Seminal Moment at JTS for Muslim-Jewish Relations in America

October  31, 2010, The Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue

Stephanie Hughes and Joshua Stanton

You've seen it before: Jews and Muslims sitting together, with diverse headgear and big smiles, showing that life for both communities in the United States need not be defined by the Middle East conflict. Photo-op after photo-op; one Kumbaya moment after the next.

For leaders of the American Muslim and Jewish communities, the past week was different.

Instead of posing for pictures together, they got down to business. Meeting behind closed doors at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, at a two-day workshop organized by the Jewish Theological Seminary, Hartford Seminary, and the Islamic Society of North America, they discussed real and significant challenges taking place within and between their communities.

Those proceedings were intentionally kept off the record in order to avoid the platitudes that preclude action-focused dialogue and meaningful collaboration.

But even in a public session, held on October 25, participants dug deep in addressing the struggle of gaining acceptance within the broader American society without losing one's roots. Clichés common in too many interfaith forums-pleasant and nonthreatening calls for peace, recitations of shared values-were missing. Instead, the panelists spoke frankly and urgently about misperceptions, dangers, and concerns facing Jews and Muslims in America.

An all-star panel included Arnold Eisen, Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, Serene Jones, President of Union Theological Seminary, Sherman Jackson, Professor of Arabic and Islamic Studies at the University of Michigan, and Ingrid Mattson, the immediate past president of the Islamic Society of North America, who served as the panel's moderator.

Each brought to bear their tremendous knowledge and experience of Judaism and Islam-with the inclusion of a voice from a majority Christian tradition-and delved into the tensions that underlie "Assimilation and Authenticity" for the former two. They pulled no punches and made clear that, even in public, the gathering at the Jewish Theological Seminary was about planning for the future of both Islam and Judaism in America, rather than mere overtures.

Each panelist frequently used challenging language and examples. Jones described the way the economy "commodifies our desires," making it the market and not faith communities that inform "the character and shape of our desire and imagination." When asked about her feelings about being part of the religious majority, she described her dismay, sharing the frequent sensation in today's media climate that "My own religion has been absconded with and is doing harm."

Jackson noted that we have become sensitized to the problematic dimension of Muslims in America, which keeps us from realizing the cooperative properties inherent to our faith traditions. He implored religious leaders to keep from thinking of potential collaboration as a zero sum game. Further, he commented that this is "a crisis of relevance-the same voices that seek to shut down Muslim voices would do the same for Jewish or other voices."

Eisen illuminated old worries about Judaism being considered an ethnicity, and declared that pluralism must never equal relativism. He continued, underscoring that pluralism is "not just a nice thing, but a religious imperative," particularly given the very real challenges faced by religious minorities, and the necessity of those groups to share experience and work together.

Mattson shared questions from the audience, all of which were answered with immediacy and frankness. To a question about what Jackson thought of Muslim extremists who promote violence, he first pointed out that he personally lives in Michigan-a challenge to us to reconsider our easy idea that all Muslims are from particular regions-and then shared the story of those who had attempted to assassinate Anwar El Sadat: some of the assassins continued in their study of the Qur'an in prison and later said that they were wrong to have done such violence. Jackson ended his response by asking if those of us in the audience knew that Muslim story-the audience spoke in unison, answering, "No."

The session ended, with the public thrilled to have taken part in a meaningful interchange, unencumbered by fluff. But the real work of planning collaboratively for the future of Judaism and Islam in America continued in earnest the next day; leaders left the conference with tangible commitments for collaboration.

After the conference, many privately noted that such conversations had not taken place before, and described a powerful sense of hope that the historic meeting would cultivate a movement for Muslims and Jews previously unseen in America. Now the work begins.

2010, The Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue