Op-Ed: Standing with Muslims to fight Islamophobia

By Marc Schneier

NEW YORK (JTA) — What business does an American rabbi have speaking at a European conference about Islamophobia, and what can an Orthodox Jewish leader be expected to say about how to better combat anti-Muslim hatred?

Isn’t it odd that in a world where the common perception is that Jews and Muslims are sworn enemies, a rabbi from the most conservative stream of Judaism would be called on to speak on behalf of Muslims?

These are the questions I found myself asking before embarking on a more than 20-hour trip to Kazakhstan last week to participate in a discussion on Islamophobia at the Organizations for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Conference on Tolerance and Non-Discrimination.

My message to the European leaders was simple: I stand here as an Orthodox rabbi because of the horrendous 2,000-year history of anti-Semitism; the demonization, persecution and often mass murder of Jewish men, women and children. I feel a profound moral obligation to prevent anything like that from happening to any other people.

In my remarks, I invoked the immortal words of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., saying that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

I interpret his words to mean people who fight for their own rights are only as honorable as when they fight for the rights of all people. It is in this spirit that I stand in solidarity with the Muslim community in combating anti-Muslim discrimination and rhetoric.

Since the early 1990s, some influential writers and opinion makers in the West have been predicting a war between civilizations pitting Islam against the West. Some have even suggested that the battle would be welcomed as a long-term conflict where evil and immoral Muslims would replace the communists from the Cold War as a constant threat against all that is good and wholesome.

Lost in this rhetoric, however, is the collective voice of the millions of Muslims in the United States and across the world who are disgusted and disturbed by the violence being inflicted in the name of their God and religious beliefs. Also lost are the voices of those who strive for acceptance of others even in an unforgiving world. It often appears that the only voice is the voice of unrest and unease.

It has been three years since Russell Simmons and I refocused the goals and direction of The Foundation for Ethnic Understanding to include strengthening the almost nonexistent fabric of Muslim-Jewish relations in North America and beyond.  In this short period we have led numerous efforts to bring together thousands of Jews and Muslims who would have never interacted if not for these initiatives. The most successful of these was the weekend of twinning mosques and synagogues in North America and Europe.

In its second year, the initiative brought together more than 115 mosques and 115 synagogues in nearly every state across America and in seven European nations — more than double the previous year.

The twinning weekend has been an amazing success. It is truly inspiring to see so many put aside their preconceived notions about one another and jointly break bread, pray side by side, study together and build genuine friendships.

Building these bonds is among my most uplifting and inspiring works, and I am energized and excited by the prospect of what I and many like-minded people may accomplish together in building a vibrant Muslim-Jewish movement.

But a Jew advocating for Muslims is only half the battle. Next year, when I return to OSCE, it is my hope and prayer that not only will we have made inroads in combating Islamophobia, but that an imam will also be featured in a discussion on anti-Semitism.

Let us take advantage of the infinite possibilities offered by our new wired and interconnected world to carry the spirit of equality, mutual understanding and a shared commitment to what we call in Hebrew “tikkun olam,” repairing the world. We should work together as Jews and Muslims to feed the hungry and homeless, heal the environment, and stand together against Islamophobia, anti-Semitism and all forms of hatred and bigotry — not only for our own sake, but for the sake of our children and grandchildren here, in Europe and across the world.

Rabbi Marc Schneier is the president and founder of The Foundation for Ethnic Understanding. He also currently chairs the World Jewish Congress United States. Schneier was a featured speaker at this year’s Organizations for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Conference on Tolerance and Non-Discrimination.