The election of Donald Trump as president and the appointment of former Breitbart News chair Stephen Bannon as chief White House strategist have generated a great deal of unease in the Muslim community. As Jews, we have both a moral obligation and an enlightened self-interest to make sure Muslim Americans feel safe and completely at home in America.
Three years ago, North Brunswick resident Sheryl Olitzky launched the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom, the only national organization focusing on Muslim and Jewish women with the goal of living in harmony. Of the approximately 50 Sisterhood chapters already running or in the works nationwide, 14 are in New Jersey.
“By providing a safe environment for Muslim and Jewish women to come together to focus on commonalities, respect differences, and create enduring friendships, we find that attitudes toward another religious community improve overall,” she said. In the weeks since the election, Olitzky, who now serves as the organization’s executive director, said, “We have heard from hundreds of women that the Sisterhood is the only place where they feel like they are understood, can be honest about their concerns and feelings, and find support.”
The Sisterhood’s third annual Muslim and Jewish Leadership Conference on Dec. 4, which was held at Drew University, was attended by some 500 women from across the country. While the president-elect’s name was rarely mentioned, there was a palpable atmosphere of anxiety inside the meeting space in the university’s sports complex on the Madison campus. Sisterhood cofounder and chair Atiya Aftab said, “If I was alone, as a Muslim and an immigrant, I would be so fearful of the political uncertainty that is beginning to surround us. Words cannot express how I have been deeply affected by the sentiments of my Jewish sisters whose community has suffered and, because of that, have pledged to stand up.”
To the Jewish community’s credit, Jewish outreach to Muslims began well before Trump’s victory. The American Jewish Committee and Islamic Society of North America announced the creation of a Muslim-Jewish Advisory Council on Nov. 14, an initiative, said AJC’s NJ director, John Rosen, that was in the planning stages for quite some time. The new council’s agenda will be to “highlight the contributions of Muslims and Jews to American society…, develop a coordinated strategy to address anti-Muslim bigotry and anti-Semitism…, and work to protect and expand the rights of religious minorities in the U.S.”
Rosen said that AJC’s strategy in New Jersey will be “to build relationships with influential Muslim clerics and lay leaders who can work with us on advancing shared policy concerns, including immigration.”
Joshua Cohen, NJ director of the Anti-Defamation League, said that his agency has been expanding its outreach to Muslims for years, but it’s particularly important now that the FBI has reported a 67 percent increase in hate crimes against Muslims nationwide in 2015.
But Muslims aren’t the only group being targeted; the FBI also found that anti-Jewish hate crimes were up 9 percent and constituted more than 50 percent of all religious-based hate crimes. Cohen preached caution to those who presume a direct correlation to the contentious rhetoric from the presidential campaign, but didn’t dismiss the notion altogether, either.
“It is essential not to just assume a direct connection between these reported hate crimes and the inflammatory and divisive presidential election campaign,” he said. “However, community climate matters, and we have documented an unprecedented amount of bigotry and intolerance on the campaign trail.”
The obligation we have as Jews to be in the forefront of efforts to protect the security and rights of Muslim Americans should be self-evident. Everything in our value system and historical experience of persecution as a religious minority cries out for this engagement.
It is also in our interest. A study done by the Pew Research Center showed that in 2015 there were some 3.3 million Muslims in the United States; New Jersey has three times as many Muslim adults per capita as the national average. By 2050, the American-Muslim population is projected to reach 8.1 million people or 2.1 percent of the total population, exceeding the American-Jewish population. Consequently, the Muslim community’s political potency is destined to grow in the years ahead, and we will be well served to nurture it as a coalition partner on a range of domestic and international concerns.
One example of emerging American-Muslim political leadership: Mohammed Hameeduddin, the mayor of the heavily Jewish town of Teaneck and the first Muslim mayor in Bergen County. Hameeduddin also happens to be a graduate of the Muslim Leadership Initiative started in 2013 by the Israel-based Shalom Hartman Institute. The MLI invites “North American Muslims to explore how Jews understand Judaism, Israel, and Jewish peoplehood…and encourages participants to experience how Palestinians, both inside and outside Israel, identify themselves, while exploring the issues of ethics, faith, and practice.”
There is a broader context here as well. A fierce struggle is raging within the Islamic world between moderate, peace-loving people who embrace a progressive 21st-century interpretation of the Koran and radical anti-Western Islamists who distort the words of the Islamic prophet Mohammed to justify heinous acts of terrorism. A democratic and pluralistic America providing a welcoming home to its Muslim minority would send a powerful message and reinforce the progressive views of the moderates, whereas an America perceived as hostile to Muslims can only strengthen the radicals.
It’s no secret that through the centuries the Jewish people have had a less than ideal relationship with much of the Muslim world, although we often fared better as a minority in Muslim societies than in Christian ones. Truth is that the vast majority of Muslims are peaceful people who bear us no ill will or wish us harm, and now we have a common cause that might help alleviate past or current tensions.
We must not allow this to become a partisan political issue. The well-being of our Muslim neighbors should be everybody’s business.