Erasing the red lines between Muslims and Jews in America

The Muslim Leadership Initiative, run by the Shalom Hartman Institute, is reshaping the way in which American Muslims engage with their Jewish counterparts.

RABBI DONNIEL HARTMAN (left) speaks to the MLI participants at the Shalom Hartman Institute, as MLI co-director Abdullah Antepli and MLI alumni director Maital Friedman look on (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
RABBI DONNIEL HARTMAN (left) speaks to the MLI participants at the Shalom Hartman Institute, as MLI co-director Abdullah Antepli and MLI alumni director Maital Friedman look on
Sitting in a functional conference room at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem’s Talbiyeh neighborhood, everything appears to be as it should be.
Some two dozen adult students bearing laptops, tablets and notebooks pay close attention as esteemed lecturers lead in-depth intellectual talks with titles like “Religion and State: The Israeli Model” and “Personal Reflections on Jewish Faith.”
Some students type or scribble furiously, another googles “Breaking the Silence” when Hartman president Donniel Hartman brings it up during a lecture titled “Israel and the World.” Many of the students raise their hands and ask for clarifications, which Hartman readily consents to with expansive, engaging answers – some provoking laughter, others getting nods in agreement and plenty of more furious scribbling and typing.
It’s a method of learning that the Hartman Institute has been employing for four decades, building its reputation as one of the country’s leading pluralistic centers of Jewish research and education.
But what’s different with this picture is that these attentive students learning about “The Tribes of Israel” and “Mizrahi Rabbis and the halachic decision-making process” aren’t Jews from Israel or the Diaspora, Hartman’s regular bread-and-butter audience – they’re all Muslims from the United States.
The mix of educators, clergy, academics and community activists are participants in the fourth cohort of the Muslim Leadership Initiative, a 13-month Hartman program that is designed to explore Judaism, Israel and Jewish peoplehood from a Jewish perspective.
Why should American Muslim leaders care about those issues and how did the Hartman Institute get convinced to foot the bill to educate them? Abdullah Antepli and Yossi Klein Halevi could talk about it for hours.
“MLI is a project where pro-Palestinian American Muslims – for the lack of a better term – try to understand pro-Israeli Jews, worldwide, and attempt to create an overarching moral framework in which to have a conversation,” said Antepli, a Turkish-born educator at Duke University in South Carolina, who together with Klein Halevi, a respected American-born Israeli author, Jewish educator and Hartman lecturer, founded and co-direct the MLI.
An unlikely couple, the devout Muslim imam and observant Jew have formed a mutual admiration society based on their shared sense of justice, love of each other’s religion and joint vision of the future of Jewish-Muslim relations in the US. They also form a unified front against the ongoing criticism the MLI receives from within the American Muslim community among those who are against Muslims studying at an unabashed Zionist center in the heart of Jerusalem.
“THERE HAS been Jewish-Muslim dialogue in the US for decades, but today, antisemitism in the American Muslim community is worse than it was 40 years ago, and Islamophobia in the American-Jewish community is also much worse – so something is not working.”
Antepli exudes charisma and compassion as he sits in a Jerusalem hotel coffee shop, and in near-perfect, slightly-accented English, passionately explains the origins of his pursuit to educate his fellow Muslims in America. The founding director of Duke’s Center for Muslim Life and the university’s first Muslim chaplain, the 45-year-old imam throws out Hebrew and Jewish phrases naturally, and his knowledge of Judaism would put most American Jews, never mind Israeli Jews, to shame.
“Jews and Muslims in America only talk to each other in two ways – either about hummus, halal and kashrut or they debate and throw their own facts and UN resolutions at each other. After the shouting match that ensues there is no relationship left. In the post-9/11 era, all the schmoozing efforts, interfaith meetings and ‘Kumbaya’ singing weren’t making any difference.
“My community was becoming incredibly vulnerable to antisemitism. People would listen to sermons in mosques, and because they’re angry and partisan in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, they don’t recognize that they have very quickly and irresponsibly and dangerously moved from criticizing the policy of state into antisemitism.
