“We Refuse To Be Enemies: How Muslims and Jews Can Make Peace, One Friendship At A Time” by Sabeeha Rehman and Walter Ruby. New York: Arcade Publishing, 2021. 273 pages. $27.99.
In our time, when disrespect, hostility and violence seem to define human relations, any close friendship is to be nurtured and honored. And, as in this case, if a strong bond is formed between people who come from such divergent backgrounds — Sabeeha Rehman is a pious Muslim, born in Pakistan, who came to America in 1971; Walter Ruby is an American-born Jew with an Israeli connection — the relationship should be esteemed and touted.
But let’s be honest. If instead of those two, it had been, say, a Mongolian man and Danish woman or a Sudanese woman and an Argentinian man, the friendships might have been just as loving and as estimable, but not worth a book — or even a second look.
What makes this relationship remarkable is, in the authors’ words, “the elephant in the room” — the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. That ongoing conflict should have made these two people’s friendship as unlikely as easily purchasing a whisky sour in Mecca or a steak sandwich in Mumbai.
If the idea of the book would have been to look at Rehman and Ruby and extrapolate from their amicable relationship a way to Mideast peace, then the authors would have been reaching for a bridge much too far. Neither Ruby nor Rehman is a credible representative for their respective sides as neither have the requisite “skin in the game.”
The goal, instead, is to use their friendship as a model for improving relations between American Jews and Muslims, while airing their different takes on Israel. Even that might be a stretch. Rehman may be seen as too “soft” on Israel by many younger Muslims; Ruby would be considered too far to the left by most Americans Zionists.
Nonetheless, that formula seems to work well for them.
I found most interesting the parts of the book dealing with how the two families got to America and how the two religions regard adherents of the other faith.
In 1947, when part of India was made into the Muslim state of Pakistan, Rehman’s mother, Farrukh, and her family took a train to Pakistan to begin their new lives there, For safety, their passenger car was made to look like a cargo car. The Muslims on the train were warned not to open the windows or doors, for Hindu mobs were attacking trains with Muslims onboard. When Rehman’s family arrived, they learned of the massacres of Muslims on the train that preceded them and the one that came after them.
They had left India because they feared “that in a Hindu-dominated country, we would have no rights,” Rehman quotes her father as saying. “We would be just a notch above the ‘Untouchables’ [the lowest Hindu caste].”
In the partition of India in 1947, Rehman writes, 1 million people died and more than 10 million were uprooted. Some 6.5 million Muslims went from India to West Pakistan; 4.7 million Hindus and Sikhs moved to India. Both sides committed acts of violence against the other.
(To me, this Muslims-to-Pakistan, Hindus-to-India transfer is very similar to what happened in the creation of the State of Israel in 1948.)
Ruby’s mother, Helga, and her mother fled Berlin in 1938. They took the train to Munich and then were taken secretly to the Belgian border by Gestapo agents who, according to Ruby, made a fortune smuggling Jews out of the country. At the border, they were met by Belgian smugglers.
They eventually got to France, then to Lisbon and finally to New York.
Both as a child and an adult, Ruby spent some time living in the Jewish state.
Both authors try to debunk what they claim are calumnies against their side — that Islam is hostile to Jews and that “the Torah is genocidal.”
At the end of the book, they write that while the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is important, they both live in America and that country and others “are at risk unless we unite to save democracy and pluralism.”
That may be the way forward for improving Muslim-Jewish relations.
Veteran journalist Aaron Leibel is the author of the memoir, “Figs and Alligators: An American Immigrants’s Life in Israel in the 1970s and 1980s” (Chickadee Prince Books).