Opinion |

After Christchurch and Pittsburgh, U.S. Jews and Muslims Need Each Other More Than Ever

Standing together against a white supremacism that targets us for abuse and death is now, despite the tensions and sensitivities between our communities, not a matter of choice but a necessity

Michael Felsen
Michael Felsen
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People gather at a vigil to mourn for the victims of the Christchurch mosque attack in New Zealand, at Washington Square Park in Manhattan, in New York City, New York, U.S. March 15, 2019
People gather at a vigil to mourn for the victims of the Christchurch mosque attack in New Zealand, at Washington Square Park in Manhattan, in New York City, New York, U.S. March 15, 2019Credit: \ RASHID UMAR ABBASI/ REUTERS
Michael Felsen
Michael Felsen

It shouldn’t take atrocities to remind American Jews and Muslims why solidarity between our communities is so necessary, though the tragedies of Christchurch and Pittsburgh have made that clearer than ever. But building that common ground, of jointly challenging the bigotry that targets us both with such lethal force and hatred, and of negotiating the conflicts between our communities, is still work in progress.

But in many U.S. neighborhoods and cities, including my own, volunteers from both communities are already forming the basis of an allyship that will, we hope, be mutual and strong enough to face a prolonged confrontation with white supremacism and its enablers.

Aktar, holds up a photo of her husband who she says is missing after Friday's mosque attacks, outside a community center near Masjid Al Noor in Christchurch, New Zealand, March 16, 2019Credit: \ JORGE SILVA/ REUTERS

Here is a snapshot from that work, from Brookline, Massachusetts.

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A long-scheduled Jewish-Muslim Shabbes (Sabbath) dinner was held there on March 8, an event, hosted by the Boston Workmen’s Circle Center for Jewish Culture and Social Justice, and honoring International Women’s Day. It was slated to feature stories of strength, hope, and solidarity from Jewish and Muslim women.

Talk about timing.

Little had the conveners expected that the dinner would follow a tumultuous week of singularly uncomfortable Jewish and Muslim tussling on Capitol Hill. Newly elected Ilhan Omar, one of two Muslim women in Congress, had voiced concern about "the political influence in this country that says it is OK for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country."

The statement was seen by some as suggesting that Jews have dual loyalties - that is, to Israel as well as the United States. The response from many U.S. Jews was critical, fueled in part by a few similar previous utterances, ranged from anger to incredulity to disappointment.

Other Jewish observers came to her defense, arguing, among other things, that she was being unfairly singled out for a legitimate political comment that wasn’t intended as an anti-Semitic dogwhistle.

Sensitivities were triggered. Tempers flared.

That week’s finger-pointing and soul-searching ultimately produced a House resolution on March 7 that was supported by every Democrat and all but 24 Republicans. House Resolution 183 condemned anti-Semitism, anti-Muslim discrimination, and bigotry against minorities and asserted, among other things, that "white supremacists in the United States have exploited and continue to exploit bigotry and weaponize hate for political gain, targeting traditionally persecuted peoples [naming African Americans, Latinos, Jews, Muslims, immigrants and others] with verbal attacks, incitement, and violence."

The seven-page document was too general for some, just right for others. Omar was among the vast majority who voted for it.

A day after the resolution was adopted, those who came together for the Jewish-Muslim Friday night dinner in Brookline couldn’t help but notice the synchronicity. And some wondered: would the drama that had just unfolded in D.C. affect, and possibly contaminate, our evening together?

As it turned out, attendance far exceeded the organizers’ expectations. There was a palpable sense of wanting, needing, to share this time and space. Mothers with hijabs holding babies, Muslim and Jewish women and men coming from work, teenagers, "elders" from both communities – all greeted one another, mingled, and settled in.

Aazaan Anjum (L) and Jannat Anjum join with others for a Community-Wide Solidarity Vigil at the Holocaust Memorial Miami Beach to remember the victims of the mass shooting in Pittsburgh, Oct. 30, 2018Credit: AFP

Salma Kazmi, co-founder of the Center for Jewish-Muslim relations, spoke of her friendship, since childhood, with Sarah, a Jewish woman with whom she’s had deep and often complicated conversations about the Holocaust, Israel/Palestine, and the increasing bigotry they both see in the world.

Kazmi recalled appreciating, during a tense period some years ago, the many Jews who stood up for Boston’s Muslims when it wasn’t fashionable, sometimes "overlooking terrible things said inside the Muslim community to do what was right." She spoke of being repeatedly amazed by the commitment she’s seen in the Jewish community "to stand for justice in all its forms."

Shannon Al-Wakeel read a letter she had written to the BWC community on behalf of the Muslim Justice League in the wake of the Pittsburgh massacre, conveying "how horrified and devastated we are by the racist, anti-Semitic murders of Tree of Life worshippers…We’re thinking of you and grieving with you…if there’s anything we can do, any support we can offer, we’re eager."

Mirroring those sentiments was a letter written by BWC board member Michelle Golden to the family of a sixth grade Muslim girl who had received taunting, threatening notes at school. Recalling Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center Shayk Yasir Fahmy’s statement following Pittsburgh that "there are millions of Muslims who support you and have your back," Golden assured the family that when threats are directed at one person or group of people, "they’re felt by us all."

A white supremacist wears a shirt with the slogan "European Brotherhood" at a rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, U.S., August 12, 2017.Credit: \ JOSHUA ROBERTS/REUTERS

And Liza Behrendt, a member of BWC’s Jewish-Muslim Solidarity Committee, remembered some of the times Muslim women "have shown up" for her. She spoke of how a workshop co-presenter, Ayesha, helped her understand how Jewish and Muslim struggles are linked: that Jews can fight anti-Muslim racism "the same way we fight anti-Semitism, white supremacy, and patriarchy: by strengthening our communities, building alliances across movements, centering the voices of the people most impacted by oppression, and tackling the systems that keep us all down."

Behrendt concluded: "So let’s keep showing up for each other."

We, Jews and Muslims, found strength and comfort in our solidarity that night. We could hardly have imagined that less than a week later we all would again be outraged and heartbroken by another brazen white supremacist attack, targeting worshipers at two Christchurch, New Zealand mosques, a horrifying echo of Pittsburgh. Another occasion to stand shoulder to shoulder. The kind of tragedy we would gladly forego.

H.Res.183 formally recognized that racism, Islamophobia, and anti-Semitism are real and present dangers. It also underlined that white supremacist ideation is a leading force that propels those bigotries. Not that we need the reminder. Pittsburgh, now Christchurch, and other all-too-frequent, if lesser, aggressions are alarm bells enough.

And feeding the fire are well-known and high-placed political figures, here in the U.S. and elsewhere, who provide cover and even inspiration for those obsessed with preventing "invaders" from besmirching what they see, in their skewed world, as their white, European homeland.

Sure, Jews and Muslims have their differences. And yes, the politics around Israel cries out for frank and constructive discussion. But when it comes to staring down white supremacist bigotry, wherever it erupts, both communities have a whole lot of skin in the game.

Which is why - at Shabbes dinners in Brookline, in front of mosques and synagogues, and at every place we learn, work, and live - showing up for one another should, by now, be in our DNA.

Michael Felsen was president of Boston Workmen’s Circle, a multi-generational community organization dedicated to Jewish education, culture, and social justice, from 2007-2013, and is currently a member of its Jewish-Muslim Solidarity Committee

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