A Conversation With Muslims And Jews

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Members of the Muslim American Civic and Cultural Association and Temple Hillel B’nai Torah. (Martha Bebinger/WBUR)
Members of the Muslim American Civic and Cultural Association and Temple Hillel B’nai Torah. (Martha Bebinger/WBUR)

Packaged bombs allegedly mailed by Islamic militants in Yemen, but intercepted before they reached synagogues in Chicago, have once again sparked tensions between Muslims and Jews. But a small group from each religion is vowing to unravel that tension. Thirteen members of the Muslim American Civic and Cultural Association in Malden and Temple Hillel B’nai Torah in West Roxbury have started a series of conversations about politics, stereotypes and the conflicts that have divided Muslims and Jews for centuries.

"My name is Yacine Ibrahimi. I grew up in Morrocco and moved here in 1996," Ibrahimi says to members of the group seated in a circle of folding chairs.

Members continue around the circle.

"I’m Nomi Herbstman. I was born in Brooklyn. I think the reason I’m here is the studies that came out in the last 12 months that I have more DNA in common with the people in this room than I do from any country of origin in Europe and I’m also here because (Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin) Netanyahu doesn’t speak for me," she says.

"I was born in Algeria. I came here in 1988," Hakim Khoulani  says. "My hope from this discussion is to understand what is so different from the Jewish religion and Islam. We have the same God, why are we so far apart?"

Group members read and agree on a list of ground rules that include trying to keep comments in the first person, agreeing to disagree, and being discreet afterward.

The Need For Open Dialogue

On this night, the first question for the group is: why is it important for Jews and Muslims to engage with each other in the U.S. today? Leslie Belay is moved by news of the intercepted cargo bombs.

"We are always on the defensive. Muslims have to come out and start talking to people — not just to Jews — and clear our name basically."

co-moderator of the discussion, Mohamed Khafif

"What more urgent reason is there for Americans, Muslims and Jews to talk to one another?" Belay asks. "We can’t allow these things to happen either as victims or as perpetrators, in our names."

"I think it would be naïve to say we don’t carry our own stereotypes," says Mohamed Brahimi. "The usefulness of these dialogues is that we all get together and kick these things around and check their validity. This is the place where authenticity is being checked."

Some members of the group are worried about what they call a growing intolerance for Muslims. Herbstman mentions the boycott of Campbell’s Soup because the company has introduced a Halal line of soups.

"I think of all the various foods in the supermarket that have a U on it or a K in the triangle and I don’t see anyone boycotting that," Herbstman says. "Why should Muslim Americans feel less at home in the supermarket than Jewish Americans?"

"Muslims spend so much time defining who they are not," laments participant and co-moderator Mohamed Khafif. "We are always on the defensive. Muslims have to come out and start talking to people — not just to Jews — and clear our name basically. Some of us are trying to do this, others people are just, they're in shock; they’re hiding."

Dispelling Negative Stereotypes

"You raise the issue of the anti-Muslim sentiment," says Mark Gurvich, leaning forward in his chair. "And you know, as Jews we can have two reactions to that. We can sigh and say, 'Wow, glad someone else is getting it and not us.' Or we can say, 'if we don’t join against this and other attacks on groups, it may not be us today but it will be us tomorrow.' So it’s a matter of values; it’s also a matter of self-interest."

"But On the other hand," says Merle Wolofsky, "I for one feel threatened as a Jew in this world. Some of the threat, I have to say, is coming from the Muslim world. I know it’s not everybody, but it’s coming from there and I feel threatened by it."

"I think hate comes from ignorance," says Yacine Ibrahimi. "People don’t know about Islam. Us as Muslims, we have done a terrible job of promoting ourselves. We don’t take opportunities to explain what our religion is about and that’s what’s causing this."

On the flipside, says Ibrahimi, many Muslims don’t know much about Judaism.

