Editor’s Note: The Islamic Monthly publishes a variety of opinions from all sides. This post is a response to Sana Saeed’s piece that was published here.
I must confess: I grew up having very uncharitable and negative views of Jews and Judaism.
I have experienced firsthand how the destructive energy of the brutal, continuing Israeli occupation of Palestinians can pollute a soul, fuel anger and rationalize a collective hate against Jews and Zionists.
I have experienced what hate and anger did to me and also to many otherwise sterling members of Muslim and Jewish communities – how it hijacks their imagination, morals, and spirit, and often makes them reveal the worst aspects of themselves.
I grew up in Turkey and Palestinian plight for self-determination has been very central to my existence. I saw most of the external world through the prisms of Palestinian suffering. All I learned about Judaism, Jews and Israel was through the lenses of this bloody conflict, and I inevitably developed very negative views of Jews and Judaism to an extreme degree. I blamed Jews for almost all and any problem that Muslims faced not only globally but especially in the Middle East. For a number of years, I believed something was irredeemably evil and wrong with Judaism as a religion and Jews as people. How could they have allowed the occupation of Palestine to endure?
In all honesty, I wish I could say that my experience was unique. I hope sentiments have improved since then, but I am doubtful. This mindset ends up doing no good to any one. Right now, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is beyond toxic and self-destructive. Israel has launched an extensive military offensive on densely populated Gaza. Hamas has launched 40 long-range rockets. Unfortunately, it has become a zero-sum, all-or-nothing game for many.
When I encounter those Muslims who are incapable of making a distinction between anti- Semitism and condemning the policies and actions of the State of Israel, it deeply troubles and alarms me. Similarly, many of the Jewish faith leaders and friends echo the same concern about the vile Islamophobia and anti-Arab racism within their communities.
The rise of anti-Semitism in Muslim communities globally is especially alarming and deeply troubling to me not just because it is morally problematic, but because I fear it will ultimately damage no one more but us as Muslims. This rising thread of anger and hate should give us all a sobering pause, because it will hurt our respective communities emotionally, spiritually, socially, politically, and religiously. It already has.
Coming back to my own story: In later years, I began studying Islam in depth through its original sources and that study–the pursuit of religion–turned me away from easy answers. I couldn’t reconcile my intense anger and hate with Qur’anic teachings, nor with the example of the beloved Prophet of Islam. I began to see the dangerous consequences of allowing your religion, ethics and morals to be led by absolutist, political ideologies and sentiments.
I was ultimately able to take a different view when I met and befriended many God-fearing Jews, studied Jewish-Muslim history prior to the 20th century and through out Islamic history and learned about the vast oceans of shared values and principles that binds Jews and Muslims across time and space.
So as an Imam, Chaplain, Professor and a faithful Muslim, I felt morally responsible to find ways of addressing the monumental challenges that Muslim communities face vis-à-vis the issue of Israel-Palestine.
But it’s never easy.
I traveled to Israel and Palestine for the first time in 2003 with one of my greatest mentors, the late Dr. Ibrahim Abu Rabi, a Palestinian from Nazareth who taught at Hartford Seminary for almost two decades. I observed and was ultimately influenced by how Dr. Abu Rabi processed the pain that he and his people experienced through the establishment of the state of Israel, but proactively turned that hate, victimhood and anger in to something more constructive. May he rest in peace.
I organized Jewish-Muslim students dialogue trips with my Jewish colleague at Wesleyan University, when I worked there as a Muslim chaplain. This brought me back to Israel and Palestine in the following years. We exposed our students to a spectrum of Israeli and Palestinian experiences and voices. We studied interfaith and peace initiatives on the ground. In all these initial visits, the entrance and exit at Tel Aviv airport and at the borders were intensely challenging experiences for me – inhumane and deeply humiliating. These painful experiences helped me empathize with Palestinians more as these kinds of treatments are a common occurrence for so many of them under Occupation.
