I spent the last weekend of October on the Upper West Side with more than 40 thoughtful, impressive women and men from across the country on an intellectual and spiritual journey.
We attended Friday evening Shabbat services at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun. Over the next two days we studied passages from the Torah and Talmud, and read and discussed excerpts from the writings of Solomon Schechter, Louis D. Brandeis, David Ben-Gurion and Jacob Blaustein.
The other participants had toured Israel together, part of their serious, yearlong commitment to learn about the connections between and differences among American and Israeli Jews.
What was unusual about the weekend program was that the participants were neither Jewish nor Christian. They were American Muslims — a range of civic and thought leaders, all committed to the Palestinian cause (a number were activists when in college), and most have supported BDS, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, which is anathema to the Jewish state.
Writing that last sentence, I anticipated skepticism, alarm and perhaps anger from some of you. You may well be questioning the motives of the group, made up of several imams as well as university professors, doctors, lawyers, computer programmers, etc. Surely there must be a pro-Palestinian objective here, a concern that these people are part of some kind of political front to infiltrate the Jewish community.
But if you think there is suspicion among Jews who learn of the Muslim Leadership Initiative (MLI), as the group is known, imagine the reaction in the Muslim community on hearing of co-religionists taking part in a full-year fellowship program sponsored and hosted by the Shalom Hartman Institute, a proud Zionist educational organization based in Jerusalem as well as New York.
Indeed, the fact that you likely are first learning here of MLI, now in its third year, is because its participants have chosen to keep a decidedly low profile, for good reason. (I agreed not to mention their names unless they chose to speak to me on the record.)
When a member of the first cohort wrote an essay in Time magazine, “What a Muslim American Learned from Zionists,” criticizing the Muslim world for not facing the truth about the 4,000-year Jewish connection to Israel even as she condemned Israeli treatment of the Palestinians — she received death threats from her own community, accused of being a traitor to the cause.
She was not alone. Many of the other participants cited intense criticism from fellow Muslims or pro-Palestinian advocates, ranging from nasty blogs to being disinvited from events to physical threats.
By visiting Israel, and stepping across a BDS line, the MLI participants have outraged parts of their community in signaling to American Jews that there are serious partners in the Muslim community — partners ready to rethink the Muslim wholesale rejection of the Jewish narrative, even as they remain deeply critical of Israeli policies.
So why did the MLI participants risk their reputations to join the fellowship and, in effect, invite American Jews into a serious conversation? They each have their own personal reasons, but several cited longstanding commitment to the Palestinian cause coupled with frustration at the lack of progress, and a recognition of “the toxic hate,” as one woman put it, between Jews and Palestinians.
“We all have blood on our hands,” she said.
There was a shared curiosity about learning the Jewish narrative, a concern about the blatant anti-Semitism voiced by some in their community, and a desire to do something to break the bloody stalemate in the Holy Land.
The primary impetus, though, was Imam Abdullah Antepli, the founding director of Duke University’s Center for Muslim Life, who handpicked the first cohort from among colleagues and others he knew. His credibility went a long way in convincing them to join MLI.
The imam was raised in a stridently anti-Semitic home in Turkey and came to believe that hatred of Jews was not consistent with authentic Islam. Several years ago Imam Abdullah, who came to the U.S. a dozen years ago at the age of 30, approached Yossi Klein Halevi, an author, journalist and senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. The imam, who explains that he is part of a majority of American Muslims opposed to violence and seeking their place in American society, said he wanted to create a program for American Muslim leaders to better understand American Jews and Israel with the hope of improving relations between emerging leaders of the two faiths.
At first skeptical, Halevi, who has a special interest in interfaith relations, came to believe in and share Imam Abdullah’s dream of closing the gap between Muslims and Jews through getting to know and understand each other. Halevi brought the idea to the Hartman administration, which wholeheartedly embraced it and launched MLI, an intensive program that includes four weeks of study at the institute in Jerusalem — two weeks at the outset of the program and two weeks at the end — and a series of lectures and programs in the U.S. during the course of the year.
“We are Siamese twins,” laughed Imam Abdullah as he and Halevi met with me, just before the recent weekend program began. “We are brothers from a different mother.”
The warm bond between the two men who direct MLI is palpable, and though their subject matter is serious, their conversation often is marked by laughter.
“We are like oxygen for each other,” said Halevi, who noted they each are trying to nurture conversation between mainstream Jews who support Israel and mainstream Muslims who support the Palestinians. “It’s not a zero-sum game,” Halevi said. “One can care about the other and still be loyal to one’s own community.”
The essence of the program, he added, is teaching about Jewish peoplehood and the Jewish connection to the land of Israel — “two core issues that much of the Muslim world doesn’t get about us. That’s what makes the program unique.”
Imam Abdullah noted that most MLI participants are seeking a relationship with American Jews because they see the Jewish community as both a role model for integrating into America and a potential ally against the exclusion of Muslim Americans from mainstream American society.
The weekend program took place in the midst of ongoing violence in Israel. Imam Abdullah said the Mideast tensions made Muslim-Jewish dialogue more difficult, but all the more important. And Halevi pointed out that even in the fall of 2014, when the MLI participants met in New York shortly after the bloody Gaza war, their discussions with the Hartman faculty were marked by “vehement disagreement, but no one raised their voice during those three days.”
Imam Abdullah, Halevi and the Hartman Institute’s president, Rabbi Donniel Hartman, who joined us, emphasized that MLI is not an interfaith program; it’s an educational one, an attempt to foster personal relationships and deep dialogue among people whose political and perhaps religious views differ sharply.
“We never argue the facts in MLI,” the rabbi said. “We share what our understanding is. There are multiple facts, multiple injustices.” He told the participants the weekend was about “your learning our inner struggles and how to create boundaries. We have a covenant with you,” he said, a commitment to be open and honest.
