South Africa's Muslims and Jews, Once United Against Apartheid, Are Now Split

Leaders Strive To Rediscover Their Common Ground

Breaking Bread: Leaders of the South African Muslim and Jewish communities meet at the South African ambassador’s residence in Washington to try to rebuild relations.
BJ Holtgrewe
Breaking Bread: Leaders of the South African Muslim and Jewish communities meet at the South African ambassador’s residence in Washington to try to rebuild relations.

By Nathan Guttman

Published June 08, 2013.
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Partnership between Jews and Muslims in South Africa flourished when both communities joined forces in the struggle to end the apartheid regime. But as the common cause uniting them was resolved in the early 1990s, Jews and Muslims, both minorities in South Africa, grew apart and allowed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to become a wedge issue and a source of ongoing tension.

Now, leaders of the two communities are in Washington are trying to find ways, thousands of miles away from their homeland, to rebuild the bridges.

“The greatest challenge we’ve encountered is South Africa,” said Rabbi Marc Schneier, who is the founder and president of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, the organization that put together the joint mission of Muslim and Jewish leaders to the United States. This challenge, which he sees as being more difficult than in other parts of the world in which the group has been trying to promote interfaith dialogue, is made up of a community of 70,000 Jews and a Muslim population 10 times its size, both of which have been far behind the United States in terms of interfaith cooperation. The reason, leaders of both communities agree, has to do more with the Middle East than with relations on the ground in Africa.

“Obviously, Israel is a huge issue,” said Rabbi Ron Hendler, who represented South Africa’s chief rabbi in the mission to Washington. “Many in the Muslim community feel very, very strongly about the Israeli-Palestinian issue, and many in the Jewish community are very Zionist.”

Sitting around a breakfast table at the residence of Ebrahim Rasool, South Africa’s ambassador to the U.S. and one the country’s leading Muslim activists, leaders of the two communities expressed their eagerness to move closer. Rasool, who co-founded the Call of Islam, a Muslim organization formed to fight apartheid, told the Forward that he would like to see the discussion about Jewish-Muslim relations begin not in the founding of the State of Israel in 1948, but rather in 1492, when Christians expelled Jews and Muslims from Spain, a place in which both communities flourished together. Like other activists, Rasool lamented the break in Muslim-Jewish cooperation once South Africa transitioned beyond its racist past. “We all cooperated in fighting apartheid. Our humanity forced us to reach our common values,” he said, “but as soon as that evil was pushed down, we allowed ourselves to retreat to the issue of Israel-Palestine.”

Speaking to two dozens activists gathered at his home, Rasool said that in order to build bridges, both communities need to “divest from the exclusive victimhood.” He quoted South African leader Nelson Mandela, who “knew that victims can’t make peace.”

In practical terms, organizers hope the short trip to Washington can inspire South African Jews and Muslims to follow some of the models set in the United States for interfaith dialogue, including the idea of twinning synagogues and mosques, the flagship program of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding.

The organization has long sought to spread the idea of interfaith relations beyond the United States and has already conducted programs in Europe and Latin America. This mission, which alongside delegates from South Africa also included representatives from Australia and from New Zealand, is the first attempt to reach out to Jews and Muslims in the Southern Hemisphere.

“South Africa is such a deeply prejudiced society,” said David Jacobson, executive director of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, the community’s umbrella organization. But it is this deep divide that gave participants hope that just as South Africa overcame its racial tensions, it can build bridges between Jews and Muslims. “If we can do it in South Africa, we can be a beacon to the world,” Jacobson said.

Contact Nathan Guttman at guttman@forward.com.


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