Relations between American Jews and Muslims began to warm in the early 1990s when the communities came together to oppose "ethnic cleansing" in Bosnia. The ensuing years saw the relationship ebb and flow, largely in accordance with events in the Middle East. Jews backed away in response to terrorist attacks; Muslims backed away in response to Israeli occupation tactics.

Now, with Muslims seething over Palestinian losses in the latest round of fighting in Israel and the territories, the relationship is threatened with total collapse.

Such is the consensus among American Jewish leaders who are known for their efforts at rapprochement with the Muslim community. Jewish and Muslim hard-liners, of course, consider the threat inconsequential. But Muslims who seek an accommodation to American life regretfully acknowledge the accuracy of the gloomy prognosis.

"It is extremely difficult getting Jews and Muslims together over this crisis," said Rabbi David Saperstein, head of the Religious Action Council of Reform Judaism. "There doesn't seem to be much common ground. In a situation as emotional as this one, the chance of doing something constructive is very slim."

Saperstein was among those Jews who reached out to Muslims early in the decade to forge a joint position that would arouse American public opinion against the atrocities in Bosnia. Prior to that effort, there was almost no interaction between the two sides--nationally or locally--in part because Muslims were not organized for external contact, and were divided among themselves on the Middle East and other questions.

Bosnia may not have been the first issue on which American Muslims could themselves shape a common position, but it was certainly the first on which they could find agreement with Jewish organizations.

At about the same time, Saperstein said, opportunities arose in response to U.S. Supreme Court decisions striking down existing religious freedom protections that presented opportunities for building on the Bosnia experience.

Sixty organizations from all faiths joined in protest and to work for replacement legislation to replace what the court had rejected as unconstitutional. Among them was the American Muslim Council.

The opportunity to work together on an issue far from sensitive concerns about the Middle East enabled the Jewish-Muslim relationship to thrive. It was, said Saperstein, the high point of cooperation, Jewish and Muslim leaders working together effectively and even forming collegial relationships.

Abdulrahman Almoudy--who organized the American Muslim Council in 1990 and who has since become president of a sister body, the American Muslim foundation--recalls with nostalgia the days of working with Saperstein. He said their work together helped open doors for Muslims at the Department of State, the embassies, Congress, and even the White House.

Since those days, he said, the Muslim community has been recognized as never before--with White House parties at the end of Ramadan, with the appointment of Muslim chaplains in the military services, with imams reading prayers in Congress.

Almoudy acknowledged that he faces the opposition of American Muslims who oppose any participation in the political system, who prefer to live, as he put it, in a cocoon of mosques and prayer. The AMC, he said, was founded to promote full Muslim participation in American life, to remove the stigma that the community is an alien body.

But since the mid-1990s, Almoudy said, what he labeled a campaign of scare tactics originating within the Jewish community, largely at the behest of the writer Steven Emerson, has severely impaired this effort. Saperstein concurred.

Both men say that Emerson, a prodigious researcher who digs up obscure statements threatening to Israel and Jews made by American Muslim leaders, has been a major influence on American Jewish organizations wary about inadvertently working with Muslim groups who in any way could be perceived as aiding terrorist organizations.

Almoudy admitted that he, like others, has said things he regrets. But he expresses outrage at the conclusion that the Muslim community favors terrorism or is a conduit of support to terrorist organizations.

"We are opposed to the killing of all innocent civilians," Almoudy said, "but they want us to denounce terrorism over and over again. I think the Palestinians are people who deserve their freedom. I will not be intimidated into abandoning them. But it's like McCarthyism to make me prove my anti-terrorist credentials every day."

One of the campaign's victims has ben Salam Al-Marayati, a highly regarded American Muslim who has long-worked with the Jewish community in Los Angeles on a variety of political and social causes. Last year, he was denied appointment to a federal commission to inquire into terrorism on the basis of allegations made by some Jewish groups that he consorted with terrorists.

As a result, the head office of the Anti-Defamation League barred its Los Angeles chapter from participating in a long-standing dialogue between Muslims and Jews in which al-Marayati was involved, and other Jewish organizations followed suit. Retired Rabbi Leonard Beerman of the Leo Baeck Temple, who long worked with al-Marayati, scoffed at the allegations of terrorist sympathies and lamented the serious damage done to Jewish-Muslim relations in Los Angeles by the charges.

Yehudith Barsky, who heads the Muslim desk at the American Jewish Committee, contends that Jewish-Muslim relations are still in an early stage. American Jews not only are unfamiliar with the Muslim community, but the two, in their dealings, rarely get past differences on the Arab-Israeli conflict. In contrast, Jewish-Christian dialogue is built, she said, on a century of experience, as well as on Vatican II, which helped transform Christian values. Jewish-Muslim relations, she said, have a wholly different starting point.

AJC chapters--in Detroit, Chicago, and San Francisco, as well as Los Angeles--have had good results in working on local problems. Among them, she said, are hate crimes, restrictive dress codes, and classroom conflicts. In some cases, Muslims have reached out to Jews, she said, and in others it was Jews who approached Muslims.

But the current Arab-Israeli crisis, she said, is troublesome in raising not just political but theological differences. People on both sides are now asking whether Judaism and Islam can live together at all. Though the question is not new, she said, the contest over Jerusalem's Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif brought it to a head, and is having ramifications in the United States.

One example: Muslim groups are calling on the internet for anti-Israeli demonstrations in a half-dozen or more American cities.

Barsky said she feared the Arab-Israeli conflict could be shifting from a political into a religious mode, a general Jewish-Muslim conflict that would have repercussions well beyond the issue of the Middle East.
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