Thirty Muslims and Jews sat down for a friendly breakfast at the home of the South African ambassador last week.
Dining on masala eggs, fruit and cereal, the invited guests were part of a two-day event sponsored by the Foundation For Ethnic Understanding that brought Muslim and Jewish leaders from Australia, New Zealand and South Africa to Washington, D.C.
Their packed agenda included meetings with State Department officials and Congress members, tours of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and the U.S. Capitol, attendance at a National-Mets baseball game and a great deal of involvement with D.C.-area people engaged in Jewish-Muslim dialogue.
Ambassador Ebrahim Rasool warmly greeted each visitor into his home and praised them for their work. “It is not a popular thing, and it certainly is not an easy thing, this thing you do to engage the Muslims and the Jews.”
With “a purity of motive, a purity of intention,” an honest dialogue can begin, he said. For that to happen, “We must start with an exploration of common values.” Next, everyone must “divest each other of exclusive victimization. There can be no conversation between victims. There can only be accusations. Victims can’t make peace. They carry too many wounds.”
Finally, he urged everyone to keep in mind that “the intersection of peace and justice is compromise.”
Rasool said South Africa’s black population had good relations with its Jews during apartheid “when we faced a common enemy.” However, he said, “We hope we don’t have to face a common adversity together.”
Rabbi Marc Schneier, president of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, has been bringing Jews and Muslims together for more than 10 years. In 2009, Schneier brought together 12 imams and rabbis. Since then, religious leaders from 25 European Union and many Latin American countries have participated.
“We have now covered all the world where Muslims and Jews reside,” he said at the June 5 breakfast. “We are committed to keeping aglow our lights of understanding.”
Citing the words of Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., Schneier said, “They understood that a people who fight for their rights are only as honorable as when they fight for the rights of others.”
Rabbi Jeffrey Saxe of Temple Rodef Shalom in Falls Church spoke at the breakfast about his working relationship with Maqsood Chaudhry, founder of the McLean Islamic Center. The two have shared programs and been welcome at each other’s houses of worship.
“I think developing understanding is the most important thing we can do with Muslims. I found members of our congregation are very excited to do this. There is a real hunger” to get to know the Muslims in the Northern Virginia community.
Chaudhry agreed, noting “it’s very different to drive by a synagogue than to go inside and sit through a service.” That understanding is vital, especially in light of the fact children from both religions are growing up in the same community, often attending the same schools, he said.
Imam Haytham Younis of the Islamic Center of Maryland in Rockville also said Jews and Muslims need to be reminded how closely related they are to each other and how many of their customs are shared.
Religious leaders in attendance from the Southern Hemisphere strongly agreed that interfaith dialogue is crucial. “We have the most tension and distrust,” noted Rabbi Ralph Genende of Melbourne, Australia.
Rabbi Ron Hendler, project coordinator at the Office of the Chief Rabbi in South Africa, said he was thrilled “we are talking about pursing peace over here,” noting that “the Israel issue is a big issue, that goes without saying.”
The United States and South Africa are experiencing similar problems on college campuses, he said. “It’s very unpleasant at the universities. A very radical element has sort of seized” the campuses.
Adli Jacobs, secretary general of the Call of Islam in South Africa, said the important thing is for Muslims and Jews to believe that they each have each other’s back, so that Muslims will speak out on behalf of Jews in South Africa and vice versa.
Capping the two-day event was a nine-point declaration by the Jewish and Muslim participants from South Africa, Australia and New Zealand to continue dialoguing and having joint programs. The statement noted that they will “stand in solidarity with each other in affirming that both Islamophobia and Antisemitism are wrong and unacceptable” and will denounce violence done in the name of religion.
The two day event was sponsored in part by the Kingdom of Bahrain and several Australian businessmen.