Why Jews are coming to the defense of mosques in America

Jewish-Muslim cooperation is on the rise. Their ability to work together despite decades of conflict on issues of foreign policy could serve as a model for embracing shared American values.

Jae C. Hong/AP
Karen Fagan, joined by her daughters, Kate and Elizabeth Bowman in rear, writes messages outside the Islamic Center of Claremont in Pomona, Calif., to show their support for Muslim communities. Fagan's ex-husband and her two daughters' father, Harry Bowman, was killed in the Dec. 2, 2015, terror attack at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino, Calif.

When Sheryl Olitzky first broached the subject of a Jewish-Muslim women’s group, Atiya Aftab didn’t buy it.

“Why is someone calling me because I’m Muslim?” Ms. Aftab recalls thinking. “This is creepy.”

But as Ms. Olitzky made her case over lattes at a Starbucks in suburban New Jersey, Aftab found herself drawn in.

“This is a woman extending her hand to me, saying, ‘I want to get to know you. I want to be your protector. I want to have your back because I know what you’re going through, because of what the Jewish community has been through,’ ” says Aftab, a professor at Rutgers University’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies. “That was so compelling, so honest.”

After that meeting in 2010, the two women launched the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom – then just a casual gathering of local Muslim and Jewish women talking about faith and family, and sharing their experiences as religious minorities in America. Today, the group has chapters in more than 50 cities.

The success of groups such as the Sisterhood point to a growing – and perhaps unprecedented – desire among American Muslims and Jews to work toward a common goal, some say.

Over the years, “More people have become aware of their common faiths given the rise of toxic anti-Muslim, anti-Semitic hate,” says Haroon Moghul, senior fellow and director of development at The Center for Global Policy, a New York think tank. “There’s been a definite change, and for the better.”

This spring, business, political, and religious leaders from both communities for the first time formed a joint advisory council that seeks to give the Muslim and Jewish Americans a national voice. And amid a post-election spike in anti-Islamic sentiment, local Jewish groups have stepped up their support for Muslims in their own communities.

When mosques in California this week received a threatening letter calling Muslims “a vile and filthy people” and saying that President-elect Donald Trump “is going to do to you Muslims what Hitler did to the jews (sic),” Jewish groups were among the first to reach out, says Ojaala Ahmad, communications director for the Council on Islamic Relations in Los Angeles. The letter was also sent to mosques in several other states, including Georgia, Michigan, Ohio, and Rhode Island.

One Jewish group out of New Haven, Conn., started an online campaign to raise funds for a Muslim nonprofit, urging fellow Jews to “hold ourselves accountable for the intersectional oppressions Muslim people are facing, and honor and join the movements Muslim Americans are building to combat white supremacy and advocate for their rights.”

“I think there’s more of a sense of urgency,” says Aftab at the Sisterhood. “We’ve heard from people all over the country, even all over the world, saying, ‘I need to reach out and do something constructive rather than be affected by this fear in a negative way.’ ”

The coming together of these two faith groups, despite decades of conflict on issues of foreign policy, could serve as an important model for others seeking to focus on shared American values, experts say.

Such efforts also demonstrate a continued drive among Americans to hold to ideals of democracy and pluralism by banding together and finding common ground in times of fear and confusion.

“Groups that are willing to talk and learn and still maintain their identities and distinctiveness represent a real promise for what a pluralistic society looks like,” says Brie Loskota, executive director of the Center for Religion and Civic Culture at the University of Southern California.

“Difference is a fundamental reality of humanity,” she adds. “If we can’t negotiate that – if every disagreement is an existential disagreement – then the work of knitting together a society of 300 million people becomes almost impossible.”

Building bridges

In Los Angeles, an encounter that echoed Olitzky and Aftab’s led to the formation of another Jewish-Muslim partnership.

After meeting at a local community center, Michelle Missaghieh, a rabbi, and Aziza Hasan, a mediator with years of experience in coalition-building, started organizing local meetings for women to study the Quran and Torah. The program became a key part of NewGround, an organization that fosters interfaith relationships through programs, grants, internships, even a leadership council for high school students..

For both NewGround and the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom, the goal was to bridge a gap between two faith groups that shared a rich history and experience as religious minorities in Christian-majority America.

“For a Christian, to go to your weekly service generally means you don’t have to ask for a day off. Sunday is a day that most people don’t work,” says Ms. Loskota at USC. “If you’re Muslim, to get the middle of the day off on a Friday to go pray, that’s not easily accommodated.”

The same goes for dietary restrictions, modes of dress, and customs regarding behavior towards the opposite sex, Loskota says, not to mention more overt experiences of discrimination.

Crossing the boundaries of faith to form relationships around those shared realities not only allows Muslim and Jewish Americans to hear and understand each other’s stories. It also helps them create a community that can together compose a more powerful narrative about their place in American society, Loskota says.

“It’s moving the discourse from special privileges for a group or individual to an argument about who we are as a country,” she says. “Do we value people and their dignity?”

A symbol of cooperation

The Muslim-Jewish Advisory Council, which debuted just days after the election, represents the next step in community building between the two groups. Its main goals are to work at the policy level to fight discriminatory laws, as well as bolster support for grassroots efforts like the Sisterhood and NewGround, says Robert Silverman, the council’s executive director.

“This new council adds a leadership, national-level body that can talk about things happening throughout the country and get some change done,” he says. “You have to have community-based organizations; otherwise it’s just a bunch of talking heads. But if it’s only grassroots groups, it stays limited. You need both to work.”

At the same time, the council serves as an important symbol of cooperation for other groups seeking to build coalitions on the eve of Trump’s presidency.

For decades, Jews and Muslims in the US have clashed on the issue of Israel-Palestine, and the council is no different – Silverman notes its members often stand on opposite ends of the conflict. Yet all of them, he says, are dedicated to promoting both communities’ concerns in America.

“This [effort] is about the country we care about most, which also happens to be the country we live in,” Silverman says.

Jewish-Muslim relations are “the single thorniest interfaith issue of our time,” says Mr. Moghul at The Center for Global Policy. “And if we can find a way to talk and to understand and respect each other even as we disagree, then we are establishing a model.”

[Editor's note: This version was updated to clarify the circumstances in which NewGround was founded, and to correct the issue to which Mr. Moghul referred as 'the single thorniest interfaith issue of our time.']

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