For Jewish-Muslim Dialogue Groups in America, Gaza War Shatters Dream of Coexistence

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Members of the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom in New York in 2017. Muslims and Jews in religious head garb can be seen embracing from the back.
Members of the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom in New York in 2017. Mutual hatred of Trump was a strong uniting force at the time.Credit: Julie Jacobson / AP

Last week, a Toronto-based Jewish-Muslim dialogue group was scheduled to host the second event in a special six-month series devoted to the history of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. The project was the initiative of a local synagogue and mosque active in a Canadian “twinning” program. When it emerged, however, that the rabbi of the synagogue had signed a letter expressing solidarity with Israel during the latest round of fighting with Gaza, his partners at the mosque presented the synagogue with an ultimatum: Either the rabbi retracts, or count us out. The rabbi would not budge, and the event was canceled.

In New York, members of a woman’s group devoted to Muslim-Jewish solidarity were suddenly up in arms. A few Muslim women had posted photos on their WhatsApp group of an Israeli soldier with his knee on the neck of a young Palestinian, evoking images of George Floyd. After a bit of fact-checking, it turned out that the photo was not new, and that the soldier in uniform was not Israeli. It was a photograph from 2016 of a Chilean policeman arresting a boy for spraying graffiti on a wall. The Jewish women were enraged. Several threatened to quit their interfaith dialogue group.

The latest outbreak of violence in the Middle East – which spread earlier this month from East Jerusalem to Gaza to mixed Jewish-Arab cities inside Israel, eventually ending in a cease-fire 10 days ago – has spilled onto the streets of the United States and Europe, where Jews have been attacked by Palestinians and their sympathizers. It has also taken a toll on another front outside the region: the growing number of Jewish-Muslim dialogue groups that have cropped up in recent years across America, many of which saw themselves as cotributing to solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Never would they have dreamed that they might end up being one of its casualties.

In conversations over the past week, activists in these groups, some of whom asked not to be quoted by name due to the sensitivities involved, said that the latest outbreak of hostilities was testing their efforts to promote greater understanding between Jews and Muslims as never before.

Walter Ruby, the executive director JAAMAT (Jews and Muslims and Allies Acting Together), a group based in Washington D.C., notes that many of these organizations thrived during the Trump era when they had a common enemy and could spend their time focusing on what united them, rather than on what divided them.

“Many Jews came out against the Muslim ban, which was hugely appreciated, and after the Pittsburgh massacre, there were Muslims who came out and raised money for Jews,” he says. “It showed that this solidarity was a real thing.”

Until recently, he adds, many of these groups avoided the fraught subject of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, at least in the early stages of their existence while relationships were just being formed.

“But things have evolved, and there’s a growing understanding now that it’s a mistake to try and minimize this subject, and we have to come up with ways of dealing with it,” says Ruby, co-author of the newly released book “We Refuse to be Enemies: How Muslims and Jews Can Make Peace, One Friendship at a Time.” “One of the things I’ve been proposing is that these Muslim-Jewish dialogue groups start supporting humanitarian efforts and NGOs that are doing incredible work in Israel-Palestine to get them engaged in what’s happening there.”

A Jewish woman and a Muslim girl embracing during a women's rally against President Donald Trump in Washington, Jan. 21, 2017.Credit: Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP

In past rounds of fighting between Israel and Gaza, recounts Ruby, Jewish-Muslim dialogue groups would often take a break to avoid what he describes as “difficult conversations.” “Even rabbis and imams who had built relationships, they would pull back for a few months and not pick up the phone and call each other,” he says.

This time around, in contrast, many have chosen to confront the issue head on, whether by issuing statements or by holding events. Ruby’s own organization, for example, held a vigil at Dupont Circle in Washington, D.C.

‘Nine steps back’

Ruby’s book launch included a Zoom event hosted last week by JSpaceCanada, a progressive Zionist organization based in Toronto. One of the Muslim organizations that had originally agreed to co-sponsor the event pulled out at the last minute, much to the disappointment of JSpaceCanada President Karen Mock.

“I don’t remember things being this bad in the past, and I think that’s because there’s a lot more anger and frustration on both sides,” says Mock, who has been engaged in Jewish-Muslim dialogue work for the past 30 years. “Every time you move 10 steps forward in this sort of work, you also move a few steps back. This time I feel like we’ve moved nine steps back.”

Mock says social media played a large role in creating the challenges confronting interfaith dialogue groups in this latest Middle East flare-up. “It’s all the fake news and the fake news videos being spread on social media – it’s come to the point where they are even tearing some of these groups apart,” she laments.

Shahid Akhtar, co-chair of the Canadian Association of Jews and Muslims, shares Mock’s concerns but believes the greater challenges lie within the respective Jewish and Muslim communities. “People have been so emotionally charged during this latest round of fighting that those of us are who engaged in dialogue are almost seen as traitors within our own communities,” he says. “In fact, it’s almost been easier for us to talk to the other side than to people within our communities who tend to believe that if you talk to the quote-unquote adversary, that means you are treacherous.”

Still, he believes the setbacks of recent weeks can serve a positive purpose. “For those of us engaged in dialogue work, it has strengthened our resolve to continue to fight,” says Akhtar.

Jewish members of The House of Peace initiative greeting Muslim worshipers at the Islamic Center at New York University, November 8, 2019.Credit: Danielle Ziri

Judy Weinstein, 66, has been active in the local New York chapter of a national Jewish-Muslim dialogue group since Trump was elected. She found it strange, she says, that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict had always been off limits for discussion in this group. “It was the elephant in the room we were told right from the beginning that we couldn’t touch,” she says.

The recent wave of hostilities in the Middle East, she says, has eroded feelings of trust that took quite a while to build, creating a situation she describes as “pretty bleak.” At the same time, Weinstein, an opera director, doesn’t see other alternatives but to continue. “I don’t think that dialogue is worthless, and I do think we have to keep talking,” she says. “I mean what do we do if we don’t do that?”

The Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom, one of the largest Jewish-Muslim dialogue groups in the United States, opened its first chapter in 2010. Now it has more than 200 chapters around the country, including more than a dozen dedicated to teens, with a total of 8,000 members. Founding Director Sheryl Olitzky says that when the organization was first established, the policy was to avoid any discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict “until we could build relationships and trust among our members.”

In a clear departure from this rule, the Sisterhood issued a statement several days after the recent eruption of hostilities, condemning the violence and calling on the Israeli government “to stop falling victim to extremist groups who are fueling the aggressive police actions and the unjust and prejudicial actions targeting Palestinians and to end its systematic racism against and repression of the Palestinian people.” The statement was perceived by many Jewish members as unbalanced in its fierce criticism of Israel.

“We got many mixed reactions from our membership,” relays Olitzky. “Many Muslim women were happy to have us finally take a stand, while a number of Jewish women were very upset.” She doesn’t know the exact numbers but says that some did choose to leave the organization. “It was a small percent of the total, and the door is always open to them,” she says. “I should say that we’ve also had others who joined.”

Olitzky says she knew the decision to confront what she describes as “this 200-pound elephant that’s sitting in the room” would have consequences. “We knew it wouldn’t be for everyone,” she says.

Still, she says, she doesn’t believe there was a choice. “How do we truly understand each other, each other’s stories, each other’s journeys without talking about how the conflict relates to each one of us on a personal and emotional level?” she asks.

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