In 2012, during the Islamic month of Ramadan, I was cabbing to the annual interfaith Iftar in the Synagogue hosted by the Jewish Muslim Volunteer Alliance (JMVA) in New York. During the ride over, the Sikh cabbie and I chatted about the shooting at the Sikh gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, which had taken place only a couple of days earlier. We talked about how ignorance, distrust, and misunderstanding fueled hate crimes like this –- and how difficult it was to shake the idea of “otherness.”
Pulling up in front of the Brotherhood Synagogue, the cabbie turned and asked, “I thought you were Muslim?” I assured him that I was and that I was there to participate in an interfaith program, to break my day-long fast and break bread with others. Heading into the event, I felt grateful for the opportunity to build a relationship between the two different religious communities.
This year, however, when the month of Ramadan began and the date for the interfaith iftar neared, I found myself nervous. The Israeli-Palestinian war was all over the news, protests were happening city-wide, and everyone seemed to be falling on one side or the other, with both sides claiming that they were the victims and justice was on their side. Ultimately, the JMVA organizers acknowledged the conflict, but kept the focus on the need for continued engagement through community service projects and avoided engaging in a policy debate over international relations.
The approach seemed woefully inadequate to me when I first heard about it. It acknowledged the elephant in the room but did nothing to actually deal with it. It made me question the value of interfaith efforts.
I decided to speak with Muslims, Jews and Christians involved in interfaith efforts to get their take on how what they’re doing domestically is impacted by what was happening abroad and whether interfaith efforts are undercut by the conflict. I asked them to identify their faith, their thoughts about the Israeli-Palestinian war, whether their interfaith organizations had held any interfaith events or issued any statements addressing the conflict abroad in the last few months, and about the value of their organizations’ approaches to interfaith work.
I expected to write about the ineffectiveness of interfaith organizations and how the strain on them is showing because of the conflict abroad. I’m surprised to report, however, that the interfaith folks actually changed my perspective on their work.
Across the board, the speakers agreed that the conflict was not a war of religions, but, as noted by Jennifer Fishkin, co-chair of the American Jewish Committee’s ACCESS NY Muslim-Jewish Task Force, religion was always in the mix and that it could be used to exacerbate the sources of the conflict, or serve as a “mechanism to transform [the] conflict” by helping both sides recognize the “the humanity in each other.” The speakers also agreed that we do ultimately need a way to engage on all topics, including the conflict, but that there was value to taking different approaches to help us build a deep and meaningful relationship.
Sarah Sayeed, Director of Community Partnerships at the Interfaith Center of New York, explained that there are different approaches to interfaith work, which vary according to how much they choose to directly address conflict. One approach focuses on theological dialogue. Another approach engages directly on the topic of the conflict, focusing on dialogue rather than action. Another approach acknowledges the conflict and may issue joint statements condemning violence generally, but also focuses on working together on other domestic issues. And another approach focuses on continual engagement on other issues and projects, and does not address the conflict beyond acknowledging that it's ongoing and contentious.
For Sayeed, personally, effective interfaith engagement requires acknowledging and addressing injustice and oppression, particularly at critical junctures such as war time: “All faith traditions share a strong commitment to justice and dignity for those who are weak, oppressed, and marginalized. This is our common ground. I believe that Jews, Muslims, Christians and people of other faiths must uphold justice and dignity for both Israelis and Palestinians because this is what our faiths ask us to do. And when we do stand together on this common ground, we will pave the way to build a stronger and lasting peace.”
Ron Young, a consultant with the National Interreligious Leadership Initiative for Peace in the Middle East (NILI), discussed how relationship building has already showed positive signs when it comes to directly talking about the conflict. He pointed out that through the work of organizations like NILI, domestic religious leaders from various religious traditions have started to listen to each other’s difficult truths. They have also have developed “a trusted process and track record for engaging the conflict and reaching consensus advocacy positions,” and have continued to work together even when "prospects for peace seem dim and distant."
Rabbi Ari Hart, co-founder of the JMVA, however, stresses that the “relationship [between the Jewish and Muslim communities] isn’t limited to one conflict abroad.” He stands by JMVA’s approach of social engagement through volunteer work, stating that he personally didn’t “feel equipped or have the tools to transform the anger felt by both communities over the Israeli-Hamas war into something constructive.”
There are other organizations that do that work, but JMVA’s approach is to continue to bring people together domestically to work on projects over here, even when they disagree over what is happening over there: “Both the Jewish and Muslim communities need to learn how to be in deep relationships with each other even despite differences and frustrations. We can still work together on our domestic interests even while having diametrically opposed opinions elsewhere.”
Mehnaz Afridi, Director of the Holocaust, Genocide and Interfaith Education Center, added that it was important for organizations to work on a “continual response, not [just] a reaction,” and that one of the key issues arising from the conflict that both communities should work together to address is the rise of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.
Sarah Flatto, from the Young Professionals for Hand-in-Hand: Center for Jewish-Arab Education, also raised the inherent limitations of engaging on the political issues underlying the conflict in recognizing that, domestically, there is very little the average person can do to “directly influence military policy” and should instead consider focusing on “condemn[ing] violence and reaffirm[ing] common values to challenge the dehumanization at the root of the conflict.” She added that “though it won’t happen immediately, social momentum can lead to political momentum -- such as the South African anti-apartheid movement and the American civil rights movement. Purposeful communal engagement can bring people with polarized political views together in the social sphere, and inspire continued dialogue and change.”
Jennifer Fishkin agreed, stating that “relationships are multidimensional and so you need to address the different parts of them. It’s about normalizing relationships, which at some point will probably include difficult political issues, however, the goal is not just to engage on those issues, but to engage in an iterative way. It is essential to have a relationship before you can really engage on any hot button issue including the conflict.”
After talking to all these folks, I realized interfaith work sounded a whole lot like approaches to dating and marriage in the awkward getting-to-know-one-another phase. Some folks believe that it’s critical to have some foundation of understanding, familiarity, and trust before embarking on more complex conversations like family dynamics, approaches to child-rearing, or saving/spending habits. Those are not the conversations you start a relationship with. Those are the conversations you have with someone when you have already learned enough about them to know how to engage them, how to talk through difficult issues with them, and how to keep the overall relationship moving forward even if both sides don’t see eye to eye on all the issues.
Others, however, believe that you have to talk about the big issues up front, i.e., the deal-breakers, so that you know what compromises may need to be made and if it’s worth engaging any further. Concerning interfaith work, I used to think the latter approach was the right one, but I now realize that it alone may more often quickly end a relationship rather than lead to the development of a meaningful one. Whether you agree or not, having organizations with both approaches allows multiple opportunities for meaningful relationship building. Different people approach relationship-building in different ways, but whichever way you choose, it takes patience, commitment, and perseverance.
Doing this sort of work means expecting some setbacks and disappointments. This is not an undertaking for cynics or for those looking for short-term fixes. The good news is that the folks I spoke to are not the easily discouraged type. Each of the people I spoke with firmly believes that the core of their work is relationship-building, regardless of which approach they took to build that relationship, and believes that we have more things in common than setting us apart.
Ron Young described the folks who do interfaith work using a phrase from the Book of Zechariah -- as “prisoners of hope.” They are indeed optimists, people whose faith inspires them and compels them to work together to achieve peace and other social justice aims domestically and internationally. The world is better for their devotion and their different perspectives on how to get the job done.