If there is one thing Rosh Hashanah teaches us, it is the importance of self-reflection and the ability to be self-critical in the way we relate to one another. Communally speaking, as we enter the High Holidays the American Jewish community would do well to reflect on the sad state of Muslim-Jewish relations and the need for a serious engagement and rapprochement with the Muslim community.
The dire need for a new Muslim-Jewish dialogue was put on display for me this week when I was asked to speak as part of a panel of Muslim-Jewish relations at the Annual Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) Convention. The panel was organized by my friend, Ari Alexander, the founder and co-executive director of Children of Abraham–one of the most important, up-and-coming Muslim-Jewish interfaith groups. It was an amazing experience being one of a handful of Jews in a sea of over 40,000 Muslims. The panel was not only the first of its kind at the annual gathering, but was also part of a larger push by ISNA to reach out to the American Jewish community–a push that was highlighted by a keynote address given by Rabbi Eric Yoffie, head of the Reform Movement. For many in attendance Yoffie’s speech was the highlight of the conference. Many told me that they personally believed that it signaled a new day in American Muslim-Jewish relations. Yoffie’s speech marked the first time the head of major Jewish organization spoke to the group.
Perhaps the most interesting moments of the panel discussion happened when the audience was given a chance to comment and ask questions. I was struck by how one audience member after another got up and made–almost verbatim–the same statement: “You should know that I know a Jew and she is a good person, a kind person, a smart person. I am friends with this Jew.” The first time someone made the comment I yawned, the second time I began to get frustrated and annoyed but by the third time someone felt the to announce to the world that he she knew a Jew and was proud of their friendship it finally hit me what was going on here. “Elli don’t you get it?” I said to myself, “These two communities have so little contact, there is so much fear and strife between them that the mere fact that someone is just friends with or even knows with a a Jew at-all is a big deal!” Man do we have our work cut out.
As Alexander said in his talk, the way things now stand Jews and Muslims are brought up being taught to hate or at best fear each other. Likewise, on a communal level many people and groups are skeptical of interfaith Muslim-Jewish relations. They compare speaking with Muslims as a form of appeasement. While I would agree that many in the Muslim community do hate Jews and wish the worst for them, I would like to pose to such skeptics a question: What’s your other option? I’m sorry to say, but there is simply no other humane option. A world war with Islam, a battle till the end, would not mean the death of millions, it would mean the end of humanity as we know it. It’s one thing to fight a country it’s another thing to fight what in 2025 will be approximately one third of the word’s population. (If you think fighting Iraq, a secular country, is no easy thing try that times 100,000 (and that will only begin to scratch the surface of what we would be talking about.) Dialoguing and building bridges is simply the only option.
A few weeks ago Edgar Bronfman asked a number of us at The Samuel Bronfman Foundation , “Why is that in the Rosh Hashanah services we read about Abraham asking Ishmael to leave his house?” The question, I must admit, is better than any answer. For too long we have let historical grievances block a path towards understanding and reconciliation. While Jews and Muslims have a long way to go, is the path any longer or more difficult than the one traveled by Jews and Christians after the Shoa?
This Rosh Hashanah we as individuals and as a community need to ask ourselves how many Muslims we even know. In most cases the answer will be none of almost none. If that is the case why do we feel so comfortable and certain about speaking about Muslims and making proclamations about what they supposedly stand for? Before we talk about Muslims maybe we ought to first talk to them.