But determined to build something constructive in response to this tragic bloodshed, personally made me more committed than ever to work in this field. As a result, over the years I have committed myself, specifically, to improving Jewish-Muslim relations. I am always seeking to create spaces where Jews and Muslims, especially here in the U.S., can find shared values and partake in honest conversations despite their seemingly irreconcilable disagreements.
This has emerged as a significant part of my calling in life as an Imam and a Muslim-American leader. And, most formally, was my involvement in the creation of the Muslim Leadership Initiative.
Why create the Muslim Leadership Initiative (MLI)?
I conceived, created and conducted the Muslim Leadership Initiative (MLI) through Shalom Hartman Institute (SHI) in Jerusalem. It was my idea and suggestion to create such program. Its creation and completion of its first pilot program inspired this essay. This is an honest and truthful account of what MLI is, how it has developed so far, and what were and are my hopes and expectations for its success.
But I do not claim to speak for all participants, their reasons for attending, or their takeaways. I can only share my story.
MLI attempts to reverse the negative flow and create a different energy for critical Muslim-American thinkers to establish healthier relationships – primarily with American Jewish communities – without compromising their loyalties and attachments to the Palestinian cause. It is to initiate a unilateral, sincere Muslim attempt to learn and make sense of Judaism, Jews, Israel and Zionism through the eyes of the people and communities who self-identify this way. It was critical to engage with a self-identified Zionist Jewish organization because they are the groups American Muslims rarely engage, because we often exist on the opposite political spectrum and in isolated silos. In its essence Nothing more, nothing less.
Let me again be very clear: Engagement is not a total agreement. The program was not intended to and does not develop a Muslim voice in support of Israel or to justify Israeli policies, or to agree with the Zionist vision, which many people throughout the world have strong disagreements with. Furthermore, engagement is not acquiescence. It is not uncritical, wholesale adoption of the other’s political and religious ideologies. It is persistently incremental and patiently hopeful. It seeks opportunity to have a space that can create a more meaningful conversation, debate, pushback and critical discussion that can gently move both communities forward – together.
For years, I have been eagerly looking and shopping for credible voices and institutions respected within both American and Israeli Jewish communities who are interested in telling me their version of the story with no expectation that I would agree with it. I was looking for such Jewish and Israeli individuals and institutions who are not in the business of sheer propaganda (there are way too many of them), who are not looking for quick, cheap answers, who are not interested in recruiting loyalists, who realize this current stalemate and ongoing bloodshed can only result in an apocalyptic ending, who share my pain about the grim conditions of the present and who are as determined – if not more – to invest in every possible positive alternative.
That’s how I found Shalom Hartman Institute (SHI), which has headquarters in New York and Jerusalem and is much an American Jewish Institute as it is an Israeli Jewish Institute.
I was introduced to SHI through a close and dear friend of mine author Yossi Klein Halevi. Yossi is an absolutely fascinating and complicated character. If I’m a recovering anti-Semite, he’s a self-described recovering Jewish extremist.
Reading Yossi’s book At the Entrance of the Garden of Eden in 2003 blew me away by his generous, curious and questioning spirit. I thought, here is a former Jewish extremist, proactively launching himself on a journey into better understand Islam, Christianity and his evolving, messy, life-long relationship with Judaism. His personal findings on Islam and Muslims in his book were extremely moving. He really forced himself to understand the collective imagination of Muslims in general and Palestinians in particular.
During my first visit to Israel, I made an attempt to meet with him and get to know him. I invited him to come and speak to the Jewish and Muslim students I brought from Wesleyan University. We have been friends and conversation partners from day one. He has been a very helpful voice for me to learn Jewish perspectives on many important, divisive issues.
