Jews and Muslims

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

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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.

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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.