Interfaith Groups Try To Keep Work­ing Amid Cri­sis

Forward Magazine - - News - By Paul Berger Contact Paul Berger at berger@for­ or on Twit­ter @pdberger

As the death toll from the Is­rael-Gaza con­flict climbed, a group of Mus­lims and Jews met at the Ke­hi­lat Sephardim Bukhar­ian Jewish Cen­ter, in Queens. In­stead of talk­ing about the vi­o­lence con­sum­ing the Mid­dle East, the group fo­cused on the mun­dane at the Novem­ber 18 meet­ing: Jewish con­cerns about a Mus­lim school poised to open blocks from the cen­ter, and the Mus­lim community’s need for a speed bump out­side its community cen­ter, less than a cou­ple of miles away.

“Both sides have the sense that avoid­ing [the con­flict] is bet­ter in or­der to achieve the greater pur­pose of the meet­ing,” said Imam Shamsi Ali of the Ja­maica Mus­lim Cen­ter, a par­tic­i­pant at the meet­ing.

The out­break of vi­o­lence be­tween Is­raelis and Pales­tini­ans, as with other out­breaks of vi­o­lence in the Mid­dle East, has tested in­ter­com­mu­nal re­la­tions across the United States. Some groups, like those at the Queens syn­a­gogue, chose to ad­dress the vi­o­lence only by way of wish­ing that peace would soon re­turn to both sides and then mov­ing on to other, less-in­tractable mat­ters. Oth­ers wanted to meet and work through the is­sues as soon as pos­si­ble.

“I have been get­ting emails from peo­ple say­ing, ‘We need to meet, right now,’” said Mar­cia Kan­nry, founder of the Brook­lyn-based Di­a­logue Project.

Na­dia Saah, a Pales­tinian Amer­i­can, be­longs to an interfaith group of women in the North­east that has been meet­ing monthly for al­most four years.

The graphic im­ages stream­ing out of Gaza have made daily life very dif­fi­cult. “It’s hard to not carry all of this with you throughout the day into the night,” Saah said.

Saah’s group in­cludes an Is­raeli, two Amer­i­can Jews, two Mus­lim Pales­tini­ans and Saah, who was raised in Amer­ica as a Catholic. By chance, the group was formed shortly be­fore Op­er­a­tion Cast Lead, Is­rael’s in­va­sion of Gaza, in 2008. At least two mem­bers of the group, which num­bered 10 at

It’s hard to not carry all this with you throughout the day.

its out­set, left be­cause of the con­flicts spawned by the war.

“Cast Lead was so hard and so painful and so dif­fi­cult,” said Kath­leen Per­atis, an­other mem­ber of the group, who is Jewish. “A cou­ple of our mem­bers… couldn’t get over it and around it and past it.”

This time around, Per­atis said, the group had built up such trust that mem­bers have been able to dis­cuss each side’s cul­pa­bil­ity and re­morse for the vi­o­lence “with­out any­body try­ing to be right.” So far, at least.

“It was re­ally quite amaz­ing, and es­pe­cially so be­cause it was so dif­fer­ent from four years ago,” Per­atis added.

The meet­ing at the Ke­hi­lat Sephardim Bukhar­ian Jewish Cen­ter had been ar­ranged months in ad­vance, part of a reg­u­lar se­ries or­ga­nized by the Foun­da­tion for Eth­nic Un­der­stand­ing. Wal­ter Ruby, the foun­da­tion’s spokesman, said the con­flict was not be­ing “brushed un­der the rug,” but the group be­lieves that “more can be ac­com­plished by fo­cus­ing on what we can do here.”

Ali said the Mid­dle East con­flict was one of the most im­por­tant is­sues for the Mus­lim and Jewish com­mu­ni­ties. But talk­ing about the con­flict can be an im­ped­i­ment to interfaith di­a­logue that aims “to build a sus­tain­able re­la­tion­ship and a strong fu­ture part­ner­ship” be­tween Mus­lims and Jews, he added.

Across the na­tion, many other interfaith groups ap­peared to be fo­cused on pre­vi­ously sched­uled projects, such as feed­ing the hun­gry, or per­form­ing other community ser­vice ac­tiv­i­ties.

Eboo Pa­tel, founder of the Chicago-based Interfaith Youth Core, said that by work­ing to­gether on univer­sal is­sues, such as poverty and home­less­ness, Jews, Pales­tini­ans and Mus­lims could build re­la­tion­ships that al­low them to keep talk­ing dur­ing dif­fi­cult times such as these.

“If you’ve done hur­ri­cane re­lief with other reli­gious groups and got­ten a deep sense of the other reli­gious community’s com­mit­ment to life-af­firm­ing ac­tiv­i­ties,” Pa­tel said, “that’s a very good foun­da­tion to be­gin to talk about some­thing much more tense and chal­leng­ing.”

But some interfaith or­ga­niz­ers said that brush­ing over the Is­raeliPales­tinian con­flict ig­nored one of the cen­tral rea­sons to meet, which is to ex­plain and to try to un­der­stand the other side’s viewpoints.

“We’re not go­ing to solve the mil­i­tary and strate­gic prob­lems of the Mid­dle East in our own back­yard,” said Abby Stamel­man Hocky, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Interfaith Cen­ter of Greater Philadel­phia. “But we are go­ing to work to­gether to make sure we are in deep re­la­tion­ships and friend­ships so we can un­der­stand the nu­ances.”

Many Mus­lims, Jews and Chris­tians told the For­ward that the con­cept of lis­ten­ing to each side’s point of view was of para­mount im­por­tance.

Pales­tinian crit­ics of some of the interfaith ini­tia­tives said that fram­ing the Is­rael-Pales­tine is­sue as one of two sides with equal griev­ances is wrong.

Ali Abunimah, a leader of the Is­rael boy­cott, said Jews and Mus­lims could work on what­ever lo­cal is­sues they wanted, but any di­a­logue about Is­rael-Pales­tine “should be clearly in the con­text of sol­i­dar­ity with the vic­tims of oc­cu­pa­tion… and call­ing for jus­tice for Pales­tini­ans.”

Saah said she had been chal­lenged many times by Pales­tinian sup­port­ers for her en­gage­ment in interfaith di­a­logue. She keeps at it be­cause it re­minds her of “the hu­man­ity and the vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties of the other in a way that is nec­es­sary to over­come the sit­u­a­tion we are in.

“It en­ables me to bet­ter com­mu­ni­cate our nar­ra­tive and our sense of jus­tice in a way that doesn’t shut peo­ple down,” she said.


Get­ting Along: Jewish and Mus­lim par­tic­i­pants in an interfaith gath­er­ing in Queens con­tin­ued with their plans to dis­cuss lo­cal is­sues de­spite the un­fold­ing vi­o­lence in the Mid­dle East.

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