June 24, 2019

After tragedy, Muslims and Jews join in prayer

It was with a healthy dose of ambivalence that I approached a joint Muslim-Jewish prayer experience on Dec. 6, where 150 local co-religionists convened to declare, “We Are Not Enemies.”

This was just days after two radicalized Muslims slaughtered 14 people in San Bernardino and injured many more. Paris was still fresh in the collective consciousness. Stereotypes and certainties about Islam dominated international discourse. 

I couldn’t find myself in one camp or another. My intellect was split in violent opposition: I refuse to demonize all Muslims, but I also refuse to exonerate Islamic jihad. Approaching the interfaith love-fest, I thought, I want to love Muslims, BUT.

The group assembled included participants from B’nai David-Judea Congregation, Wilshire Boulevard Temple, Beth Shir Shalom in Santa Monica and IKAR, along with Muslims from diverse communities. They came together both in spite of — and because of — the terrible act of carnage that tore a nearby California city apart. It was as urgent a time as ever to affirm their belief that interfaith friendship matters. 

The question is: Does friendship make any difference? 

Organized by the Southern California Muslim-Jewish Forum, a 2-year-old group of imams, rabbis and religious activists who seek to build “communication and cooperation between Muslims and Jews” in Los Angeles, the event was part of a larger initiative launched by the New York-based Foundation for Ethnic Understanding (FFEU), which promotes Muslim-Jewish relations in more than 20 countries. 

It’s a noble effort, and perhaps a necessary one, as xenophobia toward the Muslim-American community is on the rise in response to a radical Muslim minority whose cruel theatrics in the Middle East and elsewhere have captivated and terrified an international audience. Just one day after the local Muslim-Jewish kumbaya, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump called for a temporary ban on all Muslims entering the U.S.

“Even at this time, this terrible time, when terrible things are happening, it’s time to come together and build communication and friendship and trust,” Walter Ruby, FFEU’s director of Muslim-Jewish relations, said Sunday.  

Interfaith events often characterize themselves as “bridge-building,” sometimes over very treacherous waters. They have long been popular (or politically expedient) among Jews seeking to “build bridges” with Christians, Catholics, Mormons, Blacks or Latinos — the list goes on. But there is perhaps no relationship more fraught, more fragile or historically entwined for Jews than their relationship with Muslims. 

All the more reason, some might say, to come together in peace and in prayer. Introducing the holiday of Chanukah to the Muslims in the room, Rabbi Laura Owens of Congregation B’nai Horin prayed for miracles — “which might be just what we need right now.” 

A spokeswoman for MECA — Muslims Establishing Communities in America — called for “dialogue, heartfelt connections and building relationships.”

Following the series of sentimental speeches, the organizers asked audience members to partner with someone of the other faith to answer a series of questions: “Why are you here today?” “What value or belief in your faith tradition really speaks to you?” The goal was for participants to feel “excited” and “frustrated” that they didn’t have longer to engage with one another.

I was sitting next to Karim Gowani, who identified himself as a member of the Ismaili Muslim community, a Shia sect whose Harvard-educated leader, his Highness the Aga Khan, is considered a direct descendent of the Prophet Muhammad. I skipped the shmaltzy list and got straight to it: If Islam is a religion of peace, why do some Muslims commit terrible acts of violence in the name of Islam?

“In Islam, we believe that if you’re killing one person, you destroy the whole community,” Gowani responded. 

That’s funny, I told him. “In Judaism, we believe that if you save one life, you save a world.” It was weird to find commonality so quickly.

It wasn’t the first time I’ve wondered whether it’s unfair to single out Islam as a potentially “dangerous” religion, when the Torah also calls for some pretty medieval punishments: slaying the first-born sons of Egypt, wiping out the Canaanites upon entering the Promised Land, death for those who break the Sabbath — to name just a few. 

“There is anger in every tradition,” Beth Shir Shalom’s Rabbi Neil Comess-Daniels reminded the crowd. “This week, we had an event that, for Muslims and Jews who work together, hurt particularly, [one that threatens] to take us miles backward. … Today is a day we must say to each other, ‘Your children are my children; my children are your children.’ ”

Some people believe gatherings like this one have the potential to open hearts and minds, or even create deep bonds. And perhaps that is true. But it is also true that the people who come to such events are probably already open-hearted and open-minded, so do they really change anything? Or anyone? 

It’s easy to be sweet in discussion, but can it be sustained? What happens when someone’s relative is killed or injured in the next war with Gaza? 

There was a very awkward moment toward the end of the afternoon, when the organizers introduced the prayer session. Jews and Muslims were asked to retreat to the back of the room and pray from their own traditions, side by side. Explaining the liturgy of Judaism, one Jewish organizer had to offer a clarification regarding a line about God and Israel, “meaning, the people [Israel], not the country,” she said. 

Muslim women pray during a joint Muslim-Jewish prayer at an event organized by the Southern California Muslim-Jewish Forum

While everyone else was praying, I contemplated my opposing beliefs: 

Some Muslims want to kill in the name of Islam; some Muslims want to get together with Jews on a Sunday afternoon for conversation and prayer.

Interfaith dialogue can be pointless and naive … interfaith dialogue can be the first ripple in a sea change

Maybe we still secretly hate each othermaybe this is what peace between us actually looks like. 

At the back of the room, Muslim and Jewish children were dancing together to chants of “Allahu ahad” — God is one. Sound familiar? It was beautiful and powerful to see Muslims and Jews murmuring their ancient prayers together, bowing, prostrating, calling and responding, side by side.  

God knows it’s easier to “not be enemies” here. But what of the relationship between Jews and Muslims in Israel? Or in France? Our friendly local efforts are not yet formidable enough to impact the Middle East or the rest of the world — and maybe they never will be. 

But maybe this is where we start.