WASHINGTON, D.C. - Approximately 200 people gathered on Wednesday night in Washington, D.C., for a reception on Capitol Hill honoring a new group that brings together Jewish and Muslim leaders from around the country. Called The Muslim-Jewish Advisory Council, this new group is the result of a partnership between the American Jewish Committee and the Islamic Society of North America, and while it was founded before the recent election, the date of its first action day in Washington couldn't have come at a more appropriate time.
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After spending a day on the Hill speaking to members of Congress from both parties, the members of the group gathered with supporters for a reception at the United States Senate's Dirksen building, hosted by Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah). The message brought to Washington by the group's members – which include imams, rabbis, business executives, politicians and activists from both communities - was simple: In light of a national spike in hate crimes against Muslims in America in 2015, and information showing that Jews remain a leading target of hate crimes all across the country, it was time to increase federal support for hate crime prosecution on the local level, and tackle the problem on a national level.
Just this week, Jewish Community Centers across the U.S. were evacuated, for the third time within weeks, over bomb threats. Meanwhile, the U.S. is in the midst of a political and legal crisis over President Donald Trump's executive order banning the citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States – an order that has been harshly criticized by both Democrats and Republicans in recent days.
"We've always needed this council, but never more than now," said Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.), one of the speakers at the evening reception. Sherman, who is Jewish, laughed that for him, the event was first of all "an opportunity to get some pork-free food." On a more serious note, he said that the two communities should "stand together against this outrageous executive order that seeks to divide people in this country."
Speaking with Haaretz after the event, Sherman explained that the symbolism of Trump's order – pitting the U.S. versus the Muslim world – "is consistent with the ISIS message, which is that there is a clash of civilizations." Sherman told Haaretz that in his view, "there isn't a clash of Muslim civilization with Western civilization; there's a clash between civilization on the one hand and the forces of darkness on the other, whether they reside in al-Raqqa or at the White House."
Sherman added that he believed the protests and legal challenges against the executive order were already succeeding in pushing it back. "The largest and greatest effect of this executive order was first and foremost on those who hold Green Cards - permanent residents of the U.S., people who are on track to be our fellow citizens," he explained. "Within a day, we as a nation forced the Trump administration, over the objection of Steve Bannon, to roll that part of the executive order back." He said he believed that over the next weeks, it was possible to make further progress in the same direction, until the executive order would eventually be expunged.
A strong supporter of Israel who voted against the Iran nuclear deal in 2015, Sherman said that he was encouraged by the show of Jewish-Muslim cooperation, and that he hoped events like these would show supporters of Israel that "supporting Jews does not mean being antagonistic to Muslims." He described the council's activities as "part of the overall fight for this country to say no to Islamophobia and to other problems emanating from the White House."
Another speaker at the event was former Senator Norm Coleman, a Republican from Minnesota, who said that he was "convinced of the Council's importance. We need to work together. We are stronger when we are together. We have a lot of important work ahead of us."
Azhar Aziz of the Islamic Society of North America told Haaretz that the largest stumbling block to Jewish and Muslim cooperation is "ignorance about each other and a lack of communication." The developments of the last year, he added, have "created a strong desire to learn about each other's faiths and lives. People are discovering a lot of similarities. The circumstances are forcing us to learn about each other." Rabbi Batya Steinlauf of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington added that "there have been many initiatives to bring people together even before November, these things pre-date the elections, but it's true that now there is a sense of urgency."
A former Democratic Congressman from New York, Gary Ackerman, summed up the entire event with one phrase, saying that the basis for the Jewish-Muslim relationship in these challenging times should be "I am my cousin's keeper."