Muslim-Jewish Dialogue at U.S. Colleges Proves Hard to Sustain

The Israel-Palestine issue is the elephant in the room.

NEW YORK – More than 30 Duke University students – Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Hindu and Buddhist – met up at the Center for Muslim Life on the North Carolina campus last Sunday. Before adjourning to a barbecue that was both halal and kosher (with vegetarian options), they painted tiles for a gate at the new Interfaith Community Garden in the Muslim center’s yard.

Jewish and Muslim students will do the planting, weeding and sowing of the garden’s vegetables, which will be donated to Durham’s Urban Ministries soup kitchen and homeless shelter. According to Imam Abdullah Antepli, Duke’s Muslim chaplain, each gardening session will open with a prayer and the reading of a piece of text from the respective religion’s scriptures. The issue will be relevant to social justice, and students will visit the soup kitchen every month to make food for its clients.

Antepli hopes the garden will grow not just tomatoes and zucchini, but a better relationship between Muslim and Jewish students. Meaningful dialogue has proved difficult to keep up at Duke as on other college campuses, Antepli told Haaretz.

And the garden event happened just as Duke’s chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine – whose faculty adviser is an Israeli-born Jew – prepared to kick off Israel Apartheid Week. There have been tensions between Muslims and Jews at Duke; in 2012 a Jewish student kicked over a table and tore down a mock “separation wall” put up by members of Students for Justice in Palestine.

Formal attempts at relationship-building on many college campuses are often superficial at best, Antepli said. “One of the frustrations is that it’s episodic, ceremonial,” he said. “Most of it ends up being ‘let’s get together and sing “Kumbaya.”’ This project can be an alternative, sustained interfaith conversation.”

With a Muslim college professor and a Hillel rabbi, Antepli took part in a discussion on “The Future of Judaism and Islam on College Campuses” at the Jewish Theological Seminary on February 18. It was moderated by Rev. Paul Brandeis Raushenbush, a former associate dean of religious life at Princeton University and now religion editor at The Huffington Post.

Another participant was Mehnaz Afridi, director of the Holocaust, Genocide and Interfaith Education Center at Manhattan College, a Catholic college with few Jewish students. Another was Rabbi Gail Swedroe, the assistant director and campus rabbi at the University of Florida at Gainesville Hillel, where about 6,500 of the school’s 50,000 students are Jewish.

Dialogue is sparse partly because there are only 11 full-time Muslim chaplains on American college campuses, while there are many times that number of Hillel rabbis, Antepli said.

“The emptier side of the glass is huge and not getting any better,” Antepli said at the Jewish Theological Seminary event. “The communities are so far away from each other they cannot even build bridges.”

A lack of Jewish education among students is also to blame, Swedroe said. Many Jewish students “feel inadequately prepared to explain Judaism to people who are meeting the first Jew of their lives,” she added. And dialogue for dialogue’s sake is rarely enough for students to make time for it. “It has to fill a real need or it won’t find a place on busy millennials’ calendars.”

A real desire to reach out

Every speaker at the Jewish Theological Seminary panel referred to the Israel-Palestine conflict as “the elephant in the room.” Some say that it must be sidestepped if positive connections are to be built.

“We say ‘do you want to have the 733rd debate about who’s right and wrong, or do you want to do something productive together?’” said Walter Ruby, the Muslim-Jewish program director at the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, which has an annual twinning event in which Muslims and Jews do joint programming.

About 30 of the roughly 100 participating communities last November were at colleges. “There is a thirst among Muslim and Jewish students, a real desire among many students to reach out and see what they can do together,” Ruby said.

“Given the sense of despair over the Israel-Palestine thing, it’s nice to find an alternative way of impacting things. What happens in the Diaspora matters greatly in the whole picture,” he said in an interview.

“People sometimes don’t see that, but it helps to minimize damage here and around the world. Ultimately, if we can build a movement of Jews and Muslims doing meaningful things together, and not just ‘Kumbaya,’ it interrupts the narrative of hopelessness.”

Building bridges in a college context is particularly challenging because of “the politicization of the dialogue,” said Marcia Kannry. Kannry is founder of the Dialogue Project, which runs Muslim-Jewish dialogue groups for adults in Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens and Westchester, and a teen group currently on hiatus.

Having everyone in one place is an advantage offered by college campuses, she said. But there are serious challenges as well.

“There’s a lot of transience; different leaders come and go. Going deep into where the differences are to allow students to explore them is not handled well or at all. Looking at the differences allows people to say ‘my gosh, we have these differences and I’m still connected to you as a human being,” she said.

“I have to look at that difference and not make you wrong for it.’ That is part of what a sustained dialogue program brings to these efforts. So often students tend to rally only around the political.”

Hothouse environment

And colleges provide a unique context for dialogue, Raushenbush, who is also an American Baptist minister, told Haaretz. It “can lead to lifelong commitments and help create and foster a shift in perception of the other, especially around Jews and Muslims who, for the most part, come to university campuses already as a minority,” he said. His great-grandfather was Louis Brandeis, the first Jewish justice on the U.S. Supreme Court.

“In many ways colleges are the breeding ground for a lot of things, like this whole divestment business, which is picking up,” said Rabbi Jack Bemporad in an interview before the Jewish Theological Seminary event, sponsored by the John Paul II Center at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome, which he directs.

Productive and ongoing dialogue requires cultivation in the hothouse environment of universities, Raushenbush said. “There needs to be active engagement by the university to make spaces for it, because it can also be very unproductive,” he said. “Everybody’s in very close proximity so it can be very good or very not good.”

Even when Muslim-Jewish dialogue is encouraged there are often difficult moments.

Asked about a challenging experience at Princeton, Raushenbush paused for a long moment. Tigers for Israel, an AIPAC-aligned student group, had invited a speaker who it turned out had demonized Muslims. A Tigers for Israel leader who also took part in the university’s Religious Life Council, which fosters dialogue between students of different faith communities, rescinded the invitation.

“He ended up taking up a ton of grief for standing up and saying ‘I’m going to be as pro-Israel as I can but not malign an entire faith,’” Raushenbush said. “He got hate mail, everything. Got attacked for it by people of his own faith.”

The student’s stance for what was morally correct, even if unpopular, made clear to Raushenbush the value of dialogue. “I saw the possibility of being on a campus and talking with one another, of recognizing the humanity of one another,” he said. “That crystallized in this moment. This is why we’re doing it.”

Abdullah Antepli
Duke University's Muslim chaplain, Imam Abdullah Antepli.
Jewish Theological Seminary
Photo from Jewish Theological Seminary