Op-Ed: Building of Muslim-Jewish ties brings hope for Mideast

NEW YORK (JTA) — The recent conflict in Gaza and Israel casts a vivid spotlight on the need to strengthen relations between Jews and Muslims in countries around the world. It is crucial if we are to avoid importing the violence that has rocked the Holy Land to our communities.

The good news is that there is significant building of grass-roots Muslim-Jewish ties in North America, Europe and other regions — an ongoing process that is yielding positive results.

In the United States, mainstream Jewish organizations spoke up against the demagogic whipping-up of anti-Muslim hysteria like the cries in 2010 against the so-called Ground Zero mosque in New York City. American Jewish groups also spoke up against the passage this year by several state Legislatures of patently unconstitutional bills to “ban” Shariah law.

At the same time, prominent American Muslim leaders have spoken out publicly against Holocaust denial by representatives of Iran, Hamas and the Palestinian Authority. Before Gilad Shalit was released from captivity, American Muslim leaders also signed an open letter calling for his release.

Across the ocean, top European Muslim and Jewish leaders held a groundbreaking conference in Paris two months ago at which they vowed to work together to reduce conflicts between Jews and Muslims across the continent. They also pledged to join forces to oppose efforts in many countries to limit ritual practices that both faiths hold dear, such as circumcision and ritual slaughter.  

Why has this blossoming of Muslim-Jewish relations in the Diaspora been taking place even as the Israeli-Palestinian peace process has reached its nadir?

We believe the answer lies partly in the recent profusion of face-to-face Muslim-Jewish encounters. When Jews and Muslims meet flesh-and-blood members of the other community for the first time, it transforms the previous dynamic of fear and mistrust into something far more uplifting. A paradigm shift takes place during those encounters, turning the collective Other into a person with a name and values that upon closer examination turn out to be very similar to one’s own.

There is also a more concrete element in the equation. Leaders of both communities in North America and Europe have come to appreciate that like it or not, they are fated to live side by side in large numbers. They have figured out that they must strengthen Jewish-Muslim ties on both the leadership and grass-roots levels if they are to secure a decent future for both communities.

Moderate Muslim leaders in many countries understand that the Jewish community can be among their strongest allies in fighting against the spread of anti-Muslim sentiment. For their part, Jewish leaders understand the urgent need to build solid working relations with moderate Muslim leaders, and to help those leaders credibly make the case to Muslim youth that they have a path to success if they study hard, play by the rules and reject the call of Islamist extremism.

For all these reasons, we are seeing more and more Muslims and Jews — especially members of the younger generation who are connecting via social media when they are unable to meet face to face — who simply refuse to accept the conventional wisdom that Jews and Muslims are doomed to line up on opposite sides of a cataclysmic, century-long “clash of civilizations.” Instead, they are choosing to connect with each other on a human level and hold joint events.

We saw that in the recent fifth annual Weekend of Twinning — a global event facilitated every November by the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding during which members of mosques, synagogues, and Muslim and Jewish organizations in cities around the world hold joint events dedicated to building ties between our two faith communities.

During the past several weeks, despite the drumbeat in the media about the exchange of missile fire in the Middle East, thousands of Muslims and Jews in more than 20 countries chose to go forward with more than 100 planned “twinning” events. They engaged in comparative Torah and Koran study, highlighting commonalities in the two faith traditions; visited soup kitchens together to feed the hungry and homeless; and held discussions on how to fight together against Islamophobia and anti-Semitism.

There is a growing global movement of Muslims and Jews committed to communication, reconciliation and cooperation. They have come out in force in recent days to say that as saddened as all of us were by the recent events in Israel and Gaza, we emphatically are unwilling to return meekly to our respective bunkers and abandon our efforts to build Muslim-Jewish ties.

We believe that in time our global efforts for Muslim-Jewish understanding and trust will also contribute to the realization of peace between Jews and Muslims in the Holy Land. Our efforts will show our brothers and sisters there that Jewish-Muslim amity is eminently realizable and that we are not fated to fight each other forever.

There is every reason for hope. All it takes is for Jews and Muslims anywhere and everywhere to step forward and extend a hand to each other across the barricades.

(Rabbi Marc Schneier is president of The Foundation for Ethnic Understanding. Imam Shamsi Ali is spiritual leader of the Jamaica Muslim Center in New York. They are co-authoring “Sons of Abraham,” to be published by Beacon Press next fall.)

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