Religious Affairs: Sharing a common fate

Foundation of Ethnic Understanding is working to facilitate, organize and coordinate largest global Muslim- Jewish conversation ever.

Rabbi Marc Schneier meets with Muslim imams (photo credit: Courtesy of Foundation for Ethnic Understanding)
Rabbi Marc Schneier meets with Muslim imams
(photo credit: Courtesy of Foundation for Ethnic Understanding)
Interfaith and intercommunal dialogue are often depicted as the benevolent and perhaps naive aspirations of Good Samaritans who mean well but may have little impact on the deep-seated suspicions they are trying to assuage.
But one organization that claims to be breaking the mold in this respect is the Foundation of Ethnic Understanding based in New York.
The foundation was established 23 years ago and focused for much of its early life on strengthening relations between the African-American and Jewish communities, to “rebuild and restore the great alliance that brought about social changes in the ’50s and ’60s during civil rights movement,” foundation president Rabbi Marc Schneier explained to The Jerusalem Post.
Increasingly though, the organization has found itself dealing with the sometimes fraught issue of Jewish- Muslim relations.
As is the case around the world in countries where the two groups reside, the communities frequently regard each other with suspicion and hostility because of the struggle of their co-religionists here in the Middle East.
Therefore, Schneier says, the foundation is not interested in simple dialogue or the exchange pleasantries.
“The purpose is for people of different ethnic backgrounds and religions to stand up for each other when they’re in need of support,” he says.
By way of example, he cites the hearings established in March of this year by Congressman Peter King who, in his position as chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, established a series of hearings into Islamic extremism in America, the first of which was entitled “The Extent of Radicalization in the American Muslim Community and that Community’s Response.”
The hearings were widely seen as a McCarthyite witch-hunt against an entire community. King was pilloried in the liberal press, although conservatives pointed to recent incidents, such as the Fort Hood shooting in November 2009 by Muslim-American US Army Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan and the attempt by Pakistani-American Faisal Shahzad to set off a car bomb in Times Square in June 2010, as justification for the hearings.
Schneier’s foundation was among those who condemned of King’s hearings, participating in the “Today I Am A Muslim Too” rally in Times Square in March to the hearings and to provide succor for a fellow faith community.
It’s not particularly groundbreaking, Schneier says, when a Jewish group condemns an anti-Israel or anti-Semitic comment or event, or if a Muslim organization criticizes those inciting against Islam. “But if it’s the other way around, if the respective faith groups stand up for each other’s rights, then that’s a powerful statement.”
Another recent striking example was a letter sent by a group of American-Muslim leaders in September calling on Hamas to release Gilad Schalit. Congressman Keith Ellison (D-Minnesota), the first Muslim member of the House of Representatives, Congressman Andre Carson (D-Indiana) and nine other prominent figures of the US Muslim community wrote to Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal, calling on him to release Schalit immediately. “Hamas’s inhumane detention of Schalit undermines the Palestinian people’s legitimate aspirations for human rights and a state of their own, existing in peace and security beside Israel,” the letter read.
In a conversation with The Jerusalem Post, Ellison expounded on his reasoning for vocally backing Schalit’s release.
“Ramadan is a time of mercy and forgiveness, and an especially appropriate time for the release of captives,” he said.
“As Muslims, we called on Mashaal to act in accordance with Islamic values, especially that of compassion, and release Sgt.Schalit. “This doesn’t mean to say that we are not concerned about Palestinian captives held in Israel without due process, but we were appealing to Mashaal as fellow Muslims, and that is what was so unique and impactful about this initiative.”
Ellison says that it was natural to reach out to the Jewish community in America in this gesture of solidarity, but also expresses hope that with the Schalit exchange completed, progress can be made in negotiations toward bringing the wider conflict to a close.
“If it’s possible to sit and negotiate, even with Hamas, on the details of a prisoner swap, then surely it must also be possible to negotiate on the other tough issues at the heart of this conflict like Jerusalem, final borders and refugees,” he says. “Even though the land of Israel and Palestine is small, it’s not too small to see two states living side by side in peace – but there has to be the same spirit of negotiation as there was with the Schalit deal.”
Among the signatories to the letter was Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the director of the Cordoba Initiative, which generated considerable – and many claimed, unfair – controversy over its plans to build an Islamic community center two blocks away from Ground Zero in New York.
Ellison points to the Foundation of Ethnic Understanding’s public support for the initiative while many in the conservative press and blogosphere were whipping up dark insinuations of “Islamic Supremacism.”
“The Jewish mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg, was another person who spoke out against those attacking the initiative and so this kind of mutual solidarity is a very positive sign,” Ellison added. “The reality in America is that both Muslims and Jews are a minority and it’s vital that we cooperate in this way.”
And in Ellison’s opinion, Muslim-Jewish relations are not all that difficult at present.
“It’s a little-know secret, but relations between the Jewish and Muslim communities in America are just fine. We work together on community health projects, feeding poor and other intercommunal endeavors. Yes, there are people on both sides who try to whip up hysteria, but they are finding it hard to get any kind of following.”
One arena in the US where, in some cases, relations have become overtly hostile is on college campuses. University of California, Irvine, with its large proportion of Muslim students, is one of the epicenters of this problem. In 2009, the university’s Muslim Student Union hosted a twoweek event entitled “Israel: The Politics of Genocide” renowned anti-Zionist figures such as former British MP George Galloway.
One display during the event pictured Anne Frank wearing a keffiyeh, which was described as a symbol of “freedom and solidarity with Palestine,” juxtaposed with a quote from Frank’s diary about the situation of European Jewry.
These incidents and numerous others on several US college campuses have led to allegations by Jewish students of harassment, incitement and anti-Semitism.
“Yes, there has been tension on campus,” says Ellison, “but not religious tension. The point of controversy is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, not religion. And that conflict itself is not a religious one but a territorial dispute.”
Ellison concedes that the two groups are nevertheless predominantly identifying with their co-religionists, but he believes that there are people on both sides who manage to cross the sectarian divide.
Schneier also admits that college campuses are a point of friction between the two communities. “I have seen the college campuses where the tensions are high,” he says. “The dynamic we are trying to establish in the US is that if there is conflict, if a Muslim group misspoke or used anti- Semitic or anti-Israel rhetoric, then we try to encourage Muslim leaders to respond this.”
Schneier is also eager to move beyond the US and bring his campaign for interfaith understanding to the wider world.
To this end, the foundation, along with one of its main interfaith partners, the Islamic Society of North America, has helped facilitate, organize and coordinate what it describes as the largest global Muslim- Jewish conversation ever, set to begin next week. A total of 125 Muslim-Jewish interfaith events taking place in 27 countries will bring Jews and Muslims together to discuss issues of mutual interest such as the role and place of religion in the public sphere, social and charitable work and building tolerance and understanding between different religious groups.
“Ultimately,” says Schneier, “in a world with 14 million Jews and 1.2 billion Muslims, it behooves the Jewish community to find a path to bridge the chasm between Muslims and Jews. We must recognize that as the children of Abraham, we not only share a common faith but also a common fate. It is our single destiny that must strengthen our bonds of concern, compassion and care for each other.”