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Interfaith Interaction: Reimagining Muslim-Jewish Relations

Established in 2006, the L.A.-based organization NewGround is dedicated to transforming the ways Jews and Muslims interact through public programs, fellowships, consulting, and thought-leadership—and thus far has trained 80 young Muslim and Jewish men and women, and partnered with more than 30 Muslim and Jewish organizations to bring transformative programs to 2,400+ people. Executive Director Rabbi Sarah Bassin, 30, HUC-JIR class of 2011, recently received a $100,000 grant from the Joshua Venture Group’s 2012–2014 Dual Investment Program to take her Los Angeles model national. She was interviewed by the RJ magazine editors.

What inspired your involvement with Muslim-Jewish relations?

Having come from a mixed Jewish-Catholic background, I entered HUC wanting to make interfaith relations the core of my rabbinate. Though my initial interest was Jewish-Catholic dialogue, it soon shifted to Jewish-Muslim dialogue, a field that was largely in its infancy.

One tipping point for me happened in 2009 during Israel’s Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, when I was working at the Los Angeles Board of Rabbis. An anti-Israel protest was in force outside our Federation building, and all of us were encouraged to go downstairs and start a counter-protest in support of Israel. In the street, the Palestinian faction was well-organized, chanting loudly into a megaphone, while the Jewish demonstrators were in total disarray. One Jewish man kept pacing back and forth, muttering to himself, “We have to get a bigger megaphone; if we don’t have a bigger megaphone, we’re going to lose.” That was my “aha!” moment. I thought to myself, A bigger megaphone isn’t going to transform anything. All we’re doing is stopping traffic along Wilshire Boulevard and upsetting the larger community that wants nothing to do with this conversation.

A year later I took a job researching trends in U.S. Muslim-Jewish relations at the Center for Muslim-Jewish Engagement, a University of Southern California think tank under the direction of HUC-JIR professor Rabbi Reuven Firestone.

What trends did you discover?

An increasing number of Americans have broadened their view of the U.S. from a “Judeo-Christian nation” to one that encompasses all three Abrahamic faith groups. This changing perception has coincided with a demographic shift: the U.S. Muslim population has grown to approximately the same size as the American Jewish community. From these trends, it was clear that improving interfaith relations needed to become a priority for both Muslims and Jews.

Meanwhile, two other L.A. organizations discovered, after a year-long study, that the most effective way to build Jewish-Muslim engagement was to cultivate young Jewish and Muslim professionals as partners in dialogue. Productive, transformative conversations were very difficult to achieve between established religious leaders, who, before entering into a relationship, tended to impose conditions on the other side, such as “I will only speak to you if you condemn suicide bombings” or “I will only speak to you if you acknowledge that Israel’s occupation is unjust.” This approach fueled mistrust from the outset and led to quick breakdowns in communication. In contrast, young professionals were not beholden to stakeholders and were therefore less likely to be criticized for entering into such a relationship. Representing only themselves, they could communicate more honestly and openly. This approach fueled trust. And, the expectation is, in years to come, as these young professionals reach top-level positions within their individual communities, they will be able to lower the tension during times of conflict by calling upon people in the interfaith network of trusting relationships they’ve already built.

You’ve said that a 2010 Gallup poll revealed that Islamophobia and antisemitism are two sides of the same coin: “The strongest predictor of prejudice against Muslims is whether a person has similar feelings toward Jews.” How do you use this information to bring Muslims and Jews together?

One difficulty in bringing Muslims and Jews together is that when they think about the other, the first image that comes to mind is conflict; e.g., Israel-Palestine. It’s time to shift the focus to shared concerns and interests. As religious minorities in the U.S., both Muslims and Jews are concerned with protecting their religious and civil rights, yet rarely have they joined forces. When, for example, anti-circumcision legislation initiatives were introduced in San Francisco and Santa Monica, the two communities did not fully capitalize on an opportunity for significant coordination. More broadly, both Jews and Muslims care about fighting homelessness, protecting the environment, and pursuing social justice. The “elephant in the room”—the Israel-Palestine conflict—has prevented us from working together more effectively in larger, interfaith-based coalitions on local issues that impact us all. This needs to change.

How do you get Muslims and Jews to see each other as potential political partners?

It’s a process. At first the participants of our six-month fellowship program walk into the room as either Muslims or Jews. All the Muslims sit on one side and all the Jews on the other. To change how people see each other, we ask everyone to stand in a circle and listen to a series of statements; if a particular statement applies to you, you step into the center of the circle. When people hear, “I have a refugee in the family,” usually about 80%of the group steps into the circle—Muslims and Jews. That starts to shift people’s consciousness: Oh, ours isn’t the only group that has refugees as part of our story. Another recognition is that we have multiple identities; being Muslim or Jewish is just one factor folding into our understanding of who we are.