“So I was looking for someone who could teach us: ‘What is anti-Israeli or anti-Zionist criticism and when does it turn into antisemitism?’”
Enter Yossi Klein Halevi, whose book about his transformation from a supporter of Meir Kahane to a moderate peace activist – At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden – had piqued Antepli’s curiosity. On a trip to Israel in 2002, Antepli sought out Klein Halevi and explained his idea to less-than-enthusiastic response.
“With Yossi, it was love at first sight,” said Antepli. But unfortunately for him, Klein Halevi had been strongly affected emotionally by the onslaught of the Second Intifada, and the hope that had shone through in his book about Israelis and Palestinians had been shut down.
“I felt that he was the kind of guy I was looking for, but he was completely uninterested – he wasn’t the same Yossi who wrote the book, he was resentful and angry, and he dismissed me for 10 years.”
“But with the help of Hartman, he processed those resentments and saw, like many Israelis who left the peace camp and joined the center-right after the Second Intifada, that it also wasn’t helpful.”
Klein Halevi, 20 years Antepli’s senior but his soul brother, laughs in agreement upon joining the conversation.
Abdullah and Klein Halevi are each other’s biggest fans – they share a rare empathy, with one building on the previous statement of the other like an in-sync wrestling tag team operating at well-oiled efficiency.
With a bushy beard and black kippa, Klein Halevi has earned the reputation as one of the great modern Jewish thinkers, thanks to many years of erudite articles, columns and books including 2013’s Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation. Without missing a beat, he picks up Antepli’s narrative with the same passion and focus as his colleague and friend.
“When Abdullah first approached me about this, I said ‘Are you sure I’m your right partner? Go find some nice left-wing Jew who will agree with you.’ And he said, ‘No I want your voice there.’
“It’s a testament to Abdullah’s extraordinary persistence and also his broadmindedness and big mind that can tolerate a range of contradictions. He models the MLI conversation in himself and in his willingness to bring someone like me into the project. He said ‘I want them to hear a Jew like you – an unapologetic Jew.’”
With Antepli as the recruiter and Klein Halevi and Donniel Hartman as curriculum gurus, they developed an intellectually rigorous 13-month program that includes four weeks in Israel (two at the beginning and two at the end) along with monthly webinars and seminars in the US that, according to its mission statement, “seeks to expand participants’ critical understanding of the complex religious, political, and socioeconomic issues facing people in Israel and Palestine” via exposure to different narratives.
Participants spend considerable time in Jerusalem’s Old City, mostly at al-Aksa Mosque, travel to visit Palestinian and Jewish communities in the West Bank and are led through Yad Vashem. And at Hartman, they learn and learn and learn.
“MLI IS not a dialogue – it’s a one-way education engagement, an invitation by a confident, unambiguously Zionist-Israeli organization that is asking ‘Do you want to understand the Jewish collective consciousness?’” said Antepli. “We focus on Judaism as a religion, Jews as a people, Zionism as a form of national ideology and Israel and a secular nation state.”
“Can we do better back home – we don’t have to agree – if we create a space in our hearts and minds and if I understand how Judaism and Zionism play a role in shaping Jewish life in North America? Can this a base for trust-building and better communication – trying to understand each other without triggering emotional existential anxiety in each other’s psyche?”
According to Klein Halevi, arriving at that goal is aided by teaching about modern-day Israel and Zionism in a holistic manner.
“What we do is begin the story not in the 19th century with the Zionist movement but 4,000 years ago... so we talk about Zionism as the political and largely secular expression of a deeper religious longing,” he explained.
“So in switching the conversation and not talking about the Holocaust but about 4,000 years of history, we teach them that Zionism is a meeting point between need and longing. The ‘need’ piece everyone knows, but what we’re emphasizing is 4,000 years of Jewish attachment to the land and longing. Zionism would not have been possible without the story of Jewish longing – it’s self-evident to most Jews, it’s not at all to Muslims.”
A unique educational program for sure, but what MLI isn’t is a hasbara or public diplomacy factory aimed at churning out pro-Israeli Muslims who will go forth and tout Zionism to their brethren in America.
