WASHINGTON, July 25 (JTA) — Agreeing to disagree is a way of political life in Washington.
But in light of recent incidents where Jewish organizations withdrew from coalitions because of the participation of extreme Muslim groups, some Jewish groups are increasingly concerned about the future of Jewish- Muslim and Jewish-Arab relations.
The American Jewish Congress, the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League withdrew their names last week from a legal brief to the U.S. Supreme Court after the Council on American Islamic Relations signed on to the brief.
The groups did not want to work with or lend legitimacy to CAIR, which has defended terror attacks against Israel. They since have filed their own brief in support of the plaintiff, a Muslim woman subjected to employment discrimination.
Also last week, the Orthodox Union stepped down from the advisory board of the Alliance for Marriage, a group that promotes heterosexual marriage, because a representative of the American Muslim Council was a board member. The Muslim Council supports Hamas and Hezbollah, two Middle East-based extremist groups that participate in terrorist attacks against Israel.
These two incidents exemplify the dilemma facing Jewish groups — the desire to cooperate on issues of common concern to American Jews and Muslims is countered by fears that some U.S. Arab or Muslim groups hold extremist views on Israel or other issues important to the Jewish community.
American Jews share many interests with American Arabs or Muslims — such as immigration policy, religious freedom and civil rights — so that Jewish groups often find themselves on coalitions with groups like the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee or the Supreme Islamic Council. These more mainstream groups do not support terrorists.
But the ADL has found it difficult to work even with the more mainstream groups over the past five years, according to Ken Jacobson, the organization’s associate national director.
Jacobson also said that it is important to ensure that extremist organizations do not gain legitimacy.
There is no easy way to determine when a line has been crossed, officials say, and situations must be assessed on an individual basis.
It is hard to know where to draw the line given the increased violence and rhetoric related to ongoing Israeli-Palestinian violence, said Hannah Rosenthal, executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, an umbrella organization of 122 local councils and 13 national agencies.
But her decision appears to be clear for now.
“Would we join a coalition with AMC or CAIR tomorrow?” Rosenthal asked. “No.”
Despite the short-term tension, Rosenthal said there is no alternative but to hope that additional efforts will succeed in establishing more common ground between Jewish and Muslim groups.
Coalition building is the lifeblood for many organizations’ activism, and is critical for their ability to push issues forward.
But it “makes no sense” to work with any organization that is committed to goals “antithetical to the Jewish people,” said Phil Baum, executive director of the American Jewish Congress.
Baum added that the AJCongress would have to withdraw from any coalition involving CAIR or AMC.
Calls to the two Muslim groups were not returned.
Hyman Bookbinder, a retired AJCommittee official and a longtime activist in Washington, worked during the “golden age” of civil rights alliance-building in the 1960s and 1970s.
Bookbinder recalls “having to swallow hard about what the groups did to Israel” in order to work with them on human rights issues.
While groups must be willing to take chances, Bookbinder says some positions or people — such as Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, who repeatedly has made anti-Semitic comments — are beyond the pale.
Jewish groups must hold a candid discussion on how to relate to Muslim groups, said Nathan Diament, director of the Orthodox Union’s Institute for Public Affairs.
“We don’t have a coherent approach,” Diament said. “And it’s increasingly unworkable.”
Richard Foltin, legislative director for the AJCommittee — and chair of the Coalition for Religious Freedom in the Workplace — says that before withdrawing from a coalition, a group must consider if it will harm the larger cause.
On the local level, Jewish groups in San Francisco and Detroit — which have large Arab and Muslim populations — have felt some tension lately.
Rabbi Doug Kahn, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council in San Francisco, says that Jewish groups used to have more frequent meetings with Arab or Muslim groups, but relations are now at a difficult stage.
Despite the tension, the Jewish Community Council of Metropolitan Detroit continues to work with Arab and Muslim groups on issues of immigration and racial and ethnic profiling.
“There have been instances where we’ve felt uncomfortable, but we’ve never left a coalition because another group joined,” said David Gad-Harf, the Detroit council’s executive director.
Gad-Harf predicts that Jewish groups will refrain from expanding relationships with Muslim and Arab groups as long as there is instability in Israel, and as long as certain Muslim and Arab groups continue to project an antagonistic tone.
Nevertheless, Gad-Harf believes that local Arab groups still want to maintain ties with the Jewish community because of their shared concerns.