Muslim-Jewish alliance building in America has come a long way, but we have a much longer way to go.
First, good tidings came out of an evil act. It was heartwarming to watch Muslim and Jewish leaders come together and work hand in hand with law enforcement to resolve the hostage-taking crisis in Texas. That expression of solidarity offered hope to many of us who have dedicated our lives to building bridges between the two faith communities. But it’s not enough. It’s not enough because the attack on the Beth Israel synagogue makes vividly clear that despite the progress Muslims and Jews have made in building friendship and cooperation, there are still some in our communities who view each other as the enemy.
In the aftermath of the eruption of violence in Israel and Palestine in 2021, as Muslim-Jewish coalition builders worked effortlessly to rebuild frayed relationships, tensions from other quarters continued to drive a wedge between our communities.
Our relationships were put to the test in the autumn of 2021 when Zahra Biloo, executive director of the Bay Area chapter of CAIR (Council on American-Islamic Relations) claimed that Islamophobia is being perpetrated not only by extreme right-wing forces, but also by “polite Zionists,” including the Anti-Defamation League, Jewish Federations, Hillel and “Zionist synagogues” — many of which have worked fruitfully with Muslim organizations, including speaking out together against hate crimes or incitement against either of our communities — or any other community that may come under attack. It should be clear that if American Muslims choose to engage only with anti-Zionist Jews, as Biloo advocates, they will be writing off over 90 percent of American Jews as potential partners.
However, it is also true that many mainstream Jewish community leaders have supported initiatives like the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism, which opens the door to false claims that principled criticism of Israel’s continuing occupation of the Palestinians is the equivalent of antisemitism. In the wake of a decision by Ben and Jerry’s to cease selling its ice cream in the occupied Palestinian territories, a principled act that Israeli President Isaac Herzog absurdly called “a shameful surrender to anti-Semitism,” states like New York, New Jersey, Florida and Arizona divested from financial holdings in Ben and Jerry’s parent company, Unilever. Such actions, which wrongly equate opposition to Israeli government actions, including settlement building, with Jew hatred, are profoundly chilling of free speech here at home.
The two of us — a Muslim and a Jew — are convinced that if our communities are to preserve and strengthen Muslim-Jewish relations in America we must not allow the conflict in Palestine and Israel to tear apart our alliance. We can agree to respectfully disagree on aspects of the conflict while affirming that we are cousins in faith who respect each other and are committed to standing up for each other when either community is under attack.
We saw that happen in inspirational ways when Jews stood up for Muslims to oppose the ‘travel ban’ and when Muslims across the country showed up for Shabbat and raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for the Jewish community in the aftermath of the horrifying killing of Jews in prayer at the Tree of Life Synagogue. And most recently, in the hostage taking in a synagogue in Texas. This heartening cooperation is the result of more than 15 years of interfaith coalition-building across the U.S.; an underreported, but highly significant, development that has strengthened Muslim-Jewish relations at a time when both communities face disturbing spikes in bigotry and violence directed against them.
Today, Muslims and Jews, the two largest minority faith communities in America, must redouble their efforts to fight together against Islamophobia, antisemitism, and all forms of bigotry, including the growing White nationalist ideology that is a deadly threat to both our communities. We must speak out together in defense of democracy and pluralism, which are integral to making sustainable Muslim and Jewish life in America.
American Jews and Muslims stand at a fateful juncture. We can continue to strengthen our alliance here, while together supporting the work of Israelis and Palestinians dedicated to living together in brotherhood and equality over there — or we can allow the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to be weaponized in ways that turn us into adversaries here at home. To allow the Israel-Palestine conflict to become the defining issue would be a calamity for American Jews and Muslims alike.
Walter Ruby is president of Jews and Muslims and Allies Acting Together, a grassroots interfaith organization based in Washington. He and Sabeeha Rehman are co-authors of “We Refuse To Be Enemies. How Muslims and Jews Can Make Peace, One Friendship At A Time,”
by Arcade Publishing (2021).