American Jews, like the rest of the country, began to focus on the existence of Muslim-Americans after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. In that frenzied atmosphere, Muslim-Americans made handy scapegoats for the foreign-birthed terror plot. The hasty moves designed to protect the country from an unseen enemy made dark-skinned Americans targets of suspicion, especially at airports. At the same time, President George W. Bush made the correct call in instructing the country that “the enemy of America is not our many Muslim friends.”
Fifteen years later, a renewed rise of xenophobia has galvanized many in the Jewish community to push back against threats to Muslims just for being Muslim. Sensitive Jewish antennae reacted to the travel ban and a reported White House plan to track American Muslims. The response of some Jews was to go to airports to welcome Muslim travelers, and for some synagogues to pair with Muslim and sometimes Christian congregations to say, “Yes, we’re different in some ways, but similar in our Americanness and our humanity.”
A comprehensive study of Muslim-Jewish relations in America issued last week does not say whether these acts of solidarity contributed to the survey’s conclusions. But the survey did find that the more American Jews and Muslims interact with each other, the more likely they are to see the two faiths as more similar than different.
That’s good news, even as bigots like Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan and Pamela Geller continue to spread religious hatred. The study, by the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, found that the gaps between American Jews and Muslims were smaller than previously thought, and that the more devout the person was, the closer they aligned with the other religion.
Both American Muslims and Jews acknowledge that there is anti-Muslim sentiment in the American Jewish community, with 55 percent of Jewish respondents saying that there is “some” and 9 percent saying there is “a lot.” At the same time, 44 percent of Muslims believe there is some anti-Muslim sentiment among Jews, and 17 percent say there is a lot. Similar numbers acknowledge the prevalence of anti-Semitism in the Muslim community. But, the survey reports that Muslims fear for their safety and religious freedom more than Jews do.
Some 63 percent of American Jews polled and 65 percent of Muslim Americans agreed that it is very important for the two groups to work together to strengthen laws to prevent discrimination. That’s a good thing. Our communities share many interests, including protection of civil liberties, religious freedom and economic justice.
It would be a mistake, though, to declare “we are the same” as we seek solidarity. Our two communities view Israel and the Palestinians through drastically different lenses, but that doesn’t mean that we cannot acknowledge common ground in other areas. In the true American spirit, our differences are what enrich us, and our similarities enable us to share those differences.