Within hours of the October 27 mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Muslim-American activists sprang into action.
Tarek El-Messidi, founding director of the faith-based nonprofit Celebrate Mercy launched a “Muslims Unite for Pittsburgh Synagogue” campaign on LaunchGood, a Muslim fundraising website, with the goal of providing for the short-term needs of victims’ families including burial expenses and medical needs.
MPower Change, a grassroots social justice group run by controversial activist Linda Sarsour, joined Celebrate Mercy in sponsoring and promoting the giving campaign. What began as a modest goal of $25,000 has reportedly surpassed $200,000.
According to an update posted on LaunchGood, “any leftover proceeds, after disbursing funds to victims’ families, will be spent on projects that help foster Muslim-Jewish collaboration, dialogue, and solidarity.”
For Hussein Ibish, a columnist at Bloomberg and Senior Resident Scholar at The Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, D.C. this trend toward unity was a long time coming.
“I think this ought to be a turning point. It’s been evident to thoughtful people for a long time that a Jewish-Muslim partnership — not a dialogue — a partnership is necessary,” Ibish told the Forward in a phone interview. “During this period of heightened chauvinistic, ethnic nationalism on the part of a group that explicitly defines itself as white and Christian and excludes therefore not only people of color, but also Jews and Muslims, there’s a need to defend the broader American identity.… On a religious and political front it’s Jews and Muslims that are the biggest targets.”
The suspected shooter, Robert Bowers, appears to have been influenced by conspiracy theories about HIAS, a historically Jewish refugee aid organization, and claims propagated by Fox News that Jewish Democratic donor George Soros was funding the so-called Honduran “caravan.” Many accounts of these conspiracies, including one tweeted by President Trump, hint at a Middle Eastern element embedded in the mass migration of refugees from Central America. Ibish views these conspiracies, and the climate of White Christian nationalism that created them, as producing the necessary conditions for an interfaith coalition.
“The narrative of the caravan is perfect,” Ibish said of the debunked conspiracy. “Because who is paying for the caravan? George Soros and the international Jewish bankers — ‘Protocols [of the Elders of Zion]’ stuff. And why is the migrant caravan so dangerous? Because it’s full of terrorists. ‘Unknown Middle Easterners.’ We all end up getting folded into this narrative that’s coherent — crazy, yes, ridiculous, yes — but it’s coherent. If that situation isn’t enough to make you partners I don’t know what is.”
“This sort of solidarity is nothing new,” Albert Fox Cahn, the Legal Director for the Council of American Islamic Relations (or CAIR) New York chapter, told the Forward. “But in these trying times we often see an outpouring of support from interfaith partners and on a person level it’s been incredibly moving to see CAIR colleagues from around the country reaching out to me personally and how many people have been so quick to turn to their neighbors from other faith communities. We’re doing this work every day but it’s in these moments when it’s most crucial.”
Fox Cahn, who is Jewish, reported that his Muslim partners were horrified by the massacre in Squirrel Hill, but that the force of the tragedy had the potential to “break down” longstanding disputes between the two faiths.
“There are so many people within both communities who are constantly looking for ways to build up divisions, but I think that the clear reality that we see in the moments that count most is that the vast majority of Americans of every faith want to come together in the face of this violence and show that we are one community,” Fox Cahn said. “We are one family that will constantly stand up for each other and defend each other.”
Muslim efforts on behalf of Pittsburgh Jews have gone beyond fundraising. MPower Change has enumerated “5 ways to show up for our Jewish family in the wake of the Tree of Life Massacre” and many Muslim Americans have joined Jews on the streets in candlelight vigils. In an interview with NPR El-Messidi, whose organization funded repairs for vandalized Jewish headstones in Philadelphia and St. Louis in 2017, referred to Jews as “Abrahamic cousins” and gestured to a further partnership on the basis of shared humanity that puts politics on the sidelines.
While the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains a wedge between the communities, Ibish believes it needn’t stand in the way of a long history of cooperation overseas or a new and uniquely American one.
“The main dividing point is Israel, but it’s absurd to have that in this day and age remain a dividing point for several reasons. First of all: Israelis and Palestinians deal with each other all the time, so we’re essentially asking ourselves to be more Jewish than the Israelis and more Arab than the Palestinians,” Ibish said. “The second thing is there are plenty of ways for people who have different narratives, and even different perceptions of some core realities, to look beyond that and say ‘all right, fine, so we’re not going to agree on this one thing.’”
Ibish thinks that common ground can be found in Jews and Muslims’ religious minority status in America, their shared immigrant experience and religious roots and their disproportionate success and wealth relative to their numbers. The key is agreeing to disagree on the loaded issue of Israel and Palestine, something he believes most in both communities are willing to do for the sake of survival.
“I think this is happening anyway,” Ibish said of Muslim-Jewish amity. “If it weren’t for disagreements about Israel it would be a done deal. But you just can’t allow that relatively minor matter ultimately to stop a partnership that is essential for people’s lives here. This is not an abstract argument or an argument about foreign policy or your friends or relatives somewhere else. This is you. Now. Here. Today. And that’s just become very clear.”
PJ Grisar is the Forward’s culture intern. He can be reached at Grisar@Forward.com.