Bringing empathy out of tragedy

Founder of interfaith group puts a premium on building bridges between American Jews and Muslims in the wake of the Boston bombings.

Schneier 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Schneier 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
NEW YORK – “It is not a question of dialogue, it is not a question of programs,” said Rabbi Marc Schneier, the founder of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, as he discussed how American Jews and Muslims should interact in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings.
“It’s about what I refer to as an empathetic imagination, meaning putting your self” in the other’s shoes.
Schneier, the son of Rabbi Arthur Schneier, a major figure in Jewish- Catholic relations, has been working in recent years on building bridges between Jewish and Muslim communities both in the United States and around the world.
The pioneer of a program in which rabbis and imams switch pulpits to deliver sermons – rabbis in mosques and imams in synagogues – that he says has now expanded to thirty five countries, Schneier believes that it is the “responsibility of Jewish leaders after such a terrible thing [as] Boston to put [themselves] in the place of American Muslims” who are being “demonized” and “victimized.”
“We understand what that pain is, we understand what that kind of persecution is, and therefore it is our responsibility not only to speak out but to defend the American Muslim community,” Schneier told The Jerusalem Post during an interview in New York on Tuesday evening.
“What was very gratifying was the number of Jewish leaders and rabbis that did speak out on this very issue.”
Schneier said, however, that support is a two-way street. Citing what he believes to be a tendency by Americans to paint the Muslim community in broad strokes, the 54-year-old rabbi asserted that “the way to turn this thing around” is for Muslim leaders to “be very outspoken and shout from the rooftops” that the bombers did not represent Islam.
“There is this perception that American Muslims are not to be trusted and this is a conspiracy and this is what is being taught in mosques.”
Moreover, he said, in Europe – where “Jews are under attack by Muslims,” and where both communities face the same religious rights issues in the form of attacks on both circumcision and ritual slaughter – “there is a responsibility of the Muslim community to speak out, to denounce those attacks and to defend the Jewish community.”
“Because of that... I think the stakes are much higher in Europe,” Schneier said.
“Therefore I believe that the only way to put an end to this is to have Muslims fighting the fight for Jews.[If] the Muslims don’t fight the fight for Jews, then the Jewish community might as well just pick up and leave.
“In Europe, Jews are confronted with anti-Semitism, particularly coming from the Muslim community. We don’t have that here at all,” he said.
“You don’t have rabbis being beaten up like in Berlin, schoolchildren being shot like in Toulouse. You don’t have that here. It’s a different reality [and] I think that has more to do with the United States than it has to do with Islam or Muslims.
“You look at the multicultural formula or prescription of the US and compare that to France, you will understand why the American Muslim community has successfully integrated into our society while in France they have a major problem on their hands,” Schneier explained.
“In Europe this has become an existentialist issue for the Jewish community, but I think that American Muslims can be a very important and very critical partner in serving as an example [for] what can be done and what should be done.”