When American Muslim religious leaders looked for Christian and Jewish counterparts to stand with them against Islamophobia at a high-profile gathering tied to the 10th anniversary of 9/11, several major Jewish spiritual leaders readily answered their call.
“Ten years after 9/11 it has somehow become respectable to verbally attack Muslims and Islam in America,” said Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, as he and Orthodox Rabbi Marc Schneier stood with other clergy in a Washington church September 8. “The good people in this room are fighting back.”
There was a time when a Jewish presence with these Muslim leaders would have been controversial. But today the sight of Jewish, Christian and Muslim religious leaders standing side by side is no longer a rarity.
The question so often invoked after 9/11 — “Where are the moderate Muslims?” — has an answer now, these Jewish leaders argue. And those they identify as moderates are not from the margins, but from the mainstream of the American Muslim community.
“The fact that they are talking out against anti-Semitism, that they are talking out against Holocaust denial, and their demand for the release of Gilad Shalit, all this greatly contributes to much more acceptance on the part of mainstream Jewish leaders regarding the possibilities for dialogue and alliances with the Muslim community,” Schneier said.
Critics such as Middle East analyst Daniel Pipes, Muslim extremism investigator Steven Emerson and Yehudit Barsky of the American Jewish Committee strongly question this assessment. But Schneier, Yoffie and others point to a string of concrete actions that they say prove that these Muslim leaders walk the walk, even at the risk, at times, of alienating their own followers.
Among the actions they point to:
• An August 26 protest letter that 11 Muslim leaders and two Muslim members of Congress sent to Hamas, the Islamist group that governs Gaza, calling on it to release Gilad Shalit, the now 25-year-old Israeli soldier that Hamas-affiliated guerillas kidnapped in a cross-border raid in June 2006.
• Another letter that Muslim leaders sent to Hamas last December, protesting its refusal to allow a group of Gaza teens to visit the United States to learn about the Holocaust at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, in Washington.
• The public attendance by Muslim leaders at an August 25 iftar dinner at the Israeli Embassy in Washington, where Israel’s ambassador welcomed them to the traditional meal held after sundown during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan — the first such function ever held at the Israeli Embassy.
• The journey by eight mainstream Muslim imams to Auschwitz in August 2010 to learn about the Holocaust, followed by a strong statement they issued condemning denial of the atrocity along with anti-Semitism as an offense against Islam.
Both the letter by Muslim leaders calling on Hamas to release Shalit from captivity and the decision of some to attend the Ramadan dinner hosted by Israel’s ambassador were especially notable, Schneier argued.
“I have seen in the past five or six years Muslim leaders talk against anti-Semitism or Holocaust denial, but this is the first time I see them speak up on an issue that has to do with the State of Israel,” said Schneier, who is founder and president of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding and is one of the key Jewish figures involved in dialogue with the Muslim community.
The August 26 letter to Hamas leader Khaled Mashal was strongly worded and unambiguous in its language. “Hamas’s inhumane detention of Shalit undermines the Palestinian people’s legitimate aspirations for human rights and a state of their own,” the letter said, calling the five-year captivity of Shalit “wrong.”
The letter was penned by Muslim Rep. Keith Ellison, a Democrat from Minnesota, and signed by Rep. Andre Carson, a Democrat from Indiana, and nine other Muslim-American leaders and scholars. The timing for the appeal, Ellison told the Forward, was aimed at the end of the holy month of Ramadan, in which Muslims are reminded of the need to show compassion, and during which prisoners are released from captivity.
“These people in Hamas say they believe in Islam. Well, I’m a Muslim, and I think they are letting down our principles,” Ellison said.
He made clear, however, that the letter was a humanitarian effort, not a political move. “I see this as a personal matter, not in the broader context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” Ellison said.
While the letter did not get an immediate response from Hamas, it did trigger a chain of events drawing the Jewish and Muslim communities even closer. Early this month Noam Shalit, father of the captive soldier, met for dinner at a New York restaurant with Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, one of the signatories on the letter, better known as the person behind the Park51 Islamic center. Shalit thanked Rauf and other Muslim leaders for their show of support and then flew to Paris, where local French-Muslim religious leaders followed the example of the United States and sent a similar letter to Hamas.
