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US Jews, Muslims to strengthen bond among the acts of intolerance

  • In this Thursday, Feb. 16, 2017 photo, members of the Sisterhood Salaam, Shalom, speaking at a unity vigil held at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. The Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom, a national organization that brings together Muslim and Jewish women, organized the meeting as part of the organisation, the response from President Donald Trump ‘ s travel ban. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

    (Associated Press)

  • FILE – In this Monday, Feb. 27, 2017 file photo, volunteers of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community survey, damaged tombstones at the Mount Carmel Cemetery in Philadelphia. More than 100 gravestones were destroyed at the Jewish cemetery, discovered in less than a week after similar vandalism in Missouri, authorities said. (AP Photo/Jacqueline Larma)

    (Associated Press)

  • In this Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2017, in photo, from left, Eftakhar Alam, with the Washington Islamic society of North America; Rabbi Julie Schonfeld; Eli Epstein; Belle mostly unknown and Ken Bandler, the American Jewish Committee, in a meeting with employees of the bureau of the Rep. Adriano Espaillat, D-n.y., on Capitol Hill in Washington. Bigoted rhetoric and intimidation targeting both religions since the 2016 presidential election people together. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

    (Associated Press)

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NEW YORK – They sat on the end of the congressmen of the bank, one of the Jewish healthcare executive whose parents escaped Germany in 1936, the other the Kashmiri Muslim president of a well-known American furniture chain. The men, Stanley Bergman and Farooq Kathwari, was to draw attention to an outbreak of hate crimes. But Bergman and Kathwari hoped that their joint appearance would also have a broader message: that the AMERICAN Jews and Muslims can differences aside and work together.

“What drove us was the growing damage that has arisen in the United States,” Bergman said. “What begins with small, from a historical point of view, often grows into something big.”

The men lead the Muslim-Jewish Council, created last year by the American Jewish Committee and the Islamic society of North America, in the middle of a bloom of the alliances between members of the two faiths. AMERICAN Muslim and Jewish groups have been trying for years to make common cause, with varying degrees of success, often derailed by deep divisions over Israel and the Palestinians.

But bigoted rhetoric and intimidation targeting both religions since the presidential election people together. Jews have donated to the repair of mosques that were damaged or burned. Muslims raised money to repair vandalized Jewish cemeteries. Rabbis and imams marched together against President Donald Trump’s travel ban targeting majority Muslim countries.

“I never thought I would see a number of people in conversation, or somewhere in the neighborhood of each other. Then I saw people on Facebook stand next to each other on the protests of Muslims and Jews, ” said Aziza Hasan, executive director of NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish nership for Change in Los Angeles, which has community relationship-building programs for more than a decade.

But in spite of this increase in goodwill, questions remain about whether these new connections can endure. The feeling of vulnerability, Muslims and Jews share, and their need for allies in a difficult time, not have erased the tensions that have in the past kept them from each other.

“This is a beginning and we will see how it goes,” said Talat Othman, a financial industry executive and the Muslim-Jewish Advisory member of the Council, that a Muslim prayer in 2000 at the Republican National Convention. “We are hopeful.”

Jews and Muslims are the two largest non-Christian faith communities in the United States and have a long history of trying to work together.

The chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, the flagship institution of Conservative Judaism, initiated a dialogue with the Muslims in 1956, according to the documents in the school archive. Rabbi Jack Bemporad, a pioneer in Muslim-Jewish dialogue and founder of the Center for Interreligious Understanding in New Jersey, said that his efforts began in the 1970s when he led a Dallas synagogue and the local imams started attending his weekly Bible classes.

Over the years, there are a lot of initiatives on improving relations between the two religions were organized internationally by the governments and peace groups, while some American synagogues and mosques tried to build friendships locally. There has been some progress, but the relationships were often derailed when the violence, war, and policy disputes erupted in the Middle East.

In Los Angeles, Hasan said local calls between Islamic and Jewish leaders would falter if the participants of a faith would demand that of the other to condemn an action in Israel and the Palestinian territories. “It would go back and forth, then eventually the Jews begged the Muslims to condemn something they couldn’t, so they walked away from the table,” Hasan said.

