Jews and Muslims

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

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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.

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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.