By Imam Abdullah Antepli and Rabbi Michael Goldman
Duke University chaplains
Jews: want to fight anti-Semitism? Muslims: want to challenge islamophobia? There’s an easy way to do it: have coffee with one another.
Last week, the two of us, the rabbi and imam of Duke University, did just that. Not that meeting at a café is such a rare occurrence; we work together, we like each other and our children play together. But last week, amidst the tension between Muslims and Jews caused by the violence off the coast of Israel and Gaza, our coffee date felt like a political act. The fiasco aboard the Mavi Marmara hit close to home for our imam who, like several of those killed in that raid, is Turkish.
We typically steer away from politics not because we feel uneasy on that turf; we know that we disagree on many core issues surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian controversy and are quite comfortable with that. We steer clear of this controversy because we are working to belie the fallacy that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is all that a Muslim and a Jew would have to talk about.
Muslim-Jewish conversations on university campuses, and elsewhere, often get corralled into this narrow zone. A two-state solution, or one? War crimes, or ordinary combat? Recognize Hamas, or not? Such debates are necessary. But it is too easy for our students to get into the habit of seeing every member of the other group as a political sparring partner. When political discourse becomes the dominant mode — or the only mode — something essential may be lost: empathy.
Reasonable people see that behind the stridency of hard-liners from both the Israeli and Palestinian camps lies historical pain. The Nazis slaughtered the Jews while Europe and America largely stood by. The Jews displaced and killed Palestinians in their quest for a home away from Europe. If militants on both sides could know the depth of the other’s loss, a door might open.
But what are the chances of getting a Jewish settler and a Hamas activist in the same room together? Even regular kids who grow up in Israel and Palestine today do not know anyone living across the green line. One of our students, a young woman from the West Bank, confessed that before coming to Duke she had never spoken with a Jew, except when being interrogated at a checkpoint. Our Jewish students also arrive here knowing not a single Arab or Muslim, let alone a Palestinian.
That’s where coffee comes in. Not only do the imam and rabbi meet, but we also create opportunities for our students to do so. During recent years, the Muslim holiday of Ramadan has coincided with the Jewish High Holy Days, giving us a chance to share a meal that has come to be known as Muslim-Jewish Iftar (‘iftar’ is the breaking of the Ramadan fast at sunset). For us as chaplains, the content of such programs is far less important than the very fact that our Muslim and Jewish students are doing that mundane but magically humanizing activity of sitting down together and sharing a hummus platter.
We see it working. At one such event, our rabbi happened to overhear a spontaneous conversation involving one Jewish student whose grandparents had narrowly escaped the Nazis, another Jewish student whose grandfather had fled Tunisia after the anti-Jewish riots of 1953, and a student of Palestinian descent who shared how in 1948 Israeli soldiers had sacked his grandparents’ village and forced them to leave for Jordan. There was no tone of rancor or one-upmanship in these three young people’s conversation; they merely wanted to share family histories.
Our campus is home to the same Israeli-Palestinian debates that happen elsewhere. But their tone has been remarkably civil. We believe this is because the disputants have eaten together, studied religious text together, and even done social action projects together.
Both of us, imam and rabbi, have received angry letters from coreligionists, accusing us of naiveté, and sometimes worse, of betraying our respective communities. It’s a strange world we live in where the sight of a Jew and a Muslim at a café could provoke such suspicion. But the fact that this happens means our friendship is a powerful thing. Our modest peace plan is working.
Imam Abdullah Antepli and Rabbi Michael Goldman are chaplains for Muslim life and Jewish life, respectively, at Duke University.