"I’m going to ask everyone to stand up. This is where we stretch our legs a little bit," says participant and co-moderator, Jeff Stone. He sends the Muslims to one end of the room with a big sheet of paper and a marker and the Jews to the other.

"For Jewish participants," asks Stone, "what comes to mind when you think of Muslims? What are some of the most difficult issues that are confusing or hard to discuss? Same thing for Muslim members. "

"OK, this is a place to get it out. We won’t be able to discuss all the things that come out in depth tonight, I’m sure you know that, but this will help us understand where we are at the things we are going to discuss as we move along."

The Jews start their list of stereotypes with: the subjugation of women, that Muslims are anti-gay, that Muslims think Islam should rule the world. Herbstman adds, "that Muslims will never accept a Jewish presence in Palestine or Canaan."

And although some members disagree, these Jews also add, "Islam in particular has a history in the Quran and Mohammed's life of violence, and so is it integral?" Another participant says it is hard for her to put that sentiment in writing.

The Muslim list of stereotypes starts with: Jews are affluent, they control the media, Jews are an introverted community, and they add, "they occupy influential positions and we don’t. They always feel struggling and threatened, scared — they play that card."

When the two groups sit down, Stone says "I personally think that the Muslims were a little nicer than they had to be."

"You want another couple of minutes to add to your list?" offers Belay, laughing.

The Muslims, it turns out, wrote about American Jews, not all Jews, while the Jews from West Roxbury listed stereotypes for Muslims writ large.

"When we’re in our stereotype mode, we’re not making fine distinctions" laughs Belay.

"OK, but these are representative fears," says Stone, trying to focus the group. "These things are out there so, yeah, Miriam."

"I’ve two reactions," offers Miriam Messenger. "One is how much on that list is old, like things never change, the stereotypes. And the second thing is that last piece, I thought was just particularly wise, around threatened, scared. We’re a religion and a people living in post-traumatic stress and we’ve never really dealt with some of our trauma."

Mark Gurvich takes on the stereotypes about Jews in positions of power and affluence.

"The reality is, you may have chosen the wrong congregation," warns Gurvich, laughing. "There’s very few, at least in our congregation, that are actually in business, a lot of professionals and higher degrees. There actually are poor Jews, particularly around some metropolitan areas."

Looking at the list of Muslim stereotypes, Mohamed Brahimi picks up the anti-gay example.

"I found it to be pretty accurate," says Brahimi. "And granted, Islam teaches you it’s not a way of life. Yet, that’s between them and their Lord."

"What’s GBLT, GLBT?" asks Mohamed Khafif.

The Jews explain it's the acronym for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender people. Then they start to laugh.

"That's the point," says Belay as Khafif, embarrassed, says, "It sounded like the name of a sandwich."

It wouldn't be Kosher or Halal, several members point out.

Khafif moves on to another topic.

"The subjugation of women," he sighs. "It’s cultural." In reality, argues Khafif, the Prophet Mohamed elevated the role of women when he established himself in Medina.

"He built a mosque and a marketplace, and he made the women in charge of the marketplace," says Khafif. "They had leadership positions, they were teachers. Some of the greatest scholars of Islam were taught by women. "It’s part of Muslims not understanding their religion and this is where you get this male domination. It’s basically ignorance."

"There’s very rich territory here," says Stone, "we could talk a lot about this and other things but I need to hold that."

The moderators ask everyone what they will remember about tonight.

Mohamed Hashimi says, "I didn’t know the Jewish people, even with power and wealth, and they still feel insecure."

Stone offers, "my gratitude for the willingness for everyone in the room to engage each other."

And El Mostapha Quanass says, "I feel there is a hope for (the) Jewish community and Muslim community to get together and defend each other and be as one."

The group plans to meet four more times through April. We’ll check back as they conclude.

This program aired on November 5, 2010.

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Martha Bebinger Reporter
Martha Bebinger covers health care and other general assignments for WBUR.



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