NEW YORK – Zainab Chaudry got pushback as soon as the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom began circulating a flyer about its upcoming conference.
She was slated to give a workshop on how to translate passion for social justice into activism. But then, she says, an onslaught of emails, calls and social media messages arrived, telling her the conference’s funders are Zionist organizations supporting settlement construction in the West Bank.
Chaudry’s “trusted sources” warned her about the Charles H. Revson Foundation, which has supported SoSS for the past few years. But they were wrong. The Revson Foundation does not fund anything like building in the West Bank. In fact, it funds myriad groups that do the opposite, working to strengthen Jewish-Muslim relations, including between Palestinians and Israelis.
The Maryland spokeswoman and director of outreach for the Council on American-Islamic Relations – which describes itself as America’s largest Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization – Chaudry withdrew from the SoSS conference set for November. She posted on Facebook on August 15: “Faith-washing apartheid and sanitizing oppression to make the oppressor appear more like the oppressed is a disservice to this critical work. I want no part of it.”
She told Haaretz that while she supports the idea of Muslim-Jewish dialogue, she won’t participate in organizations if "they are santiizing the Israeli agenda against Palestinians" and "if they accept funding from sources that do not actively resist the occupation and they bill themselves as apolitical then that's a red flag.”
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SoSS organizers wanted to keep her withdrawal and statements out of the news. A prominent Sisterhood supporter contacted this reporter, asking me not to damage “the fragile field” by writing about it.
But Chaudry’s position and statement are not isolated ones. Those in the field say that pressure is increasing on Muslims who engage in Muslim-Jewish relations, and that sentiments like Chaudry’s are a growing obstacle for those committed to building connections between the two communities in the United States.
“I’ve seen these relationships getting worse and worse instead of better,” says Anila Ali, founder of the American Muslim & Multifaith Women’s Empowerment Council, based in Southern California. “We have more divisions. Bringing Jews and Muslims together is much harder now” than it was even a couple of years ago, she says.
Ali works with Jewish groups such as Hillel chapters on University of Southern California campuses and gets harassed for it by other Muslims, she says She adds that “the pressure has gotten worse in the last year,” with people stalking and insulting her “on social media and by email.”
Getting Muslims to participate at all is becoming more of an uphill battle, she says. Early last school year, she arranged for a group of Muslim students to join Jewish students for Shabbat dinner at California State University, Fullerton, when faculty supporters of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement pressured them not to attend.
“I was heartbroken,” says Ali. “Luckily, I was working with a lot of Pakistani students who said ‘No, interfaith work cannot stop.’”
“But I am worried about Muslim-Jewish relations – and I’m seriously concerned about anti-Semitism in [the] Muslim community,” she says.
“Because Muslim groups aren’t making headway politically in the United States in advocating for Palestinian rights, they are applying pressure this way,” says another source in the field, who requested anonymity because of the topic’s sensitivity.
Journalist and playwright Wajahat Ali, meanwhile, wrote in The Atlantic magazine in May that he was “disinvited” from the 55th annual conference of the Islamic Society of North America because of his involvement with the Shalom Hartman Institute and its Muslim Leadership Initiative. He wrote that Rabia Chaudry is another prominent Muslim who has lost speaking engagements for her involvement in MLI. She even had a “Top Muslim Achievers” award rescinded in Chicago, wrote Ali.
“Both the Jewish community and the Muslim community have a real litmus test problem,” says Yehuda Kurtzer, president of the Shalom Hartman Institute North America. The MLI identifies emerging and current American Muslim leaders for a nine-month fellowship that includes two trips to Israel.
“The litmus tests are a means of ostensibly protecting communities, but they’re actually becoming a threat in communal life because they prevent people from being able to bridge differences with the people they need to be talking to,” says Kurtzer.
Late last year, Mahomed Akbar Khan was asked to leave his job as director of outreach at a major Los Angeles Islamic center, the King Fahad Mosque, after hosting multifaith events that included Jewish leaders. He hosted rabbis and others from the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding during Ramadan in 2016, and also hosted the bereaved parents of Israeli soldier Hadar Goldin in a gesture of interfaith solidarity. Goldin was killed during Israel’s Operation Protective Edge in Gaza in August 2014, and Hamas has not returned his body to his family.
Khan has since established his own organization, Star Power Offering Peace and Prosperity. Earlier this year, it held a session of Muslims and Jews at Temple Beth El in San Pedro, California, on the Rohingya humanitarian crisis. It was also a partner in a Los Angeles fundraiser for Project Rozana, which brings injured Syrian and Palestinian children to Israeli hospitals for treatment.
Khan says his focus on interfaith work has raised red flags for some in the Muslim community, but says he is merely trying to set an example. “The folks who want to do humanitarian and peace-building with the Jewish community should not be targeted by those who look at it purely through the lens of human rights for Palestinians,” he says. “It’s black and white to them, but that’s not the only point of view.”
The Muslim challenge
SoSS focuses on building relationships between Jewish and Muslim women in the United States. It has proved very popular, growing to some 2,500 members in dozens of chapters since being established in 2010 – with waiting lists in many places. Some 630 women participated in its fourth annual conference last year.
The organization takes no position on the Arab-Israeli conflict, on Israeli government policies or anything related, and its guidelines urge chapter participants not to approach these issues until relationships are solidly established. At its conference in November it will announce an expanded teen version of its grassroots network, with 10 chapters just for young women.
For all its popularity, though, veteran Sisterhood organizers say it is often challenging to get Muslim women involved.
In response to Chaudry’s attacks, SoSS co-founder Sheryl Olitzky told Haaretz, “The work of the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom stands on its own merit and is reflected in the impact we have had on thousands of women and their friends and families, Muslim and Jewish alike. There is no defense or explanation necessary.”
While there have always been some on each side who have rejected engagement with the other, “the policing of boundaries has become more consequential in the last couple of years,” says Brie Loskota, executive director of the Center for Religion and Civic Culture at USC in Los Angeles. “Transgressing them is very consequential for people. People are name-called, people are shamed in the media.”
“For some people on the Muslim side, it’s a real deterrent,” says Robert J. Silverman, outgoing director of the Muslim-Jewish Advisory Council – a joint project of the Islamic Society of North America and the American Jewish Committee. Our two communities are in different places on the Israel-Palestine issue. It’s not getting any easier. It’s increasingly an issue,” he says.
When successful, though, Muslim-Jewish alliances can produce concrete results like a bill that was passed by the U.S. House of Representatives and is soon expected to pass in the Senate. The bill, the Protecting Religiously Affiliated Institutions Act of 2018, grew out of last year’s bomb threats against Jewish community centers and will make crimes against churches, mosques, synagogues and JCCs a federal hate crime, with increased penalties.
“Muslim and Jewish Americans can be very pragmatic and work together. Is it hard to do? It’s really hard to do,” says Silverman. “The Sisterhood doesn’t have a political program at all. If they’re facing this, imagine.”
Aziza Hasan, executive director of the L.A.-based NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change, says she feels empathy for the challenges faced by SoSS and other groups in the field.
“It’s a really hard place to be in,” she says, adding that her group finds “it’s a lot easier for us to recruit Muslim folks from South Asian communities than from Palestinian or Arab communities.”
The work is hard but necessary, Hasan adds. “It comes back to: If we don’t see each other, we’ll never see the human beings in front of us, and nothing will change.”