Muslims and Jews in America

By Aryeh Tepper
Monday, October 10, 2011

Consider these two questions:

During the past ten years, approximately 170 American Muslims have been arrested for plotting terror attacks against Jews or materially aiding other terrorists.  While the numbers are relatively small, the danger is real enough.  Isn't it only reasonable to wonder whether these individuals were moved by anti-Jewish passions that are shared by others in the American Muslim community?

On August 26, 2011, eleven American Muslim leaders and two Muslim congressmen addressed a letter to Hamas criticizing its treatment of Gilad Shalit and calling for Shalit's release.  Isn't it just as reasonable to wonder whether these individuals were moved by a humane sympathy for Jews that is shared by others in the American Muslim community?

To answer such questions, investigating American Muslim attitudes towards Jews might seem a natural enough pursuit for American Jews.  But to judge by the recently published collection of essays Muslims and Jews in America: Commonalities, Contentions, and Complexities, genuine investigation is being pushed aside in favor of a political agenda that marginalizes voices from the right and uses Israel as a punching bag in the name of inter-communal "dialogue."

Muslims and Jews in America takes pains to appear even-handed.  One editor is Muslim, the other Jewish.  The 16 essays are evenly divided between Jewish and Muslim authors.  But aside from these symmetries, the book has little internal coherence.  Some chapters read like advertisements for organizations such as J Street and Tikkun.  Others include an inquiry into assimilation and separation patterns among Iranian Jews and Muslims in Los Angeles and an exchange of letters on feminist theology between a Jewish and a Muslim feminist.

But there are deeper flaws than the book's patchwork character.  Though the volume is purportedly about America, Reza Aslan, the Iranian-American polemicist who is one of the co-editors, begins his introductory essay by describing Israel's security barrier:

Call it a security fence, a separation barrier, a seam zone, an apartheid wall. . . .  For Muslim and Christian Palestinians, the divide is merely the most physical manifestation of what they view as Israel's policy of ethnic and religious segregation. 

From Aslan's account, you would think that West Bank Palestinians are fighting a 1960's American-style battle to integrate Israel.  This is, of course, not true.  More important, the barrier has nothing to do with manifesting a "policy of ethnic and religious segregation"—20 percent of Israel's population is Araband everything to do with security.  It is outrageous for Aslan to claim otherwise.  (We should not be surprised: Aslan recently edited a collection of essays on Middle Eastern literature that included writings in Urdu but nothing in Hebrew.)  Muslims and Jews in America calls on both groups to "recognize each other's pain."  But, although Israel is fair game, you won't find a word in the book about the hundred-year Arab-Muslim war against minorities in the Middle East, including the mid-20th-century uprooting and shakedown of almost a million Jews.

The bias hardly ends there.  In a paean to brotherhood, the book includes a 2007 address by Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union of Reform Judaism (URJ), to the 44th annual convention of the Islam Society of North America (ISNA) and the reciprocal address in the same year by Dr. Ingrid Mattson, president of ISNA, to the URJ's 69th annual conference.  The problem is that the ISNA has a history of playing host to Muslim extremists; it was once deeply connected to the Muslim Brotherhood.  Is ISNA's Muslim Brotherhood connection a thing of the past?  Does ISNA allow the presence of Muslim extremists only because it seeks to be inclusive?  In an honest dialogue we would face and discuss these questions, but on this occasion neither Rabbi Yoffie nor Dr. Mattson did.  Instead, Rabbi Yoffie's address was a robust Enlightenment-style attack on the "profound ignorance" that he considers the cause of anti-Muslim passions in America.

The book's most egregious example of closed-mindedness posing as enlightened discourse is "American Jews & American Muslims of Love" by Rabbi Michael Lerner, the engine behind the "spiritually progressive" journal Tikkun.  Lerner feels no need to pose difficult questions in order to navigate a complex reality.  Instead, he strikes an emotional pose.  There are two kinds of people in the world, he says, those moved by "fear" and those moved by "love."  It's not hard to guess which side Lerner comes down on.  "Security," he blithely asserts, "comes from generosity and love."  If you think differently, you belong to the "Jews of Fear" (read "conservatives"), part of the fear-mongers in every society who hold back the spiritual evolution of our planet.

Such silliness hardly deserves a serious response, though it does highlight the foolishness at the heart of the book, which is especially evident in Peter Geffen's Afterword.  Geffen tells the story of how Jews fleeing Morocco left the key of their village synagogue with a local Muslim, who patiently held onto it until a rabbi finally visited the village 45 years later.  The Muslim greeted the rabbi with a hearty Hebrew welcomeand even knew how to chant the central Jewish prayer, "Shma Yisrael."  A gushing Geffen asks, "Can we in the United States recreate the gentle, subtle tone of Jews and Berber-Muslims living in mutual respect and tolerance?"

Aaah.  The Muslim was a Berber!  This, of course, changes everything.  Apparently no one told Geffen that Moroccan Berbers are an oppressed minority with little love for the 100-year-old Arab campaign to erase their identity.  It is no wonder that Berbers often identify with Jews.  That "gentle, subtle tone of Jews and Berber-Muslims living in mutual respect" needs to be heard against the martial music of the crusading Arab-Islamic fervor that drives these two Middle East minorities together.

Geffen and those who share his attitude give every indication that they are profoundly ignorant of such seemingly minor but hugely significant details.  So long as Muslim communities around the globeincluding Americaare investigated with kid gloves, such ignorance will remain depressingly common.

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