Blunt remarks by politicians, news of violent incidents and boisterous messages sent from overseas may be creating fear and distrust at a national level, but some people are fighting back with an age-old weapon: discussion.
Several organizations throughout Howard County are using the holiday season to mend Jewish-Muslim relationships at the grassroots level.
“Personally, I think that sometimes people make the mistake [of thinking] that change can only come from the governmental level,” said Hadar Shahar, the Jewish Agency for Israel’s shlicha, or representative, at the Jewish Federation of Howard County. “I believe that change can come from the bottom up [by] people making that first connection.”
Shahar, who is from the southern Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo, is participating in a speaking series called Red Tent, which is geared toward women and hosted by the Federation. The first part of the series, held Dec. 14 at Howard Community College, compared and contrasted Jewish and Muslim women’s viewpoints on family, education, customs and household roles.
“I see it in Israel. When you see small relations between Arabs and Israelis or Arabs and settlers, it kind of brings back the hope that change is possible,” said Shahar, whose home neighborhood is surrounded by several Arab villages.
Shahar’s counterpart is Tazeen Ahmad, an active member of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community.
“I think one of the biggest problems is misconceptions; [people] see a Muslim woman and have a preconceived notion about that person,” said Ahmad, who wears a hijab, a head covering worn by some Muslim women. “Some of those notions are not true. [The truth is] we have women who are active, educated and in the workplace.”
Ahmad, who said she has been fortunate to not experience “in-your-face discrimination,” emphasized that much of what the so-called Islamic State does overseas is not Islamic.
“I don’t view them as Islamic at all. The things they are doing and saying are un-Islamic down to the core,” said Ahmad. “[They are] killing innocents and wreaking havoc, not only [things that] are horrific to any peaceful law-abiding Muslim. They create a bigger issue in the name of Islam.”
The discussion was not the first between the county’s Muslims and Jews happening this month.
Several synagogues in the county participated in the Human Rights Shabbat earlier in December. T’ruah, the organization that manages the movement, calls on local rabbis and their communities to advocate for the protection of human rights to their elected officials.
According to the organization’s website, several synagogues in Howard County participated this year, including Bet Aviv and Columbia Jewish Congregation.
Although not all participating synagogues focused on Jewish-Muslim relations during their Shabbat services, Islamophobia is an issue on which the organization focuses. Beth Shalom Congregation, for instance, coordinated its scholar-in-residence Rabbi Amy Eilberg’s visit to coincide with Human Rights Shabbat.
“[Eilberg] has made her mark as someone who focuses on peace through building relationships, and that is beautiful thing,” said Beth Shalom Rabbi Susan Grossman.
Eilberg, who was the first woman to be ordained as rabbi in the Conservative movement, authored a book, From Enemy to Friend: Jewish Wisdom and the Pursuit of Peace.
“Her theory is that you can turn enemy into friend by building relationships,” said Grossman.
She said that “one of the most effective tools against extremism [is] to understand each other.”