By Rabbi Marc Schneier and Imam Shamsi Ali
As American Muslims observe the last days of Ramadan and American Jews prepare to begin their observance of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, members of both faiths–and all Americans– are being confronted with a responsibility to speak out in defense of the values of religious liberty and mutual understanding upon which this country was founded.
The contentious issue of the proposed Islamic Community Center in Lower Manhattan has kicked up a political and social firestorm that has left many American Muslims feeling vulnerable and in fear of an upsurge of anti-Muslim bigotry. The recent stabbing of a Muslim New York City taxi driver by a deranged college student and the desecration of a Queens mosque by a drunken intruder are the evil fruits of a situation in which the vilification of an American religion–in this case Islam–has been allowed to become mainstream discourse.
As children of Abraham, there is no question that Jews and Muslims share a common bond, theology and history. Not only in our faith and teachings, but also through the perceptions of us by others. Earlier this year, 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. If hatred of Jews and Muslims is linked then so should be our responsibility to fight it.
Whatever one’s position on the highly emotional question of whether the Islamic community center should be built at its present site or be moved to a location further away, it is past time for all Americans of conscience to step forward and say, ‘Inciting to religious hatred is unacceptable.’ Specifically, with both Rosh Hashanah and the feast of Eid al-Fitr, marking the end of Ramadan, falling this year on September 10–one day before the ninth anniversary of the 9-11 terror attacks– American Jews and Muslims must stand shoulder to shoulder against all manifestations of religious hatred, including Islamophobia and anti-Semitism. If we can rise to the occasion at this fraught moment, our two communities can play a significant role in stopping the disturbing spread of bigotry and intolerance in this country.
Muslims and Jews should undertake this mission in the spirit of the very similar messages transmitted by our holidays and the deepest shared values of our two faith traditions. Ramadan and Rosh Hashanah are both based on timeless principles of the unity and brotherhood of all human beings. Rosh Hashanah commemorates the creation of humankind itself and reminds us that all people,, regardless of ethnic or religious background, are created in God’s image. As President Obama noted in a recent message to the American Muslim community, Ramadan is a time when Muslims “reflect on the responsibility human beings have to each other and to God.”
Both the Torah and Quran contain numerous passages enjoining Jews and Muslims respectively to love and protect the ‘stranger’ in their midst. In Leviticus 19:34, God commands the Jewish people, “The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” The Quran praises, “Those who show their affection to such as came to them for refuge, and entertain no desire in their hearts for things given to the (latter), but give them preference over themselves” (Surah 59, (Exile) Verse 9). When the great Rabbi Hillel was asked to sum up the entire Torah in concise fashion, he responded, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn.” Similarly the Quran enjoins “That which you want for yourself, seek for mankind.”
Both of our faiths teach us that every person, whatever his or her station in life, has the power to make a positive difference in the world. The shofar (ram’s horn) which is sounded during the Rosh Hashana service, is meant as a goad to conscience; to awaken each of us to our moral obligation to raise our voices on behalf of justice. During Eid-al-Fitr, Muslims are urged to reach out to people with whom they have become estranged and to do good deeds on behalf of the poor and unfortunate.
Animated by these values, the two of us are writing a book together in which we address the ‘difficult passages’ in the Torah and Quran, which appear at first glance to preach hatred of outsiders; in order to show that when taken in full context, both Holy Books transmit messages of universal justice and the Oneness of all Humankind. In short, we are truly enjoined to be our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. While we may not agree on all issues, we must never allow ourselves to forget that those of other faith traditions are not aliens to be hated, demonized or, God forbid, violently attacked because of their faith, but rather fellow human beings with the same hopes and aspirations for themselves and their families as we have for ourselves and our own loved ones.
If Jews and Muslims, mistakenly perceived by many to be irreconcilable enemies, can reach out to and embrace each other, it will send a powerful message to all Americans that, for the sake of the values we hold dear in this country, we must resist the temptation to fear and hate those we may perceive as ‘the Stranger,’ but instead make a place at the table for all members of the American family.
Imam Muhammad Shamsi Ali is the spiritual leader of the Islamic Cultural Center of New York. Rabbi Marc Schneier is president of The Foundation for Ethnic Understanding.