But while intervening in Shalit’s case can be portrayed as a humanitarian issue, breaking the Ramadan fast at the residence of Israel’s ambassador to the United States signals something altogether different: a willingness to engage with Israel and its American supporters face to face, notwithstanding the intense objections many hold against Israeli policies.
The dinner at the Israeli embassy provided a sobering demonstration of Israel’s dire diplomatic situation while giving a glimpse of hope regarding future relations with American Muslims. Diplomats from Arab countries, including Egypt and Jordan, both of which have relations with Israel, were no-shows at the event. But leaders of Muslim organizations and Muslim chaplains from several campuses were among the 60 who came.
“The atmosphere was that of two communities that have a lot in common,” said Akbar Ahmed, Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic studies at American University in Washington, D.C. Ahmed, who later signed the Shalit letter, praised Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren for what he called “a very bold step” in convening the iftar dinner. Ahmed said he has already been pilloried as a “Zionist agent” for participating in such events.
Some American Muslims feel a sense of unease watching prominent leaders from their community extend outreach efforts to include matters relating to Israel.
Indeed, in an e-mail to supporters, El-Hajj Mauri’ Saalakhan of The Peace and Justice Foundation, described the embassy event as a “new low” for Muslim Americans. “In my humble opinion no self-respecting Muslim should have attended that so-called ‘iftar’!” he wrote, saying that Muslims attending the event should have objected to Oren’s depiction of Israel as a country that respects the rights of its Muslim minority.
Adem Carroll, founder of the Muslim Consultative Network, said that a line should be drawn between participation in interfaith events and attendance at a diplomatic function that is not part of the role that local leaders should play. Carroll, who supports outreach efforts with the Jewish community, said Muslim American leaders should not “get way ahead of the community” and should make the effort to explain their actions to the community and be held accountable.
Jewish activists involved in the dialogue acknowledge that the issue of Israel has been a sticking point in discussions with fellow Muslim leaders. Marshall Breger, a senior official in the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush who has been a leading force in reaching out to Muslim Americans, said he does not feel obliged to raise the subject of Israel when talking to Muslim counterparts.
“It seems to me that if people want to talk to you, then you should talk to them,” said Breger, who is now a law professor at Catholic University of America, in Washington. “The list of ‘kosher’ Muslims that some Jewish organizations have is, in many cases, a list of Zionists or non-Zionists.”
By this, Breger meant that Muslims leaders are being judged by Jewish groups based solely on their views on Israel.
For those seeking Muslim partners with a significant following, dialogue means talking with independent Muslim scholars and with activists affiliated with the Islamic Society of North America, America’s largest Muslim group. Its leader, Imam Mohamed Magid, has been a major voice against Holocaust denial and anti-Semitism in the Muslim world. The group’s national director of the office for interfaith and community alliances, Sayyid Syeed, has been in close touch with Jewish leaders to discuss joint activities. Other participants in dialogue with the Jewish community, including the two Muslim members of Congress, are viewed as important moderate leaders in the community.
But Barsky, director of the American Jewish Committee’s division on Middle East and international terrorism, voiced a more suspicious view of those seen as worthy dialogue partners by Breger, Schneier and Yoffie. “ISNA is a group that has some very severe problems,” she said. “People… don’t know what ISNA is doing.”
ISNA, according to Barsky, has invited extremists to speak at its events and supported a group that in the past helped raise funds for Hamas. She said ISNA also backed the Muslim Brotherhood in the past. “They haven’t made a clear break from that,” she added.
Meanwhile, Jewish and Muslim activists are doing their best to bypass the issue of Israel. A seminar of Muslim and Jewish scholars on anti-Semitism and Islamophobia is planned for later this year, and will serve as a follow-up to Muslim leaders’ visit to Auschwitz. On the local level, communities on both sides are joining forces to fight poverty and to deal with health care and social issues.
Ellison believes that this should be the way forward. “Muslims and Jews are working together all the time without dealing with the Israel-Palestine issue,” he said. “There are important issues beyond the conflict.”
Contact Nathan Guttman at email@example.com
Nathan Guttman staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Ha’aretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Contact Nathan at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter @nathanguttman