When the news of the mosque shootings in Christchurch, New Zealand broke, I was in a room full of Muslims and Jews talking about Ilhan Omar. As a convener of Muslims and Jews working to build resilient relationships in Los Angeles, I am in a room like this at least a couple of times a month.
I want to tell you about this room because I believe we need to get as many of us into a space like this as soon as possible. The work will not go as fast as it needs to. It never does. And at the same time, as Rabbi Tarfon says in the Mishnah, “It is not for us to complete the work, but neither are we are free to desist from it.” Whatever work we can do, I believe, will make all of us stronger for whatever lies ahead.
By “the room” here, I don’t mean our physical location. Rather, I refer to the voices and hearts populating my living room Thursday night. It had been an especially rancorous couple of weeks in Muslim/Jewish relations. Some of the knottiest schisms between different parts of our communities had been splashed across the landing pages of news sites and opinion sections, and were discussed on nearly every political podcast I listened to — for two solid weeks. Our issues were impacting national politics, with forces using Muslims and Jews as wedges against one another— stoking fires. And some of that speech was dangerous speech – speech that incites violence.
Our team decided last Monday to give our alumni an opportunity to come together — to share with one another how controversies surrounding Omar’s comments were impacting them. What did they need to be heard on? What did they need to hear from others? What were they angry about, curious about, scared about in this moment? It is often easier to avoid these hard conversations. And that is precisely the moment when it is essential to reconvene, reconnect and listen. To keep ourselves from retreating or from feeling that there are subjects standing between us as silent barriers, jeopardizing the authenticity of our relationships.
Alumni came together, some who hadn’t met before, representing a fairly wide political spectrum. Twice the number we were expecting. People spoke honestly about what was triggering them most. People witnessed different ways people experience antisemitism and Islamophobia— different definitions, lines drawn in different places, different feelings and fears —some ancient, and some from as recently as last week. People were able to speak— and be heard. We had the opportunity to hear from everyone and use that as a springboard for deeper conversations in small groups.
At the end of the evening, we came together to hear what people were taking away. Multiple people from various perspectives described an “Aha!” moment in which they saw from the vantage point of the others what “dual allegiance” felt like when levelled at their community. There was not always full agreement about precisely where to draw the line. But there was compassion and deep acknowledgment. There was curiosity. There were new perspectives that might be shared across communities. And in the middle of digging into what Islamophobia looks and feels like to Muslims right now, one of our alumni checked her phone and shared the news coming from New Zealand.
And there it was.
On Friday, many of the same group and other alumni joined together at the Islamic Center of Southern California for a press conference and Friday prayers. The Jewish community showed up in large numbers, still fresh from the pain of Pittsburgh— when the LA Muslim community showed up with such strength for us.
As I walked around this room, watching people I know and love assembling in this sacred space — I saw tight hugs, felt tears fall on my shoulder, heard strong, supportive words – the solidarity we all need right now. I thought about the families mourning in New Zealand, and about my friends here in Los Angeles worrying about how to speak with their children, and how to keep them safe. And I was also thinking about all of us in the days after.
I was wondering this: on the day after, which of us in this room would dip into Islamophobia without realizing what we are doing? Which of us would dip into antisemitism without understanding that’s what we have done? Who will pass on tweets, op-eds, videos that in some way endanger the other’s community (and then, eventually, our own)? We all need to be able to identify when we are stepping over important boundaries. Because when we continue to move forward without thinking — without really thinking —about these questions, the harder it becomes to work against the more obvious forces of hate. And make no mistake—most of those forces right now will be just as happy targeting Jews as they will Muslims . . . and vice versa.
So, who among us will be dipping in without realizing it? The answer is probably all of us (at some point). Because, as members of this society and this world, we swim in antisemitism. We swim in Islamophobia. We need each other’s compassion. We need each other’s trust. We need spaces that allow us to be vulnerable enough with one another to begin to see our blind spots and to take in as much of the 360° as one might. This is what makes us stronger on the day after.
So find yourself a room. Make room for other’s perspectives. Fill some of that room with what’s at stake for you. And please make sure you are talking with people you don’t completely agree with. If you are a Jew looking for a Muslim to tell you what you already believe— and not to challenge you— you are not doing the work we need to be doing now. If you are a Muslim looking for a Jew to echo your beliefs— and not to challenge you—you are not doing the work that needs doing. In the words of the Quran, “People, We have created you . . . as nations and tribes so that you may recognize each other.” (43:13) Rabbi Tarfon urges us to keep going, even when we haven’t yet reached complete recognition or understanding. It will take more than a lifetime, but right now, our very lives might depend on it.
Andrea Hodos is the Program Co-director of NewGround: a Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change, and each year convenes fellowships for Muslims and Jews to build resilient relationships across Los Angeles.