“People hear about MLI and very quickly think we are trying to create Muslim Zionists. That cannot be further from the truth,” said Antepli.
“I’m not trying to convince participants to give up their Palestinian loyalties, I want them to stretch their understanding of the conflict to accommodate some place for my narrative,” added Klein Halevi, emphasizing that the program showed the “good, bad and ugly” of Israel’s history and current challenges.
“We don’t do hasbara. I’m not interested in defending the 2014 Gaza war, even though I do defend it. I explain why I believe that we acted out of self-defense, but that’s not the goal of the program. If they come out of it still thinking that we were wrong in Gaza, I can live with that – as long they’re prepared to hear my self-understanding of my identity, and understand why I would leave my life in New York and move to Israel, and why an Ethiopian would walk across the desert to come here. And then understand how we both then met in the army. That’s a story that can only be understood if you don’t think of Jews only in terms of religion, but as a people with a religious identity.”
SINCE LAUNCHING in 2013, over 100 participants have completed the MLI course and continue to meet at alumni seminars throughout the year. The participants, between 25 and 55, commit to the 13-month fellowship that involves the first two weeks at Hartman, then two in-person seminars throughout the year in the US, monthly webinars and then the final two weeks back in Israel.
Each half-male, half-female cohort tries to capture the ethnic, sectarian, linguistic and economic diversity of the American-Muslim community, but has had a challenge in attracting Arab participants, explained Antepli.
“American Islam is one of the most diverse Muslim communities in the world, and it’s absolutely the most diverse faith community in the US. Pretty much except for the Arab American part, we hit a home run in getting the kind of diversity we are looking for,” he said, adding that while American Arabs make up about 15% of the American-Muslim community, there is 7%- to-8% representation at MLI. “Understandably, American- Arab communities are a lot more sensitive about coming to Israel.”
While it may not produce assembly-line Zionists, the program does help develop their knowledge of Judaism to a level that Antepli proudly said, many alumni “could become interim rabbis” with their background in Jewish philosophy and spirituality.
The cost of the program for the participants is completely covered by the fund-raising efforts of the Hartman Institute, and both Antepli and Klein Halevi adamantly admit that their plan would have emerged stillborn without the fervent support of Donniel Hartman.
“We take it for granted how the Hartman Institute greeted this project with open arms, but it’s extraordinary,” said Klein Halevi.
“I have no responsibility for the institution, I’m a researcher. So when Abdullah came to me and said ‘Let’s do this,’ I said ‘Why not?’ But Donniel and Yehuda [Kurzer, Hartman’s North American director] took an enormous leap of faith. They agreed to suspend many of the normal rules, for example, an agreement that Abdullah would handle all recruitment.
“We didn’t even receive a single proposed name to vet – if Abdullah confirmed them, we went along. For me, it’s no big deal to go along with that, but Donniel is running an institution and he has funders to be concerned with. What happens if an MLI graduate goes on and embarrasses the institution? Not once did he raise that as a concern.”
Antepli added that in his research to find a host for his program, Hartman proved to be the only game in town.
“When you present the idea for the first time – American Muslims coming to an Israeli-Zionist institution to try and understand Israel and Zionism, it sounds crazy. But the first time when I found out about Hartman, I realized it was exactly what I was looking for to give the educational tools that my community needs and to create goodwill,” he said.
“In the organized American-Jewish community, especially the more center-right, pro-Israel part of the Jewish community, even if you have developed the most sophisticated tools and language, the firewalls and skepticism are so thick that you cannot go through. You need a partnership with an organization that will take these walls down.”
“I ALWAYS assumed the doors were closed in the Muslim community.”
Donniel Hartman was speaking in his spacious office a few minutes before meeting the MLI group for their final class in the second round of their two-week Israel curriculum before their graduation. If he was anticipatory, the son of the institute’s founder David Hartman didn’t reveal it, speaking in a characteristically articulate and effusive manner.
“When Abdullah said, ‘We need to do this,’ I said ‘But they won’t come.’
He said, ‘I’ll bring them’ – and I said, ‘Let’s do it.’
