Fostering understanding between American Muslims and Jews

In his new role as the American Jewish Committee’s director of Muslim-Jewish relations, Robert Silverman has his work cut out.

Robert Silverman meets with religious leaders during his visit to Israel this week. (photo credit: COURTESY MAZHAR RISHI)
Robert Silverman meets with religious leaders during his visit to Israel this week.
Black Lives Matter activists against police; Gun control advocates against the NRA; Donald Trump against... well, everyone else. Whatever illusions of harmony that existed between disparate populations within the United States have been shattered over the past few months, making America seem less like a melting pot and more like a bubbling stew, moments away from spilling over the brim.
It is fitting then that the American Jewish Committee (AJC) has tapped Robert Silverman, a former diplomat with extensive experience in the Arab world, as its first head of Muslim-Jewish relations. In a nation riddled with strife and its Muslim community under extraordinary stress, Silverman sees a pressing need to reach out (and not alienate) Muslim Americans.
“We really want to solidify ties first within the United States,” Silverman told The Jerusalem Post this week. “First between American Jews and American Muslims at a community level, and also at the national level.”
Silverman spoke to the Post at the tail-end of an exhaustive “educational seminar” that took place in Israel. The 23-person delegation of Muslim-American leaders consisted of a diverse array of representatives from the Muslim community – Sunni, Shi’ite, African-American, and Arab-Americans of different nationalities – joined him to gain a better understanding of the country.
“The key ingredient was [selecting] people who were influential leaders in their community... I’ve learned a lot about their communities and they’ve learned a lot about Israel,” he said.
One of his biggest revelations during his three months on the job was how helpful reaching out to African-American Muslims can be. Unlike their counterparts of Arab descent, African-American Muslims don’t harbor the same pre-conceived notions against Israel that dominate much of the Arab world.
“African-American Muslims are an important overlooked group of Muslims in the world,” he said of a population that represents 35 percent to 45 percent of American Muslims.
”They don’t have the same automatic upbringing to discard Jews,” he said. “In fact, what they remember is the Jewish contribution to the Civil Rights Movement. It’s a slightly positive feeling toward Jews.”
As such, Silverman was particularly encouraged by the reaction of a member of the delegation who is an African-American imam based in Washington. After his time here, where he met with Ethiopian Jews and Arab-Israelis, “he wants to do more to spread tolerance and understanding. He’s invited me to talk at his mosque, which I will do. That’s a very concrete tangible thing. For him this has been a real journey,” he marveled, adding that the six-day trip also included visits to the Palestinian Authority.
With 27 years of foreign service experience in countries like Egypt, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Tunisia under his belt, Silverman has spent the bulk of his career immersed in the Muslim world.
“Being a diplomat is good training for this because the goal of a diplomat is to understand in a deep sense another people’s culture or point of view,” he explained.
“When you do that, when you look at the world from an American Muslim perspective, then it helps you identify where the common ground could be.”
The Des Moines native acknowledges that bridging gaps between Jews and Muslims in America is no small feat, but he is confident that with the backing of the AJC, he can make significant headway on a person- to-person level within communities.
The relationship between Jews and Muslims in America is a nuanced one, especially given the diversity within each group.
Just as Jews consist of Orthodox, Reform, Conservative and secular from a variety of backgrounds, so do American Muslims.
The Muslim community, Silverman explains, is primarily divided into three groups – African-American Muslims (many of whom converted via Nation of Islam), those of South Asian origin, and Middle Eastern origin.
“Contact level between the two communities is very meager,” Silverman said, explaining the current state of Muslim-Jewish relations in the United States. “The two communities are very remote. There are some political tensions: Israel is an enormous political consideration, and there’s also anti-Semitism sentiments within the Muslim community that many inherited from their immigrant parents.
“We had AJC directors and lay people from all over the country come up to me saying they really want my help to get started on this. This is the right time to do it because the stress the American Muslim community is under now could use support,” Silverman explained.
The ultimate goal of Silverman’s initiative is to develop a “joint policy agenda between [American] Muslims and Jews.
“A majority of the Muslims, like a majority of the Jews, are a much more progressive lot and much more tolerant. They’re much more tolerant in seeing Israel from a different point of view from their immigrant parent’s generation,” he added.
To that end, he is coordinating with AJC’s 22 offices and its community members. It is those community members, what Silverman refers to as “lay leaders,” who can ultimately be most influential in this endeavor, he says.
“It’s the lay leaders who are often the most important in their community. They are heads of law firms, heads of major corporations, civic leaders,” he explained.
He has kicked off his initiative with symbolic, but meaningful gestures. Hosting Iftars during Ramadan across the country, giving talks at mosques and interfaith Shabbat dinners are all ways in which Silverman has devised chipping away at the sometimes icy relationship between American Jews and Muslims.
Additionally, as a demonstration of solidarity last May, the AJC called on The Citadel, the military college in South Carolina, to allow a Muslim student to wear a hijab.
“This is what I call retail diplomacy,” he asserted. “We’re not subcontracting this out.”
With the rise of global terrorism (and the far-right knee-jerk reaction it caused), to many this would seem like exactly the wrong time to reach out to American Muslims.
Silverman, though, only sees the opportunity in extending a helping hand during this time of great tension.
“There’s an exciting phenomenon coming up in American Islam that’s developed.
This is a relatively young population in America,” Silverman explained, saying many are relatively Americanized and willing to assimilate much more than their European counterparts.
Moreover, the rise of newly minted Republican nominee Donald Trump and the anti-Muslim rhetoric inherent in his campaign has only increased the necessity to embrace America’s Muslims.
While Silverman doesn’t mention Trump by name for the sake of maintaining AJC’s non-partisan stance, he is quick to criticize the “ugly trend-setters” in politics.
“Bigotry and hatred and the ignorance being stirred up, fear-mongering of immigrants, is deeply troubling to AJC. This is unacceptable,” he said vehemently. “We know where this leads. This is not just us being nice people. This is us exercising protecting self-interest.”
Moreover, Muslims sympathetic to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement have been an obstacle in terms of finding partners in dialogue. While figures are not readily available, Silverman asserts that the movement is popular among the three million to four million Muslims currently living in America.
“That is a problem. And that would be a conversation stopper for some, but not all. The more determined, smarter ones, understand that they need to reach out to the mainstream American Jewish community,” he explained.
“I think there’s a process of education that needs to happen when it comes to talking about Israel issues,” he said carefully.
“We need to educate American Jews and other minorities about Israel, so we’re not feeding stereotypes. The Israel that I know, in a deep sense, is a couple things at once.”
Of course, Silverman acknowledges that Jews and Muslims living in perfect harmony in America is not something that can happen overnight.
“I think we need to be patient with ourselves,” he said. “It takes time.”