American Jews and Muslims Seek to Heal Ties, Spur Israeli-Palestinian Peace

Figures in both communities hope that a stronger relationship between America's Muslims and Jews will help shift the Israeli-Palestinian conflict out of its current stasis.

Participants at the Muslim-Jewish conference in New York.
Gili Getz

NEW YORK — There has perhaps never been so much interest and effort invested in the relationship between Muslims and Jews in the United States. A number of organizations have recently initiated and expanded a multiplicity of projects – all aimed at reducing animosity between the two groups and building an alliance at a time when minorities’ civil rights are being threatened by the advent of a new administration, and civil discourse between people who disagree appears to be increasingly far-fetched.

Some of those involved in these endeavors even hope that a stronger relationship between America's Muslims and Jews will help shift the Israeli-Palestinian conflict out of its current stasis. But there is much to overcome, particularly animus over that conflict and issues like the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement.

“There is always the potential for misunderstanding and even hostility between the two communities,” said David Bernstein, president and CEO of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the umbrella organization for Jewish community relations councils around the country. “Engagement ensures there’s someone at the other end of the phone to check with and preclude serious misunderstanding,” he told Haaretz in an interview, after speaking at a conference on Muslim-Jewish relationships. 

Some 500 people attended that gathering, called “Jews and Muslims in America Today: Political Challenges and Moral Opportunities.” It was fittingly held on Monday, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, at the Manhattan Jewish day school named after Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who partnered with King in the civil rights movement during the 1960s. 

The conference was convened by the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, which for four years has run the Muslim Leadership Initiative. The MLI brings together about two dozen Muslim community leaders for a year-long series of seminars, two of them held in Jerusalem, which focus on Judaism, Jewish peoplehood and Israel. This year the institute has expanded the program from one to two groups of MLI fellows, and is expanding its network of alumni, Hartman North America president Yehuda Kurtzer told Haaretz after the conference this week. The Hartman Institute is also expanding a program in which Jewish and Muslim leaders study together, in five cities from the San Francisco Bay area to Chicago to New York, he added.

“With the rise of so much anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiment, and so much hostile and polarizing rhetoric around the election, there’s a perceived need for intergroup work,” Kurtzer told Haaretz.

The need for a strong Jewish-Muslim relationship is pragmatic as well as moral and ideological, said Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, at the conference’s opening session. “When one’s liberty is curtailed or threatened, it hurts all of us,” he said. “[And] when we fight for one another, we are fighting for ourselves,” he told a packed auditorium at the Heschel school.

Muslims in America are on the verge of facing “real threats to fundamental freedoms,” he added, and preventing their loss “requires an explicit commitment to stand together.” 

Muslim-Jewish Relations panel featuring, L to R: JCPA’s David Bernstein, Khalil Gibran Academy founder Debbie Almontaser, Hartman Institute Fellow Rabia Chaudry and Hartman Institute’s Yehuda Kurtzer.
Debra Nussbaum Cohen

At the ADL conference on anti-Semitism in November, Greenblatt pledged to register himself as a Muslim if Donald Trump institutes the Muslim registry he promised during his presidential campaign.

Debbie Almontaser said that she got a feeling of closure by speaking at the Hartman conference. Nearly a decade ago, after she was forced out of her job as the founding principal of the Khalil Gibran International Academy, a dual-language Arabic-English language school in Brooklyn, she vowed that she would never again work with the Jewish establishment. She lost the job as the result of a successful campaign by some right-wingers, including prominent Jews, who warned that an Arabic-English school would be “a NYC madrassa” – or Islamist seminary. 

“In 2007 I was aggressively attacked by individuals within the Jewish establishment and Jewish organizations stood on the sidelines and allowed it to take place,” Almontaser said during a panel discussion in which she participated with JCPA’s Bernstein, entitled “Communal Politics, Identity Politics and the Interfaith Agenda.”

This was one example of what the ADL’s Greenblatt called, in the opening plenary, “the political weaponization if Islamophobia.”

After the conference, Almontaser told Haaretz that, “it felt really good to be in a room with a large number of American Jews and Muslims from across the country and be able to be brutally honest [and] say that if you want us to work together, these kinds of things have to be addressed. We have to figure out a way not to throw each other under the bus." 

“It behooves us to think we can make a difference” in the Israel-Palestine conflict, she said, adding, "It has been governments trying to push” the sides toward peace, but, “It’s different when it’s organizations and individuals from both sides. When they see American Muslims and American Jews pushing them it’s a dynamic that’s never happened [before]."

