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Muslims and Jews in America: A Valuable New Resource

Muslims and Jews in AmericaThis month, Palgrave Macmillan published a wonderful new resource, Muslims and Jews in America: Commonalities, Contentions and Complexities, co-edited by Reza Aslan and Aaron J. Hahn Tapper. The editors have gathered an array of articles by scholars, communal professionals and activists that explore the engagement of Jews and Muslims in America. Together they provide a comprehensive review of the well publicized flashpoints of tension and conflict between Jews and Muslims and also the emerging dialogues, encounters and educational programs designed to enhance relationships. In the end, the book left me surprisingly optimistic about our communities’ prospects for a shared future.

Many of the flashpoints of recent years will be familiar to readers of this volume. Keith Ellison reminds us of the uproar in 2007 around his choosing to take his ceremonial Oath of Office with his hand on a Qur’an. Debbie Almontaser revisits the episode in 2008 that deprived her of her job as principal and New York City of its first Arabic language charter school. Omid Safi provides a careful study of the propaganda film, Obsession, and explores how in 2008 this diatribe against Muslims and Islam, disguised as a documentary, was distributed to 28 million people. And Aaron Hahn Tapper tells of the 2010 disruption of a speech by Israeli ambassador Michael Oren by members of the Muslim Student Union, an event that was followed by pressure from Jewish organizations such as Hillel and ZOA to ensure the students were punished.

Events like these motivate us to do a better job in helping our communities build bridges. But before we jump to solutions, we need understanding. Several of the articles offer helpful analyses of the situation that can lead to the difficulties between our communities. In particular, Feisal Abdul Rauf studies the Jewish community’s campaign for integration into American society. He notes that Jewish organizations such as the ADL (founded 1913) and the American Jewish Committee (founded 1906) have their Muslim American counterparts, founded more than half a century later. The latter are in their nascent stages and have much to learn from the Jewish experience of advocacy. He proposes the development of “strategic, focused initiatives” around specific issues that effect both communities.

I found particularly helpful Aaron Hahn Tapper’s insightful analysis of Muslim-Jewish engagement on university campuses. Jews established the first Hillel chapter in 1943 at the University of Illinois, Urbana. Muslims, it turns out, established the first Muslim Student Association (MSA) in America on that same campus in 1963. Today, national Hillel has a budget of sixty-six million dollars, supporting activities on 531 campuses. In addition, other Jewish organizations both serve Jewish students and add their voices to campus conflicts. In contrast, American Muslim students have little yet in the way of organized support. Hahn Tapper argues convincingly that it is crucial to understand the disparities in empowerment, perceived and actual, between the two groups. While some Jewish students share the communal narrative of victimization, that story is not apt for this setting where, for the most part, the power disparities –at least between Jews and Muslims—are in the Jews’ favor. Lacking an understanding of how power disparities effect intergroup relations, even well meaning efforts at “dialogue,” let alone responses to divisive issues, can go astray.

Amy Eilberg describes some of the challenging moments she has seen in her interfaith work, noting both the political issues around Israel/Palestine and also the differences that often turn up in the way some Jews and some Muslims understand their relationship to sacred text, their religious tradition and even to God. Muslims can be shocked by Jews’ irreverence toward their own faith, while Jews find Muslims “fundamentalist.” Eilberg suggests a variety of ways to understand this disparity. First, she attributes it to the fact that Jewish participants in dialogue often come from liberal denominations while the Muslims are more traditional in their religious life, more akin to Orthodox Jews. Later, however, she notes that this may reflect a more fundamental difference in our faith perspectives. “Jewish tradition, even as practiced by the Orthodox, tolerates and even celebrates a kind of wrestling with God and creative reinterpretation of sacred texts.” Later still, she wonders if our communities’ different experiences of the enlightenment impacts how Judaism and Christianity have been able to integrate modern values of inquiry. Finally, like Hahn Tapper, she notes the imbalance resulting from the vulnerability experienced by American Muslims. Muslims may simply not be willing to “discuss the human limitations of their tradition,” at least not with Jews, even as Jews are sometimes frustrated by Muslim’s alleged “defensiveness.” Eilberg does a masterful job of describing this dynamic, while avoiding essentialist conclusions.

The take away for me was, as mentioned above, surprisingly optimistic. Eboo Patel notes that as intractable as the Israel/Palestine conflict may seem, we may have an opportunity as Jews and Muslims here in America to make a contribution precisely because we are not living it day to day. I appreciated the nuanced way in which the writers refused to sweep groups of people into grand narratives. Debbie Almontaser went through a searing personal experience that was largely provoked and fueled by Jews, but she made the point that Jews were also among her friends and supporters.

Mostly, I was heartened by the willingness of the editors to “lean into” the hard places. As long as such careful thinking is going on by both Jews and Muslims as evidenced in this volume, we can be hopeful. Increasingly, we are finding ways to understand the forces that are shaping our encounter in 21st century America. Out of such understanding, productive relationships ---both personal and communal --- will continue to grow.