An Orthodox rabbi told an interracial gathering in Newark Feb. 15: “I am a Muslim, too.”
Rabbi Marc Schneier, co-leader of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, made his unusual expression of solidarity during a “conversation on the Black/Jewish alliance” at the Newark Museum.
The event, scheduled as a celebration of Black History Month, was sponsored by the city’s Municipal Council and its mayor, Cory Booker.
Schneier, founder of The Hampton Synagogue in Westhampton Beach, NY, and The New York Synagogue in Manhattan, was joined by hip-hop impresario Russell Simmons, codirector of FFEU.
Schneier said he was especially troubled by congressional hearings scheduled in March on “the radicalization of the American Muslim community,” called by Rep. Peter King (R-NY).
“The Muslim community is now going to be going through some very difficult hearings,” said Schneier. He and Simmons are organizing a rally in support of the Muslim community on Sunday, March 6, a day before the hearings are scheduled to begin.
“I am greatly, greatly disturbed,” he said. “It just bothers me as an American, and more importantly as a human being. Why should Muslim Americans at these hearings have to defend themselves alone? That is not the American way.”
“I believe there has been a turn over the last 12 months toward greater Islamophobia and greater anti-Semitism,” said Simmons. “You can just see it. Things that were not acceptable are now acceptable in board rooms and places where they should not be and where we never have allowed them in the last 20 years.”
(King, chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, defended the hearings in a letter to a critic, Rep. Bennie G. Thompson (D-Miss.). “The Committee cannot ignore the fact that al Qaeda is actively attempting to recruit individuals living within the Muslim American community to commit acts of terror,” King wrote. “Pursuant to our mandate, the Committee will continue to examine the threat of Islamic radicalization, and I will not allow political correctness to obscure a real and dangerous threat to the safety and security of the citizens of the United States.”)
As Schneier and Simmons spoke, a surprise guest came onstage: Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the New York cleric who has proposed building a Muslim cultural center several blocks from the site of the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan.
“The real battlefront is not between Jews and Muslims or Muslims and Christians or Muslims and Hindus or Muslims and Americans,” said Rauf, who recently accepted a reduced role in the controversial project. “The real battlefront is between the extremists of all stripes against what I call the ‘moderationists’ of all stripes.”
“The American-Muslim community is under attack; it is not his fight,” said Schneier, gesturing toward the imam. “It is my fight. When a Jewish community is under attack it is not my fight. It is the imam’s fight. We can only truly understand each other when we go beyond ourselves and the concerns of our respective communities.”
Visiting one another
Booker said he was “shocked” by the notion of the congressional hearings.
“We get the idea that tolerance is the end stage. It is not. I think there is a lack of knowledge,” he said.
The mayor said people could overcome prejudice by visiting one another’s homes and houses of worship. “We live in the most pluralistic society in the world, and yet we know so little of each other,” he said.
Speaking directly to “my Jewish friends in the audience,” Schneier said, “I don’t want you to walk away with some Pollyanna-ish view. I see the wheels turning. ‘Oh, there he goes again, preaching about some tolerance, reaching out to the African-Americans and now to the Muslims. What do we get in return?’
“The door swings both ways in life, and the good news I want to share with you is, when it comes to American-Muslim leadership, how proud I am that I enjoy…a cadre of friends, Muslim leaders who are speaking out, going against, anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial in particular.”
Schneier recalled a controversy in December, when the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East announced plans to bring Palestinian youth on a tour of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC. Hamas leadership protested the visit.
“Who responded?” said Schneier. “Not the World Jewish Congress. Not the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Not the Anti-Defamation League.” Instead, he went on, it was the Islamic Society of North America that sent a letter slamming Hamas, saying they “strongly recommend” the Palestinians’ visit to the museum.
“They were the ones who told Hamas, ‘You’re wrong. If anything, we should be exposing as many Muslim youth as possible to that singular tragedy called the Holocaust,’” said Schneier. “Yes, the door swings both ways.”
David Lentz, chair of the Community Relations Committee of United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ, found the discussion “a worthwhile effort. It is an effort we need to make in the Jewish community — to reach out to other portions of our American community we are not usually in contact with.”
Following the meeting, NJ Jewish News asked Lentz about his reaction to Schneier’s statement that “we are all Muslims.”
“We have to be careful, but we have to be responsive,” the Livingston attorney said. “We have to be careful so that our efforts are not perceived incorrectly, but at the same time, as Jews we cannot be unresponsive. Nobody but our community is as sensitive to minority rights and discrimination. Discrimination is wrong, wherever and however it is expressed.
“One thing Jews always need to be sure of is that their back is covered, and if they know they have support, they go out on a limb.”