Refugee ban hangs over Jewish-Muslim meeting

Jews and Muslims gather at Kehilat Shalom in Gaithersburg. Photo by Justin Katz
Jews and Muslims gather at Kehilat Shalom in Gaithersburg. Photo by Justin Katz

As chaos reigned at airports in the aftermath of President Donald Trump’s executive order banning refugees from entering the United States and targeting travelers from seven majority-Muslim nations, Muslims and Jews sat together in a Gaithersburg synagogue to talk.

That the executive order — which placed a 120-day ban on refugees from entering the United States and an indefinite ban on people from Syria, Iraq, Iran, Yemen, Libya, Somalia and Sudan — was signed on International Holocaust Day created a link between the Jewish past and the Muslim present.

“Eighty years ago Jews were fleeing for their lives from Nazi Germany, and they were turned around,” said Rabbi Charles Arian of Kehilat Shalom. “The reason they were turned around is that people said, ‘Maybe they’re German spies.’”

Members of the Islamic Society of Germantown had come to Kehilat Shalom in Gaithersburg, a gathering arranged weeks ago for Jan. 29.

Demonstrations against the ban had broken out at airports across the country, including at Dulles International Airport. But in the Conservative synagogue’s brightly lit sanctuary, the 50 Jews and Muslims largely stuck to their plan to discuss Jewish values and American Jewish history.

The parallels between Trump’s actions and the reaction of Americans during World War II were not lost on Islamic Society of Germantown member Mumin Barre.

“We know what happened with our Jewish brothers and sisters during the Holocaust,” said Barre, referring to America’s closed doors to refugees fleeing Nazi persecution.

Hamza Khan, of Germantown, who plans to run for a position as a delegate in the Maryland General Assembly in 2018, called Trump’s executive order “reprehensible.”

He said he joined the dialogue because “the Muslim community had been doing a pretty good job so far of building relationships with other communities, and we hadn’t really done that with the Jewish community yet.”

Nationally, Jewish organizations were quick to respond to the executive order. In a statement, the Jewish Community Council of Greater Washington condemned the order: “Our history as Jews, and of repeatedly fleeing persecution, makes us sensitive to and compassionate for those who suffer similar fates and experiences and we believe that refugees should be treated with compassion and dignity.”

The Zionist Organization of America, however, expressed support for the administration’s policy: “We must heed the warnings of our national security experts that Syrian Muslim refugees cannot be vetted and will be infiltrated by ISIS, and that information is also virtually nonexistent for vetting refugee pipelines from Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, and Sudan.”

At Dulles and many other major airports where crowds gathered, protesters sang and chanted Saturday night. They erupted in cheers when a New York judge placed a temporary stay on Trump’s refugee ban. The ruling prevented scores of refugees and other foreign nationals held by U.S. border officials in the wake of the executive order from being deported.

It was a text from a Muslim colleague that brought Rabbi Jack Moline, president of Interfaith Alliance, to Dulles. He checked his phone after Shabbat see her message:

“Nice crowd,” she texted. “Come on down.” So he did.

One woman at Dulles held up a large cardboard sign that said in English and Arabic, “I am a Jew. I am happy you’re in America.” A man in a kippah offered Arabic translations. An airport luggage cart was converted — thanks to Scotch tape and a sheet of paper emblazoned with “Free Legal Assistance” in pink marker — into a makeshift law office abutting the roped-off transit area for arriving passengers.

Tal Zlotnitsky’s sign read, “Our Jewish family stands with Muslim refugees and Muslim Americans.”

Zlotnitsky, 43, his wife, Miri, and their son, Jacob, 14, had seen the protests at Dulles on CNN and joined. He said he came to the United States from Israel when he was 12. He overstayed his visa and now runs a data analysis firm.

“If we give up our core ideals,” he said, “that’s how the terrorists win.”

Back at Kehilat Shalom, Zaim Baig, of the Islamic Society of Germantown, said he attended the dialogue because terror attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, strained his friendships with Jews.

“I grew up with a Jewish best friend, and … we did everything together,” he said. “And then when I got to high school, after 9-11, I remember there were some Jewish kids, but it was very difficult to have a friendship” with them.

The Islamic Society plans to reciprocate Kehilat Shalom’s welcome on Feb. 12, when it will open its doors to the Kehilat Shalom membership to continue the dialogue.

[email protected]

JTA News and Features contributed to this article.

Never miss a story.
Sign up for our newsletter.
Email Address



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here