In January 1985, the Los Angeles newspaper I worked for assigned me to the religion beat. My first story was a feature on what was then a new phenomenon in Southern California, a fully licensed Muslim parochial school.
About 35 youngsters attended South Pasadena's New Horizon Preschool and Kindergarten. It was the first of its kind in Los Angeles County and it operated under the auspices of the Islamic Center of Southern California, then as now one of this nation's preeminent Muslim institutions. New Horizon's purpose, I was told, was "to teach the values of Islam to the new generation."
New Horizon, which now has grown considerably over the past two decades and now has several branches, was my introduction to Islam and to Muslims. Since then I've spent considerable professional time exploring the American Muslim community. I've also sought out participation in Jewish-Muslim interfaith activities; I've broken bread with Muslims at their homes and at mine, and at the White House at official presidential Ramadan break-the-fast events.
I fully embraced, even relished, these opportunities. Information and dialogue, I believed, could lower if not eliminate the barriers of suspicion that kept Muslims and Jews from understanding each others' hopes and fears. We live in the United States, not the Middle East, I told myself. Here, reason might prevail.
Sadly, I no longer have much faith in that coming to pass. Five years after the Twin Towers crashed and the Pentagon burned I find myself profoundly soured on the idea that the two communities can ever work together to defuse the disharmony between them. Certainly not for the foreseeable future. Perhaps never.
Jews are certainly not without blame. We have our hotheads and hardheads, Islamophobes and uncompromising irredentists. The difference between us and them, however, is that the majority in our camp, both in America and Israel, have long been willing to compromise.
That is not the case among the majority of Muslims, whose leading mainstream organizations, in the United States as well, insist that all Palestinians living outside the Jewish state's 1948 borders have a right to return to resettle in Israel. That's a recipe for Israel's demographic eradication and they know it.
The more time I spend with Muslims, the more I must conclude that, as a group, their worldview and that of most Jews are in such profound conflict as to render real dialogue virtually meaningless at this time. This is most true for Muslims from Middle East nations. But it extends as well to Muslims from south and east Asia, from elsewhere, and for African-American Muslims.
That's because a prime tenet of Islam is the uumah, the notion that there is an essential unity among all believers, regardless of where they live, and that it transcends nationality, race and ethnicity. Religious solidarity comes first. Islam is the primary social identity. This helps explain why American Caucasian converts to Islam with no direct link to Middle East tensions tend to adopt anti-Israel and even anti-Jewish attitudes.
There is no dialogue today; there is only contentious debate. Certainly, great differences divided Jews and Muslims prior to 9/11. But the events of that day, and of the years since, up to and including the Hezbollah-Israel conflict, have only deepened the mistrust and anger between us and them.
Jews are equated with Israel, Israel is equated with the United States; the absurdly mismanaged war in Iraq and the global conflict against "terrorism" are conflated in Muslim minds. Somehow, Jews described in the Qur'an, Islam's scriptural text, as the "descendants of apes and pigs" are deemed to stand behind it all, to have instigated a war against all of Islam that America is perceived to be fighting on behalf of Zionism; the Jews.
The question of Israel is no longer one of conflicting national narratives standing in the way of compromise. Islamists those Muslims whose politics flow directly from their theology have made this a religious war.
This Muslim animosity has gone beyond anti-Zionism. Anti-Semitism festers within the Muslim community like no other. For Islamists, the fight against Israel has become part of what the writer Yossi Klein Halevi calls the "theology of genocide." Jews must be eliminated solely because they are Jews. To call this Islamofascism, as President George W. Bush has done, is to underscore the ideology's extremist religious core.
The charter of the Islamic Resistance Movement, better known as Hamas, states the conflict's religious nature in no uncertain terms: "…The land of Palestine is an Islamic Waqf [endowment] consecrated for future Moslem generations until Judgment Day. It, or any part of it, should not be squandered: it, or any part of it, should not be given up."
This religious anti-Semitism may be seen in America as well.
At a pro-Hezbollah August rally in Washington sponsored by leading American Muslim activist groups, the crowd, extolling Hezbollah's leader, chanted: "Nasrallah, Nasrallah; the martyr is the beloved of Allah; the Zionists are the enemy of Allah." Across the continent in San Francisco, at another pro-Hezbollah demonstration that same day, participants carried signs reading: "Nazi kikes out of Lebanon."
Osama bin Laden paid little lip service to Israel and the Palestinian cause prior to 9/11. His main beef then was against "crusader" troops meaning the American military stationed in Saudi Arabia and Washington's propping up of the corrupt monarchy in Riyadh. Sure, he mentioned lands once ruled by Muslims lost to non-Muslim rule as being an affront to Muslim pride. But it was Andalusia the Arab term for Spain when it was under Muslim rule that he lamented over.
Only later did he add the Palestinian cause to his list of grievances against the West. What better way to rally Muslims made nervous by his audacious attack to his side? In doing so, he made war against Israel in the name of Islam, jihad, a top priority. Today, Iran, a nation in which Islamist ideology holds sway and that appears hell-bent on acquiring nuclear weapons, competes with Al Qaeda for the honor of murdering Jews.
In 1999, Salam al-Marayati, the Iraqi-born executive director of the Los Angeles-based Muslim Public Affairs Council, was bounced from a Clinton-era White House anti-terrorism panel after Jewish groups claimed he was sympathetic to terrorists; he had justified Palestinian attacks by saying Israel's "brutal occupation" was the root cause of the violence.
Mr. al-Marayati, one of America's leading Muslim political activists, was someone I met through my connection with New Horizons. I had come, I thought, to know him well, and had even edited some of his earliest opinion columns written for U.S. newspapers that urged understanding and acceptance of the American Muslim community.
In response to his dismissal from the terrorism panel, I published an op-ed in the New York Jewish Week and elsewhere arguing that it was preposterous for Jews to expect Arab- or Muslim-Americans to espouse a pro-Israel line and still retain the respect of their community. American Jews, I wrote, were better off building bridges to up-and-coming Arab and Muslim activists. Help Muslims gain a political toehold in America and they will not soon forget the favor, I said.
I would never write that column today, certainly not after Mr. al-Marayati suggested immediately after 9/11 that Israel was behind the attack in an effort to turn America against the Arab world. If anything, today I'd weigh in against helping Muslims navigate the American political system.
Yet despite all I've said here, I continue to second guess myself. I fear being blinded by anger. I mourn the loss of compassion for dead children no matter whom their parents were. I question whether I have adopted simplistic and even bigoted thinking.
Or worse, that I might stereotype all Muslims as ordinary Germans came to stereotype Jews, and in doing so lose all touch with my reason and humanity.
Is it an accident that 9/11 coincides with the Jewish calendar's most intense period? From Tisha b'Av, when we mourn the multitude of Jewish tragedies, we move to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, to repentance and forgiveness for ourselves and for others. What timing!
Stripped of all theology, Judaism for me comes down to a simple article of faith: What is today need not be tomorrow; the possibility of a better day is always there. This is the messianic principle at its most basic, a heartfelt prayer of hope that the process is indeed intelligently designed.
Five years after the Twin Towers crashed and the Pentagon burned, I struggle to remember this simple formula in the face of building evidence that a better day may be a long way off. It gets harder by the day.
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