On My Mind: Unexpected alliances

“We must learn to work through the tensions that threaten to divide us, so that we can yield the fruit of working on a common agenda,” says Ari Gordon, AJC’s US director of Muslim-Jewish relations.

‘WHAT SEPARATES American Jews and Israel is, well, everything... [yet] we ought to celebrate those differences, not bemoan them.’ (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
‘WHAT SEPARATES American Jews and Israel is, well, everything... [yet] we ought to celebrate those differences, not bemoan them.’
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
As the second decade of the 21st century ends with heightened partisanship descending to new depths of divisiveness, the positive evolution of Jewish-Muslim interactions and cooperation in the United States are a welcome and hopeful indication that seemingly irredeemable rivals can transform.
Muslims and Jews, some who are visibly identifiable by the clothes and headgear they wear, are together, increasingly visiting elected officials in Congress and state legislatures. This “unexpected alliance” is garnering interest among elected officials and their staffs, says Becky Ruby Swansburgh, a Jewish leader in Louisville. “Our elected officials need guidance because Jews and Muslims are not a natural constituency in Kentucky.”
Swansburgh is co-chair of the newly established Louisville region Muslim-Jewish Advisory Council. Together with Dr. Muhammad Babar, the council’s other co-chair, they authored five years ago an op-ed article in The Courier-Journal, in which they pointed out that “Muslims and Jews both know what it means to be a religious minority in this country, and standing together makes us that much stronger.”
They noted that “our two communities in Louisville – Jewish and Muslim – collaborate on dozens of common issues every year. In fact, on many of most important priorities, we stand shoulder to shoulder.” A year later that mutual commitment was activated in rapid responses by the Jewish community to a vandalized mosque and by the Muslim community to threats against the Jewish Community Center.
The foundation of cooperation led the national Muslim-Jewish Advisory Council (MJAC), housed at the American Jewish Committee (AJC) headquarters in New York, to select Louisville as its latest regional affiliate. Ten others are in Dallas, Detroit, Houston, Kansas City, Los Angeles, Miami, New Jersey, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, DC.
The national MJAC, co-convened by the AJC and the Islamic Society of North America, marked its third anniversary last month. When the council’s founding members gathered at a New York City apartment ahead of the 2016 US elections to finalize plans to launch the group, inflammatory and threatening rhetoric and hate crimes targeting religious minorities already were rising, with Jews and Muslims topping the lists of victims.
All agreed at the outset that their joint mission would be to advocate together, as Americans, on US domestic policy issues of concern, principally antisemitism and anti-Muslim bigotry.
“We are not an interfaith dialogue group. We are a Muslim-Jewish group dedicated to making this country better,” says Ari Gordon, AJC’s US director of Muslim-Jewish relations.
THREE YEARS later, MJAC is thriving and growing. Its Muslim and Jewish members played a key role in securing passage of the Protecting Religiously Affiliated Institutions Act, strengthening measures to deter, as well as punish, perpetrators of attacks on religious institutions. The bipartisan legislation enjoyed overwhelming support in both the House and Senate, and President Donald Trump signed it into law in September 2018.
Building on that success, MJAC is currently a leading advocate for the No Hate Act, an important piece of legislation that aims to address inherent weaknesses in the system of collecting data for the annual FBI Hate Crimes Statistics report. It currently depends on voluntary reporting by local law enforcement agencies, and thus is not as comprehensive as it could be.
A key reason MJAC is alive and well today is its membership. Nearly 50 civil society, religious and business leaders from across the US are actively involved with the national council, and hundreds more with the 11 local affiliates. They have stood firm with the group’s mission to focus exclusively on American domestic policy concerns. They have studiously avoided, as a group, engaging the Israeli-Palestinian, Kashmiri or other conflict situations.
“We must learn to work through the tensions that threaten to divide us, so that we can yield the fruit of working on a common agenda,” says Gordon.
The Louisville branch of MJAC was launched at an event held at the Muhammad Ali Center, a large complex in downtown Louisville that is walking distance from the famed Slugger baseball bat factory and several bourbon distilleries, and a short taxi ride from Louisville’s international airport, renamed earlier this year in honor of the legendary world heavyweight boxing champion.
For many Jews and other Americans, Ali’s engagement with the Nation of Islam when he converted, and his years of sharp criticism of Israel and Zionism, were painfully troubling. However, Ali always had Jewish friends, and his attitude toward the Jewish people evolved positively over time. The Ali Center is a tribute to one man’s extraordinary athletic career as well as to his lifetime efforts, as an African American Muslim leader, to confront racism, bigotry and injustice, and to help make the world better. Lonnie Ali, Muhammad’s widow, will serve as honorary chair of the Louisville MJAC, “to do the work my husband would want me to do,” she said.
“This work has never been more important. People of good faith have to stand together and speak out,” said Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer at the MJAC Louisville launch. “We have been working in our community to create social muscle. It is essential to the health of our city, and from time to time it will be called upon to respond to acts of hatred. When you don’t respond to hate it gets stronger.”
MJAC, nationally and locally, is tapping into a desire among some in Jewish and Muslim communities across the US to get involved, engage and act to promote civility and strengthen America’s democratic society.
The writer is the American Jewish Committee’s director of media relations.