America Holds the Key to Jewish-Muslim Relations

  • January 17, 2017

On MLK Day 2017, I participated in an important interreligious conference organized by the Shalom Hartman Institute, which convened faith leaders from across the Jewish and Muslim communities.

Below are highlights of my remarks from the “Jews and Muslims in America Today: Political Challenges and Moral Opportunities” conference that was held at The Abraham Joshua Heschel School in New York City on January 16, 2017:

Good morning.  Shalom Aleichem. Salaam Aleikhum.

It is a distinct honor to be with you here today as part of this phenomenal and really courageous conference.  Now, more than ever, gatherings like this are crucial; for the bonds that connect us are far greater than those dividing us.

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Dialogue with the Shalom Hartman Institute’s Yehuda Kurtzer and author Abby Pogrebin. December 16, 2017.

 

According to the Jewish tradition, Abraham – Ibrahim in the Muslim tradition – was said to have a tent open on all sides such that he might greet strangers coming from all directions. This tradition of openness to the stranger is at the heart of the Jewish and Islamic faiths. It can serve as a guiding image as we discuss the “challenges and moral opportunities” – the topic of today’s gathering.

The question is: how can we together build a society that remains an open one—whose doors are open to the newcomer?

To me, Abraham’s tent is a metaphor for the type of America that we want to build – the type of home we want to share. One open to all, no matter where they come from.

Muslims and Jews share many of the core values that derive from our respective religious traditions that form the basis for a just society.  And in this respect, I feel there is a great deal that we can and must learn about each other’s religious lives. But, it is not, in my view, religion itself or even efforts at inter-religious understanding that should serve as the only basis for a renewed era of Jewish Muslim cooperation. We must work together to build an open and tolerant America.

We must do so not just because it is good for us as Jews or Muslims – although it is.

We must not do so just because it embodies the highest ideals of our founders – although it does.

We must build an America open and tolerant of all faiths and all people because when one people’s liberty is curtailed or questioned, it hurts all of us.

We can’t stand back and say: swastikas on a synagogue are wrong, but don’t concern me.

We can’t stand back and say: denying a building permit to a mosque is probably more about fear and intolerance than land use, but my synagogue is OK.

We can’t stand back and say: forcing all Muslims to register on some sort of registry makes me uncomfortable, but at least we’re fine.

You see, we are all in this together.

On a day when we honor his legacy, by being here in this room in what seems like an act of service, we can recall the words of Dr. King who said — “we are in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”

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Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

 

Now more than ever, there is no “us vs. them.” We are all black. We are all Jews. We are all Muslims. We are all Christians. We are all men.  We are all women. We are all immigrants. We are all refugees. We are all LGBT. And when the rights of one of us are threatened, all of us are threatened.

This belief is what animated those who founded the ADL more than a century ago, and it’s our mission to this day: fight the defamation of the Jewish people and for equal rights for all.

It’s why my predecessors worked to expose and roll back the customs and practices that blocked Jews from entering universities or from patronizing certain businesses or from living in certain neighborhoods.  It’s why my predecessors filed briefs at the Supreme Court on behalf of civil rights cases affecting African-Americans, why they marched with Dr. King and Ralph Abernethy and John Lewis 50 years ago – and why we still stand with Congressman Lewis today.

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Sharing a proud moment with Congressman John Lewis at the announcement of our #50StatesAgainstHate initiative in April 2015.

 

It’s why my predecessors fought for fair treatment for the LGBT community and for issues like marriage equality and – and why we will continue this fight today.

It’s because our history tells us that, when we fight for others, we actually are fighting for ourselves.

For me, this is a personal mission.

My grandfather came to this country as a refugee almost 80 years ago, fleeing the horrors of Nazi Germany.  He and his family traced their lineage in Germany back centuries.  Yet the rise of the Third Reich robbed him of his family, his heritage, his home, his sense of place.  But fortunately, he made it to America.

At the same time, let me share another story.  My wife and my in-laws came to this country 30 years ago as refugees fleeing from persecution in Iran. Her family had been in Persia for millennia, claiming roots back to the Babylonian exile. Yet the rise of the Islamic Republic and their authoritarianism robbed them of their heritage, their home, their sense of place. It did not bring the wholesale slaughter of the Holocaust, but my wife only escaped the country by altering her passport.

