistance or the cause of Muslim troubles in the region, says Mr. Amanullah.

"When the dust settles, there will be a big debate about the role of these militias." Amanullah says. "But as long as Israel continues to bomb, that debate will take a back seat to the civilian death toll."

Luis Andres Henao in Boston contributed to this report.

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