Efforts at Jewish-Muslim understanding grow despite Attempts to demonize Islam

Despite the efforts of some Israelis and some in the American Jewish community to demonize the religion of Islam rather than focusing their attention on the minority of extremists within the Islamic community, efforts toward Muslim-Jewish understanding are growing.

Recalls Rabbi Bruce M. Lustig, senior rabbi at the Washington Hebrew Congregation, one of the largest Jewish congregations in North America with more than 3,000 families served: “Shortly after 9/11, I invited Bishop John Chane (Episcopal bishop of Greater Washington and the National Cathedral) and professor Akbar Ahmed (Ibn Khaldun scholar of Islamic studies at American University) to share with them the idea of starting an Abrahamic faith dialogue. My simple premise was based on what my mother told me as a child: Stay away from strangers. If these two men and their faiths were to remain strangers to me, I would only grow to fear them, not know them. Soon after, we held one of the first Abrahamic faith forums in America. We also forged a friendship that has been transformative. These men are my friends, my mentors, my sounding boards.”

Although “we do not agree on every social or political question,” Rabbi Lustig notes, “we have deep respect for, and a deep honesty with, each other. Having others challenge my ideas and demand clarity of creed is a powerful and uplifting experience. They have helped me to become a stronger Jew and a better rabbi. To my children, the answer to what it means to be Christian or Muslim is not abstract; it is the love they know from John and Akbar, who join us at our table and who teach us by example.”

This past November, more than 50 mosques and synagogues across the country participated in the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding’s Weekend of Twinning.

With a stated premise that “we are all children of Abraham,” the weekend brought together synagogues and mosques to combat Islamophobia and anti-Semitism in their communities.

“What we realized is that we don’t know enough about each other,” said Rabbi Gregory Harris of Congregation Beth-El in Bethesda, Maryland. “We’re relatives in the Abrahamic sense, but we’re total strangers in every other sense of it.”

Beth-El paired with the Islamic Center of Maryland in Gaithersburg to hold “Judaism 101 and Islam 101” classes on the fundamentals of each religion.

The phrase Judeo-Christian should be replaced with “Abrahamic”

According to Rabbi Marc Schneier, founder and president of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, who helped establish the weekend, the goal is to “create a paradigm of Jewish-Muslim support that we can export to other parts of the world…We must take advantage of these opportunities, especially within the Muslim world, where we are now beginning to see the emergence of a more moderate centrist voice that has a particular interest in reaching out to the Jewish religion.”

Rabbi Schneier met in New York in November with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, a core supporter of the initiative.

The weekend fulfilled a pledge faith leaders took in 2007 at the World Conference of Dialogue in Madrid. Co-sponsors are the World Jewish Congress, the Muslim Affairs Council and the Islamic Society of North America.

Daniel Spiro, author of the novel Moses The Heretic (Aegis Press), argues that the phrase Judeo-Christian should be replaced with “Abrahamic.” He notes that although the world faces a real problem of Islamic terrorism, the religion also contains elements that are “uniquely beautiful,” and that “We Jews need to seek them out. Most of us viscerally appreciate Christian ethics as a useful add-on to the foundation of Jewish ethics. But when we think about Islam, most of us don’t appreciate what is profoundly beautiful. We basically see Islam as a violent outgrowth of monotheism. I want that changed.”

In Spiro’s view, “To borrow from another religion, if we want peace in Israel we need to generate good karma. If we embrace what is beautiful in Islam and Muslims begin to embrace what is beautiful in Judaism, we can begin to produce a situation that might lead to peace.”

Bahrain’s Jewish Ambassador

Consider the case of Houda Ezra Nonoo, who in July presented her credentials to President George W. Bush as Bahrain’s ambassador to the U.S., making her the first Jew to represent an Arab country in Washington, DC.

In her first interview, with the Dec. 4, 2008 issue of Washington Jewish Week, Ambassador Nonoo explained: “Bahrain is an open and tolerant society and it doesn’t matter what religion you are. I’m Jewish, but I’m also Bahraini. My grandfather served on the Municipality Council as early as 1934, so we’ve always been integrated into society.”

In the late 1930s and early 1940s, as many as 1,500 Jews lived and prospered in Bahrain. “Things changed in 1948,” according to Washington Jewish Week, “with the establishment of the state of Israel. Riots erupted, the sole synagogue was closed and most of Bahrain’s Jews emigrated, leaving for Great Britain…Currently, about 35 Jews live among Bahrain’s 700,000 inhabitants. This is a constant source of pride for Bahraini officials…In November, King Hamad bin Issa al-Khalifa, during a meeting in New York, beseeched about 50 Bahraini Jewish expatriates to consider returning home–a move relatively unheard of in the rest of the Arab world.”

“This was something I never expected in my life,” Nonoo said, “to be ambassador in the United States. I think I’ve made a big impact on a lot of people, being female and representing Bahrain in the most important country in the world.” Her reception by fellow Arab diplomats in Washington has been incredibly warm, she reported: “The Syrian ambassador recently hosted a dinner to honor me. The Iraqi ambassador had one…and Oman is having one. They’ve really made me feel at home.”

On Yom Kippur, Nonoo attended Orthodox services. She may not, however, have any relationship with the Embassy of Israel, because Bahrain and Israel do not have diplomatic relations. “Understand that Israel and Judaism are two different things,” she stated. “I’ve never felt any discrimination or anti-Semitism. My father was a very well-known figure. When he died in 1993 in a car accident, the amount of people who came to offer condolences–including the emir, the prime minister and the emir’s other brother–was amazing. They all showed us respect.”

The idea that there has been an ancient enmity between Jews and Muslims is completely ahistorical, and those Jewish groups and individuals who promote such a view seem to be unaware of the long history of cooperation between the two religions. Much has been written In recent years about the Golden Age of Jews in Muslim Spain. Indeed, when Muslim rule came to an end and the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella expelled the Jews from Spain in 1492, they were welcomed into the Ottoman Empire. The anti-Semitism which plagued medieval Christian Europe was not to be found in the Islamic world.

In his recent book, Among The Righteous (Public Affairs Press), Robert Satloff, who has served since 1993 as executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, unearths the lost stories of Arabs who saved Jews during the Holocaust. When the Nazis occupied the countries of North Africa and sought to round up Jews and expropriate Jewish property, Satloff notes, “in every place that it occurred, Arabs helped Jews. Some Arabs spoke out against the persecution of Jews and took public stands of unity with them. Some Arabs denied the support and assistance that would have made the wheels of the anti-Jewish campaign spin more efficiently…And there were occasions when certain Arabs chose to do more than just offer moral support to Jews. They bravely saved Jewish lives, at times risking their own in the process. Those Arabs were true heroes.”

Nor was it only in North Africa that Muslims saved Jews. During the Nazi occupation, the Grand Mosque of Paris provided sanctuary for Jews hiding from German and Vichy troops, and provided certificates of Muslim identity to untold numbers of Jews. Satloff quotes reports describing the mosque “as a virtual Grand Central Station for the Underground Railroad of Jews in France.” This story is told in a 1991 film “Une Résistance Oubliée: La Mosque de Paris” (“A Forgotten Resistance: The Mosque of Paris”) by Derri Berkani, a French documentary filmmaker of Algerian Berber origin.

The time has come to understand the real history of Jewish-Muslim relations–and those who are leading efforts to achieve mutual understanding between the two faiths are showing the way in this effort. The Palestinian-Israeli conflict is political and should not be confused with religion. Perhaps the day will come when Israel helps makes that eminently clear by appointing as ambassador to the U.S. one of its own Muslim citizens.