To say that the past weeks have been unsettling for Muslims and Jews would be an understatement. The point-blank murder of Jewish schoolchildren and their teacher in Toulouse, France, can only be described as chilling and ruthless. The killer did not limit his hatred to Jews. His wrath also targeted Muslims in military uniform serving their country.
More recently, violence came to our back door. Shamia Alawadi, an Iraqi Muslim woman, was beaten in her home in El Cajon, Calif., a suburb of San Diego, and later died from her wounds. Her 17-year-old daughter found Alawadi in a pool of blood, with a note suggesting that the heinous act was motivated by hate, though exactly what happened remains to be seen as the facts unfold.
Reactions to incidents like these tend to fall into one of two categories. Some people claim these incidents are evidence of larger societal problems — rampant anti-Semitism and radicalization in the case of Toulouse, mounting Islamophobia in the case of San Diego. There is another camp that will claim that incidents like these are isolated events — tragic and sad, but not linked to any widespread phenomena.
Each claim has its dangers. To paint these incidents as part of an ingrained social ailment can place guilt on those who hold no culpability. The greater Muslim community in France is nervously bracing itself for a backlash on account of the actions of one man. And no doubt, Californians will not want to be branded with a label of bigotry because of a horrific crime that happened on our turf. But to dismiss such violence as actions of lone-wolf extremists does little to quell our fear or explain the next incident that looks frightfully similar.
So, the question for those of us, Muslims and Jews, who deplore hate-driven violence, is “How should we react?” What influence do we hold over violence we could never imagine perpetrating ourselves? We have found that our power lies in our commitment to engaging one another as Muslims and Jews living, working and raising our families in Los Angeles. Breaking out of the isolation of our self-created communities to understand “the other” chips away at the stereotypes and rhetoric that provide the foundation for extremist thinking. By modeling outreach and mutual understanding, we undermine the ability of extremists to claim that they speak for the larger community from which they come.
This spring, Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills and King Fahad Mosque of Culver City have committed their communities to reaching across what is often seen as an impassible divide between Muslims and Jews. Ten members from each congregation are participating in a four-month fellowship designed to build lasting relationships, break down stereotypes and equip people with the skills to take the experience back to their larger communities.
These 20 fellows make up the fourth fellowship cohort of NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change. Since 2006, NewGround has developed leaders and created opportunities for Muslims and Jews in Los Angeles to dispel the perception that our communities are natural adversaries by making strong, positive relations between Muslims and Jews the norm, not the exception.
Some will protest that such dialogue does not reach the violent outliers who are responsible for violent crimes. This is true. But this perspective underestimates the power of shifting the centers of our communities to take seriously intergroup engagement. By normalizing our relations with other groups, we further isolate the fringes that profess ideologies of supremacy and hate. There can be no believable claim that extremists speak for the larger community, because the larger community is speaking for itself.
Not even halfway into the King Fahad-Temple Emanuel Fellowship, the transformative connections are already forming. In the wake of the shootings at the Jewish school, one Muslim fellow wrote an e-mail titled “So Sorry to Hear About the Shootings in France.” It contained one simple sentence. “I extend my heartfelt sorrow and share with you, the Jewish community and humanity, the pain from the calamitous attack on the school in France.” And after learning of the fatal beating of the Shamia Alawadi, a Jewish fellow reached out to the entire group, saying, “Let’s do something.”
These words are challenges to the prejudice that the fringe uses to rationalize their brutality. They are calls to action. They are evidence of the power of reaching out beyond ourselves and our comfort zones. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy to dismiss dialogue as a charming but ineffective gesture. When intergroup relations become the norm in our communities and not the exception, we no longer find ourselves in pockets of isolation, afraid of how the other sees us and what he might do. The prejudice, the stereotypes and the bloodshed are what become isolated.
Laura Geller is senior rabbi at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills. Usman Madha is director of public relations at King Fahad Mosque in Culver City.