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Jewish Journal

Mideast Fighting Strains Fragile Interfaith Ties

by Marc Ballon

August 3, 2006 | 8:00 pm

For more than three decades, Rabbi Allen Krause has believed in the power of interfaith and intercultural dialogue, especially between Jews and Muslims. In the aftermath of Sept. 11, the head rabbi of Temple Beth El in Aliso Viejo offered to have members of his congregation guard local Muslim day schools, he stood alongside other religious leaders to publicly decry a vicious assault on a Yorba Linda Arab American high school student and he invited a Palestinian to address his congregation to talk about the hardships of living in the territories.

However, the interfaith ties that Krause and others like him have carefully cultivated are now being tested as never before. Against the backdrop of Hezbollah rockets raining on Israel and Israeli bombs exploding in Lebanon and Gaza, friends are splitting into two sides. In mid-July, several Muslim members of Common Ground, an Orange County interfaith group Krause helped found, declined to attend a scheduled meeting, because they "might say things they might regret," he was told.

Krause's experience is not unusual. As war in the Middle East rages, one of the casualties has been the fragile ties between Muslim and Jewish interfaith and other groups. Already weakened by the failed peace promise of Oslo and the second intifada, in recent weeks Muslim-Jewish relations have hit their lowest ebb in more than a decade. The increased strain has re-sown the seeds of mistrust in some interfaith group that enthusiasts hoped to have forever banished.

To be sure, a few Muslim and Jewish groups have redoubled their efforts to bridge the growing chasm. The Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA) will soon announce a sweeping interfaith collaboration with a yet-to-be-named Muslim group, said PJA Executive Director Daniel Sokatch.

Wilshire Boulevard Temple, which has a longstanding relationship with the Islamic Center of Southern California, soon plans to open a Center for Religious Inquiry that would invite members of all faiths, including Muslims, Jews and Christians, to discuss and examine the world's major religions, said Rabbi Stephen Julius Stein. A new outfit named L.A. Jews for Peace recently held two peace vigils outside the Israeli Consulate and sent a representative to a large anti-Israel peace protest co-sponsored by Muslim and other organizations, including the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR).

Overall, though, Jewish-Muslim relations are strained, and tensions will likely worsen before getting better, predicts Rabbi John Rosove, senior rabbi at Temple Israel of Hollywood.

"I think the current state [of Jewish-Muslim relations] is non-existent and will be even more alienated in the near future," he said.

Rosove, once a major proponent of the Jewish-Muslim Dialogue, quit the now moribund group soon after Sept. 11 when, he said, several Muslim participants savagely criticized attempted to de-legitimize Israel. The dialogue, founded in 1998 amid great expectations, lost considerable Jewish and Muslim support over the years, including the withdrawal of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and CAIR, because of internal arguments over the Middle East. The group has not convened a meeting in more than a year.

David Lehrer, president of Community Advocates Inc., a Los-Angeles-based human relations organization that promotes civil rights, said he favors Jewish-Muslim dialogue. However, "unrelenting" anti-Israel attitudes he believes are shared by the majority of Muslim-American leaders makes that dialogue all but impossible. "I think it's incumbent upon us to find moderate Muslim voices. They're out there; they're just not leading the Muslim organization that Jewish organizations have traditionally dealt with," said Lehrer, who served as the ADL's regional director when the group quit the Jewish-Muslim Dialogue after Sept. 11.

On the other side, Reed Hamzeh, an L.A.-based attorney and regional director of the Arab American Institute, a civil rights group, believes that Israel's actions in Lebanon are stoking anti-Semitism as well as anti-Americanism in the Muslim and Arab worlds.

"I've spoken to many Jewish-American friends," said Hamzeh, whose parents were visiting Lebanon when the bombing began there. "We are in agreement that Israel's actions are not in the best interest of Israel, the Jewish people and for the prospects of peace in the region, which should be everybody's desired goal."

