In an interfaith gathering in Edison just two days after the Paris attacks, Muslims and Jews expressed frustration at the media portrayal of Muslims as terrorists and the failure to note widespread condemnation of the attacks by Muslims locally and internationally.
However, at the Nov. 15 dialogue at Temple Emanu-El, Rabbi David Vaisberg noted that Jews are also frustrated about coverage of terrorism attacks in Israel.
“Just as we feel there is a lot of anti-Israel sentiment, Muslims also feel there is a lot of anti-Muslim sentiment,” said Vaisberg, adding that media outlets have taken a more sensitive stance toward Israel thanks to vocal protests from Jewish groups.
Vaisberg and his congregants engaged in dialogue with Imam Raouf Zaman and members of the Muslim Center of Middlesex County in Piscataway in the last of three programs partly funded by the Jewish Federation in the Heart of NJ. The first two focused on seeking positive ties between Islam and Judaism.
At the latest event, Vaisberg read a list of Muslim countries and organizations in the United States and abroad that have spoken out against the Paris attacks. He also noted that thousands of other Muslims took to Twitter to express “sadness and solidarity” with the victims of the attacks.
“We have very strongly condemned ISIS and have similarly condemned all violence against Muslims and non-Muslims,” said Zaman, a native of Guyana. “The Islamic Council of Europe very strongly condemned the attacks. I don’t know of any Muslim scholar worth his name as a Muslim scholar who has not spoken out against ISIS. I have spoken out against ISIS in my sermons in the mosque.”
Zaman acknowledged that in the early stages of Muslim extremism “there was some fear, some timidity to speak out at first.” But as Muslims came to understand the situation and became more comfortable in their societies, they have consistently criticized violence being carried out in the name of their religion.
Vaisberg acknowledged that Jewish terrorists have targeted Palestinians in the West Bank. (In August, a week after deadly arson attacks, Shin Bet and Israeli police arrested nine Jews as part of a crackdown on extremist violence.) “We do not tolerate that kind of hatred. It is not acceptable under Jewish law or otherwise to kill another human being,” he said.
The rabbi and the imam sat together on the bima and answered audience questions written on index cards. Topics included each religion’s views on slavery, homosexuality, the role of women, interfaith marriage, and how Jewish law and Muslim law govern adherents’ lives.
“The real way toward peace is getting to know one another,” said Vaisberg. “We expect the friendship and dialogue, God willing, will keep on going.”
Zaman said the two groups were already discussing follow-up activities but “unfortunately things are taking place in the world. We have this cloud hanging over us because of what has taken place in Paris.”
Vaisberg said it was his hope that “the many voices of the moderates who are indeed the ones who wish to live together and push forward to create a world where holiness and God are recognized [may grow] stronger and influence those who claim to have God’s voice but only push more hatred into the world.”
Zaman agreed, adding, “We can only say ‘amen’ to that although we pronounce it ‘ameen.’”
Afterward, the two groups chatted over fruit and kosher cookies and cake.
“I thought this was excellent and it needs to happen more because we are all human beings,” said mosque member Dr. Hasan Miraj of Piscataway. “We have differences, but we must learn from each other and live together.”
He said that “it was the biggest sin” in Islam not to care for your neighbors. “We are all part of humanity,” he said.
Temple member Gail Apsel of Edison, who attended two of the three sessions, said she wished more time had been allotted.
“I thought the conversation has continued,” she said. “I think it has been worthwhile, although I wasn’t sure I wanted to come today because of the events [in Paris]. I thought maybe it should be postponed because things are so raw.”
Fellow congregant Therese Jaffe of Metuchen disagreed. “Because of what happened, I think it’s even more important to have a dialogue when things are so raw,” she said.