The NewGround Iftar in 2016. Photo courtesy of mjnewground.org

The Ramadan Project


After spending my formative years in Jewish day school, it was only natural that I’d rebel in college: I signed up for a class in the New Testament. Not because I was considering conversion, but because I was at an academic disadvantage. My professors assumed basic literacy in Christianity, while I had learned only about the persecutive aspects of the faith — blood libels, the Inquisition, the Crusades, Passion plays.

I never had such a primer on Islam; it never seemed quite as necessary. But in January the Trump administration’s proposed travel restrictions (or ban, depending on who’s speaking) on immigrants from Muslim-majority countries heightened debate over the treatment of Muslims. I realized that even those who would not consider themselves Islamophobic or who, like me, know a handful of Muslims, often came to a communal tables with more baggage than information. And that’s even without mentioning the Israel-shaped elephant in the room.

So, this year I decided to use Ramadan — the ninth month of the Muslim calendar and a month-long fasting holiday that ends this year on the evening of June 24  — as a learning opportunity, a chance to connect the dots and find the common DNA between Ishmael and Isaac, Esau and Jacob, and these two ancient faiths.

The internet and my network of friends and acquaintances seemed a good place to start, and both turned up a few good nuggets. For instance, while segments of Torah stories appear in the Quran, only the story of Joseph is told from start to finish, and it often is referred to as “the most beautiful of stories.” And when Muslims are preparing to address a crowd, they recite Musa’s Prayer — named after Moses, known for his leadership despite a speech impediment.

I also attended a June 7 community iftar at Wilshire Boulevard Temple, marking the end of that day’s fast and sponsored by NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change. I listened to the presenters — NewGround board members, local city officials and graduates of NewGround’s interfaith fellowship programs — share their stories. As Muslim attendees knelt for Maghrib, the evening prayer, I stood at the back and realized how little I knew.

I did pick up on some comforting similarities. As a language nerd, I noticed that in Ramadan’s traditional greeting, “Ramadan Mubarak,” I barely had to squint linguistically to see a mevorakh (Hebrew for “blessed”). And I had read that the Ramadan fast is known as sawm; the Hebrew word tzom also means fast. My Ramadan project was working its magic already, connecting my Hebrew influences to their Arabic ones.

To guide me further into the semantics of Semitics, I reached out to my childhood friend Shari Lowin, now a professor of religious studies. In one example, she said, there are two words for charity (tzedakah in Hebrew): For Muslims, zakat is like a tithe — a portion of a Muslim’s salary donated to charity — and the language is about “making something pure,” similar to Hebrew’s zakh (shemen zakh, pure oil, is what fueled the miracle of Chanukah).

“According to Muslim scholarly theory,” Lowin said, “giving a portion purifies the rest of your money, makes it yours,” while the other word for charity, sadaqa, is from a root meaning “speak the truth, be sincere,” and denotes a voluntary giving of alms. And Maghrib means “sun” or “west,” phonetically similar to Hebrew words ma’arav (“west”) and Ma’ariv (the evening prayer).

Another friend I worked with about a decade ago, Dilshad Ali, managing editor of the Muslim channel at Patheos.com, filled me in on more worldly similarities between the adherents of our two different faiths — like concerns about assimilation’s impact on her teenage daughter.

“What are the foundations of faith inside of her? Is she strong in those foundations? I love the empowerment and [conversation around] owning your image and story, but I hope she’s still doing her prayers, still fasting, doing whatever is fundamental, and I hope [it] doesn’t get lost along the way,” she said.

The Ali family aims to “be respectful of differences and find similarities,” said Dilshad, whose parents are from India. “We try not to put ourselves in a silo. We are not only friends with people who are Muslim, or only people who are South Asian. I think that is a good model for them, having relationships and friends with people who are different.”

All of this dialogue inspired me, not just to learn more about the Muslim community but to build bridges to it, as well. Here are a few practical ways that I’ve decided to move my own Ramadan project forward — and you can, too.

1. Host Muslim friends for Shabbat dinner and other meals. I’ll account for dietary restrictions around food and alcohol, and strive for accessible conversation about the world, our faiths and our passions. When friends introduced me to my friend Marium, they told me she was “the Muslim Esther,” and that was pretty spot-on. Maybe there’s a “Muslim you” out there, too.

2. Learn about the Quran. Most Jews know very little about the Quran, even though Muslims know stories from the Jewish Bible. What is in the Quran, and how do its stories compare to those in the Torah?

3. Consider my own narrative in light of an interfaith (or multifaith) conversation. What do I need to tell Muslims about Judaism and what do I need to know about Islam for us to understand each other’s stories and be allies for each other’s communities?

4. Learn about programs that use education, dialogue and experiential discovery to connect Muslims and Jews. NewGround runs programs, as well as more in-depth fellowships. The Shalom Hartman Institute’s Muslim Leadership Institute invites North American Muslims to explore Judaism, Israel and Jewish peoplehood. Encounter Programs brings Jewish leaders to Israel for “transforming conflict through face-to-face understanding.”

As Dilshad noted, these relationships take honesty and time.

“It’s who you meet and engage with one on one,” she said. “It works slowly. Our world views expand one person at a time.”

Photo from Pexels.

Letters to the editor: Fear of Muslims, praise for Bret Stephens, quiet Trump supporters


‘Kapos’ and Auschwitz

I read the letter from a survivor indicating that all “kapos” at Auschwitz were of the German criminal groups assigned to Auschwitz (Letters, Feb. 24). With all due respect, and I hesitate to take historical issue with survivors whose act of witness I revere, but I must. While that may have been true of his experience, it is not true of Auschwitz and certainly not of other camps.

Michael Berenbaum, Director of Sigi Ziering Institute, American Jewish University via email

Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid

My husband is not afraid of heights. He is not afraid of snakes. And he is not afraid of the sun (“The Rabbi Speaks Out,” Feb. 10). But, he is very scared of Muslims — Muslim mentality and Muslim savagery. I know because I have heard him repeat it daily for the past 46 years. 

He is afraid of Muslims because as a child living as a Jew among them, he was already witness to many atrocities committed by them.

Your mother-in-law’s aunts and uncles and cousins were murdered in the Holocaust, as were mine, but my husband’s kin were slaughtered in the streets of Algiers by Muslims.

Yes, Jews have been refugees and immigrants and have been given safe haven, myself included.

But Jews do not terrorize. Jews do not massacre. Jews do not create havoc worldwide.

I am proud of my husband because, unlike many North American Jews who either suffer from short-term memory or are brainwashed, he always remembers the inhumanity and is never afraid of being politically incorrect.

He is not afraid of speaking out against Muslims, the perpetrators of so much repeated evil against the Jews and against the world.

Naomi Atlani via email

Smart Words About Trump

I read your article on Bret Stephens taking on Donald Trump (“Five Dumb Words,” Feb. 24.) I have never been so moved. This put everything in perspective.

I want everyone I know to see this, even though I know true Trump supporters would make an excuse that this is liberal BS. They will not hear it.

Thank you for publishing this and do not stop.

Sherry Pollack via email

Daily Bruin Cartoon

I can see how some people would find the editorial cartoon that appeared in the Daily Bruin offensive, but as a Jew I believe it’s important not to assume that cartoons and articles critical of Israeli policies are necessarily either anti-Israel or anti-Semitic (“Bruin Cartoon Assailed as Anti-Semitic,” Feb. 17). I protested vigorously against the policies of the United States during the Vietnam War and approved of cartoons and articles that did the same. However, I certainly was/am not anti-American. Likewise, many of us who decry the continued building of settlements that encroach on Palestinian land are against this Israeli policy, but are not against Israel and are not anti-Semitic.

Barbara Bilson via email

No Bull From Suissa

Recently, I was introduced to David Suissa in a restaurant. When he asked me which side I am on, I responded, “On the right side: the left.” Thus, one might surmise that I often disagree with his views. However, in his recent column (“Is Trump Worse Than a Liar?” Feb. 24) he hit the nail on the head regarding Donald Trump. To summarize, he explains how bullshit is the greater enemy of truth than lies. While liars know, but manipulate the truth, bullshitters are unanchored to the truth and create “alternate realities.” I would go a step further. Although I am neither a psychiatrist nor a psychologist, I believe that a tenuous connection to reality is usually diagnosed as schizophrenia. The more common term is madness. May God have mercy on us all.  

Michael Telerant, Los Angeles

Instigating the ‘Haters’

While I agree with the nuances covered by Shmuel Rosner (“Spite Doesn’t Make Trump Anti-Semitic,” Feb. 24), unless one has been and still is like a proverbial ostrich with its head in the sand, Trump’s vitriol, rhetoric and hate encourages haters to act out. Yes, some are anti-Semitic.

Whether or not he is a friend of Israel and has a daughter and grandchildren who are Jewish, actions have consequences and his are the worst ever in the White House.

Bottom line: Anti-Semitism is on the rise due to his comments and lack of respect for all.

