By Imam Mohammad Shamsi Ali
and Rabbi Marc Schneier
American Jews and Muslims can defeat a common enemy by working together. That common enemy is prejudice – and if one needed statistical evidence for it, stark proof was revealed this week.
A Gallup poll found that 43 percent of Americans admit to at least “a little” prejudice against Muslims, and that such self-reported feelings are strongly linked to the respondent’s views on Jews. Remarkably, those who say they feel “a great deal” of prejudice toward Jews are about 32 times more likely to report feeling a “great deal” of prejudice toward Muslims, according to the polling company.
Such numbers should serve as a call to action for both the Jewish and Muslim communities: We must work together as individuals on the grass-roots level to promote tolerance and reduce anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. Barriers start to crumble when rabbis, imams and the members of their houses of worship take the time to learn about each other — and then show the rest of the country that they share a common value system.
Of course, Jews and Muslims don’t agree on everything, but there are many more areas of agreement. Gallup also noted this week that compared with other religious groups in the United States, Muslim Americans and Jewish Americans are most similar in terms of political ideology, education and political party identification, according to previous research. And a poll of Israelis earlier this month found a plurality of voters in Israel would oppose a ban on the construction of minarets on mosques built in Israel. The poll was taken after Swiss voters approved a resolution banning the construction of minarets late last year.
Jews and Muslims can use such common interests to forge and strengthen relationships and build an agenda that works for the betterment of a society as a whole. Sharing common roots as children of Abraham, Jews and Muslims can talk about their similarities in theology, as well as the times during history when their two peoples co-existed successfully. And they can forge bonds by talking about their similar interests in such issues as saving the environment, fighting poverty and reforming the U.S. immigration system.
For example, last November, Jews and Muslims in Buffalo turned those views into action. Doctors and dentists worked together to provide joint health screenings for people without health insurance in their community, and the success of that program has encouraged other mosques and synagogues to put similar programs together. Such a project not only builds relationships among Jews and Muslims, but also shows those who may still harbor some bias toward the two faiths that our similarities override our differences.
That project arose out of the second annual Weekend of Twinning of Mosques and Synagogues, which brought together more than 100 synagogues and 100 mosques who held similar programs to the one in Buffalo in communities across the United States, Canada and Europe.
Coming just days after the horror of extremist violence at Fort Hood, the Weekend of Twinning was heartening evidence that most Muslims are moderates, and that majorities in both the Muslim and Jewish communities seek better relations. As a member of the Muslim Community Center in Silver Spring, Md. told the Washington Jewish Week newspaper, the Fort Hood tragedy actually made it easier to attract his fellow mosquegoers, because “it made people more willing to come out and say, ‘We need to meet each other.’”
But we can’t let such traumatic events guide our actions. Jews and Muslims must be consistently engaged in such projects – whether it is programs that educate each other on their respective religious practices or partnering to provide help for the most disadvantaged among us.
That’s the best way to form the trust and friendships necessary to help Jews and Muslims fight anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. As Gallup has shown, hatred of Jews and Muslims is linked, and therefore Jews and Muslims must be linked in our responsibility to fight it.
Imam Mohammad Shamsi Ali is the spiritual leader of the Islamic Cultural Center of New York. Rabbi Marc Schneier is the founding rabbi of The New York Synagogue and president of The Foundation for Ethnic Understanding.