You see, her Jewish faith was imprinted on her identity document and the authorities were not permitting Jews to leave the country. In order to escape, my father-in-law doctored their documents so that it appeared that they were Muslims.  My wife, in order to leave her homeland and escape to this country, had to register herself as a Muslim.

I think these stories speak to some facets of the uncertainty of this current moment.

As Jews, we know historically what it has meant to be categorized and differentiated. For us, this is not an academic exercise. Rather, it is a felt experience and one that has spanned continents and cultures. When people in authority start talking about putting names on a list, well, I think of my grandfather and I think of my wife. And I cannot and will not stand idly by as American citizens are defamed or demeaned on the basis of their religion beliefs or national origin.

My grandfather and my wife made it to America by their own determination and ingenuity.  But it’s worth pausing to note that both didn’t do so alone. My grandfather had friends and neighbors — ordinary Germans — who assumed real degree of personal risk to help him escape.  And my wife and her family had friends and neighbors — ordinary Iranians — who helped them as well. They were Muslims: Sunni and Shia, as well as Bahai, and they assumed a real degree of personal risk to help these people who became my family.

The kindness of these individuals, ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances, reminds us of our obligations to our fellow citizens and challenges us to consider the meaning of solidarity.

Small acts of kindness, can, in the moment, seem just that – small. But when added together, when taken to scale, small becomes large and life-changing, perhaps even world-changing.

I don’t invoke these stories as a way of saying that we are on the verge of an oppressive environment the likes of Nazi Germany of 1938 or Khomeni’s Iran of 1979.

But I invoke these stories because I believe these anecdotes help to remind us of the bonds of solidarity and the power of friendship, ideals that become ever more important now – in a time when we do not know what the future will bring.

Indeed, it seems that we are now living through a moment that the essential American idea is under attack – a time when fundamental assumptions about our values being called into question. We appear to be facing real threats to fundamental freedoms that have made America so hospitable to all of us in this room and to religious minorities over the generations.

So the vision that I have for Muslim-Jewish relations in the current era is really about that – about the American experience.

The vision I have involves articulating a shared commitment to religious freedom and to secular pluralism because of what we have learned as religious minorities within American society. It involves making an explicit commitment to stand together to preserve and defend the type of America in which we want to live.

Many of us may have heard of the so-called “Golden Age” of Jewish-Muslim relations in Spain, el Andalus, a time when the great Jewish sage and polymath Rabbi Moses ben Maimon or RAMBAM, wrote his great tracts of philosophy—in Arabic. Many books have been written and speeches given about the uniqueness of this moment when our narratives converged and fused in a rich, constructive manner.  However, I believe that the American Age has every possibility and promise of being the true moment for Jewish – Muslim understanding and cooperation based on the American values of religious pluralism and freedom.

Muslims and Jews in America, I believe have a vested and commoninterest in preserving the kind of America that has enabled both of our communities not only to survive, but to thrive.

Both of our communities are minority communities in the United States who have and continue to know the meaning of being scapegoated, misrepresented, hated, and even the target of violence.

Jews in America are concerned by what we see in the mainstreaming of hatred – the migration from the fringe of white nationalist extremists into the center of American politics.  Jews are concerned about the prevalence of anti-Semitism online and in the public square.

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Swastika vandalism of a synagogue in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. May 2016.

 

And the Muslim community is justifiably alarmed by the exploitation of Islamophobia in the election and beyond.  I know that many of you woke up on November 9th unsure of what to tell your children. I have heard stories of Muslim women deciding not to wear their headscarves in public out of fear of harassment or attack.

You know at the ADL, we track hate crimes around the country, not only against Jews but against other marginalized groups, including Muslim Americans. Since Election Day, this work has become more important than ever.

These incidents includes acts of verbal harassment, vandalism against private property and public spaces including mosques and other houses of worship; and actual physical assaults such as the woman in San Diego who was assaulted, her hijab torn off her head or the Muslim police officer here in New York who similarly was accosted by a group and assaulted.

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Mosques across California received threatening letters. November, 2016. Credit: The Hill

Mosques across California received threatening letters. November, 2016. Credit: The Hill

And even as the level of fear rises among the Muslim community and for good reason, we also have seen an unprecedented surge of hate crimes directed against Jews. Swastikas have spread like wildfire across Jewish institutions.  Jewish families have been threatened and marginalized such as the high profile case in Montana that some of you may have heard about. Just last week, we worked with the FBI and other law enforcement authorities to respond to a series of coordinated bomb threats called into 16 Jewish Community Centers in nine states on a single day, causing widespread panic.