‘We Don’t Hold Back’
What I witnessed, and took part in, over the three-day weekend — the first time all three MLI cohorts were together — was a model exercise in expressing honest, often painful, views with more than just civility. The MLI members and the handful of Hartman faculty were able to convey empathy and personal affection for each other without standing down an inch from their fervent beliefs. There were plenty of hugs and smiles in the room, though the conversation was intense at times. The level of trust was remarkable.
(At one point during the weekend the participants discussed their desire for the creation of a JLI, a parallel group of young Jewish leaders to learn about Muslim life. Hartman officials readily agreed and said it was up to a Muslim foundation or group to sponsor such a program. The participants noted that, unfortunately, their community is not as well organized as the Jewish community in undertaking such projects.)
The Hartman teachers candidly discussed challenges facing the Jewish community, here and in Israel. The MLI members often noted parallels in their own community, like the struggle for younger American Muslims to be accepted by the Muslim Establishment while resenting some of the policies and views of their elders.
The questions the MLI members asked of the Hartman scholars in sessions on the tension between loyalty and criticism and the future of the American Jewish relationship with Israel revealed an understanding of the issues that impressed the faculty.
“We don’t hold back, we expose our deepest struggles and yearnings” one teacher said, “and so do they.”
One MLI member, older than most, said he has learned how Jews feel about Jerusalem, how far back their ties go to the city. “The Jews pray every day to return to Jerusalem,” he said. “You can’t tell the Jews, ‘We’ll drive you out.’”
One woman told me she and others in the group had never realized that Zionism was more than a political term, one she had associated only with colonialism, not the yearning for an ancient homeland. And several participants said that prior to MLI, they thought Jewish ties to Israel go back only as far as the 1940s, as a political solution for settling homeless Holocaust refugees, rather than to Biblical times.
More Than Hummus
One participant said he joined MLI because he had grown tired of “toothless” Muslim-Jewish dialogue groups he had participated in, which he described as “hey, you eat hummus and we eat hummus.” But those discussions avoided hot-button issues like the Mideast conflict.
“I needed something more meaty, and I joined MLI because my community — and me personally — was stuck in a certain mindset, an absolutist narrative. We all tend to hear what we want to hear, not what we need to hear, and we advance our positions by putting the other guy in the gutter. Now I understand the Jewish longing for the land [of Israel]. As a pragmatist, I want to disempower anti-Semitism and anti-Islam attitudes.”
He said he is “totally invested” in the Hartman program, though his involvement greatly upsets his community. He said that this distrust stems in part from a lack of confidence in one’s own beliefs. “People tell me ‘the Jews are so smart, they’ll dupe you” into adapting their narrative.
But the participant also found that even sophisticated Jews lack knowledge of American Muslims. He said that in addressing a sophisticated American Jewish group he was disappointed but not surprised when the line of questions focused on whether most American Muslims are sympathetic to terrorists.
Parvez Ahmed, a professor of finance at the University of North Florida, said he appreciates MLI because it offers “a modest pathway towards improving Jewish-Muslim relations by creating a safe space for honest dialogue” and an opportunity “to mitigate the Islamophobia and anti-Semitism roiling our communities.” He asserted that “engagement is not appeasement, and dialogue is not capitulation,” adding: “If we remain in our silos we are part of the problem.”
Samar Kaukab, director of a research accelerator program at the University of Chicago, said the MLI experience has deepened her understanding of “the complexity of the American Jewish experience,” seeing how Jews relate to being deeply American and identifying with Israel. She said she has found similarities and differences in comparison to her own feelings about being “deeply American and relating to a global Muslim outlook.”
Having participated in previous interfaith dialogues, Kaukab said MLI goes deeper. Too often, in other efforts, “we Jews and Muslims situate ourselves on diametrically opposed spectrums and miss the stuff in the middle that speaks to who we really are as people and what we care about. The Hartman program allows us to trust each other and ask probing questions.”
Another participant, foreign policy expert Haroon Moghul, has written that he joined MLI to “be a more effective participant in critical American conversations” about Mideast policy, with a better understanding of America’s relationship with Israel. He credited Hartman for encouraging the participants to visit a number of Palestinian communities during their Israel trip and for the complete candor in its approach, well aware that the participants remain steadfast in their support for the Palestinian cause.
Still, everyone I spoke with described how the MLI experience has changed his or her way of thinking. Not in terms of political or religious views, necessarily, but in expanding one’s horizons, taking into account additional narratives, humanizing our adversaries.
When I got home after the MLI weekend I reread several recent issues of The Jewish Week, imagining how some of the people I’d met would read the articles and opinion columns dealing with the Mideast conflict.
It got me thinking about the dangers of generalizing and stereotyping. I wondered if and how I’d approach things differently now. And I realized that despite our locked-in Mideast narratives, developed over a lifetime, an authentic encounter and honest conversation has the potential to open our hearts and minds to hear — and perhaps make room for — “the other’s” truth.
All Too Timely
Editor’s Note: This column was written before last week’s tragic attacks in Paris by suspected Islamic terrorists. Its message — the positive influence of serious conversations between a group of American Muslim leaders and Jewish educators — is all the more important now. Imam Abdullah Antepli, the initiator of the program, denounced the Paris attacks as “barbaric, despicable savagery that serve as a painful reminder and urgent call for North American Jews and Muslims to engage in honest discussion, despite our political disagreements.” Yossi Klein Halevi, his Jewish counterpart at the sponsoring Shalom Hartman Institute in Israel, added that the program “challenges both Muslims and Jews to avoid easy judgments and struggle with complexity.”
This piece is dedicated to the memory of the Paris victims and to the hope of more productive Muslim-Jewish dialogue.