Bill Clinton and His Daughter Participate in an Evening of Muslim-Jewish Understanding

While the former U.S. president’s daughter advocates interfaith cooperation inside the JCC, protesters gather outside demanding an apology for the creation of programs that bring together members of mosques and synagogues.

Shlomo Shamir
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Shlomo Shamir

A new star has risen in support of efforts to strengthen ties between American Jews and Muslims; Chelsea Clinton, the daughter of former U.S. President Bill Clinton.

Chelsea Clinton moderated a public dialogue on Wednesday night at the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan featuring two outspoken advocates of building a Muslim-Jewish alliance, Rabbi Marc Schneier and Imam Shamsi Ali. After speaking before an overflowing audience, which included her proud father, the younger Clinton told Haaretz, "I am honored to have been invited to take part in this event, and to support the work of the rabbi and the imam. I believe deeply in the importance of talking to each other and also in moving beyond conversation to working together."

(Left to right) Imam Shamsi Ali, Rabbi Marc Schneier, Chelsea Clinton and Bill Clinton at Muslim-Jewish dialogue moderated by the former U.S. president’s daughter on March 14, 2012.Credit: Shlomo Shamir

Referring to several dozen anti-Muslim protestors who turned up outside the JCC with signs denouncing the dialogue and demanding that Schneier “apologize to the Jewish community” for creating programs that bring together members of mosques and synagogues in the U.S. and around the world through the agency he founded, The Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, Chelsea Clinton said, "We are being protested, which shows we are having an important conversation."

Referring to series of rhetorical attacks on Muslims here over the past several years in the media and by prominent politicians including the outcry in 2010 against plans to build a mosque several blocks from the World Trade Center, Chelsea Clinton added, "We are very concerned about the anti-Muslim stereotyping. We need to hold our politicians and those of us in the media to a certain level of discourse."

Schneier, an Orthodox rabbi who is the spiritual leader of a large synagogue in the Hamptons and vice president of the World Jewish Congress, told the audience, "I believe that as a Jew and a rabbi I have a responsibility to speak out against anti-Muslim bigotry and discrimination, just as I expect my Muslim brothers and sisters to speak out against anti-Semitism."

Noting that prominent American Muslim leaders have repeatedly denounced Holocaust denial and had issued an appeal to Hamas to free the then-captured Israel Defense Forces soldier Gilad Shalit two months before his liberation, Schneier said, "I am proud that we have moved beyond dialogue to actually fighting for the rights of the other."

Imam Shamsi Ali, the former spiritual leader of the Islamic Cultural Center of New York, who was chosen by New York Magazine as one of the seven most influential religious leaders in New York, said both Muslims and Jews need to look beyond negative stereotypes of each other to strengthen people-to-people ties. Noting that the term “jihad” is often misconstrued in the media to mean exclusively violence against non-Muslims, Imam Ali said, "In fact we are now engaged in a jihad for peace and for cooperation between people of all backgrounds."

Responding to recent revelations that the New York Police Department has spied extensively on worshippers in mosques and on Muslim student groups, Imam Ali expressed disagreement with widespread calls for the resignation of NYPD chief Ray Kelly; stating, "People in the Muslim community are deeply concerned about this, but instead of demanding (Kelly's) resignation, we need to engage the NYPD to put procedures into place so that it consults with Muslim leaders on an ongoing basis."