A Jew and a Muslim? L.A.-based NewGround wants to show we can all get along


Most Jews and Muslims rarely talk — really talk — to one another. This is as true in the United States as elsewhere, a stark reality despite our nation’s vast diversity and the ability of so many different peoples to coexist. It is true also in Los Angeles, a city of strong ethnic identities, long drives and even longer cultural memories. 

Indeed, even here, the few encounters among Muslims and Jews often feel like head-on collisions: Protests and counter-protests — many triggered by events in and around Israel — are usually the most visible interactions, but they’re hardly the only instances of tension. 

Some recent examples: In June 2012, Pamela Geller, a New York-based Jewish blogger and co-founder of Stop the Islamization of America, an organization classified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, was barred at the last minute from speaking inside the headquarters of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles — but not before local Muslim groups reportedly threatened to protest outside the Wilshire Boulevard building. 

In 2010, 11 Muslim students repeatedly heckled and interrupted Israeli Ambassador to the United States Michael Oren while he was speaking at UC Irvine, until the students were finally removed from the room. They were arrested, cited for disturbing a public event, and, the following year, 10 were convicted in a jury trial and sentenced to perform community service. 

Also in 2010, young supporters of Friends of the Israel Defense Forces, who attended a fundraiser at the Shangri La Hotel in Santa Monica, sued the hotel owner for violating their civil rights and allegedly saying, “I don’t want … any Jews in my pool.”  In 2012 a jury awarded damages to the FIDF plaintiffs in a lawsuit over the incident.

In 2006, leaders of the city’s most prominent Jewish organizations opposed giving a Los Angeles County humanitarian award to Dr. Maher Hathout, who is among the local Muslim community’s most respected leaders, on grounds that he had once maligned Israel as a “racist, apartheid state.”

And each spring, the debate over what constitutes free speech at California universities is reignited on every campus that holds a so-called “Israel Apartheid Week” or considers a resolution to boycott companies doing business in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Although students are the ones speaking out on campuses — on both sides — often they are being coached and encouraged by much larger Jewish and Muslim organizations.

Within the Jewish community, even the simple act of acknowledging the shared humanity of Muslims and Jews can be perilous. In 2012, when the conflict between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip escalated into battle, Rabbi Sharon Brous, spiritual leader of IKAR, expressed sympathy for both Israelis and Palestinians in a message to her congregants and was immediately, fiercely and publicly attacked for doing so by Rabbi Daniel Gordis of the Shalem Center in Jerusalem. Gordis argued that when Israel is at war, Jews should express support only for the Jewish state. Hardliners in the Muslim community similarly silence moderate voices on their side, as well. 

And yet, as in Israel, Jews and Muslims in Southern California often live, if not side by side, then just down the road from one another. So it is not surprising that those few who attempt to cross the chasm separating these faiths and peoples often find that Muslims and Jews share not just the same neighborhoods, but many of the same values.

Enter NewGround, an L.A. group that has made its mission to bridge the gap. For the past five years, this emerging organization has been housed at the epicenter of the city — in Los Angeles City Hall — where it has been creating encounters among young Muslims and Jews. Its tactic is to prioritize conversation over solutions, active listening over public statements, allowing for honest exchange instead of superficial agreement. 

NewGround already has forged deep relationships within its ever-expanding, carefully nurtured community of Muslims and Jews. And while differing views may continue to persist, NewGround’s training allows participants to acknowledge the conflict taking place half a world away without letting it limit all discussions here. 

“NewGround was founded precisely to overcome the tendency for international conflict to disrupt relationships locally,” Rabbi Sarah Bassin, the group’s executive director, said. “We treat conflict as an inherent part of this relationship, as it is part of all relationships.”

Each year, NewGround trains a group of fellows from the Jewish and Muslim communities who spend months together before beginning to talk about hot-button topics like Zionism or the movement known as BDS, which seeks to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel. Those topics are raised during the second of two weekend retreats, toward the end of the 10-month program, by which time the fellows have learned crucial new communication skills and covered the (not entirely safe) subject of religion. The delay can, at least initially, be frustrating for those who came to the program specifically to talk to their counterparts about Israel. 

“I didn’t trust the process; I thought it was a waste of time,” Eliana Kaya, a fellow from NewGround’s third cohort in 2010, said in an interview. She is now executive coordinator at reGeneration, a nonprofit that supports the progressive Waldorf method of education for Israelis and Palestinians. “I would go up [to the leaders] at the end of every session and say, ‘Yala, when are we going to get to the real stuff?’ ” 

Shukry Cattan, a member of the most recent fellowship class, also wondered about the program’s structure. “There was all this buildup, and, for me, I kept thinking, ‘OK, what is this? Why are we waiting to the end?’ ” said Cattan, who is of Palestinian descent. “I thought the conversation was going to happen sooner.”

But Kaya, a practicing Jew, and Cattan, the son of a Christian mother and a Muslim father, both came to see the value of having relationships with the other members of their cohort in place before beginning such a difficult conversation. 

“When it actually did happen, I understood the process,” Cattan said. “Having built that relationship with people and having seen each other — not even as Jews and Muslims — but people who have lives and stories to share, hearing people’s perspectives and each other’s very difficult experiences with the conflict — you couldn’t just walk away and dismiss that person’s story because you knew that person.”

Already, more than 100 Jewish and Muslim professionals, most in their 20s and 30s, have graduated from NewGround’s yearlong, intensive and innovative fellowship program, which teaches communication skills, builds friendships and gives members of each faith a window into the beliefs, practices and politics of the other. For its efforts, NewGround has received accolades and awards from the Jewish, Muslim and interfaith communities, and groups in other American cities have begun attempts to adapt the NewGround model for their own Muslim and Jewish communities. 

As the Muslim holy month of Ramadan nears its Aug. 7 close, the world is closely watching the first meetings between Palestinian and Israeli peace negotiators in more than two years. Yet regardless of what happens on the international stage, there’s also hope in what’s happening on the ground here in Los Angeles, where NewGround is building a foundation for open, ongoing communication between adversaries. 

The members of NewGround’s 2013 young professionals fellowship cohort pose for a picture after receiving their certificates of recognition and appreciation from the City of Los Angeles Human Relations Commission. Photo by http://cbacarellaphoto.com/

There are precedents, to be sure. In the 1990s, leaders of L.A.’s Muslim and Jewish communities met regularly under an umbrella known as the Muslim-Jewish Dialogue. Since 2006, a group of progressive Jewish, Muslim and Christian faith leaders have convened under the aegis of the Abrahamic Faiths Peacemaking Initiative, for meetings and events. 

NewGround is itself the outgrowth of a partnership formed in the post-9/11 early 2000s between two L.A.-based nonprofits, the Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA) and the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), whose leaders first hoped to convene other Jewish and Muslim leaders, but had little success. Rather than turn away in failure, they turned to younger Jews and Muslims — tomorrow’s leaders.

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