The appointment of Bob Silverman by the American Jewish Committee as the first official Jewish ambassador to the American Muslim community, as reported here by Lauren Markoe of the Religion News Service, is a great step forward in fostering greater ties between the two communities. Understanding the cultural similarities and differences between the two groups, such as in the daily obligations of both groups as well as theology, is the first step in this process. The Muslim community is too often seen as a monolithic group in which differences of theology, language, and culture are ignored in order to sustain their otherness, while their status as Americans, whether from birth or by choice is forgotten. American Jews and Muslims have a common experience facing the challenges of integration, which can serve to deepen ties. To help illustrate his point that American Muslims are American¸ Silverman stated that, “The assumption is for this job that you have to know Arabic. But most American Muslims don’t know Arabic. They’re American; they speak English,” although of course they may also speak another language such as Arabic or Turkish or Urdu.
This idea that most American Muslims may not speak Arabic parallels the fact that most American Jews may not know anything more than basic Hebrew, other than what is used in the synagogue or taught in Hebrew school. Being able to speak or learning to speak the language of the country shows that one is either already a member of, or trying to become a member of the national community. In this period in which there is a lot of rhetoric regarding the un-American status of whole groups of people in the country, whether for religious reasons or not, illustrating that the people themselves understand their personal identity to be American will go a long way to help decrease suspicions. Combining identities is one of the most American things to do, as this is a nation comprised of many different ethnic groups with varying backgrounds and traditions. Though some groups in this country may not like this fact, I have always felt that this is one of the greatest strengths that America possesses.
Silverman wants to “move beyond nice discussions and interfaith gatherings at a local level. They are uplifting and important and there’s quite a bit of Muslim-Jewish engagement going on. But we’ve got to scale it up to form real networks to do policy advocacy on a national level.” Interfaith discussions should not be the endpoint of any such interaction, but should act as the beginning of a partnership that extends to areas broader concern. Using the newfound connections to promote social justice issues on the national level as well as internationally, Silverman wants to extend this type of position to the European context. This shows that the lessons that will be learned are not only applicable to the American experience. Once the groundwork of local interfaith dialogue and understanding has begun, broader connections can be made that will benefit both groups as well as the majority in the society. Deepening the ties between the Jewish, Muslim and majority Christian communities can only serve to strengthen the American commitment to pluralism in which all groups are allowed to have a voice in the public square.
The Muslim experience in Europe is different to be sure, but as the various Muslim communities around that area are facing widespread suspicion and discrimination, especially now with the refugee crisis, there are many similarities to how Muslims are viewed here in the United States. The rise of the far-right reactionary elements in both American and European politics illustrates how important this work is. Trying to perpetuate divisions-or creating them-between the communities damages everyone involved as it inhibits cooperation on important issues.
A very important issue that needs to be addressed is the anti-Muslim sentiment present in the Jewish community in general, as well as that of the anti-Jewish views of many in the Muslim community. A lot of this stems from the issues surrounding Israel, with each side demonizing the other due to generalizations made about American Jews or Muslims and which side of the conflict is supported. Muslims must not be required to disavow extremism or else be suspected of supporting it, and Jews should likewise not be assumed to support every policy of the government of Israel.
Showing that both communities are not monolithic entities and that there is great variation on the communal and individual levels in terms of both political viewpoints and religious practices, would therefore go far to help lessen these suspicions. As both are minority communities in the wider American context, finding ever more powerful ways to work together rather than at cross-purposes on important issues is sorely needed. I look forward to seeing the benefits that will be generated as a result of this newly-created position, both in terms of interfaith understanding and coalition building on important social issues both here in the United States as well as abroad.
Image Source: Mark Ahsmann via Wikimedia Commons