Jews and Muslims

Sept. 11 and the Second Intifada in Israel interrupted years of improvement in Muslim-Jewish relations.


Jews and Muslims have had a close but tense relationship since Islam’s earliest days, when Jewish tribes in seventh-century Arabia, principally in the city of Medina, rejected the Prophet Muhammad’s claims to religious and political leadership. In the modern era, the Zionist movement and establishment of the State of Israel have exacerbated this longstanding tension, with fallout from events of the recent past–the Palestinian uprising known as the intifada and the wave of anti-Western Islamic terrorism culminating in the attacks of September 11, 2001–bringing the relationship to a low point.

muslim-jewish relationsDivisive Issues

From a Jewish perspective, two main issues divide contemporary Jews and Muslims. The first is widespread Muslim rejection of Jewish political control over land–in this instance the State of Israel–considered part of dar al-islam, an Arabic term denoting territory that Muslims consider rightfully theirs because of it having once been under their rule. The second issue is Islam’s theological insistence that it has replaced Judaism as God’s favored religious expression because of Jewish transgressions–a belief that Jewish sources say is fueled by the political conflict over Israel. (Islam also claims to have similarly replaced Christianity.)

Possibilities for Partnerships

Just a decade ago, the outlook for Jewish-Muslim relations seemed so much more optimistic. The ill-fated Oslo agreement appeared to many as the political breakthrough that just might end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which the hopeful presumed would prompt hesitant Muslim governments to establish diplomatic relationships with the Jewish state, thereby fostering a new era of Jewish-Muslim cooperation and understanding.

In the United States, where Jewish-Muslim dialogue began in earnest in the 1980s, and was more advanced than in most nations, efforts designed to bring the communities closer together advanced as never before during the heady days of the early Oslo period. Dialogue groups sprang up, Muslims were invited to synagogues, Jews visited mosques, and joint business ventures were planned to cement ties in the “new” Middle East. Muslims approached Jewish groups that oversaw kashrut standards for advice on how to establish legal standards for hallal, Islam’s religious dietary laws that in some regards mirror Judaism’s. Jews and Muslims also came to together on such domestic political issues as religious freedom and immigration policy.

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Ira Rifkin is a national correspondent for Religion News Service based in Washington, D.C. He is the author of Spiritual Perspectives on Globalization: Making Sense of Economic and Cultural Upheaval.

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