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U.S. Jews, Muslims share concerns

WASHINGTON, Aug. 3 (JTA) — The chickpea curry and seasoned lamb were full of fire, but tempers remained cool as a crowd of Jews and Muslims converged Sunday on a Potomac, Md., manse to discuss some of the toughest issues in global relations today. Amid a brief lull in bloody fighting along the Israeli-Lebanese border and two days after a shooting spree, allegedly by a Muslim American, at a Jewish federation building in Seattle that left one dead and five injured, conversation turned to New York Times columnist Tom Friedman’s latest op-ed and images of suffering from the Mideast war zone. Despite the summer heat seizing the area of the nation’s capital — which sent many Washington power brokers packing for cooler climes — Sunday’s event drew some 80 people, about half from each side of the faith divide. It marked the second-largest crowd for a nearly two-year-old interreligious dialogue led by the American Jewish Committee and the Maryland Muslim Council. About 100 people attended a joint event in September that raised some $18,000 for victims of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The AJCommittee co-sponsors three other attempts at interfaith bridge-building in Boston, Chicago and Detroit. The independent Cleveland-based Ishmael&Isaac, now active in Detroit and New York, is an effort joining American Jews and American Arabs through fund-raising for humanitarian causes such as Augusta Victoria Hospital in eastern Jerusalem and Magen David Adom, Israel’s emergency medical service. In welcoming remarks Sunday, host and moderator Aquilur Rahman, a leader in the Montgomery County Muslim Council, noted that when war erupted close to a month ago between Israel and Hezbollah combatants, leaders of the two faith groups nearly scrubbed this week’s event. “Then some of us prevailed and said, ‘If we don’t have the gathering, then this group will never persist,’ ” said Rahman, a Pakistani American. “If we don’t turn out at a crucial time, then we really are not a viable group to engage in any intellectual dialogue.” Substance won out over social ease, though both seemed on display at this convivial encounter. Muslims, most of South Asian origin, and Jews mingled freely in the pre-dinner hour and later, after formal dialogue wound down. Yet the gap in perceptions between them also came into sharp focus as the evening unfolded. And apart from one Lebanese couple, no Muslims from the Middle East took part in the dialogue. Steven Roy Goodman, vice president and intergroup outreach chair of AJCommittee’s Washington-area chapter, told the crowd that Jews the world over “feel besieged.” “We unequivocally support Israel’s right to exist free from suicide bombings, kidnappings and rocket attacks,” Goodman said. “Just like we in the U.S. wouldn’t tolerate it if Buffalo policemen were kidnapped by a terror network in Canada or if 100 missiles were fired from Canada into downtown Chicago, Israel can’t tolerate this either.” From the Muslim side, Islam “Isi” Siddiqui, former undersecretary for marketing and regulatory programs at the Department of Agriculture and the most senior U.S. Muslim in the Clinton administration, faulted Israel for what he called a “disproportionate response” that he said was killing more civilians than Hezbollah fighters. “To the Israeli leaders, I would say, ladies and gentlemen, accept the fact that force has not worked, and will not work,” said Siddiqui, an Indian-born McLean, Va., resident active with the Maryland Muslim Council. “Enter into negotiations with the affected parties to bring a comprehensive and just peace agreement” to the strife. Over dinner, breakout groups chewed on some of the most intractable questions at the heart of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Why have most Muslim states failed to recognize Israel since its 1948 founding? Is Israel waging a proxy war for the United States? Why do Muslim countries seem to lag behind the rest of the world? Who should dictate the borders of Israel and a future Palestinian state? Differences emerged during these off-the-record sessions, but argument remained respectful as people spoke their minds without raising their voices and listened to divergent views. Dottie Bennett, AJCommittee’s national chairwoman for Project Interchange, co-led one breakout group with Shafiq Khan of Gaithersburg, Md., an activist in the Montgomery County Muslim Council. “Considering that most of us don’t know each other very well… the most positive thing I felt was the safety and security of our group,” Falls Church, Va., activist Bennett said on Monday, citing “the frankness of the discussion.” Indeed, amid an interfaith exchange about Mideast tensions, one young man felt free to excuse himself from the conversation for Muslim evening prayers. “We all have different lenses and different perspectives,” Khan, a Pakistani American, said in his report to a later plenary session. “Hearing the other side’s point of view is of enormous value.” The crowd shared a moment of silence for the dead in Israel and Lebanon and, later, laughter and mock finger-pointing when someone caught an ironic slip in the breakout questions: Israel as America’s “closet ally.” Jews and Muslims alike blasted what they saw as the Bush administration’s “silence,” in the words of Siddiqui, and failure to play the role of honest broker in the Mideast, as voiced by breakout group co-chair and Washington resident Peter Rosenblatt, a past AJCommittee Washington chapter president. At rare moments, participants seemed willing to criticize their own side of the Jewish-Muslim divide. “There is this question of terrorism and American Muslims have not addressed it forthrightly and I think it is time that we should,” said small-group co-leader Ishrat Husain, an Indian American Muslim, drawing applause at the final plenary. The Seattle shooting cropped up in at least one small group, Goodman said, amid Jewish concerns about anti-Semitic violence. After plates were cleaned and hearts unburdened, prayers came from both faith traditions. “May we come to understand that even when we disagree, we can remain friends,” intoned Rabbi Jeffrey Wohlberg of Washington’s Adas Israel Congregation. From the Muslim contingent, Pakistani American Mushtaq Khan expressed the pain of watching bloodshed in the Middle East, cradle of both religions. “While our souls ache for people on both sides, perhaps we can ask God for help and ask for his mercy,” he said. Sunday’s dialogue has its roots in a fall 2004 meeting between Goodman and Tufail Ahmad, a Potomac, Md., activist with the Montgomery County Muslim Council. That first conversation launched larger gatherings at restaurants, the Wohlberg family sukkah and mutual break-fasts for Ramadan and Yom Kippur, among some dozen joint events during the past two years. After raising money together for the Katrina disaster, the faith groups also pooled efforts last year to garner funds for relief after a major earthquake in Pakistan, homeland to many of the Muslim participants. And in a development that some believe could portend the shape of Jewish-Muslim ties to come, Ahmad, a Pakistani American, is running for a seat on the Montgomery County Council. Among the financial backers for his campaign are such new friends as Bennett and Goodman.