November 13, 2008
Mosques and synagogues reach across divide
UCI students learn nuances on interreligious Mideast trip
Consider some of the signs:
- Starting next week, 50 synagogues and 50 mosques throughout the United States and Canada will get together for three days of "twinning" and intensive discussions.
- USC, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) and an Islamic foundation have jointly established a Center for Muslim-Jewish Engagement.
- At UC Irvine, usually pictured as a hotbed of Muslim-Jewish antagonism, student leaders of both faiths recently returned from a two-week trip to Israel and the Palestinian territories, with many preconceptions transformed into more complex and realistic views.
Guest speakers will be two national leaders of the twinning project, Rabbi Marc Schneier, president of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, and Dr. Muzammil H. Siddiqi, chairman of the Fiqh Council of North America, a body of Islamic legal scholars.
Although past attempts at Jewish-Muslim dialogues have been generally short-lived in the face of Mideast flare-ups, Geller is optimistic that the twinning project will have a long life.
"This marks the first time that mosques and synagogues are giving their full support, and we are in this for the long haul," she said.
Madha of the King Fahd Mosque warned that linking Muslim and Jewish interests would be a hard, long process, but that the election of Barack Obama "proves that the unthinkable can happen if we set our minds to it."
Guest speaker Siddiqi, who also heads the Islamic Society of Orange County in Garden Grove, said he was optimistic about the cooperative project and that it was widely supported by his members.
The twinning project got its start one year ago, when the New York-based Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, headed by Schneier, an Orthodox rabbi, and hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons, invited 13 Jewish and 13 Muslim spiritual leaders to a meeting.
"Our goal was to enlist 25 synagogues and 25 mosques, but we ended up with double the number," said Schneier, whose foundation has largely concentrated on Jewish-black relations.
"Both American Jews and Muslims are children of Abraham and citizens of the same country, and we share a common faith and destiny," Schneier said.
"Of course, we cannot ignore the Israeli-Palestinian conflict -- it's the elephant in the room -- but I see the emergence of moderate, centrist Muslim voices, particularly in the United States, and we must do everything possible to encourage such voices," he added.
Urging Jews to reclaim some of the passion they invested in the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s, Schneier said that a similar outreach to Muslims "can serve as a paradigm for Europe" and perhaps even for the Middle East.
During the Nov. 21-23 weekend, twinning sessions between mosques and synagogues, as well as Muslim and Jewish student groups on campuses, will stretch from Seattle to Atlanta, and from Mississauga, Ontario, to Carrolton, Texas.
Participating in the Southland will be Beth Shir Sholom in Santa Monica with the Islamic Center of Southern California, Temple Beth El in Aliso Viejo with the Orange County Islamic Foundation and Muslim and Jewish student groups at USC and Chapman College in Orange.
The weekend meetings, which will be publicized nationally through public service announcements on CNN and a full-page ad in The New York Times, may be expected to become emotional on occasion. Indeed, guidelines for discussion leaders encourage "all participants to listen to one another in a courteous and respectful fashion, without interrupting or shouting down those with whom they disagree."
As the concept of the twinning project evolved, Schneier turned for expert advice to the newly formed Center for Muslim-Jewish Engagement.
The center is the first of its kind and was established through an agreement signed by the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture, HUC-JIR and the education-oriented Omar Ibn Al Khattab Foundation.
The three partners, all located in the same neighborhood, had been working together for some time and have now decided to formalize their collaboration, said Reuven Firestone, professor of medieval Jewish and Islamic studies at HUC-JIR.
"There are some anti-Jewish attitudes in the Muslim world and some anti-Muslim attitudes in the Jewish world, but there is no inherent conflict between Judaism and Islam," Firestone said. "We have much in common in our goals and aspirations."
A respected author, Firestone has written books on "Introduction to Islam for Jews" and "Children of Abraham: Introduction to Judaism for Muslims." Out this month is his latest publication, "Who Are the Chosen People? The Meaning of Chosenness in Judaism, Christianity and Islam."
Firestone and Dafer Dakhil, director of the Omar Ibn Al Khattab Foundation, are the co-directors of the new center, with Hebah Farrag, a recent graduate of the American University in Cairo, as associate director.
The center's first major project will be to compile a massive database on the key Jewish and Muslim religious texts for the general public. For instance, someone searching for an authoritative definition of "kosher" would also be referred to the Islamic equivalent, "halal."
On a more popular level, the center is planning a film series on Jewish and Muslim topics, Farrag said.
Steven Spielberg's Righteous Persons Foundation has provided a $50,000 start-up grant to the center, but Firestone worries about future financing.
Taking note that previous cooperative ventures between the two faiths have foundered on political and nationalistic differences, Firestone said, "We're aware of these hurdles, but what would kill us is not trouble in the Middle East, but lack of funding. There are not a lot of Jews or Muslims who want to invest in what we are doing."
Besides religious and academic efforts to bridge the Jewish-Muslim gap, there are also private initiatives.
