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Discovering common rituals, re-reading Muslim and Jewish religious texts, and building cooperation between the communities were the focus of the first American summit of imams and rabbis that took place in New York this week.
The 25 religious leaders from 11 US cities who came together at the invitation of Imam Omar Abu Namous, spiritual leader of the Islamic Cultural Center of New York City, and Rabbi Marc Schneier, president of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, agreed to lay aside the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, at least for now.
"That's not [to] say we won't discuss it next time," said Schneier.
Many rabbis compared this meeting, which focused on commonalities between the two communities, to efforts to bring together Jews and Christians in the 1950s. Since then the relationship has developed in ways no one could have predicted. The hope is that a similar development may emerge between American Jews and Muslims.
One mention of the conflict slipped through the cracks in an introductory session, but even that spoke to a subtle development in Jewish-Muslim relations, said Schneier.
The two collaborators - Schneier and Namous - aren't strangers.
In November 2006 Schneier invited Namous to the New York Synagogue in what was billed as a historic event. But the visit turned sour when the imam began criticizing Israel, calling for a one-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In January, they tried again, this time at Namous's mosque, the largest in the city. There they decided to leave Middle East crises off the table.
But toward the end of the talks, Schenier pressed Namous to raise his voice against anti-Semitism in the Muslim world, following an incident at a major mosque in London that was distributing anti-Semitic DVDs.
This week, the only mention of the conflict came right at the start. Namous spoke of the need to deal with the issue of Palestinian refugees. Schneier said the Arab world needed to deal with the nearly one million Jewish refugees from Arab countries. In a similar exchange a year ago, Namous denied there were Jewish refugees, according to Schneier.
"Yesterday he acknowledged there was a refugee problem," said Schneier.
"I think that brief exchange was indicative as to how far this relationship has come, and I know many of our colleagues have gone through similar evolutions in their communities," he added.
The conflict was kept at bay for the rest of the summit.
"It doesn't pay to discuss Israel. We will have to agree to disagree," said Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg, of the Orthodox synagogue Beth Tfiloh in Baltimore.
"Unfortunately, the general sentiment in the Orthodox world is that they [Muslims] are all out to get us... but it's only in getting together like this that we find out who's who," he continued.
Imam Malik Sakhawat Hussain, from the Al-Mahdi Foundation, Inc. in New Jersey, said, "These days we can't afford strict defenses. We have to minimize defenses and at least make an effort against defamation to show Muslims are not rigid."
Islam, he said, "doesn't allow suicide bombers at any moment, and anyone who claims it does is wrong."
The afternoon sessions at the Islamic Cultural Center included: "How Can American Jews and Muslims Act as Allies in Times of Crisis?" and "Creating a Common Agenda: Potential Areas of Cooperation between Synagogues and Mosques in Cities across America," a session during which poverty affecting Jews and Muslims, as well as campus activism, were discussed.
"The American Jewish community can't ignore the continued growth of the Muslim population, economically and politically," said Schneier, adding, "Everyone speaks of the US as an unconditional supporter of Israel, and I'm not saying that will change, but the demographics are really changing."
A Pew Research Center survey conducted in May revealed that a majority of American Muslims are "very concerned" about Islamic extremism in the world, and a majority said they believed in a two-state solution.
"The Muslim community is growing and we have to find ways of connecting and should acknowledge that of all the Muslim communities, we have one that is moderate and centrist, and fearful of extremism," said Schneier. "Let's see how we can help project those voices internationally."
The summit concluded with a dinner hosted by the World Jewish Congress and attended by its president, Ronald Lauder. The religious leaders also agreed to establish the third weekend in November as a national weekend of reconciliation, calling for the twinning of synagogues and mosques and the promotion of cooperation in various ways.