As I reflect on our event, “Combating Prejudice Inside and Outside our Communities,” I really want to emphasize how fortunate I feel to be a part of these important and necessary conversations. Sabeeha Rehmen and Walter Ruby, our speakers, have been doing interfaith work — through grassroots aid and dialogue — for a long time, and I was thrilled to hear about their journeys and to ask a question about the future of Muslim-Jewish allyship and how to reach those who still have misunderstandings about the other group. I really hope that everyone who attended the event (and those who watch the recording) also learned from them. In addition, their new book, We Refuse to be Enemies, delves into this topic further, and we encourage those interested to check it out!
Rehman and Ruby first discussed how Muslims and Jews both suffer from prejudice and discrimination in the U.S. When Jews started immigrating en masse from Central and Eastern Europe at the turn of the 20th century, they — similar to Irish and Italian immigrants — were not treated well due to rising nativist attitudes, culminating in highly restrictive immigration laws. Ruby said that growing up he had little experience with antisemitism, though he knew that many people harbored negative views toward Jews due to common stereotypes. However, the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue by a white nationalist and other violent attacks against Jews across the country made Ruby fear for his safety as a Jew.
Rehman then discussed that for Muslims in the U.S., Islamophobia spiked after 9/11. Muslims (or anyone who “looked” Muslim or Arab) were attacked and harrassed in the streets and mosques were targeted, with some even forced to close. The Trump presidency exacerbated the negative sentiment toward Muslims with the “Muslim ban” and talks of a Muslim registry. Rehman talked about the fear that Muslims felt in the U.S. and how women would stop wearing their hijab or other head covering so they would not stand out.
It was obviously very painful to hear about all of this, although many of us at the event know these fears personally. However, Rehman and Ruby then discussed how Muslim and Jewish communities would stand up for each other whenever a traumatic incident occurred. For example, the Pittsburgh Muslim community helped raise money for the Jewish community after the synagogue shooting and showed solidarity in other ways. Similarly, after the Muslim ban, Jews stood outside of a mosque during a Jum’ah prayer with signs saying that they stood for their Muslim neighbors.
Of course, there are issues of prejudice between the two communities. Rehman and Ruby both recounted how they were ignorant of each other’s religious traditions and had negative assumptions. They overcame these prejudices by befriending those in the other community, learning more about the other’s religion through dialogue, and working together on interfaith initiatives. Rehman said that one of the best ways to approach someone who holds negative views about another group is to get them to meet someone from that group and hear about their lived experiences. She told a story about how she took her niece to a Shabbat service, where she met Jewish congregants and realized how many similarities Muslims and Jews have in regard to their traditions and practices, as well as experiences of marginalization.
There are still various challenges that remain when it comes to building Muslim-Jewish allyship. One is seemingly always the elephant in the room: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Rehman and Ruby discussed how they tackle this. First, they have a commitment to freedom of speech and to not demonize those who disagree with you. The labels “antisemite” and “Islamophobe” get thrown around a lot when conversations about the conflict get heated, but Rehman and Ruby emphasize that those accusations can’t be thrown around so cavalierly. Second, whenever they tackle the issue, they make sure that any action they take should be about improving the humanitarian conditions on the ground. For instance, they frequently participate in aid campaigns.
Rehman and Ruby have a lot to teach the next generation of Muslim and Jewish interfaith activists. It is so important to look for similarities rather than what divides us, to learn from educating one another through our lived experiences, and approaching difficult conversations with grace and respect. Since we’re both religious minorities in the U.S., there is strength in unity, and it is paramount that Muslims and Jews come together to advocate for policies that help us and those who are most in need, in the U.S. and around the world.
Author: Rebecca Stekol