The Hartman Institute’s Yehuda Kurtzer (left) and the ADL’s Jonathan Greenblatt during the opening plenary of the Muslim-Jewish conference in New York.
Gili Getz

New partnerships

A current illustration of the same dynamic that pushed Almontaser out of her job is the debate over Rep. Keith Ellison’s nomination as chairman of the Democratic National Committee. The representative from Minnesota, the first Muslim to be elected to Congress, is one of several candidates for the position; the election will take place in late February.

But Ellison’s candidacy has been threatened by a campaign that has been orchestrated, said some at the Hartman event, by some anti-Muslim Jews. It began when a short clip from a speech he gave at a private fundraiser in 2010 – purportedly showing him questioning Israel’s disproportionate influence in the Middle East – was published on the site of Steve Emerson’s Investigative Project on Terrorism. Ellison’s support of the anti-Semitic Nation of Islam while he was in law school, shortly after he converted to Islam, has also been mentioned as undermining his eligibility for the DNC post. In 2006, Ellison had apologized for his association with NOI in a letter to the Minnesota JCRC. He also wrote, “I categorically and unequivocally reject anti-Semitism in any form and from whatever source.”

“Ellison is a cautionary tale” whose candidacy has been threatened by quotes “cherry-picked in a polarized political environment,” said Tamar Cofman Wittes, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, who previously worked in the State Department coordinating U.S. policy on democracy and human rights in the Middle East. 

“In an atmosphere of dialogue and engagement, you say ‘let me look at the totality of his engagement,’” said Cofman Wittes, who spoke Monday at a session on Jews, Muslims and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. With Ellison, she added, “that is not what happened.” 

Another illustration of the sometimes problematic relations between America's Jewish and Muslim communities involves Mosab Hassan Yousef, a Ramallah-born Muslim who converted to Christianity, also known as the “Son of Hamas.” Yousef speaks frequently at Jewish Federations and synagogues and often urges Jews and Christians to unite and denounce Islam. “Much of Islam is about destroying Jews and Israel,” he said last year at a Florida Jewish Federation event.

“He is making an incredible career out of vilifying and demonizing Islam. He says the problem is not terrorist organizations, the problem is Allah,” said Imam Abdullah Antepli, the co-director of Hartman's MLI and the Muslim chaplain of Duke University. Antepli spoke at the closing session of the conference this week.

If one considers the funders who pay to bring Yousef to speak, the imam said, “a significant number are well meaning, otherwise very liberal Jews and synagogues. [But] why are we investing in each others’ renegades? Nobody is pushing hard enough to ask ‘why are we paying someone who is spraying hate?’"

One of the newest Muslim-Jewish partnerships highlighted at Monday's conference is that created by the American Jewish Committee and the Islamic Society of North America. This initiative, called the Muslim-Jewish Advisory Council, kicked off just days before the presidential election in November. Its leaders, the AJC’s Robert Silverman and Eftakhar Alam from ISNA, said that a major focus will be fighting hate crimes. Of the challenges facing their project, Silverman said, “The right-wing Jewish side says ‘you’re giving cover to Hamas’ [while] people on the left of the Muslim spectrum say, ‘how dare you undermine solidarity with Palestinians’” by engaging with the Jewish establishment?

Hartman’s Kurtzer told Haaretz that Muslim participants in MLI have “received enormous pushback” from within their communities, “and that continues to be an obstacle for people to participate.” Other participants experienced “a little less of that, though there certainly were Jewish voices on the right who said that doing work which isn’t explicitly hasbara [propaganda on behalf of Israel] was either being complicit with a problematic narrative or opening us up to hostile relationships.”

Fortunately, Kurtzer said, those voices are waning somewhat.

Among other successful Muslim-Jewish partnerships mentioned at the conference were the Sisterhood of Salaam-Shalom a nationwide project of women’s dialogue groups, and NewGround, a Los Angeles-based organization. 

“We want to make more visible the importance of this work,” stressed Kurtzer. “What we’re doing is a drop in the bucket in the context of Twitter and philanthropy” that oppose the goals of a strong Muslim-Jewish relationship, he added. “It’s a very big deal we’re talking about 100 Muslim leaders” in MLI, but “what we’re trying to do to become the dominant discourse is going to take a lot more work.”