Muslim-Jewish Ties in U.S. Flourish, but Skeptics Make Their Mark

Activists on both sides say the new harmony has staying power barring another Gaza war. That hasn't stopped some Muslims and Jews from charging NGO leaders with ulterior motives.

A Muslim woman and a Jewish woman embrace during a women's rally against President Donald Trump in Washington, D.C., January 21, 2017.
Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

NEW YORK — The Muslim-Jewish relationship in America appears to be flowering as it never has before, with ties burgeoning at the grass roots and among leaders. But is this a tipping point?

The evidence of the harmony is everywhere. An official of the American Jewish Committee, a mainstream Zionist group, recently addressed the largest Muslim organization convention in the country. Two prominent Muslims raised $160,000 to repair Jewish cemeteries desecrated by vandals. So many women clamor to participate in local Sisterhood of Salaam-Shalom chapters that the network’s national office can hardly keep up with demand.

Meanwhile, a hijab-wearing New Yorker is training members of the gay and lesbian synagogue here to be “upstanders” for Muslims. And in January, when arson destroyed a Texas mosque, a synagogue leader handed keys to his building to the imam so local Muslims had a place to worship until they rebuilt.

After decades of widespread mutual suspicion, is this new relationship rooted in having a shared enemy in the white supremacists buoyed by President Donald Trump’s election? Or does it go deeper? Though anti-normalization forces are pushing hard from both sides, people involved say the emerging closeness has the potential to lead to a deeper long-term relationship. That is, as long as Gaza doesn’t explode into a new war anytime soon.

“There is definitely a lot of deep-rooted animosity between both communities,” said Tarek El-Messidi, leader of a Philadelphia-based Islamic nonprofit called Celebrate Mercy. El-Messidi partnered with Linda Sarsour to crowdfund $160,000 for the repair of desecrated cemeteries in St. Louis, Philadelphia and possibly one in Colorado that has been damaged by age and disrepair.

But the challenges of this particular political moment has opened up an opportunity too. “We both feel other-ized and marginalized by xenophobia, Islamophobia and anti-Semitism,” El-Messidi said. “In this environment where both are being targeted, there’s a willingness to talk, to sit at the same table.”

A majority of the 5,000 campaign funders are Muslim, but the balance — 30 or possibly 40 percent — of donors are Jewish, El-Messidi told Haaretz. As news of the successful campaign spread throughout a country hungry for something positive, it inspired Muslim and Jewish communities to connect with one another for the first time in their towns. “The outreach to the cemetery touched a lot of people’s hearts and allowed mosques and synagogues to dialogue,” he said.

Tarek El-Messidi, leader of the Philadelphia-based Islamic nonprofit Celebrate Mercy.
Celebrate Mercy

El-Messidi spoke to Haaretz from St. Louis, where he had flown to present $40,000 to officials of the damaged cemetery there. He had just finished a speaking event at Washington University in St. Louis with the head of the local Jewish federation. Their talk on the growing alliance was publicized on a leaflet distributed only two days before, but 300 people showed up for the event, which was unmarred by demonstrators or negativity, El-Messidi said.

“There’s still a long road ahead, and often geopolitical issues will get in the way,” he said, as he referred to the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians. “But at least there’s a dialogue beginning now, and that is really promising.”

Surge in local chapters

To be sure, some of the interfaith efforts predate the surge in hateful acts. Jewish Community Relations Councils around the United States have been developing relationships with local Muslim communities for the past several years, though there is a definite current uptick in interest, people involved say.

The Jewish Federation of St. Louis, where a cemetery was desecrated, has had a Muslim-Jewish Day of Service on Christmas Day for the past seven years in partnership with the Islamic Foundation of Greater St. Louis, said federation CEO Andrew Rehfeld. About 1,000 people of both faiths volunteer to relieve Christians of their work at dozens of sites around the city.

The Sisterhood of Salaam-Shalom dates to 2010, when founder Sheryl Olitzky invited some female Muslim and Jewish friends over for Shabbat dinner. Three years ago the nationwide network of social dialogue groups had six chapters; in November it had 50. Today there are more than 150, and the central office is doing its best to keep up with demand, Olitzky said.

“People don’t know what to do and this is a way to respond,” she said. “Change won’t happen through politics, it will happen through relationships. Women are acting with their feet.”

Tarek El-Messidi, leader of the Philadelphia-based Islamic nonprofit Celebrate Mercy.
Celebrate Mercy

The Shalom Hartman Institute of North America has run its Muslim Leadership Initiative since 2013, bringing emerging American Muslim leaders to Israel to study Judaism. Last November the American Jewish Committee and the Islamic Society of North America founded the Muslim-Jewish Advisory Council.

The Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, chaired by Buddhist music producer Russell Simmons and Orthodox Jewish Rabbi Marc Schneier, has been working on Muslim-Jewish relations in America for about 20 years. Last month the group held a large rally in Times Square, at which Schneier proclaimed: “I am Muslim too.”

But anti-normalization forces on both sides of the relationship are strong.

Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, a wealth manager and lay leader of several mainstream Jewish organizations including the World Jewish Congress and New York Jewish Community Relations Council, said the Muslim-Jewish relationship “is a bunch of hooey . Christians say to me ‘what is it with you Jews? You love everyone who hates you.’”

As Wiesenfeld put it, “There are a lot of ulterior motives” among the Muslims partnering with Jews. “They use the Jews. How can Jews be self-respecting and stand with people carrying Palestinian flags? They’re saying ‘we’ve been brought together by Trump.’ What nonsense . These people in the streets are our enemies.”

For Wiesenfeld and others, anyone who supports the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel is anti-Semitic. And to Wiesenfeld, Islam as a religion is problematic because, as he puts it, it encourages terrorism.

“The Muslim radicals are certainly benefiting from this cooperation. We have a few Jewish nuts but they’re marginal. We’re talking about the masses” in Islam, he said. “These problems are brushed under the rug” by Jews who join forces with Muslims. When they protest together against Trump’s anti-immigration policies, or in the Women’s March (which Sarsour organized), “they’re marching with a potpourri of dreck,” as Wiesenfeld put it.

BDS always an issue

On the Muslim side too there is negative reaction to the developing relationship. The Islamic Society of North America got huge pushback when its partnership in the Muslim-Jewish Advocacy Council was first announced.

Rabia Chaudry, an attorney and fellow at both the Shalom Hartman Institute and New America Foundation, wrote an essay about efforts to pressure Muslims not to take part in the new project, which is initially focusing on hate crimes experienced by both communities. Chaudry is one of 38 members of the Muslim-Jewish Advocacy Council.

The Islamic Society of North America said in a statement that it “was inundated” with questions from constituents. The organization was pressured to make clear its support of BDS as a tactic to pressure Israel.

The group “specifically would like to reiterate support for the right of individuals and organizations in the U.S. to peacefully work for human rights and the right of self-determination of Palestinians without fear of legal sanction,” it wrote, obliquely referring to anti-BDS legislation being passed in states and cities nationwide. Those regulations prohibit public contracts with companies that participate in BDS.

BDS is a particularly thorny issue in the new relationship. Those involved say people and organizations have to agree to disagree and set aside their difference of opinion on this.

The Muslim Public Affairs Council, for instance, is on the record as being pro-BDS. The president of the council, Salam al-Marayati, recently spoke at the J Street National Conference.

“For American Muslims, and students in particular, BDS is a nonviolent resistance movement. For Jews it is a disaster,” Al-Marayati told Haaretz. “MPAC is for BDS, and J Street is against BDS, but we agree to disagree on that issue and still sit around the same table. Mutual acceptance is needed on both sides.”

The pressure is social as well as institutional. Olitzky of the Sisterhood of Salaam-Shalom says she knows women who won’t talk to her anymore because of her advocacy of a strong relationship. “There are Jewish women who will have nothing to do with me because of this work,” she said.

El-Messidi and Sarsour were accused by Jews of desecrating the graves themselves so that they could swoop in and get positive publicity. Muslims told them they were being used by Jews, “who must have desecrated the cemeteries themselves in order to get sympathy,” El-Messidi said. He was also challenged by some in his community who asked why he couldn’t have conducted a fundraising campaign to help fellow Arabs; for people starving in Syria, for instance. 

The biggest test of the new Muslim-Jewish American relationship will come when there’s another crisis in Gaza, or war between Israel and another Arab country.

“I can definitely see the Muslim community being very upset if there’s a disproportionate response and civilians are killed,” El-Messidi said. “Maybe we need to prepare” for that moment, he added. “That’s the most challenging aspect of this work. Even now, when the waters are calm, there’s so much trust building to do.”

Yehuda Kurtzer, president of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, said of the fundraising for desecrated Jewish cemeteries: “We have to treat moments like this as real generosity and leverage them. But they don’t constitute an end to the hostility that has gone on for years. We still have a ton of work to do.”

Kurtzer referred to the cemetery fundraising as an important gesture, as are the increasing numbers of synagogue and mosque members supporting and visiting one another. “Gestures are symbolically important and opportunities to grow a relationship but are not existential shifts,” he said, though he admitted that “people are starting to see each other. I think the relationship is shifting.”