Jews and Muslims

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

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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.

Abdulrahman Almoudy, a Washington, D.C., Muslim activist who today is persona non grata in Jewish circles for his defense of Muslim terrorist groups, such as Hamas, was quoted in 2000 nostalgically recalling how in the mid-1990s he worked with Jewish organizations, such as the Reform movement's Religious Action Center, to open doors for Muslims at the State Department, the White House, and on Capitol Hill.   

American Jewish involvement in the domestic campaign to build support for Bosnian Muslims in their struggle with the Serbs further improved ties with American Muslim activists. In April 1995, for example, a pro-Bosnian Muslim rally in Washington attracted as many Jewish activists as it did Muslims, even though the issue was the ethnic cleansing of Bosnian Muslims.

In truth, however, these advances were largely limited to more liberal elements in the two communities, a relatively small number of political activists and organizational representatives responsible for interfaith outreach. Relatively few ordinary American Jews or Muslims were involved in the process. The more religiously traditional--among Jews, the Orthodox--had virtually no involvement. Then came the breakdown of Oslo, and the return with a vengeance of historical suspicions that had never been fully overcome. Nascent working arrangements were scuttled, as Jewish groups grew increasingly wary of cooperating with Muslim organizations that in any way condoned attacks against Israelis.

One such incident that gained wide media exposure was the opposition in 1999 of Jewish groups to the appointment of Salam Al-Marayati, a Los Angeles Muslim activist, to a federal commission created to look into the causes of terrorism. Al-Marayati, whose record of involvement in American Jewish-Muslim dialogue was largely unmatched among Muslims, and who attended the 1994 Israel-Jordan peace treaty signing as a guest of the U.S. government, was opposed because of his perceived sympathies for Islamic radicals and terrorist actions. Pressure from the Council of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the Zionist Organization of America, the American Jewish Committee and similar Jewish groups resulted in the rescinding of Al-Marayati's proposed appointment.

Terrorism Takes Its Toll

The Al-Marayati episode, the start of the intifada a year later, followed by September 11, 2001, completed the hardening of attitudes on both sides. In the immediate aftermath of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Al-Marayati, once a champion of Jewish-Muslim dialogue, publicly suggested that Israel might be the culprit. The United States assault on Saddam Hussein's Iraqi government further inflamed the situation: Muslims claimed a prime reason for the attack was a desire to strengthen Israel's hand by eliminating an arch enemy and sending a warning to its other foes. 

Outside the United States, Jewish-Muslim relations sunk to an even worse state. Just days prior to the September 11 attacks, a United Nations conference on racism held in Durban, South Africa, featured relentless attacks on Israel, organized in the main by local Muslim groups and Palestinian sympathizers. Jewish groups say the attacks, to which no other nation was subjected, strayed far beyond the parameters of legitimate political criticism to embrace outright anti-Semitism. Then Osama bin-Laden, the Saudi Arabian-born leader of Al Queda, the worldwide Islamic terrorist group responsible for the September 11 attacks, singled out Jews, along with "Crusaders," his term for Christians, as enemies of Islam.

The result has been an unprecedented crescendo of anti-Semitic statements and acts, much of it masked by anti-Israel or anti-Zionist language, across the Muslim world, as well as in Western nations that are home to large immigrant Muslim communities--France and Great Britain being two outstanding examples.

In France, home to about 5 million Muslims and some 650,000 Jews--the largest representation for both groups in Western Europe--most of the Muslim population is of North African Arab ancestry. That background makes it relatively easy to see the connection between the French Muslim community's burgeoning and well-documented anti-Israel and anti-Semitic attitudes, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Great Britain, where the majority of the Muslim population is of Pakistani and Indian descent, is a somewhat different case, and as such provides greater insight into the depth of anti-Jewish attitudes prevalent today among Muslims of all ethnic and national backgrounds.

Britain is home to a growing community of about 1.6 million Muslims and a shrinking community of about 280,000 Jews. Many British Muslims live on the fringe of English society, facing racial discrimination and economic disadvantages. However, many others live middle class lives. Shockingly for many Jews, it was two sons of Britain's Muslim middle class, Asif Mohammed Hanif, 21, and Omar Khan Sharif, 27, who turned up as suicide bombers in Tel Aviv in the spring of 2003. British Muslim leaders say the two young men were radicalized by their outrage over the plight of the Palestinians. British Jewish leaders say the actions of the two men may be traced to the constant demonization of all things Jewish--Israel and British Jewry alike, and including Holocaust denial--in Muslim media and schools, and by religious and political figures across the Islamic world.

The London Jewish Chronicle, in an article published soon after the attack by Hanif and Sharif on a Tel Aviv nightclub, noted that the pair's hatred of Israel and Jews is by no means restricted to what the newspaper called the British Muslim community's "radical fringe." Even mainstream Muslims share the view, if not the inclination to become suicide bombers, said the Chronicle, which said British Jewry's "failure" to cultivate relationships with Muslims was in part responsible for the situation.

Without implying any equality of depth or breath, it should be noted that Jewish attitudes toward Muslims are, in some cases, no less harsh. Just as Jewish organizations and media warn of Muslim anti-Semitism and an anti-Western outlook that equates Jews with American foreign policies and cultural exports, Muslim organizations and media counter with warnings of Jewish Islamophobia and rabid anti-Arab attitudes.

In fact, it is not uncommon to hear harsh criticism among some Jews in Israel and in the Diaspora that labels all Muslims and the religion of Islam itself as being extremist, medieval in outlook, dismissive of non-Muslim "infidels," discriminatory toward women, and supportive of endless jihad, or religious warfare. Koranic passages are taken out of context to support these views, while others that lend credence to Muslim arguments against those allegations are often ignored. In the United States, concern that American Muslim political power would grow at the expense of Jewish political influence was also commonly voiced, more so prior to September 11 than after.

As of this writing, a new attempt to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict--the so-called "road map"--is in its early stages of deployment. Road map supporters hope the plan will finally cut the Middle East's Gordian knot, and bring peace to Israelis and Palestinians. But even if it succeeds in ending the violence and the demonization, the anger, mistrust, and overt hatreds that now divide Jews and Muslims in the Middle East and elsewhere will not soon be overcome. The suspicions between the groups that have colored their relations for most of their shared history have so deepened in recent years that, even with the best of outcomes for the road map, the existing animosities are likely to take generations to overcome.

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Ira Rifkin

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.