“Anytime that we can enhance the ability of a person to see Jews and Judaism differently and to enhance the ability of Jews to see Muslims differently, then it’s a win for the world. Without even knowing what it was going to be, doing the right thing was quite simple – just get out of the way and let it happen,” said Hartman.
One area that he was in complete agreement with Antepli and Klein Halevi was in their decision not to look for candidates who were inclined to be friendly to Israel.
“There’s this whole idea of kosher Muslims – did this one ever make a statement against Israel, did this one associate with known antisemites? Well, those are the people I want in the program,” said Klein Halevi.
“When we first started the program, I was asked by someone in the American-Jewish community about what we do if we discovered that a participant had engaged in anti-Israel or even anti-Jewish activity. I answered that I would make sure that a person like that stayed in the program. I don’t want low-hanging fruit.”
Hartman added that he was delighted to rise to the challenge of confronting such participants with the truth as seen through Israeli eyes.
His 90-minute lecture incorporates references ranging from Jewish sages to pro-Palestinian political activist Linda Sarsour, ex-Alabama senator Roy Moore to New Age educational philosophies. The students, some wearing hijabs, but mostly looking like any urbane international group, are fully engaged and pepper him with involved questions and comments.
“Let me put forth an honest discourse on Judaism and Israel and what you think about it is up to you. Let the games begin,” he said. “The idea is to challenge them to see the Jewish community differently.”
That challenge has been met head on, with Antepli’s recruiting efforts in the US and word-of-mouth in the American-Muslim community about the program creating a waiting list of over 100 candidates for the next cohort, a number that delights the organizers. Both Antepli and Klein Halevi admitted they had no idea whether the idea in theory would translate in practice.
“It was a hard sell at first, and we had no real expectations, but if you invest in the right people, they are going to do wonders,” said Antepli, expanding on ways he has seen the program making a difference on the ground in the US.
“There are certain litmus tests, certain red lines that have been pushed. There’s now more oxygen for pro-Palestinian Muslims and pro-Israeli Jews to communicate, and we’ve seen a mushrooming of relationships. The moral filters in the Muslim community are sharper now, recognizing irresponsible statements and literature and trying to address them. We’re able to better recognize the renegades and mute them.”
“The largest American-Muslim organization, INSA [Islamic Society of North America], has established a formal partnership with the American Jewish Committee, an unabashedly pro-Israel and Zionist organization. I’m not claiming entire credit, but I don’t think it could have been possible without our efforts.”
Both Antepli and Klein Halevi pointed to a lessening in the well-worn routine of pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian organizations recruiting Jewish or Muslim speakers who reinforce their point of view.
“If there is no dialogue between the mainstream communities, what do you do? If you’re already biased against Israel, you go find a Jew who will validate your bias, whether from [extreme anti-Israel] Natorei Karta or Jewish Voices for Peace. There’s so many of them, you guys are a very complicated tribe,” said Antepli.
“You don’t even have to try very hard – they will be more than happy to come and vomit their own selfhate toward their own people and history and to confirm that we are not crazy in our antisemitism and anti-Zionism. And Jews, of course, are more than happy to invite those Muslims who will come and tell them how Islam is a fire-breathing dragon, barbaric savages, and how it’s a fight between good and evil.”
According to Klein Halevi, MLI has broken a taboo.
“Mainstream Muslims are exploring previously unthinkable relationships with Jews in America,” he said, citing the increased acceptance of the MLI concept within the American-Muslim community.
“ISNA hosted a debate on MLI, and Al Jazeera did a piece on us. MIL-ers are now acceptable on mainstream Muslim platforms. There’s still pushback against what we’re trying to do, but there’s no comparison between today and four years ago.
“Abdullah mentioned the breakthrough against red lines in the Muslim community that you don’t speak to Zionists. We have made remarkable progress.”
PERHAPS, BUT after five years, The MLI participants are still not totally comfortable being publicly associated with the program – whether due to home pressures or being apprehensive of other Muslims who might not subscribe to such warm Muslim-Jewish ties. Still, many alumni do go public and staunchly defend the program, sometimes putting them at odds with their community at home.
“The program received incredibly harsh criticism and attacks, especially in the Arab-American community,” admitted Antepli.
