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Thoughts on Jewish-Muslim Engagement in the Era of Trump

Benjamin Kweskin
April 26, 2017

by Benjamin Kweskin

I AM very heartened to see several national Jewish organizations across the political and ideological spectrum supporting American Muslims, a community clearly under attack and on the defensive amid the unprecedented McCarthyite witch-hunt by the current presidential administration regime and many of its emboldened supporters.

Only ten days after the new US president was inaugurated, a report came out revealing that anti-Muslim legislation in the US had skyrocketed, sending shockwaves throughout America’s diverse Muslim communities.

I support Jewish-Muslim dialogue on any level: from the newbie get-to-know-you hummus-and-falafel programs to collaborative social and/or political activism, panel discussions, academic and theological discussions, and so on. Last November, for example, the American Jewish Committee co-convened with the Islamic Society of North America a new “Muslim-Jewish Advisory Council.” As long as organizers and presenters have good intentions, there should be no major downside.

Lately, perhaps in part due to the increased incidence of anti-semitism and Islamophobia in the U.S. (not a coincidence – the late Palestinian scholar Edward Said would remark that Islamophobia and anti-semitism are two different sides of the same coin), there has been a significant push from both sides to promote interfaith dialogue – an encouraging sign. Talk and engagement are always preferable; it is their lack that leads to misunderstanding and down disastrous paths.

Unfortunately too many of the recent initiatives have been top-down in nature, coming from the senior organizational, ‘establishment’ level rather than via grassroots activism and engagement. A related stumbling block to a full, open dialogue has come from the ground rules concerning the issue of Israel-Palestine, put in place by organizations on both sides to reassure their supporters and financial backers as to the limits of the collaborative engagement.

Such rules, however, also limit who an organization can engage with, thus restricting the “engagement pool” and excluding many potential partners at the outset. Grassroots activism is often able to circumvent these imposed institutional constraints and allows participants more flexibility with topics and other content.

MY OWN “cultural activism” dates back to 2002, during the summer after 9/11, when I was one of two Jewish counselors who spent a week at Elk Shoals Interfaith Camp in the woods of North Carolina’s Appalachia working with 30 young boys -- ten from each of the three Abrahamic faiths.

The camp was the brainchild of British Methodist pastor Pete Parish, who wanted to do something positive and meaningful in the wake of those paradigm-shifting attacks. Some filmmakers caught wind of his efforts and the first camp experience was filmed and became the subject of the documentary “Trust Me: Shalom, Salaam, Peace,” aired by the cable channel, Showtime. I recall that there was at least one bomb threat made against the camp.

In the months before the camp, I had debated whether or not to participate. Back then I was an angry, right-wing Zionist vehemently opposed to a Palestinian state who distrusted Muslims – though at the time I had never actually met any except for one -- a Palestinian professor who was distantly related to the popular Palestinian political leader, Marwan Bargouthi. After all, it was the height of the second Palestinian intifada and I was a young, impressionable teenager who strongly believed that Palestinians could do no right, and Jewish-Israelis could do no wrong.

I finally forced myself to try and have an open mind and see things from a different perspective. As it turned out, I quickly befriended the two African-American Muslim counselors and their advisor who, for reasons still unclear, was deported back to Pakistan a couple of years later; and, of course, I developed ties to many of the young Muslim campers. When the week ended, I cried because I knew I would likely never see any of my younger friends again.

I remained conflicted, aware of, but still unable to articulate, my strong internal dilemmas: for three years I had a weekly show at Appalachian State University’s college station called The Middle East Connection and played Israeli, Arab, and other music from all over the region. But I also interned one summer at a certain right-wing Zionist organization often considered “too right-wing” by the American Jewish mainstream.

That organization’s militancy initially appealed to me, but during my internship I began to change my tune after my boss -- whom I greatly respected otherwise -- flippantly shared how she felt about “the enemy:” “Arabs are only good for two things: food and music.”

AFTER GRADUATING college, I lived in Israel for a year and taught Bedouin and other Palestinian-Israelis (as well as Jewish-Israelis), and began to understand “the conflict” with infinitely greater depth than one can attain while visiting with an uber-sanitized ten-day Birthright Israel program.

Since then, I have visited Israel several times and traveled extensively throughout the country, including the West Bank, and have seen first-hand the segregationist policies implemented in settlements, the demographic, economic, and political inequality in cities like Hebron, and the chasm of difference that runs between so-called “unified” East and West Jerusalem. The situation is certainly unsustainable in the long run.

In 2008, when I was studying for a master’s degree in Denver, Colorado, I returned from class one day to learn that the school where I had taught in Ashqelon in southern Israel had been hit by an unguided Qassam rocket fired from Gaza. Luckily, the students were away at the time, but I wondered how they would grow up.

The layered complexity of the conflict was fully apparent, however, as one of my close friends and fellow graduate students was a Palestinian from Gaza whose family had originated from the village of ‘Iraq Suwaydan, located not far from that same Ashqelon school. His village was destroyed in late 1948 during the Israel Defense Force’s “Operation Yoav;” his parents and grandparents were forced to flee and ‘settle’ in Gaza’s Nusseirat refugee camp, where the family remains today.

That summer break, he returned to Gaza to be with his wife and children, but due to the Israeli blockade was prevented from leaving and ended up missing over a year of his PhD studies. Eventually he was able to return to school, and later confided in me that I was the only person he had corresponded with via email during that difficult time. We are still in contact.

My experiences in and with the “Muslim world” have admittedly not been typical for a Jewish American. Many of my friends and colleagues are Muslim, and my relationships with them have been no different than with friends and colleagues who are Jewish, Christian, Atheist, or Buddhist.

Additionally, over the years I have traveled to several Muslim-majority countries, and in 2013, five days after being married, my wife and I relocated to Iraqi Kurdistan and toured extensively throughout northern Iraq. We were received with open arms, and never felt unsafe, despite not being Muslim. If anything, the opposite was true.

I DON’T PROCLAIM that there is one single way to be active and engaged in one’s community and involved with important interfaith work. But while “Meet a Muslim,” “Visit a Mosque Day,” and other interfaith activities are valuable and useful, I would, based on my personal experience, encourage people to go a step or two further, even if that means venturing outside their comfort zone.

Break bread with your Muslim neighbors and coworkers, set playdates with your children’s Muslim classmates, explore ethnic markets or restaurants and ask questions even if you think they are basic, travel to Muslim-majority countries on vacation, and read books or articles challenging the dominant political, social, and cultural narratives about Muslims which are not provided platforms in the mainstream media.

Overall, it has been my personal connections and relationships which have helped me understand my Muslim friends and their religion. While institutional interfaith programs should be supported and nurtured, they are often too restrictive in establishing the kind of open dialogue that truly breaks down interpersonal barriers.