Jewish-Muslim Dialogue in America: Challenges and Opportunities

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May 1, 2005
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David Dolev and Salma Kazmi

IN AMERICA, Jews and Muslims have the opportunity to foster creative, fruitful relationships. In order to do so, we must decide consciously to walk down a path of engagement and understanding — recognizing the inherent worth of each human being.

Four core obstacles threaten a constructive process of dialogue. The first is the mistrust between our two communities. Both Muslims and Jews have difficulty trusting the intention of their dialogue partners, each wondering about hidden agendas. This mistrust has roots in the Middle East, the discomfort of being an immigrant or a minority, and misinformation and limited knowledge about the other group.

The second obstacle is that Muslim and Jewish communities in America are in vastly different developmental stages. Muslims are recent arrivals on the American landscape, and their institutions and religious leadership structure are still evolving. The very character of the “Muslim American” identity, in fact, is in rapid flux, as literally dozens of nationalities and cultures attempt to meld into a cohesive religious community in their new homeland. Much of the Jewish community, meanwhile, is already two or three generations away from a similar mass immigration and is deeply rooted in the American cultural and political landscape. Jewish institutions are highly organized, specialized, and are often operated by large numbers of paid staff.

These different developmental stages influence priorities and capacities within the two communities. For example, while much energy in the Muslim community is devoted to internal development, the Jewish community is able to work on both internal and external issues.

The third obstacle is that Jews and Muslims engage in dialogue for different reasons. Many Jews, troubled by the ongoing conflict in the Middle East, see dialogue with Muslims as a mechanism to work toward peace. This “reaching out” reflects the Jewish community’s desire “to do something” to bring peace between the two communities. Many in the organized Muslim community, meanwhile, are more concerned with civil rights abuses of Muslims in the United States and frequent misrepresentations of their faith in the media. They often engage with Jews, and others, in order to clarify misconceptions of their faith; they understand that in order to thrive in this society, they must reach out to their neighbors of all backgrounds.

Finally, organized Muslim and Jewish communities that are interested in dialogue tend to have different approaches to sacred law and authority. Broadly speaking, members of the organized liberal Jewish community are more open to a variety of approaches to sacred law and are comfortable with the idea that religious observance may vary from one individual to the next. Most Muslims affiliated with mosques agree that there are fundamental requirements of religious law that all Muslims should adhere to, although in practice individual observance may vary.

Despite these differences, however, Jews and Muslims share much in common. They share the historical roots of their respective traditions, their adherence to a sacred law, their experiences as minority faiths in America, and even their presence in similar geographic regions of the country.

Here are a few guidelines for positive engagement between the two communities:

  • Start slowly and get “buy-in” from participants in each community.
  • Organizers/facilitators should work together to understand the different motivations of each community and where these motivations overlap.
  • Dialogue may not be appropriate in all settings. Find a way to engage that motivates each group. For some communities, relationship building and social action might be the central focus of interfaith work. For others, text study and joint professional interests are more appropriate.
  • Both communities include members who represent a wide range of perspectives on the issue of Jewish-Muslim relations. Certain individuals are enthusiastic about working on this issue; they are both easy to engage with and important to involve in dialogues because of their energy and optimism. Other people may be valuable to involve regardless of their enthusiasm because of the weight their endorsement will carry with their co-religionists. Dialogue organizers should consider investing more time in recruiting people whose engagement may have a stronger impact on the mainstream of each community.

Muslims and Jews share many things: a common religious heritage as children of Abraham, the challenge of sustaining vibrant faith communities in a majority Christian community, a deep conflict with roots beyond our borders, and the responsibility to forge our future together. Learning and working together to develop constructive relationships will bring benefits to both communities and to society at large.

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David Dolev is Programs Director at Temple Beth Shalom in Cambridge, Mass. and Regional Director of the Jewish Labor Committee of New England. He is Co-Director of The Jewish Muslim Resource Center along with Salma Kazmi, the Assistant Director of the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center. Salma can be reached at: salmakazmi@yahoo.com and David at: d.dolev@comcast.net

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