Whether Jews will be secure in the 21st century has much to do with their relationship with Muslims, not only in Israel but in America as well. That was the underlying premise of an impressive and often inspiring conference Monday, sponsored by the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America and entitled “Jews and Muslims in America Today: Political Challenges and Moral Opportunities.”
The conference, held at the Abraham Joshua Heschel School here, drew more than 500 people.
The day-long program, conceived of the morning after the presidential election, showcased a model for how these two minorities in America can move from fear and distrust to a productive relationship — one based on honest, often hard, dialogue rather than artificial consensus or the avoidance of the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
The conference was an outgrowth of Hartman’s Muslim Leadership Initiative (MLI), which over the last four years has engaged more than 50 young Muslim American leaders from a variety of professions in a one-year program of study and conversation with Hartman scholars — here and in Israel — on Judaism, Jewish peoplehood and what Israel means to Jews. The program is the brainchild of Imam Abdullah Antepli, director of Muslim affairs at Duke University, who calls himself “a recovering anti-Semite,” and who sought out Hartman in hoping to find an authentic partner in the Jewish community. The goal was for thoughtful American Muslims and Jews to create a safe space to meet, develop relationships and struggle together with each other’s identities, hopes and fears.
“I want to hear your story so you can hear my story,” Imam Abdullah recalled telling Yossi Klein Halevi, the Israeli writer who now co-directs MLI with him.
Wajahat Ali, a journalist, writer and MLI graduate, expressed frustration that American Jews still ask, “Where are the moderate Muslims?” He pointed out that Muslims today are experiencing the same kind of prejudice that Jews did here in the 1930s and ’40s. “It’s tag,” he said, referring to the children’s game, “and now we’re ‘it.’”
In all, about a dozen MLI graduates were among the more than 60 speakers and panelists at Monday’s conference. They discussed their experiences, from the hostile reactions — including death threats — they received from some fellow Muslims for participating in a program sponsored by a Zionist institution, to the benefits of finding allies in the Jewish community at a time when many American Muslims are deeply fearful about the next four years.
Imam Abdullah said he can well imagine a Trump administration initiating a registry for Muslims, as well as being targeted in other ways.
Jonathan Greenblatt, the CEO and national director of the Anti-Defamation League, repeated his declaration that should such a registry come to pass, he would register as a Muslim. In his remarks he emphasized the moral and pragmatic reasons why his organization seeks to protect all minorities, not just Jews, noting that such efforts create bonds and alliances, and “if we do for others, we do for ourselves.”
Yehuda Kurtzer, the president of Hartman in North America, opened the conference by posing the moral challenge of cultivating within each of us a “sense of responsibility to others … without abandoning our own commitments.” At day’s end he closed by urging the audience to engage in “deep study, digging into hard issues” with the realization that such activity is “an outcome in itself.” He also invoked Abraham Joshua Heschel in speaking of the “desperate need” for religious leaders to criticize their own communities for not reaching out to others.
Earlier, Imam Abdullah called for “a coalition of the like-minded” among American Muslims and Jews, urging them to “stop the hate, open channels, use respectful language — at least hear each other” — and learn to disagree on issues without shutting down the dialogue. Most important, he says, is to resist apathy; take action.
That’s been the success of MLI, and it comes only through hard work and a willingness to transcend stereotypes and open oneself to others.
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In the end, Jews can look to their roots to find reasons to either loathe or feel empathy for Muslims. The Torah commands us both to wipe out our enemies and to care for “the other”; Muslims have played both roles in our long history. Those mitzvot apply today, when we have learned the imperative of vigilance and security as well as the moral and practical value of helping ourselves through helping others.
In this moment of profound change and uncertainty, we stand to benefit more from building bridges than walls.