Warren J. Potash, Moorpark

Silent Support for Trump

The demonizing of Donald Trump in the Jewish Journal will solidify his victory in the 2020 election, as it did in 2016. Unlike the liberal opposition, unlike the Democratic opposition, the backers of Trump are a quiet lot. They do not send hate letters, they do not burn office buildings, they respect the U.S. Constitution, they do not denigrate the founding fathers, but their determination to restore the values that enabled us to defeat the enemies of freedom in World War II will again prevail, thanks to them.

Philip Springer, Pacific Palisades

You are an Islamophobe


Most thoughtful people recognize that the world is a complicated place. And most also understand that serious and stubborn problems are complex and not easy to solve. One of the most frightening and stubborn problems we face today is the terrible violence and suffering that we observe in the Middle East and North Africa, and which is being exported increasingly to many other parts of the world.

Why is it, then, that so many thoughtful people conclude that the root cause of this suffering is simply and entirely the religion of Islam? The horrific behaviors of some Muslims we observe today are hardly different from those of some Christians in other times. Think of the Crusades and the Inquisition, for starters. But most people do not assume that Christianity is inherently a violent and bloody religion.

There is a reason for our hyperbolic reflex. Violence perpetrated by Muslims triggers deep-seated anxiety about Islam borne of many centuries of cultural baggage. We are all Islamophobes. We come by it naturally.

Islamophobia has been deeply embedded in Western culture from nearly as far back as the birth of Islam in the seventh century. Here is why that happened (in a moment I’ll explain how it happened).

Monotheism engenders a religious perspective that assumes, logically, that because there is one God, there can be only one real Truth. Why would an all-knowing and all-loving God give different and contradictory revelations to different peoples? If different revelations appear to be inconsistent or contradictory, it seems impossible that they could have come from the same divine source. And they certainly can’t all be true. The logical religious response to this unimaginable situation is to conclude that only one can be correct. But then how does one determine which is the correct one?

That problem has never proven very difficult to solve. For most people, the answer is simple: ours is correct. All others are false.

1700 years ago and long before Islam came on the scene, Jews and Christians disagreed fiercely over this problem of conflicting revelations. Which of their communities was in possession of the real Truth? The argument remain unresolved for centuries; meanwhile both were persecuted severely by the pagan Roman Empire, which didn’t appreciate that believers in these religions refused to make offerings to the gods on behalf of the emperor.

Christianity finally won the competition when it became the state church of the Roman Empire in the year 380 with the Edict of Thessalonica. The change was drastic and very swift, and Christians at the time could still remember family members being torn by beasts at the “spectacles” in the Roman arenas simply for being Christian. The change from being a despised religion to becoming a beloved religion seemed miraculous. How could it be that within a generation, Christianity transitioned from a reviled religion to the official religion of the most powerful entity on earth?

Theologians and Church leaders at the time drew their own eminently logical conclusion: sic deus vult– “so God wills.” To the Church, history proved theology. The fact of Christian ascendency and domination proved that the Christian understanding of truth was the real Truth.

That perspective was a wonderfully satisfying way to see the world, and it was a successful worldview for some centuries.

But then, seemingly out of nowhere, another group of monotheists emerged onto the scene. They came from the parched desert sands of Arabia in the seventh century and quickly became not only a successful competing religion, but also creators of a brilliant and expansive civilization. This new historical reality seemed to disprove the earlier Christian theology of supremacy. How could it be possible, Christians asked, that such an uncivilized people could become so powerful, so successful?

The Muslims, meanwhile, like monotheist believers before them, naturally assumed that their vision of truth was the real Truth. And given their amazing successes, they quickly came to the same conclusion that Christians had assumed for their triumph centuries earlier. The victory of Islam is the will of God. History proves theology.

The extraordinary success of Islam was a crushing blow to Christianity and the Church needed to find an explanation.

Various rationalizations were soon put forward to account for the extraordinary success of Islam. One of the earliest was penned by St. Theophanes, an eighth century Byzantine monk and chronicler who wrote that Muhammad was a clever and ruthless epileptic. In order to protect himself from ridicule when he fell into seizures, Muhammad invented the story that he went into trances in order to receive messages from a divine being.

Since Theophanes in the eighth century theologians and historians have come up with many scenarios to explain away the success of Islam, including the myth that the revelations Muhammad had received were not from God but from Satan. These and many other hurtful allegations have been circulating for centuries in traditional media ranging from Church histories to theological tracts, legends and folklore, art and music. The constant reinforcement of such falsehoods embeds them within the cultural assumptions of a civilization.  When they persist for long enough they seem conventional, natural “facts” of life.

