For over five decades, American Jews and American Christians have enjoyed a new era of interreligious relations. This is especially true for the Jewish-Roman Catholic relationship, created by one of the most extraordinary documents in all of religious history: Nostra Aetate (In Our Time) promulgated in 1965 at the very end of the yearslong meeting of Catholic clergy in a conference known as the Second Vatican Council.
The document was a call for the Catholic faithful to examine in great depth the nearly 2,000-year-old animosity toward Jews and Judaism known as the “teaching of contempt.” The examination brought an end to much of that teaching and gave rise to a new era of Catholic-Jewish relations.
Most importantly, Nostra Aetate ended for all time the nefarious charge that it was the Jewish people who were responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. The 800-pound gorilla in the room of Jewish-Catholic relations was removed and allowed interreligious light to enter the previous darkness.
But another 800-pound gorilla has proven much harder to expel in the search for a useful dialogue between American Jews and another member of the so-called Abrahamic community, the more than 3 million Muslims who now call America their home.
Indeed, since the early 1980s, when the first national organizations were created to represent and be the voice of a growing American Muslim community, repeated attempts to initiate a meaningful dialogue between Jews and Muslims seemed to go nowhere. Despite the fact that both communities shared a long history of living together in both the Arab world and in the medieval Spanish Islamic territory known as Al-Andalus, a time that both Jews and Muslims recognized as a Golden Age of shared intellectual and literary achievements and dialogue, if not a shared equality of citizenship (the so-called dhimmi or second-class status of Jews and Christians) and despite the fact that both communities shared a religion based on laws of personal and communal observance, such an interreligious and organizational cooperation seemed impossible.
A decades-old conflict thousands of miles from American shores brought any meaningful effort at dialogue and cooperation to a halt. The struggle between Israel and the Palestinians, between Jews and Muslims, was a barrier that could not be surmounted. When Jewish organizations made the nondiscussion of the conflict a first step in the creation of any kind of cooperation with Islamic groups, it almost always ended with no cooperation at all. This was true at the national and local levels and on college campuses across America. The terrible tragedy of Sept. 11 only increased Muslim fears and Jewish mistrust.
That is, until the presidential election of 2016. With a new administration in Washington came a series of events that brought both fear and uncertainty to both Jews and Muslims. The dreaded words Islamophobia and anti-semitism took on new meaning as verbal and physical attacks against Muslims and the burning of mosques reached frightening levels. A so-called “Muslim ban” convinced some American Muslims that America was no longer the safe haven that had brought them to her shores.
American Jewry, too, experienced a level of anti-semitism in word and deed that it had not seen since the terrible times of the 1920s and 1930s when the growing threats of European fascism and Nazism found their American imitators. Whatever sense of “white privilege” that American Jewry was granted after the events of the Holocaust years and the discrediting of the term anti-semitism seemed to be coming to an end.
We seem, therefore, to be entering a new era in American Jewish-Muslim relations. There are several indications of this phenomenon worth mentioning:
The American Jewish Committee, the oldest human rights organization in America and long reluctant to engage in organizational relationships with Muslim groups, has formed in the past few months a Muslim-Jewish Advisory Council, a joint partnership between the AJC and the Islamic Society of North America, the leading Muslim interest group in the country in order to “highlight the contributions of Muslims and Jews to American society; to develop a coordinated strategy to address anti-Muslim bigotry and anti-Semitism in the U.S.; and to work and protect the rights of religious minorities in the U.S. as enshrined in the Constitution …”
Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom is a 6-year old women’s group with chapters in several U.S. cities. The Muslim and Jewish members study sacred texts together and seek to break down the stereotypes that have separated the two communities. “Women navigate the world through relationships,” these women believe, and it is in this spirit that nearly 500 Muslim and Jewish women gathered at the group’s annual meeting recently, the largest such meeting ever held in the United States.
And finally, in perhaps the most dramatic event of all, in a recent meeting in San Francisco, two men, a rabbi and an imam, instead of simply engaging in some form of dialogue, spoke directly to their own co-religionists gathered in the hall. Both men urged Muslims and Jews to go beyond accepting just their respective culture or lifestyle and to accept the authenticity of each other’ religious beliefs. They said this in the spirit of Nostra Aetate and the new relationship between Christians and Jews.
Rabbi Donniel Hartman recited the watchword of Islamic belief in Arabic, the shahadah: La ilaha illa-llah, muhammadur rasulu-Ilah (There is no God but God, Muhammad is the messenger of God). “We Jews, he said, need to accept the shahada as Jews. The part about one God is easy, but accepting that Muhammad is a prophet of God, that’s the hard part but we have to try.”
He was followed by Imam Abdullah Antepli, the former Muslim chaplain at Duke University, who recited the watchword of Jewish belief, the Shema, in Hebrew: “Sh’ma Yisra’eil Adonai Eloheinu Adonai echad. (Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One). “For Muslims, he said, “I suggest we recite the Shema several times a day. The part about the one God is easy but we have to accept that God spoke to the children of Israel. We have to bring ourselves to a level of honesty and respect that says this is a legitimate story with whatever that entails.”
He ended by saying “the next stage of Jewish-Muslim dialogue: American Jews and American Muslims learn from each other, and teach each other: how do we stand up for our cultures in America? And when we tackle that one both Adonai and Allah (the Hebrew and Arabic names for God) will smile.”
The 800-pound gorilla in the room is still there but perhaps is looking for a way to leave.
Abraham J. Peck is a co-founder of Interfaith Maine and a professor of history at the University of Southern Maine.