The radical Electronic Intifada labeled the MLI a “Zionist effort to co-opt Muslims, under the guise of ‘interfaith’ understanding.”
The current MLI cohort wasn’t willing to have their names publicized, be photographed or interviewed for this article. One past participant, who did agree to talk about her experience sent a message a few days later upon her return to the US saying that for “personal reasons” she couldn’t allow her name to be used. We’ll call her “Neda.”
“I respect the fact that there are members of the Muslim community in America who are suspicious of what we are doing,” said Neda. “I know we are raising anxiety within our own community, but we cannot continue to live in silos, it’s important for our survival.”
“We have to understand how American-Jewish communities understand themselves, and you can’t do that outside the context of Israel and Jerusalem. I understand the criticism though, and engage with it and I continue to do what I think is the best way to move the needle forward in promoting Muslim-Jewish relationships.”
Neda cited a watershed event in the US – the election of US President Donald Trump – in which the MLI network went into action and proved its mettle.
“Trump’s election was a traumatic experience for many in the Muslim community. We had an MLI seminar scheduled for three days after, so we changed the topic to address those concerns,” she said. “The whole premise of MLI is that we now have a credible partnership with mainstream American Jews. We may disagree on some fundamental issues regarding Israel and Palestine, but we are bonded as far as our values are concerned.”
One area that has proven to be a groundswell of knowledge for the Muslim Americans in learning about the Jewish experience with assimilation and intermarriage – two issues that are of paramount concern in the Muslim community.
“There is nothing more Jewish and Muslim than what takes place every August when I welcome a new class at Duke,” said Antepli. “Parents drop their kids off, weeping, and tell me three things: please make sure my son or daughter attends Jumu’ah [Friday congregational prayers], make sure they date a Muslim and make sure they go to medical school.”
According to Antepli, Trump’s ascendancy and the common societal challenges facing both the American Jewish and Muslim communities in the US have given thrust to MLI’s mission of closing the gap between American Muslims and Jews.
“Trump is forcing Muslims and Jews into our reality and showing how important it is to creating a partnership that will sustain itself in the face of a common enemy. You need to take advantage of the position as bridge builders to seize the moment and deepen the relationship,” he said.
“During the Oslo years, you saw a mushrooming of Jewish-Arab relations, but as Oslo has fallen apart, those ties did as well. Any Jewish-Muslim conversation that will not survive the next Gaza war is a waste of time. MLI is deepening and nurturing relationships that even in difficult times will remain committed to each other.”
THE MLI experience is having an effect not only on the participants and alumni, but on its founders as well. Klein Halevi’s next book, due out in May, is called Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor, and is a direct outgrowth of his work with MLI over the last five years.
“I would have never been able to write this book with the kind of empathy that I have toward Palestinians without sacrificing my own narrative, without MLI. I don’t give up an inch of my love for the Jewish narrative, my loyalty to Zionism, but at the same time, I’m open to hearing other voices,” he said.
“And what I’m asking for MLI-ers is to do exactly that. Listen to my story – my story about who I am, why I’m here, why the Jewish people returned home. Even that language – the Jewish people returning home – is so foreign to Muslim sensibilities. We’re telling our story, the story that most Jews take for granted, but the story we’re telling is different in some important ways than the normative way in which Jews usually try to explain Israel.”
In many ways he and his brother-in-arms Antepli are still like dreamers, envisioning an era of understanding and cooperation between Jews and Muslims. But now, they have their feet firmly planted on the fertile Hartman Institute ground from which their fruits are beginning to sprout.
For them, the proof in the pudding that there was merit in their efforts arrived very early – during the first cohort five years ago.
“Donniel was teaching ‘Lech Lecha’ – God telling Abraham to go to the land which I will show you,” recalled Klein Halevi.
“One of our participants raises his hand and said, ‘Wait a minute, are you saying you’re here not because of the Holocaust but because of a 4,000-year attachment?’
“Abdullah is sitting across the room and I see him mouthing over to me ‘Dayenu’ [enough for us]. That was our ‘Dayenu’ moment.”