Jews and Muslims at Conference Face Hostility, Seek Common Cause

Beyond the mutual suspicion and hostility, there are issues on which Jews and Muslims can make common cause, representatives of the two groups said at a recent conference here.

The conference on "Women, Families and Children in Islamic and Judaic Traditions," held Oct. 23-26, was primarily an academic one.

Professors of Islamic and Judaic studies, anthropologists and ethnographers, all presented papers on their own topics of expertise.

They spoke, for example, about "The Status of Sephardic Women in Salonika in the Period of 19th Century Modernization" and "Gendering and Engendering in the post-Independence Novel in Islamic Senegal."

More pragmatic issues were addressed in a session titled "Muslim-Jewish Dialogue: Strategic Ways to Proceed."

According to Rabbi A. James Rudin, director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee, the American Jewish community and the emerging Muslim community in the United States should work together on public policy issues of mutual benefit.

They include: issues under the bioethics rubric, like assisted suicide, organ transplant and surrogate parenting; public education; immigration and bigotry.

There is also a joint stake in fighting "the exclusivist agenda of the religious right, whose leaders want to make this a Christian America," said Rudin.

"We have to say as loud as we can that Jews and Muslims belong in America and that America belongs to us," he said.

Salam al-Maryati, director of the Los Angeles-based Muslim Public Affairs Council, spoke at the same session about the sense of vulnerability and victimization that Muslims feel in America, where the terms Muslim, Arab and terrorist tend to be considered synonymous.

The Muslim community in the United States is relatively young and small, about one-third the size of the Jewish community here.

"We are where the Jewish community was 100 years ago, with our handicaps, fears and prejudices," said Maryati, who left the conference early to join President Clinton’s entourage to the peace treaty signing between Jordan and Israel on Wednesday.

Maryati said there is a widespread perception among American Muslims that Jews control the media and politics, and "that the Jews are out to attack Islam."

The rapprochement between Israel and Jordan, and the historic treaty with the Palestinians, combined with Muslims’ increasing numbers in the United States, have led to new interest on the part of the Jewish community in establishing a relationship.

‘A FORM OF SCAPEGOATING’

But, as was clear at the conference, the tensions that continue to play out in the Middle East impact developments on American soil and feed the level of mutual suspicion.

The FBI and Justice Department are investigating some Muslim groups in America in an effort to stop money from the United States from flowing to Hamas, the terrorist group responsible for several recent terrorist acts on Israeli soil.

Maryati decried the American government’s investigation of Muslim groups as "part of a Likud campaign" against Muslims and called it "a form of scapegoating."

He said that if individuals are suspected, then they, rather than institutions, should be prosecuted. "Once you start talking about institutions you have crossed that fine line to scapegoating religious groups," he said.

Muslim-Jewish relations in America are in their infancy, said Rudin, who called them "the new frontier in interreligious affairs."

Rudin cautioned that it will take a lot of work and a lot of time to work past the mutual suspicion that is a natural outgrowth of the years of enmity in the Middle East. "Americans are always wanting a quick fix, but that doesn’t work in human relations," he said.

Other conference participants included Fathi Osman, a scholar in residence at the Islamic Center of Southern California.

He spoke about how classical Islamic law regards the status of women.

The meeting was convened under the auspices of The Institute for Islamic-Judaic Studies at Denver University, and chaired by Seth Ward, who runs the institute.

An important — and positive — outcome of the conference was the opportunity for Jews and Muslims to move beyond their titles and religious affiliations and to get to know one another as people.

"The real work that happens is the interpersonal contact at meals, between sessions," said Rabbi Lori Forman, interreligious affairs program specialist at the American Jewish Committee and the conference co-chair.

One coffee break found Ada Aharoni, an Israeli author and peace activist, involved in deep conversation with Aida Osman, the wife of the Islamic scholar. Both were born and spent their youth in Egypt. To their mutual delight, they discovered that both had known the head of the Jewish hospital in Alexandria.

The two women — both middle aged and both mothers — found something they shared, a common thread that bridged the chasm that divides their peoples.

NEXT STORY