Less than a week after the election of Donald Trump, whose incendiary comments during the presidential campaign are seen by Jews and members of other minority groups as being responsible for a recent series of suspected bias attacks in this country, a new initiative of Jews and Muslims formed this week to advocate for their faiths’ shared concerns.
The founders of the Muslim-Jewish Advisory Council, which was announced in press releases issued on Monday by the American Jewish Committee (AJC) and the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), stressed that the council was not formed in response to the controversial statements made by Trump during the past year, or by the bias attacks that have followed his election.
But recent verbal and physical attacks on Muslims and Mexican immigrants and gays, and scrawled swastikas, underscore the need for the council, its leaders said.
“The election rhetoric no doubt increased some people’s motivation in joining this council,” which was planned and began meeting before the election, said Robert Silverman, a career foreign service officer in the State Department who was named the AJC’s first director of Muslim-Jewish Relations six months ago. “But the underlying need to have such a group is longstanding and overdue, and is not directly related to the elections.”
The need for such a cooperative Jewish-Muslim effort was buttressed by an FBI report released this week, which showed that hate crimes against Muslims in the U.S. increased 67 percent in 2015, the last full year for which statistics are available, and that Jews remained the most frequent target of religious-based hate crimes.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that these figures spiked since last week’s election.
The council, which calls itself the first-such major national organization that brings together prominent members of both religious communities, will concentrate on drafting and supporting enforcement of legislation in such areas as “reasonable accommodation” of religious practice, prevention of religious discrimination in the workplace, support for refugee immigration and enforcement of existing hate crime laws.
“The priorities are still being worked out,” said Silverman. He added that the council will also work to combat negative stereotypes that members of each religious group hold about the other. He said the “leaders of the two communities … are intrigued by the possibilities of working with this other community whom they don’t know very well.”
“This is the only joint group doing this,” Silverman said. “These are two communities that have not worked together [in this way] before, certainly not at a national level. We’re both proud American citizens who are concerned about some of the hate speech being unleashed in our country now.”
The council, its announcement press release stated, will also “highlight the contributions of Muslims and Jews to American society.”
“We wanted this to be celebrated in both communities,” Silverman said. He said the bipartisan council was part of an AJC plan to increase outreach to the Islamic community when he started his new job.
“It’s as if Ishmael and Isaac [the sons of patriarch Abraham] have come together as brothers,” said Eftakhar Alam, who coordinates interfaith work at ISNA. “How have we not come together yet?”
The council’s formation parallels other advances in Jewish-Muslim cooperation — the Shalom Hartman Institute’s Muslim Leadership Initiative held a recent weekend retreat on the topic of “Living in Trump’s America: Muslim Vulnerability and Jewish Echoes,” the ADL is planning to increase its legal and legislative work against anti-Muslim bigotry, the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding has launched an initiative that highlights Muslim condemnation of extremism and the New Jersey-based Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom Third Annual Muslim & Jewish Women Leadership Conference will be held on Dec. 4.
The council was envisioned before this year’s presidential race heated up, as much attention was devoted to such issues as Trump’s pledge to keep Muslims from entering this country, and to build a wall that will keep out Mexicans; what followed was an increase in racist incidents in U.S. schools, Ku Klux Klan leaflets that turned up in Alabama, gay pride flags burned in Rochester, N.Y., a spate of anti-Semitic vandalism across New York State and Muslim women whose hijab (head coverings) were knocked off. All this, Silverman said, made clear the need for such an anti-bias organization.
“We were keen not to be seen as a reaction” to the election or its aftermath, Silverman said. “We were not forced together.”
The council will hold a congressional reception in Washington on Feb. 1 to introduce itself to lawmakers, Silverman said.
The recent rise in “anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim bigotry” needs to be addressed by members of both groups, said council member Suhail Khan, senior fellow for Muslim-Christian Understanding at the Washington-based Institute for Global Engagement. “It’s important that we do this on behalf of each other’s communities.”
While most of the controversy during the election centered on such groups as Muslims and Mexicans, many Jewish leaders observed that bias against Jews usually accompanies discrimination against other minorities.
In this spirit, an open letter from American Jews, posted by the Bend the Arc social justice organization, which pledges solidarity with immigrants and Muslims during the Trump administration, drew more than 21,000 signatures in a 24-hour period earlier this week.
Silverman said the council will not engage in the type of interreligious dialogue activity that has characterized Muslim-Jewish ties, particularly at the local level.
The council is seeking to establish a national voice, he said. The 31 “prominent … high-powered Muslims and Jews” who constitute the initial membership of the Council include both successful business leaders, and leaders of Jewish and Muslim organizations. “We’re not seeking interfaith experts. We’re seeking people who get things done,” Silverman said.
Among the Council members are Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles; Rabbi Yehuda Sarna of New York University, a veteran of Jewish-Muslim joint activities; Rabbi Joshua Davidson of Temple Emanu-El in Manhattan; Imam Shamsi Ali, director of the Jamaica Muslim Center in Astoria, Queens; Imam Talib Shareef of The Nation’s Mosque in Washington; and Daisy Khan, executive director of the American Society for Muslim Advancement.
Co-chairs of the council are Stanley Bergman, CEO of the Henry Schein healthcare products firm, and Farooq Kathwari, CEO of the Ethan Allen furniture chain.
“The council aims to provide a model for civic engagement by two communities, vital to American society, that agree to work together on issues of common concern and overlapping interest,” Kathwari said in a statement.
Silverman said the council members have agreed to concentrate on domestic affairs, ignoring the elephant-in-the-room issue that often disrupts joint efforts between Jews and Muslims in the U.S. – Middle East politics. “This is an American group.”
Silverman, who has “a background working with Muslims,” said he approached men and women he had met in his earlier diplomatic work to serve on the council. “You get to know people — they trust you.”
Rabbi Marc Schneier, president of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, and co-author with Imam Ali of “Sons of Abraham: A Candid Conversation about the Issues that Divide and Unite Jews and Muslims” (Beacon Press, 2013), said he welcomes the new council.
“It only helps to validate the work that we have demonstrated in this area. It’s good to have some company – it’s lonely to be the only Jewish leader promoting this issue,” Rabbi Schneier said. “I hope that in the next ten years ten more councils emerge.”