The coexistence conundrum

In this exploration of issues relating to Muslim-Jewish relations in America, the Muslim contributors are mostly orthodox, while the Jewish ones are progressive and self-critical.

Police keep an eye on Jewish and Muslim students. (photo credit: Los Angeles Times/MCT)
Police keep an eye on Jewish and Muslim students.
(photo credit: Los Angeles Times/MCT)
In this innovative volume, two editors have gathered 16 essays by rabbis, imams, Muslim leaders, Jewish intellectuals and academics, that examine current issues relating to Muslim- Jewish relations in America.
In the foreword, Congressman Keith Ellison argues that “as religious minorities in the United States, Jews and Muslims share a common experience,” and stresses that “people of good will must cultivate [tolerance] by committing themselves to interfaith dialogue.”
Unfortunately the main problem with this volume is clear from the start. Many of the contributors are related to one another ideologically, resulting in a lack of diverse views. Ingrid Mattson is a convert to Islam who wears a head scarf and is a former president of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA). Sayyid M. Syeed is ISNA’s current national director. Peter Geffen and Aaron Hahn Tapper are both founders of Abraham’s Vision, a coexistence and interfaith organization. Rabbi Michael Lerner is the editor of the far-left Tikkun magazine, and Rabbi Amy Eilberg directs interfaith programs in Minneapolis. The Muslim contributors are mostly orthodox Muslims, many of whom study Islamic theology, while the Jewish contributors are progressive and self-critical. No Orthodox Jewish voices are included, nor are any critical Muslim voices, such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali.
The volume is divided into four sections that supposedly cover different themes. But the ill-conceived jumble of essays does not fit the assigned sections. Some essays have nothing to do with coexistence, while others discuss narrow topics, such as the role of J Street, that deviate from the prescribed theme.
The first article, by Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, details his experience working at Bridges TV, which “provided programs primarily to the North American Muslim community.” One of the channel’s co-founders, Mo Hassan, decapitated his wife, Aasiya Zubair, the other cofounder, when she wanted a divorce. Hirschfield notes that “at the time of Aasiya’s murder the Muslim community needed to find the courage to seriously address the inevitable questions about the role of religion in this crime.” Hirschfield blames anti-Muslim voices for the fact that Muslims lack self-criticism, saying that “such detractors made it increasingly difficult to instigate the self-critique and reform that they claim is so necessary.”
The second essay, by Omid Safi, a professor of Islamic studies, is one long rant against the DVD Obsession: Radical Islam’s War against the West. He demands to know “who was behind this massive, multimillion dollar campaign”; he claims it was primarily Zionists. “Should it really be that easy for a non- American organization to propagate mass hate speech in the US?” he wonders. What does Safi’s conspiratorial Zionist-bashing have to do with the general line of coexistence that runs through this volume?
By contrast, Eilberg’s essay chronicles her work in “interfaith relations from the perspective of a rabbi and practitioner.” She notes that coexistence is hard because, for one thing, the average Jewish woman feels uncomfortable entering a mosque. Eilberg also highlights a story where Muslims were invited to an interfaith Seder at which the hyper-critical Jewish, self-described feminist progressive hosts spent much of the time criticizing their own religion and the violent overtones of the Pessah ritual. One Muslim expressed shock: “You are talking about criticizing your sacred text!”
The Muslim guest was right; why did Jews who wanted to coexist feel that they had to bash their religion in order to make Muslims feel welcome, to the degree that the Muslims in fact felt uncomfortable?
Several of the articles detail how Muslims have attempted to learn from Jews how to lobby on their own behalf. Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf writes about the role of ISNA and the Council on American- Islamic Relations (CAIR), while Tapper compares Hillel to the Muslim Students Association. He claims that most Jewish student organizations “focus their on-campus efforts on training students to support particular political positions in regard to Israel... these Jewish organizations... do not normally focus on activities relevant to university student populations.”
Tapper’s claim is categorically false, as any Jewish university student knows, and his theory stems from that fact that he sees a radical pro-Israel agenda behind everything. He makes further outlandish claims – for example, that “the American Jewish community is much more ethnically and ideologically homogenous” than the Muslim community. Jews, ideologically homogenous? Is the writer joking? The other essays reveal just the opposite.
Many of the Muslim and Jewish voices in this volume consider the Muslim community to be harassed, stigmatized and suffering from overbearing Islamophobia. Aysha Hidayatullah argues that “not a day passes without reports of Muslims being harassed, assaulted, and treated like foreigners.” This victimized view is propagated by organizations such as CAIR, which want to see anti-Muslim demons lurking everywhere. While the Jewish voices in this volume often criticize the Anti-Defamation League for peddling anti-Semitism claims, it is too bad the Muslim voices don’t also realize that they are being spoon-fed similar alarmist narratives.
Muslims and Jews in America had the potential to include a diverse range of voices examining the two minority groups and how they interact, especially in light of the tension caused by the Middle East conflict. While there are some nuggets of insight and information, such as the Hillel/MSA comparison and an article about Jewish and Muslim Iranian students, the editors mostly failed in their task; instead, they provided a platform for a narrow viewpoint. The few relevant voices, such as Rabbi Eric Yoffie’s, were not even intended for the volume (his essay is a transcription of a speech he gave to ISNA). The topic awaits a more profound examination.