Is looking at each other’s religious texts a good way to foster dialogue?

At NewGround, we will invite an imam or a rabbi to speak to the group about the essential values of their respective sacred texts, but the texts themselves are not at the core of our work. After the speaker leaves, the conversation focuses on how the fellows in the room received that person. Rather than to teach “this is Judaism” or “this is Islam,” our objective is to help draw out people’s personal experiences of their religious tradition. Often participants will disagree with what the rabbi or the imam said and offer their own perspectives, which also helps in breaking down monolithic perceptions of the other’s religious community.

Our approach is very different from a typical Muslim-Jewish exchange, in which both sides enter the conversation as if it were a contest, equipped with their own set of compelling facts, and both ultimately walk away unswayed, in the same place they started. We start conversations with personal stories and perspectives—what this conflict means to my family, my friends, and me. This way, one person’s facts can’t outdo or negate another’s, because what he or she has said is not subject to debate; it’s true for that person.

In short, we stress communications, conflict resolution, and relationship-building. The issues themselves are a foundation upon which to build trust and connection as we work up to having a conversation about Israel and Palestine.

How do the fellows respond to discussing Israel-Palestine?

Because the fellows fear damaging the relationships they’ve worked so hard to build and know how toxic, uncivil, and derailing this subject can be, they are sometimes reluctant to have the conversation. They soon discover, however, that they do have the skill set to take this subject on, and though the conversation may be tough, they are able to maintain a relationship. Later, after the fellows have left NewGround to work within their communities, their first reaction when a conflict breaks out will not be to blog about it to the public, but rather to call somebody they know from the other community and say, “How are you thinking about this?” This then frames their public response, and the real work proceeds quietly behind the scenes.

Does this real work usually take place in synagogues and mosques?

Actually, we don’t ask our 22–39-year-old fellows to focus on synagogues and mosques, because at this stage of their lives, these institutions are not their primary points of affiliation. Rather, we encourage them to utilize their NewGround training within their existing networks of interest. So, for example, some of our fellows in the entertainment industry went on to host a joint Muslim-Jewish film festival that drew the wider Los Angeles community into exploring how these two communities understand themselves.

Could such bridge-building engage 20- and 30-something Jews beyond the synagogue walls?

Absolutely. Jewish-Muslim relationship-building taps into the value of universalism shared by Millennials. They aren’t interested in separating themselves from the larger community; rather, they see being Jewish as a lens through which they approach the world. Jewish-Muslim relations work allows them to express their Jewishness in that broader context.

This is true of Jewish teens, too. Last year, two Jewish communal leaders told us independently that their teens were asking for encounters with the Muslim community. We helped them to establish a high school leadership council that invites leaders from both a Muslim and a Jewish organization to talk about a major social issue, such as genocide, with high school students. This approach functions simultaneously on three levels: It engages student dialogue; it fosters communication between the two invited organizational leaders, who usually have never met before; and it opens dialogue among the 14 Muslim and Jewish communal leaders on the Advisory Board—all of whom are invested in their students’ experiences.

A vital component of success in Muslim-Jewish relations, I believe, is ensuring that everything we do functions on multiple layers. How can we leverage a series of encounters to move beyond impacting the people sitting in the room to reach ever wider circles of people? That’s how to make a difference.

Has NewGround worked with Reform congregations?

Yes. As an example, leaders of Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills asked us to help expand their relationship with King Fahad Mosque beyond annual clergy-organized events to engage a larger number of people from both congregations. In response, we adapted our fellowship training to deepen the relationship between a core group of temple and mosque lay leaders. In October 2012 they held their first joint project: cultural tours of Jewish and Muslim Los Angeles. Meanwhile, a subgroup is working on developing an organization for Muslims and Jews to respond jointly to major humanitarian crises, such as facilitating access to potable water.

How can temples best reach out to mosques?

First, don’t reach out to the other congregation with a one-off game plan: “Let’s do this one thing together and see what happens.” We encourage deemphasizing the event and instead formulating a thoughtful plan to build the relationships behind the programs. When participants truly come to care about the other—and not just the program—you know it’s working. But bear in mind that this process doesn’t happen overnight, and it will have disagreements built in. 

Rabbinic school taught me a very important lesson: A healthy relationship is not devoid of conflict. What matters is that people commit to working through a problem, because their larger connection is much more important.