And this explains how fear and anxiety about Islam became a part of Western culture.  When stories are told and retold countless times, they become part of the fabric of a civilization. They become, in effect an accepted fact.

The Chanson de Rolande is a classic example. It is a song and poem depicting the treacherous Muslim massacre of Charlemagne’s army when it had let down its guard after having accepted an offer for peace. The Song of Roland is the oldest work of French literature and became a template for the development of European literature in general. As it turns out, however, it wasn’t Muslims who caused the massacre, but a band of rebellious Basques. But no matter. Through countless stories, songs, turns of phrases and other means, the message of Muslim treachery became a basic part of European cultural assumption for centuries.

We Americans absorbed the bias through our cultural identity as an extension of European civilization. We come by it naturally, of course, but we have added to it as well. Our most obvious contribution has been through the movies.

Nobody in Hollywood sat down in the 1920s or 30s and planned to make Arabs or Muslims into villains. Their presumed villainy is simply an extension of cultural stereotypes. The first portrayal of an Arab hijacker in film, for example, was not about Entebbe in the 1970s, but a 1936 movie called The Black Coin in which an Arab threatens to blow up an airliner. And the 1920s Rudolph Valentino movies The Sheik (1921) and The Son of the Sheik (1929) already depict Arab Muslims as thieves and murderers.

So don’t be surprised at your Islamophobia. I have it too. It is passed on to us, as it were, with our mothers’ milk. But now that we recognize it, we need to think about how it affects our thinking about important issues.

As thoughtful people, most of us feel badly for those suffering in portions of the Muslim world, and we rightly fear the violence emanating from it as well. If we want to put an end to it we need to act effectively, and acting effectively requires smart analysis and good decision making. Attributing the problems simplistically to Islam is natural because of our cultural baggage, and it may be personally reassuring because it absolves us of all (even indirect) responsibility.

But that approach is doomed to failure because it does not explain what is driving the rage that fuels the violence. And it results in the demonization of an entire community. Succumbing to Islamophobia will not solve problems. It will only exacerbate them.


Reuven Firestone is Regenstein Professor of Judaism and Islam at Hebrew Union College, and author of Who Are the Real Chosen People? 

The Republicans’ rhetoric of hate and fear


Fear, laced with paranoia, is driving the American response against allowing Syrian refugees into the United States.

President Obama has said he would accept 10,000 refugees, all of them subjected to intense scrutiny before being admitted to the country. France, with a population about one-fifth that of the United States, despite the worst attack on its soil since World War II, will accept 30,000 refugees.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) told the Senate, “We are not a nation that delivers children back into the hands of ISIS because some politician doesn’t like their religion.” Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.), a Jew, said the nation should “not allow ourselves to be divided and succumb to Islamophobia,” and that when “thousands of people have lost everything—have nothing left but the shirts on their backs—we will not turn our backs on the refugees.”

They are among a minority. Only 28 percent of Americans believe the nation should allow Syrian refugees into the United States, according to an independent Bloomberg poll. Fifty-three percent say absolutely deny any Syrian refugee, and apparently anyone who is a Muslim, a place in the United States; 11 percent say admit only Christians; 8 percent aren’t sure.

The governors of 30 states, mostly in the South and Midwest, have also said they don’t want Syrian refugees in their states. Gov. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) has even ordered his state agencies to deny residence to two Syrian families who had undergone extensive background checks by the FBI and other agencies and were scheduled to be relocated in Indianapolis. The governors’ opinion, fueled by politics not compassion, really doesn’t matter; the acceptance and relocation of refugees fleeing oppression is a federal not a state issue.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), born in Canada but with dual American and Canadian citizenship, doesn’t want Syrian refugees in his adopted country. Gov. Bobby Jindal (R-La.), born in the United States three months after his parents left India, doesn’t want his adopted country to admit Syrian refugees.

Donald Trump, with a northern European heritage and currently the leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, had previously declared if he was the president he would build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico and round up and deport 11 million undocumented aliens, actions clearly in the fairy-tale netherland of impossibility, but definitely in the land of rhetoric meant to pander to his extreme right-wing following. In response to the murders in France, he says he would close mosques. However, not one terrorist attack in the United States was hatched and carried out in a mosque. More important, Trump’s actions would be a violation not only of the First Amendment but everything the Founding Fathers believed.

