We have been in conversation for a quarter-century. We understand that there are sensitive topics, even in a friendship as warm as ours. At this painful time, with Jews confronting anti-Semitism, Muslims tackling Islamophobia, and both suffering from unspeakable violence, we need respectful dialogue among Jews and Muslims more than ever.
When Temple Beth-El in Great Neck reached out to the Islamic Center of Long Island in Westbury in 1992, our congregations began explaining to each other what we believed; what our scriptures say; and our traditions concerning marriage, women and food. We met with humility and openness.
It’s been tricky sometimes. Jews and Muslims share Jerusalem as the center of their faith, for example, but they don’t always agree on the parameters of access to their holy sites there. And after the Intifada, the Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation, our conversations grew more tense.
But we persisted.
In the Middle East, Jews and Muslims often engage in confrontation. On Long Island, we prefer conversation. Nationally, the American Jewish Committee and the Islamic Society of North America created the Muslim-Jewish Advisory Council, with leaders in business, politics and religion working together.
In that atmosphere, it is natural that Jews and Muslims comfort each other. During Shabbat services in October at the Tree of Life congregation in Pittsburgh, a hate-filled shooter killed 11 people, and Muslims rushed to help. On Long Island, at the Westbury mosque, rabbis, imams and congregants mourned together. On March 15, a shooter killed 50 Muslims during Friday prayers at mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. At the Westbury mosque, rabbis shared the congregation’s shock and grief.
In that spirit, let’s parse the controversy surrounding Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), one of two Muslim women newly elected to Congress. She is a victim of Islamophobia. A poster at a Republican event in West Virginia scurrilously linked her image with the burning towers of the World Trade Center. She also was the source of pain for Jews when her criticism of Israel’s government used language tainted by anti-Semitic tropes.
Criticizing Israel’s government is not in itself anti-Semitic. Jews in America and Israel do it often. For example, the increasing power of the ultra-Orthodox rabbis in Israel marginalizes rabbis from other streams of Judaism there. As to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, most American Jews and Muslims believe the hope for peace is two sovereign states, one for Jews and one for Palestinians. But the Israeli government’s encouragement of settlements in the West Bank and Hamas’ denial of Israel’s right to exist make the two-state solution increasingly unattainable.
But when being critical, we all must avoid language that perpetuates anti-Jewish stereotypes: Jews are all about money. Jews are part of a shadowy globalist conspiracy. Jews are so loyal to Israel that they’re disloyal to the country where they live. So, on policy, criticize Israel all you want, but without painfully reinforcing stereotypes — intentionally or not.
People also must avoid language furthering anti-Muslim stereotypes: Islam is a religion of warfare. Muslims are terrorists. Muslim women are more oppressed than women in the other Abrahamic faiths, Judaism and Christianity. Members of the Beth-El congregation do not see Muslims that way, but as brothers and sisters.
We view each other as people. Our congregations pray for shalom and salaam, for an end to violence, but we know this: When haters attack Jews or Muslims, we will continue to be there for each other.
Jerome Davidson is rabbi emeritus of Temple Beth-El of Great Neck and Faroque A. Khan is chairman of the Interfaith Institute of the Islamic Center of Long Island in Westbury.