One is the Levantine Cultural Center, founded seven years ago by Jordan Elgrably, an American Jew of Moroccan descent.
"We have weekly programs that draw Jews, Muslims, Christians and Bahai, and we have Arabs, Armenians, Turks -- people from all over the Middle East and North Africa," Elgrably said.
They are mostly young people, and what they have in common is a love of popular music and culture, explored, for instance, in a recent program on Heavy Metal Islam.
Elgrably estimates the Levantine Center's e-mail list reaches some 5,000, and its core membership is around 500.
"I don't buy into the concept of an upcoming 'Clash of Civilizations,'" Elgrably said. "What we are aiming for is an "Alliance of Civilizations'. There is something like this in the air, and, in a small way, we are trying to create a safe place for it to develop."
Students Learn Nuances on Interreligious Mideast Trip
The campus at UC Irvine has been pictured for years as a hotbed of hatred riven over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, making all the more remarkable the recent trip of a group of 15 Jewish, Muslim, Christian and Druze UCI students, who decided to go over there and see for themselves.
They spent two intensive weeks talking with Israelis and Palestinians, militants and peaceniks, government officials and falafel vendors, rabbis and imams, right-wing settlers and left-wing Tel Avivians, and came back with one overriding impression.
"Before we went, we had all the answers," said one Muslim girl. "But the more we heard, the more confused we became."
Isaac Yerushalmi, president of Anteaters for Israel (the anteater is the UCI mascot), had a similar take. "In the United States, you see everything in black and white. You don't understand the complexity of the situation on the ground until you go there. There are a thousand different views," he said.
"The land is so small, with more diverse opinions than I have ever encountered," Paul McGuire said.
A Christian student observed, "Before I left, I thought all the settlers were crazy, right-wing Jews. But when we visited Ariel, I saw what they had built where there was nothing before. So maybe the settlements are not all bad."
Before she left, Sally Moukkad's parents warned her not to say anything against the government while she was in Israel. Once there, she found that "everybody says anything they want."
It is one remarkable aspect of the project, called the Olive Tree Initiative, that it was conceived and organized by leaders and members of the Muslim Student Union and the Jewish Student Union, Society of Arab Students and Anteaters for Israel, as well as Hillel, Model United Nations, Middle East Studies Student Initiative, and simply interested students.
Just as noteworthy, everything was put together by the students, on their own, from holding weekly preparatory seminars for 18 months and raising $60,000 to cover expenses to lining up dozens of experts in Israel and the Palestinian territories.
The UCI administration said it could not legally sponsor or underwrite the trip, but urged the students to "just go ahead and do it."
Most of the participants were in their late teens to early 20s, with the exception of a major catalyst of the enterprise, a 29-year old doctoral student named Daniel Wehrenfennig, working with Katharine Keith, a graduate student in Middle East studies.
Wehrenfennig had both a professional and personal interest in the project. His study and research focus is on conflict resolution and citizen dialogues, and his laboratories are Northern Ireland and the Middle East.
He is also a German who had spent two months harvesting citrus fruits in Israel and is active in the Third Generation German-Israeli Dialogue. In addition, he wanted to rectify UCI's negative image in the media.
In early September, the group flew to Tel Aviv with an itinerary so crammed and intensive that only a bunch of college students could have hacked it.
They met with students and professors, journalists, generals and government officials and participated in give-and-take discussions in West and East Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Ramallah, Hebron, the Palestinian town of Qualqilyah, the Jewish settlement of Ariel, Nazareth, Tel Aviv and Jaffa.
Saturdays were free, so they went to the beach or sightseeing, toured the Dead Sea and Masada, studied the Bauhaus architecture of Tel Aviv and even squeezed in some shopping.
They learned about the Holocaust at Yad Vashem and prayed in synagogues, mosques and churches.
Two weeks ago, the travelers, including two advisers, reunited at the UCI Student Union and talked about their trip to a standing-room-only audience of some 500 students, who applauded each and every statement. Some questions from the audience were naïve ("I am not an Israeli or Palestinian. I am just a typical Southern California student -- so why should I care?") to the more perceptive ("How did the trip change any of your preconceptions?").
Afterwards, a few student leaders were dragged out of a reception to talk to The Journal about the trip and about the mood and conflicts on campus.
"A few years ago, we had a pretty hateful situation here," said Yerushalmi, the pro-Israel activist. "Now we feel quite comfortable as Jews, and no one is worried about his safety. It's too bad that some outside people have tried to perpetuate the campus conflicts."
Yerushalmi's evaluation was seconded by Ali Malik of the Muslim Student Union and Amanda Naoufal, a former president of the Society of Arab Students.
For the future, the Olive Tree Initiative activists will continue to share the experiences and lessons of their trip with students at UCI and other campuses, at churches, synagogues and mosques, and at other forums.
"We are getting so many calls from other campuses that we are putting together a manual on our project for others to follow," Wehrenfennig said.
For more information and a link to a video clip of the trip, visit http://www.uci.edu/uci/video/olivetree/