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Jewish Journal

Muslims and Jews: Break Down Walls, Find Common Ground

by Lia Mandelbaum

December 11, 2011 | 8:43 pm

Not that long ago, Rabbi Sarah Bassin, the Executive Director of NewGround, called up Asher Gellis, the Executive Director of JQ International, to engage JQ as one of the several community collaborators for an event that NewGround was producing.  NewGround is an independent group that “began in 2006 as a response to the climate of tension and mistrust between Jews and Muslims in Los Angeles, and was founded to create a national model for healthy relations, productive engagement and social change between American Muslims and Jews.”  Rabbi Bassin contacted JQ, International, which is a Gay, Lesbian, Bi and Transgender (GLBT) Jewish movement, because she felt that incorporating an GLBT perspective in the event was essential.  Four Muslims and four Jews went up on stage that night to share their personal stories on the theme of relationships, and I had the amazing privilege of getting to be amongst them to share my GLBT experience and my relationship with the Jewish community in the process. 

When Gellis, approached me to see if I would be interested in sharing my story, I was both excited and nervous.  I was excited because I felt that NewGround’s mission was amazing, but I was also nervous because I would be making myself vulnerable by being up there and sharing about a topic and part of myself with which I’m not completely at peace.  I was also nervous because I was going to be open within the Muslim community, which would be “new ground” for me.  Being open with fellow Jews would not be “new ground.”  I agreed to share my story because I’m trying to develop my public speaking skills, but also because I have found that when I take initiative and own my truth about being gay, I take a step closer towards internal freedom and self-integration, and a step farther away from the internalized homophobia that has imprisoned me for so much of my life.  I also feel that for the most part, when I’m vulnerable a force bigger then I also protects me.  I knew that sharing my story for New Ground’s event would be a positive and powerful catalyst for my journey towards wholeness and freedom.  I had not been aware of NewGround before Asher had approached me, and so in a sense I felt that I was walking into the unknown, but what I came to discover was a life changing experience.  I believe that it was also powerful for many people in the audience, and relayed a great example of the concept of “the other,” which is such a common relationship between the Muslims and Jews.

Rabbi Bassin said, “We have all had moments of feeling “othered” and the experience of people the GLBT community speaks to this truth in a particularly poignant way.  This event was not about convincing people to believe anything in particular.  Rather it was about creating moments for seeing oneself in “the other” - whether the otherness is about culture, religion, or sexual identity.  When we make that humanizing leap, the potential for relationship and collaboration become real possibilities.”

Through my own life experience, as well as through several college courses, I have come to understand that the concept of “the other” is when someone views another person as being different from them, such as with their religious views, political views, “race” and ethnicity, economic status and sexual orientation, but instead of respecting and maybe even celebrating the differences, they dehumanize them.  As we have seen throughout history, violence and oppression are commonly linked with dehumanization, because in order to treat someone so awfuly, people often throw up a wall between themselves and the person they see as less then them, in order to make it easier to commit such horrible acts against other human beings.  I respect NewGround for their brave and essential mission to create a different relationship between Muslims and Jews.  I imagine that people involved with NewGround, at times may be critisized and disliked by those who are totally opposed to establishing a new relationship…kind of goes with the territory.  I will also say though, I observed that NewGround is a very respected, successful and well-liked organization. 

I wasn’t necessarily nervous about sharing my story in front of Jews, considering the positive experiences I’ve already had by being “out of the closet” within the Jewish community, and even though I do know that there are Jews out there that are still very opposed to my sexual orientation, it isn’t “new ground” for me.  I initially wasn’t afraid to share my experience with the Muslims participating at the event, especially since I knew that the crowd would already be open-minded, however I became a bit nervous after I heard the fear in some of my family members and friends when they learned that I would be putting myself out there.  I became frustrated with the response from them considering I was really excited and felt proud to be a part of such an amazing event, and I knew that stigmas were playing a role in their fear.  I was also confused because of the incredibly supportive experience I had when I shared my story with the Muslims and Jews at the planning meeting.  I decided to talk to Rabbi Sarah about it, and she assured me that for the most part, I would receive similar responses as the ones I had with all the people at the planning meeting, which ended up being my experience on the night of the event.

I do not want to come off as though I’m making people who are opposed to my sexual orientation as “the other,” because they are entitled to their opinions, and it is especially important to not make those who don’t agree with you as “the other,” because you are playing into a vicious cycle that dehumanizes and is based in fear.  As soon as I see someone as “the other,” I believe that I have lost touch with the most important part of myself, which is an unconditionally loving one.  I have gone down that road many times in my life, and I have found that it ultimately hurts me the most.  I have viewed people who are different then me as “the other” merely out of defense.  I have even viewed fellow Jews, gay people and family members as “the other.”  I know that I am not alone in having been a Jew who also sees Jews as “the other.”  At the end of my Birthright trip to Israel, when the group got together to share our feelings and thoughts, many people spoke of their fear about going on a trip with Jews from different sects.  By the end of the trip, there were no walls between the Jews in our group, and an amazing bond had been formed.  We all felt really good, because we had experienced an internal transformation within our belief systems, which had been harmful to our emotional and spiritual well-being.  In regards to my own experience with discrimination against other people in the GLBT community, I know it stemmed from internalized homophobia, which is a common form of self-hatred within the community.  When I have viewed family members as “the other,” it is ultimately very harmful for me even though I want to stay in anger and block them out of my life, and whether I like it or not, it affects me subconsciously and truly disrupts the core of my being.  When it comes to family I am learning how important it is to face my fears, and acknowledge that my anger is really stemming from sadness and feeling misunderstood. I am learning how to deal better with all different conflicts of interest and confrontations in my life, and come from a more balanced place, and communicate better.  I don’t want to loose touch with that unconditionally loving place within myself.   

This article was not meant to be about me specifically sharing the same story that I did at the event, which is why I didn’t write about it, but it is rather a story about telling a story.  My experience has been that coming out of the closet is not an “aha!” moment, but rather a lifelong accumulation of moments, steps and stories to retell.  I will say though, that the response I ended up having as I shared my story at the event was beyond amazing.  I received a level of support that I honestly have never experienced, because as soon as I shared that I was a lesbian, and how vulnerable I was feeling in that moment, I received an incredibly touching amount of clapping and cheering.  I felt my own personal belief system shift into a more loving one, as any fearful judgment I had of what responses may occur, began to shed in my mind.  From just shedding my judgments, I felt a step closer towards freedom and peace.  It just goes to show, that although discrimination and hatred can be found within people from all different backgrounds, it is crucial to not generalize, and to allow yourself the opportunity to experience the wide spectrum of attitudes and beliefs found even within each particular group of individuals.  As a student studying to be a social worker, I have come to learn that “it is inappropriate to stereotype and assume that all members of a group exhibit the characteristics held by the majority of group members.  Actually, there is more diversity within a group of individuals (e.g., a group of Jews) than between groups (e.g., between Muslims and Jews or between Jews and Christians).”  It is important to see each person who identifies with a particular group, as an individual with their own life experiences and accumulation of beliefs.  In a sense, to generalize and stigmatize people from particular groups is kind of delusional to a certain degree. 

My hat goes off to NewGround, for taking the brave, risky and crucial steps towards creating balance and healing, in a world filled with harmful misperceptions that human beings have towards one another.

For more info. about NewGround:
http://www.muslimjewishnewground.org/

Additional article and video from the event:
http://www.muslimjewishnewground.org/relationships.html

JQ International:
http://www.jqish.org/

 

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