Then came the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, in which a backlash against American Muslims, and the efforts to make the connections with the Jews began to move “at warp speed,” said Rabbi Burton Visotzky, Jewish Theological Seminary scholar and a longtime leader in Muslim-Jewish cooperation. Visotzky outreach ranged from 2008 a global interreligious meeting, convened by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia serving kale at a soup kitchen in addition to the members of a New York mosque.

Still, the deep divisions over Israel and the Palestinians remained an obstacle. Some Jews and Muslims pledged to prevent any mention of the middle east if they wanted a ‘common ground’. Others become the problem, but their conversations out of the way to go. Yehuda Kurtzer, president of Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, an educational organization with extensive inter-religious programs, said the AMERICAN Muslims and Jews had become “proxy warriors” for conflicts thousands of miles away.

At the same time, calls for the construction of the links between the religions frequently encountered skepticism or hostility from their own community. “Many Jews feel that the Muslims all over the world are a source of threat to the Jews, why dialogue?” Kurtzer said.

About six years ago, Bemporad organized a conference on the Islamic and Jewish law, but the event is closed to the public, in part to avoid pushback against the participants. “We had to break the ice in one way or another,” Bemporad said. “We thought the way we did it, you could be free to say what you wanted.”

He said that religious leaders are working on such projects are much more open. Yet, the growth of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel and in support of the Palestinians has more complicated relationships.

The movement, known as BDS, is decentralized and its supporters make use of different strategies, but many lenders say interreligious dialogue with the Zionists to undermine the Palestinian cause. It has become common for American Jewish organizations to draw a hard line against working with lenders of the BDS of any faith. Meanwhile, BDS activists find the treacherous is for Muslims to work with supporters of Israel.

This issue came to the fore about the Shalom Hartman Institute’s Muslim Leadership Initiative that brings American Muslims to Israel to study Judaism and Zionism. Kurtzer said the first year of the program was “completely under the radar.” When the participants became well-known in 2014, Muslims who took part were accused of allowing themselves to be manipulated and the violation of BDS.

Among the participants was a lawyer Rabia Chaudry, a specialist in countering extremism and a staunch supporter of Palestinian rights. They acknowledge the risks of participation in the program, but said that she did the hope of a new way forward. In October last year, the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago dropped plans to present her an achievement award because of her work with the Shalom Hartman Institute. Chaudry, now a member of the Muslim and the Jewish Council, said that she was not angry. “She felt awful about it. She has more criticism for the repeal of it,” she said.

Since Trump election of the members of both religions seem to be more willing to set aside such differences as they work on civil rights and other issues, said Abdullah Antepli, who was the first Muslim chaplain at Duke University and is co-director of the Shalom Hartman Institute Muslim Leadership Initiative.

It is impossible to know definitively or harassment on the grounds of religion is increased. The FBI’s most recent data on hate crimes is from 2015. Still, the past year has seen a number of impressive examples of intolerance, including the waves of telephoned bomb threats to Jewish Community Centers across the country. Mosques in Florida and Texas were recently set on fire, and authorities were investigating whether the suspect of the arson attacks can be considered hate crimes.

“It is especially an Asset effect,” Antepli said. “External forces to make the Muslim and Jewish communities need each other’s friendship.”

When New York Arab-American activist and BDS supporter Linda Sarsour recently helped raise more than $150,000 for the damaged Jewish cemeteries, some of the Jews discussed whether it would be ethical to accept the donation. But in a sign of changing attitudes, various mainstream Jewish leaders who had worked with her previously defended her.

This new dynamic was made clear in a recent New York vigil organized by the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom, a national organization that brings together Muslim and Jewish women. The meeting at the Jewish Theological Seminary was a part of the organisation, the response of Trump’s travel ban. On their watch, they walked to the front of the room in pairs — a Muslim and a Jew to offer readings and prayers in Arabic and Hebrew. After the ceremony, the women hugged and posed together for selfies.

“There is a sense of immediate relationship and connection,” said Donna Cephas, a national board member of the Sisterhood, which has added dozens of chapters in the past year. “There is a considerable desire to be in community with people who stand for what we stand for.”

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