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Web graphic announcing alleged armed march. Blacked out by ADL are images of Whitefish residents.

 

So we see an environment in which threats are expanding and in which anxiety is prevalent. And in such a moment, I believe it is our duty to collectively oppose these politics of fear – to renounce and dismantle the cynical political weaponization of Islamophobia and anti-Semitism.

My call here to us today is a call to come together as allies because this moment right now demands that we cast aside our doubts and call upon our better angels to find ways to work together in pursuit of the American ideals that I talked about earlier.

Now, I recognize that allies do not join hands overnight nor through a single act of solidarity.

The trust required is something that needs to be kindled, and it can start to coalesce through dialogue, the kind of dialogue championed by the Shalom Hartman Institute and exemplified by so many of you in this room. Let me acknowledge the courage that all of you have shown to come together in this forum, to partake in dialogue that challenges you and all of us to understand the Other as we understand ourselves. And yet it is this type of dialogue that can allow us to build bridges of understanding that can form the basis of joint action.

Indeed, while there have been over the year many wonderful moments and examples of Jewish-Muslim dialogue and person-to-person collaboration, it would be disingenuous of me to stand up here without acknowledging that there have been genuine and deeply felt points of disagreement and tension.

There is much work that remains ahead of us to address some of these issues. And even while we continue to cultivate dialogue, we cannot not allow these differences to prevent us from identifying and working to build areas of cooperation and agreement.

True dialogue requires a profound listening to other so that we can see the humanity someone he who holds an alternative set of values or views. One of the twentieth Centuries’ great thinkers on pluralism was Isaiah Berlin. He wrote that, “The enemy of pluralism is the belief that there is a single harmony of truths into which everything, if it is genuine, in the end must fit.”

Reality is messier. And pluralism demands that we be willing to entertain the possibility of a different set of values having human validity.

It is from this deep belief in pluralism—which I believe not to be a philosophy of the weak, but rather a fighting creed and a solid basis for our communal thriving.  From such a stance of strength, I think we can preserve principled differences over issues and still find significant areas of common concern.

But it won’t be easy.  As we know, there have been moments of genuine pain and misunderstanding that both of our communities have experienced.

As people of faith, we have fundamental disagreements about the nature of the world and we also have some very serious political disagreements.

There are points on which some Jews and some Muslims may disagree and there are moments when our respective communities and leadership have made mistakes. Moments, when we haven’t always understood each other or tried hard enough to understand each other.  I think that all of us in this room can reflect and recall such moments, some public and some private.  And although we can’t change the past, we can commit to learn from it and to strive to do better next time.  As people who believe in a forgiving and merciful God, I believe each of us can do that. I know I can do that.

But despite the disagreements, I believe that in principle, our commonalities and common concerns should bring us together in this moment to collaborate, co-construct and collectively defend our shared interest in preserving and protecting this American Age.

Working together in this manner starts by taking on certain obligations, starting by listening:

So I want to say that, for my part, I intend to cultivate a practice of listening so that I can learn more deeply the hopes and concerns of Muslim community.

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Standing side by side with Imam Chalghoumi, a voice against anti-Semitism in France, in the wake of the attack on the Hyper Cacher Kosher supermarket in Paris.

 

Working together means resisting anti-Semitism and Islamophobia – generally—and especially when it comes from within our own communities.

Working together means identifying the full range of mutual interests and working toward those ends. Working together means refusing to indulge or feed into a Politics of Fear that marginalizes both of our communities.

So what comes next?

Well, I will close my remarks by suggesting that we seize this moment, not to pull back, but to plant our flag and push forward with a joint effort to face this moment through a new model – call it a “Coalition of Now” – an alliance of action that radiates out from our communal dialogue and effort at understanding.

A Coalition of Now that encompasses Jews and Muslims – and Sikhs and Hindus and Christians – one that provides for the rights of religious minorities, of women and sexual and gender minorities – for African Americans, Asian-Americans and Latino Americans.

A Coalition of Now that strives for a more perfect union, one that respects and upholds our real differences as people of faith even as we come together to protect and perpetuate the compelling ideals of this American Age.

Thank you.

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