AJC official urges outreach to Islamic community

AJC official urges outreach to Islamic community

Says Muslims are looking for common ground with American Jews

Jewish groups, such as the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom, are dedicated to fostering friendships between Jews and Muslims.
Jewish groups, such as the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom, are dedicated to fostering friendships between Jews and Muslims.

Calling American Muslims “the first line of defense against terrorist attacks,” the American Jewish Committee’s expert on Jewish-Islamic relations urged Jews in New Jersey to broaden their contacts with Muslim communities.

Speaking Sept. 29 at a luncheon meeting at a private home in Summit, Robert Silverman, the AJC’s U.S. director of Muslim-Jewish relations, said, “Outreach to American Muslims is really critical.” Calling American Muslims “the first line of defense against terrorist attacks,” the American Jewish Committee’s expert on Jewish-Islamic relations urged Jews in New Jersey to broaden their contacts with Muslim communities.

Silverman, who joined the AJC in February, has an extensive background as a senior foreign service officer in the State Department, where his last post was director of regional and multilateral affairs in the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs.

He said Islamic terrorists “are trying to turn this into a civilizational or religious war between all Muslims on one side and all Jews and Christians on the other.”

But, Silverman said, the violent extremists “don’t represent Muslims, and one effective way to counter the terrorists is to actually have ties with Muslims.”

Silverman noted that Muslims in America are smaller in numbers than the American-Jewish community, but they are growing rapidly. Within 20 years, he said, the Muslim-American community “will be twice as large as American Jewry.”

The single largest group of Muslim Americans — some 35 to 40 percent of the total — are African-Americans whose families have been in the country for centuries and have traditionally gotten along well with Jews, Silverman said. “Many remember the civil rights movement and the Jewish contributions to that,” he said.

Another roughly 33 percent of American Muslims are from south Asia — mainly Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh. The third major group comprises Arab-Americans, followed by West Africans and West Asians.

Silverman said that, counter to common belief, Muslims may be inclined to engage with Jews, a people that has had success integrating into U.S. culture. “They look to American Jews as the successful religious minority,” he said. “They want to learn how we’ve done it as they look for a place in American society.”

Moreover, Silverman said, Muslims are coming to the realization that they need to find the similarities between the two ethnic groups. “There is a common ground centered on mutual concerns with domestic policy issues,” he said.

Even though Jews may be at odds with some of their views, he urged those in attendance to take advantage of their shared interests and establish a dialogue with Muslims.

“Get outside our comfort zones and do not meet only with people who say what we want to hear,” Silverman said, urging his listeners to find common cause with people who don’t “agree with you on all issues.”

Among these commonalities, Silverman said, Muslims in America, unlike in other parts of the world, are moving toward increasingly democratic ideals, as they begin to ordain women clerics and become more accepting of their own LGBT population.

Silverman said that American Muslims acknowledge that anti-Semitism is a problem in their community and are beginning to offer some “religious instruction” to address it. He said a growing number of Muslim groups have begun traveling to Israel, sometimes under AJC sponsorship, “despite the problems that might cause in some of their constituencies.”

“So it is time to engage with them and help support their movement in the right direction.”

According to the 2015 AJC “Survey of American Jewish Opinion,” 35.7 percent of those questioned believe “most” Muslims to be anti-Semites. A larger number, 39 percent, believe “many” Muslims to be anti-Semitic, and less than half that number, 17.7 percent of Jews polled, say “very few” Muslims are anti-Semites. Only 3.8 percent said “no” Muslims are anti-Semites. The Jews questioned rated Muslims more anti-Semitic than Asians, Hispanics, African-Americans, and Evangelical Protestants.

But the Pew Research Center’s 2013 “Portrait of Jewish Americans” found that 72 percent of Jews say there’s a lot of discrimination against Muslims. Among all Americans, 47 percent believe Muslims face strong discrimination.

‘Two-way street’

Silverman suggested that by establishing mutually trusting relationships, Jewish groups could raise the issue of how Jews are portrayed in Muslim religious schools, and eventually the groups could coalesce around fighting the hate crimes that plague members of both communities.

But, he cautioned, “Muslims are going to have issues with us. They think Jews are overrepresented in what they see as ‘Islamophobia groups,’ and they perceive a lot of Jewish funding going into them.”

Still, Silverman said, he is unaware of anyone in the American-Muslim community who supports ISIS. “They are all appalled by it. They are terrified by it,” he said. “People forget that the majority of victims of terrorism are other Muslims.”

Later, in an interview with NJJN, Silverman said that AJC and other Jewish groups have, in certain instances, sided with Muslims in local battles over erecting mosques in particular locations. In many cases these are part of an effort to keep out Muslims, he said, and “Jews should be sensitive to those kinds of disguised attempts.”

He said another area for coalition was over religious accommodations, such as the right to freely wear a yarmulke or hijab in public and have holiday times respected as days off in schools, government offices, and private businesses.

“We should be willing to hear their agenda as well as ask for ours,” said Silverman. “It will be a two-way street.”

Commenting on Silverman’s talk, Christopher Taylor, dean of the Drew University College of Liberal Arts and former director of its Center on Religion, Culture & Conflict and professor of Islamic studies, said he would “certainly concur that Muslim extremists have been intent on igniting a clash between the Islamic world and the West.”

But, he wrote in an Oct. 4 e-mail, “in buying into that worldview, we do run the risk of playing right into their strategy.”

And yet, Taylor suggested, Muslims and Jews “do not face an inherent and inevitable conflict” that prevents coexistence and collaboration. “I have seen many similar indications among American Muslims that they embrace the opportunity to build a more positive future with their Jewish neighbors,” he wrote.

M. Ali Chaudry, president of the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge, said, “I think there is a lot of interest and a lot of commonality” between Muslims and Jews. “Our international political differences should not keep us” from joining on issues of shared concern.

Steven Emerson, the founder and executive director of the Investigative Project on Terrorism, based in Washington, agreed, but with a caveat. Emerson, who happens to be Jewish, told NJJN, “Something can always be gained by closer relations between Muslim and Jewish groups, but it depends upon the authenticity of the Muslim groups.

“There are genuine moderate Muslim groups and Muslim leaders,” he said, but added, “I don’t believe the Muslim Brotherhood or Hamas front groups are appropriate partners.”

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