Two years ago, the two of us, a Muslim-American woman, and a Jewish-American man, wrote a book together, arguing that American Muslims and Jews cannot afford to allow the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to divide our faith communities here at home.
We believe in that principle today as much as we did then. But as we watch with horror the ever-escalating war in Gaza and Israel, we are also acutely aware that the conflict poses a growing peril that could tear our faith communities here in America irreparably apart.
Indeed, the lines are being drawn. Members of the Jewish community feel that Muslims leaders have not gone far enough to denounce Hamas for its brutal, life-destroying rampage against 1,400 Israeli civilians, the deadliest one-day spasm of anti-Jewish violence since the Holocaust. They also feel threatened by the dramatic rise in antisemitic incidents across the United States, including at pro-Palestinian rallies on college campuses.
At the same time, American Muslims feel dread at the new wave of Islamophobia. Muslims are resentful at being pressured to speak out against Hamas’ actions when they feel that there has been relative silence by many Jews over the oppression Palestinians have endured for decades under Israeli occupation. They see the media as being one-sided, and elected officials downplaying the disproportionate loss of life of more than 10,000 people in Gaza.
Muslim leaders feel that the prevailing pro-Israel zeitgeist in American society makes it unsafe for them to speak up for Palestinians or risk being labeled antisemites or supporters of terrorism, the censure of Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib being one example. Meanwhile, Muslim children are facing bullying in schools.
It is striking that Jews and Muslims alike feel that their own fear and vulnerability is being ignored by society at large, that they have been rendered invisible. Yet despite that commonality of feeling, it is clear that our two communities are being pulled apart. The dominant approach has been profoundly tribal. Most of us are too angry and traumatized to hear the other side and acknowledge that there may be truth in both narratives. Nowadays the credo is “You are either with us or against us.” All of this carries the potential for more than fear, loathing and mutual recriminations and is already leading to violence.
This reversion back into the stockade by members of both communities is a tragedy because, during the two decades since 9/11, which brought tens of thousands of Jews and Muslims across the United States into sustained and positive contact, the two of us have witnessed and participated in the building of a vibrant network of Muslim-Jewish cooperation. This bond was further strengthened by shared Jewish and Muslim apprehension over the rise of white supremacist ideology, which has contributed to increased levels of antisemitism and Islamophobia, putting the security of Jews and Muslims at risk. Yet just at the very moment when the Muslim-Jewish alliance is needed more desperately than ever to stand together against violence and bigotry, and in support of core American principles of democracy and pluralism, we find ourselves lashing out at one another.
This downward trajectory can still be turned around, but it will take active involvement of many of us in both communities, from communal and spiritual leaders to grassroots members. Now is the time for Jews and Muslims who have built friendships over the past two decades to show courage and pick up the phone and call each other, acknowledge the other’s pain and fears, even if we don’t agree on solutions to the crisis.
We appeal to our fellow Muslims and Jews to look out for the safety of the other. If you notice any suspicious activity, promptly notify the authorities. Be an upstander when riding the train or bus and watch out for your fellow Jew in the yarmulke or the Muslim woman in the hijab.
Counsel your children. Help them understand the conflict and enable them to see the humanity in their fellow students. Caution them against making ethnic remarks, and guide them on how to respond if bullied. Keep that lunch appointment with your Jewish colleague, or a walk in the park with your Muslim neighbor. Organize small interfaith prayer groups and forums designed to evoke empathy. The Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom’s Listening and Sharing sessions are one example of gatherings organized to share each other’s pain and be heard in a safe space.
For the sake of both our communities and the well-being of American society, Muslims and Jews in the United States must hold tight together to the common tenets of our Abrahamic faiths and embrace our shared humanity. If we do, we stand a chance of salvaging and enhancing the relationships we have spent decades cultivating. The oasis of Muslim-Jewish friendship and trust is simply too precious to be sacrificed to the false totem of tribal loyalty.
Sabeeha Rehman and Walter Ruby are co-authors of “We Refuse To Be Enemies. How Muslims and Jews Can Make Peace, One Friendship At A Time” (Arcade Publishing, 2021). ©2023 The Baltimore Sun. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency.