On my Mind: Motor City Muslims, Jews

During the recent Gaza war, leaders of both communities continued to get together, share meals and discuss possible follow-up initiatives to the conference.

General Motors World Headquarters in downtown Detroit (photo credit: REUTERS)
General Motors World Headquarters in downtown Detroit
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Detroit has gotten a bad rap lately in the pro-Israel community.
In June, the city hosted the biennial Presbyterian Church USA convention, which repeatedly lambasted Israel and Zionism, and adopted a resolution to divest from the Jewish state. And this past weekend the Islamic Society of North America, holding its annual convention in Detroit, had former president Jimmy Carter as the keynote speaker amid lingering suspicions about ISNA’s ties to Hamas. The overwhelming majority of attendees at both conventions came from across the US and beyond, provided much-needed revenue for Detroit’s suffering economy, and then returned home to carry on their hostility toward Israel.
Happily, however, those gatherings did not adversely affect the evolving and continually deepening ties between Detroit’s Jewish and Muslim communities. And, remarkably, not even the seven-week war been Hamas and Israel could set back this positive relationship.
Earlier this year, Jews and Muslims came together at a conference, “A Shared Future: Jews and Muslims in Metro Detroit,” co-sponsored by the American Jewish Committee (AJC) Detroit region and the Michigan Muslim Community Council, with important support from the Ravitz Foundation.
“Forging relationships, building friendships and increasing understanding” is of utmost interest to our communities, said Kari Alterman, director of AJC Detroit. “The work is not easy, can be frustrating at times, but we need to move forward.”
That the interest in deepening personal relationships is mutual was evident in a survey of Detroit area Jews and Muslims carried out in advance of the conference. The survey, conducted by the University of Michigan-Dearborn, found high levels of interest in each group in learning more about the other, finding ways to experience the other community’s practices and customs, and engaging in joint activities.
Thus, 90 percent of all respondents said they are “willing to consider activities with the other community,” such as working or eating together, visiting someone’s home, or being friends. Forty- nine percent reported they already are friends with someone in the other community, and 78% have shared a meal with someone in the other community.
Asked whether they would do something together with someone from the other community, 43% of Jewish respondents said they already have visited a Muslim home, and 74% have eaten with a Muslim.
Nearly 60% of Muslim respondents indicated they have visited a Jewish home, and 86% said they have Jewish work colleagues.
The full survey, available at www.umdilabs.com/sharedfuture, combined with the March conference shows that local, organized Jewish-Muslim interactions can withstand the negative influences of larger divisive issues and proceed with effective cooperation.
During the recent Gaza war, leaders of both communities continued to get together, share meals and discuss possible follow-up initiatives to the conference.
Many of these Detroit Jews and Muslims already had spent a lot of time together during months of intensive planning for the conference and survey.
The goal is not just “to continue building bridges but to maintain those bridges,” Imam Radwan Mardini of the American Muslim Center in Dearborn said at the AJC-MMCC conference.
What happens in Detroit in the realm of Jewish-Muslim relations should not just stay in Detroit. But given the dynamics in other major cities, where Muslim-Jewish relations are stuck in an environment of ongoing tensions as conflict emerges over every new mosque or incident of anti-Semitism, and demonstrations regarding Israel and the Palestinians poison the atmosphere, replicating the Detroit experience is enormously challenging.
But bit by bit, on the local level, some are continuing to try, and they should.
What’s been happening in Detroit illustrates the potential and promise for Muslim-Jewish relations all over the US. Detroit, a city where Jews and Muslims share zip codes and are thus truly neighbors, offers a vision of hope.
The writer is the American Jewish Committee’s director of media relations.