In one reflection of the changing climate, a longtime Jewish member of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) blasted the group's local chapter for planning to honor an activist whom he characterizes as an anti-Israel propagandist. Joel Bellman, press deputy to County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, sent a blistering e-mail on July 20 to the ACLU questioning the local chapter's intention to honor Salam Al-Marayati, executive director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) at the ACLU's 43rd annual Garden Party in September.

"I guess I'm extremely pissed off, because MPAC has been extremely successful in packaging its message in very soothing and moderate tones," Bellman said. "But when you strip away the dainty and decorous language, their positions are almost indistinguishable from anti-Israel, anti-Jewish attitudes found in much of the Muslim and Arab world."

This is not the first time that Al-Marayati has been the focus of controversy: In an interview just after the Sept. 11, attacks, Al-Marayati suggested that Israel could be behind the terrorists. He later apologized for his comments and said they were taken out of context.

Al-Marayati, who said Bellman's attack caught him by surprise, also said his group supports a two-state solution, denounces terrorism and reflects the outlook of moderate American Muslims. Yet Al-Marayati says that now more than ever, Jews and Muslims need to work together on issues of mutual interest such as hate crimes, civil rights and the separation of church and state, despite their differences about the Middle East.

Sande Hart, the Jewish co-founder of the Orange County-based Spiritual and Religious Alliance for Hope (SARAH), a four-year-old women's interfaith group, also believes Jews and Muslims need to talk to one another as never before. Unfortunately, she said some Jewish and Muslim members no longer want to interact for the time being. Two Christians, no Muslims and just two Jews attended the group's most recent meeting. Typically, two to three Muslims, five Jews and several Christians come to the interfaith gatherings. Hart said both Muslim and Jewish SARAH members told her they needed "space."

"Our common ground is a little smaller than it was three weeks ago," said Hart, who vows to patch-up relations among the group's members.

Like their Jewish counterparts, many Muslims fear that events overseas could poison relations locally. They have expressed surprise at what they characterize as the "ferocity" of Israel's strikes against Lebanon and Gaza.

Orange County resident Osman Umarji called Israel's military campaign "vicious," and said it nearly claimed the life of a close friend, who, in attempting to flee from the fighting in southern Lebanon , crossed a bridge with his mother just moments before Israeli bombs destroyed it.

The former president of the Muslim Student Union at UC Irvine -- a group often at odds with pro-Israeli student groups at the university -- said he thought Israel's war in Lebanon would galvanize pro-Palestinian forces and breathe new life into the divestment movement at UCI and other campuses.

"I'm sure the discussion will intensify, and more Muslim and Arab students will get involved in educating people and speaking out against the atrocities Israel's committing," said Umarji, now an engineer at Broadcom Corp., a global leader in semiconductors for wired and wireless communications.

For Hussam Ayloush, Israeli "aggression" is personal. The executive director of the Southern California chapter of the CAIR said he grew up in Lebanon and left in 1989 during the civil war. Coming to America to study, he eventually settled in Southern California. Now married with three children, he said he returns to Lebanon once every couple years to visit family members, including a brother who lives in the capital city of Beirut.

Soon after Israel's air campaign began, Ayloush said he fell out of contact with his brother and his parents for four long days (His parents were in Lebanon visiting their son). Scared for their safety, Ayloush said he barely slept. He checked e-mails incessantly and watched the news round-the-clock. Although relieved when he finally reached his loved ones, he said he knows their lives continue to remain in peril.

"We would be fooling ourselves if we didn't realize that this new conflict will increase hatred among Arabs, Muslims and Jews. It's not going to just increase anti-Semitism but also Islamophobia and anti-Arab feelings," Ayloush said. "That's a tragedy."

But not all hope for continued dialogue has been dashed. Despite the July disappointment, Temple Beth El's Krause persisted with his group, and after some heart-to-heart talks, the Muslim members have agreed to attend a mid-August gathering, much to Krause's satisfaction and relief.

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