Jeb Bush and Ben Carson, among a few hundred thousand Americans, said the U.S. should admit only Syrian refugees who are Christians. It was a stupid comment when they said it; it was just as stupid when Bush later “clarified” it by saying if the U.S. admitted any Muslim, it should only be after extensive screening. As President Obama tried to explain to the fear-mongers, it takes up to two years for the U.S. to admit any refugee from any country, and only after extensive screening. Even more important than screening refugees, the Constitution clearly doesn’t allow either acceptance or rejection of those who seek U.S. residency because of their religion, something Bush and the conservatives should have known, especially if they wish to run for any office, from local constable to the presidency of the United States.

Gov. John Kasich (R-Ohio) says he has an idea how to defeat ISIS. The proselytizing presidential candidate wants to create a government agency to promote Judeo-Christian values around the world. It’s doubtful that many conservatives will be promoting any “Judeo-” values, because American Jews tend to lean more to liberal beliefs than other religions.

State Rep. Glen Casada, Republican caucus leader in Tennessee, wants the Tennessee National Guard to round up all Syrian refugees who are lawful residents of his state and to deport them—if not back to Syria, at least to some other state. State Sen. Elaine Morgan (R-R.I.) wants to create internment camps for any Syrian refugee admitted into her state. Most Pennsylvania republican legislators, spewing their caucus’s talking points, said they had “grave concerns” about Gov. Tom Wolf’s decision to allow Syrian refugees to live in the state where the Declaration of Independence was written.

Texas State Rep. Tony Dale, one of the nation’s most ardent defenders of the right to own guns, and who consistently receives grades of “A” from the NRA, added yet another reason to deny Syrian refugees admission to the United States. Without recognizing the irony and the hypocrisy, he said it would be too easy for refugees to buy guns.

In the history of the United States, just the members of the white-hooded Protestant-professing fire-and-brimstone Klan killed and maimed more Americans than all the murders by non-Christian terrorists—and that includes 9/11. Add in the number of serial killers, the racists who killed children in churches, the zealots who killed health care personnel because they performed legal abortions, and the people like the Oklahoma City bombers and the Unabomber, and the number of pretend-Christians killing Americans rises to hundreds of times greater than any Muslim attack.

Responding to the Islamophobia perpetuated by braggadocio-spewing politicians, an outraged President Obama said that the conservatives believe they could stand up against the leaders of any country, but “Apparently, they’re scared of widows and orphans coming into the United States.” There are some conservatives who say the U.S. should take care of their own first before admitting any refugee. But, conservatives, true to their political ideology, consistently vote against social programs, including aid to combat veterans. When not resorting to inane arguments, the extreme right-wing says the way to destroy ISIS is for the U.S. to send a few hundred thousand soldiers into Syria. It’s jingoistic hysteria couched in fear. It’s also the same logic that didn’t work in Iraq, and isn’t working in Afghanistan.

In 1939, more than 60 percent of Americans, according to a poll by the American Institute of Public Opinion, said the U.S. should not admit 10,000 European Jewish children. Later that year, the U.S. turned back the MS St. Louis, carrying 908 passengers, most of them Jewish refugees.

During the early 1930s, there was a politician who blamed Jews for his nation’s problems, and who used the rhetoric of fear, hate, and paranoia to become the elected leader of his countrymen. None of the Republican presidential candidates or their right-wing followers rise to the level of that politician who became a dictator. But, their poisonous hate and Islamophobic rhetoric matches that of Hitler.

Dr. Brasch is an award-winning journalist, syndicated social issues columnist, professor emeritus of mass communications, and author of 20 books. His latest book is 'Fracking Pennsylvania: Flirting With Disaster.'

Reza Aslan on Jesus, the Jew


Reza Aslan, an author and scholar of religion, has established himself as a familiar face and voice on American television, the go-to guy for commentary on the Islamic world, and he embodies all the right stuff: youthful good looks, depth of knowledge and the kind of media savvy that enables him to answer even the most nuanced questions in measured sound bites. So it was no surprise when Aslan showed up on Fox News last month to talk about his new book, “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth” (Random House, $27).

But the Fox interviewer, Lauren Green, was apparently unaware that Aslan does not suffer fools gladly.

“You’re a Muslim,” the network’s religion specialist said at the start of her very first question. “So why did you write a book about the founder of Christianity?”

“To be clear, I am a scholar of religions with four degrees, including one in the New Testament, with fluency in biblical Greek, who has been studying the origin of Christianity for two decades, who happens to be a Muslim,” Aslan admonished his inquisitor. “Anyone who thinks this book is an attack on Christianity hasn’t read it yet.” When Green pressed the point, Aslan deftly schooled her on the Islamophobia that suffused her questions: “I think it is a little strange that, rather than debating the arguments of the book, we are debating the right of the scholar to actually write it.”