Jews and Muslims discuss collaboration, security and Trump in Northern Virginia

Jewish and Islamic leaders met Sunday to discuss security and chart a course for interfaith cooperation. Photo by Jared Foretek.

Anab Ali, a Somali-American Muslim, remembers the message she received on Nov. 9, 2016, loud and clear. She awoke to the news that Donald Trump was president-elect and then found her Hillary Clinton yard sign ripped up and stuffed inside her mailbox. A note was attached.

“Ninety percent of Christians voted for Trump, thank God,” it read.

At an annual meeting of Washington-area Muslim and Jewish leaders on Sunday, Ali — a member of the All Dulles Area Muslim Society (ADAMS) — stood to recount the story, defiance in her voice.

“I knew we were living in a new era,” she said. “I told my daughters, ‘Be careful. But we have to go on with our lives.’”

It was not the only story of harassment told at the Islamic Center of Northern Virginia. And many speakers at the interfaith meeting — co-sponsored by the Greater Washington Muslim-Jewish Forum, the Jewish-Islamic Dialogue Society of Washington D.C. and Interfaith Action for Human Rights — said that, in large part, Trump was to blame.

The gathering came days after the president retweeted videos purporting to show violence by Muslims, disseminated by a group called British First. Panelists from the ADL and Muslim Advocates — a legal advocacy group — agreed that Trump was making it harder to combat anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.

“We’re dealing with swastikas painted in restrooms on college campuses. Nooses with bananas at [American University] and Georgetown, in communities that are supposedly enlightened,” said Marc Scheineson, an ADL board member. “Between the intentional omission of Jewish victims in President Trump’s Holocaust Remembrance Day speech, his tweets of British First videos, it’s causing divisiveness and making the mission of our organizations more important than ever.”

The centerpiece of the summit was a panel discussion on security for Muslim and Jewish communities. According to FBI statistics, reported anti-Muslim hate crimes jumped 19 percent in 2016. Reported anti-Semitic hate crimes, which made up the highest total, increased by 5 percent.

This year, the violence was acutely felt in the Northern Virginia Muslim community when 17-year-old Nabra Hassan was abducted and murdered on her way to the ADAMS Center in Sterling. Police said they found no evidence that it was a hate crime. However, many believe she was targeted because of her faith, as she was wearing a hijab.

Jennifer Schick, a civil rights investigator for the FBI’s Washington field office, talked about the importance of collaboration between faith communities, local law enforcement and the FBI. She also bemoaned the way in which those relationships had been strained in the past, but said the FBI — which had a booth with two recruiters set up at the summit — was doing its best to help keep religious minorities safe.

Scheineson also noted the nexus of federal health care policy and the threat to faith communities, highlighting the recent mass shooting at a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas. He praised former President Barack Obama for expanding mental health coverage through the Affordable Care Act, but said the current administration was hindering that progress through its attempts to repeal the legislation.

“Already, there are too few beds and [coverage] is not reimbursed in too many situations,” he said. “And we’re paying the price.”

There was also discussion of how the Muslim and Jewish communities had worked together in 2017 and what they were hoping to accomplish in 2018. Interfaith organizer Andra Baylus highlighted the collaborative work of Temple Rodef Shalom and the McLean Islamic Center in providing free dental care to Syrian refugees. Walter Ruby, an organizer of Sunday’s event, spoke about interfaith lobbying efforts pushing Congress to strengthen hate crime laws.

Next year, the groups hope to encourage more twinning of synagogues and mosques to foster dialogue and understanding. Rabbi Gilah Langner of Kol Ami Northern Virginia Reconstructionist Community said she was looking forward to more interfaith youth educational programs.

“I think that’d be so important for our kids, to get to know each other and feel more comfortable,” Langner said. “I think both communities are realizing that we need to be allies for one another.”

But for some, the event was primarily a way to show up and be heard. Ali, who moved from Dubai to Virginia in 1989 and gained citizenship in 1993, said she’s never seen a climate of Islamophobia and anti-Semitism in the United States quite like today’s.

“I wanted to speak up because I really don’t like the situation in our country. There are a lot of things I’m absolutely unhappy with,” Ali said. “People of goodwill, whatever religion, need to get together. We can’t just sit still.”

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