Opinion

Facing the Age of Trump Together: Jewish and Muslim Women Build 'Sisterhood'

Jewish and Muslim women are taking up the urgent challenge of the Trump era to stand together on issues of common concern, and without demanding unanimity on Israel-Palestine | Opinion

Muslim and Jewish women at afternoon prayers during 3rd national conference of the Sisterhood of Salaam-Shalom.
Muslim and Jewish women at afternoon prayers during 3rd national conference of the Sisterhood of Salaam-Shalom. Amanda Quraishi/Sisterhood of Salaam-Shalom

During the Sisterhood of Salaam-Shalom’s national conference on Sunday, I posted on Facebook that several speakers referenced November 8th, the day Trump was elected, in the same sad tone that for 15 years we’ve spoken about September 11th. A Facebook friend responded, “Are any of the Islamic [sic] participants formally disavowing anti-Zionism?”

The Sisterhood approach — that it all starts with relationships — is one that more Jewish organizations would be wise to adopt as well, rather than applying litmus tests for membership.  

The Sisterhood’s approach doesn’t ask people to commit to any particular position, aside from agreeing to treat all members respectfully. That there is a shared interest in getting to know one another and standing together on issues of common concern is enough.

It is about getting to know women we would not likely meet in the course of our daily lives. Members of both religious groups have deeply rooted assumptions about each other, but too often little personal knowledge. Meeting monthly in nearly 50 chapters around the country, our goal is to get to understand one another — our cultures, personal and religious lives, and perspectives. 

Members are advised to not even attempt to discuss the Israeli-Palestinian conflict until they’ve been meeting regularly for at least 18 months, and strong bonds between members have formed.

Margaret Johnson, conference participant from Maryland: “I understood the Israel-Palestine conflict in a way I never had before.”
Debra Nussbaum Cohen

The wisdom of the approach seems evident: nothing — no attitude, no position — can change if there isn’t a deep understanding of and investment in each other. There is equal partnership in the chapters: Each has one Jewish and one Muslim co-leader, and each strives for equal numbers of women from each religious group.

At a time when women and anyone perceived as a minority feel targeted by the imminent Trump presidency, with its stated intentions to deport illegal immigrants and register Muslims, and after an election campaign that unleashed ongoing expressions of hatred and disrespect empowering those who feel permission has been granted to express bigotry, the SoSS mission feels more urgent than ever.

Surging interest in membership suggests many agree. Though the organization is just three years old, about 500 women are on a waiting list to be connected to others in their local communities, said Sheryl Olitzky, the group’s co-founder, after the conference. A front-page article in The New York Times two days later only bolstered widespread interest.

U.S. Senator Cory Booker, who was among the several inspiring speakers at the daylong conference December 5th, urged attendees “to be the thermostat, not the thermometer,” meaning we should aim to change the temperature of the political climate rather than just reflect it. Also at the conference at Drew University in Madison, N.J. was actress Milana Vayntrub (not Melania, she emphasized to laughter), an actress in AT&T commercials and the current show “This is Us.” Vayntrub, who is Jewish, immigrated to the U.S. from the former Soviet Union as a young child, and now works to aid Syrian refugees.

Jews and Muslims getting to know one another, even for those who live in major metropolitan areas, can be challenging and eye opening. That was the experience of Margaret Johnson, a translator who lives with her family in the Washington D.C. suburb of Germantown, Maryland. Johnson, who wears a hijab, converted to Islam several years after marrying a Muslim Turkish immigrant.

She was in a playground at a local interfaith picnic with her two young children in September 2014 when she noticed an Orthodox Jewish woman nearby, watching her own children play. Because of the Gaza war that summer, with rockets launched by Palestinians from Gaza and the Israeli army deploying intensive military force to root out terrorists, but with what seemed to many like disproportionate force with tragic consequences, “I felt like I couldn’t talk to her,” Johnson said to me at the SoSS conference, even to strike up a casual chat. Her feelings about the Israel-Palestine conflict, “which seems very unjust to me,” got in the way.

She didn’t know many Jews, but felt that “Jews have higher socio-economic status” than Muslims. “The Jewish lobby is very powerful and we give a lot of aid to Israel,” Johnson told me.

The Washington, D.C. SoSS chapter was forming at the time, and Johnson thought joining might be a way to connect with Jewish women. As a child growing up in Beaumont, Texas, she knew of just a single Jewish family. And though there are many Jews in the county where she now lives, they cluster at the other end of the area.

“I just wanted to work on myself and understand better the Jewish perspective,” Johnson says. She had a real “aha” moment when a Jewish member of the D.C. chapter said, “Jews always expect another Holocaust to happen.”

In that moment, Johnson said, she became aware that Jews feel more vulnerable than she had ever realized. “I understood the Israel-Palestine conflict in a way I never had before,” Johnson told me.

That, my Facebook friend, is what SoSS is really about. Not statements and positions, but getting to know one another so we can understand each other and be there for one another.

At a time when so many of us feel vulnerable — personally and sometimes as a community as well— that feels very precious indeed.

Debra Nussbaum Cohen, a regular contributor to Haaretz, first wrote about the Sisterhood last year and has recently started a SoSS chapter in Brooklyn.