While not in total agreement with his political opinions, in fact finding some thoroughly troubling, and vice versa, and despite our staunch disagreements, mostly political and often irreconcilable, we are still able to rise above that and maintain a respectful friendship and partnership. We both believe that there is a real need for genuine understanding and work between Jews and Muslims. This includes Muslims understanding Israel and Zionism through the perspective of Jews who identify as Zionists. In return, this includes Jews’ understanding of Islam not as an anti-Semitic, vengeful monolith, but rather as a complex, living tradition interpreted and practiced by diverse Muslim communities throughout the world, including in America. There is also a dire need for many Jews and Muslims to acknowledge each others’ pain and suffering that this decades long conflict had inflicted upon all of them.
In 2011, Yossi invited me to SHI’s annual international theology conference. For the last 30 years or so this conference has attempted to bring Jewish, Christian and Muslim academics, scholars and religious leaders together in order to face various theological and ethical issues. I left very impressed with the outstanding educational and academic standards of the institution, its achievements and its impact in transforming the conversation about Judaism.
The way SHI teaches Judaism, Israel, Zionism and more to Jews and the institution’s success in influencing Jewish intellectual and religious landscape globally since its establishment was both spectacular and eye opening. During these conferences, I found out that SHI does not direct this very impressive curriculum to Jews only. They have taught the same curriculum to groups of Christian leaders from USA through their CLI (Christian Leadership Initiative) for many years.
That’s when MLI was conceived. I was very excited to see if we could come up with a modified Muslim version of the program and if the outcome would be helpful to meet the aforementioned challenges of Jewish-Muslim relations, primarily in the US.
Everything I saw and experienced about SHI made me believe that this is a credible educational institution, the ideal place where we can have meaningful conversations despite our apparent disagreements. Therefore, I proposed the idea of MLI to SHI’s leadership.
At first, SHI leadership was shocked that Muslims would ever want to come to them to study. “Really? You can actually find Muslims who’d do that? Come here?” They were skeptical and unconvinced. I told them I could.
MLI was and is an attempt to prepare willing American Muslims leaders for such direly needed engagements with their Jewish counterparts, primarily in the United States, to make the leap of committing themselves to this credible and scholarly educational process. It is not an interfaith dialogue project. It is not about holding hands, agreeing with one another, or representing one another. It is about learning about the other’s positions in order to create more informed and thoughtful engagement.
In partnership with various SHI colleagues but especially with the co-Director of the program, Yossi Klein Halevi, I played a central role in modifying SHI’s standard CLI program in order to design the MLI curriculum and recruit the participants. I am deeply moved and humbled by SHI’s admirable respect towards me and trust in me during this process. They never censored me or imposed any conditions including the selection of participants. This program was possible because of this fundamental respect and trust that we shared. Everyone was regarded as trustworthy and deserving of respect unless he or she proves otherwise. That was the tone of MLI between SHI and me from its inception to present. This in itself is a remarkable and extraordinary achievement as far as I am concerned. I cherish it so dearly.
The majority of the participants were South Asian, along with three Turks, one African American and one white American. I strongly desired and sought Arab and Palestinian participation and SHI leadership specifically requested Arab and Palestinian involvement in this learning experience. I tried hard to recruit several candidate, but unfortunately and understandably, a few showed real interest but then backed off. The initial hesitation, skepticism and fear of assumed backlash deterred many. Many wanted to see how the pilot would play out before reconsidering, and several Arab-American Muslims have recently asked to be a part of future cohorts.
All whom I reached out to remained curious and interested in what could come of this initiative. For these leaders, this could be a groundbreaking new way to build dialogue.
The initial batch of MLI participants included leading activists, chaplains, writers, thinkers and interfaith workers with sterling reputations and track records within their respective communities. I know all of them to be passionate, critical thinkers with a firm moral compass and well-deserved impeccable reputations within the American-Muslim community. Also, several of the attendees have been very active in pro-Palestinian activism and peace building between American Muslim and Jewish relations.
They were also initially skeptical of this program as well. But, they invested faith in me — the project’s ambitious hopes and the high quality of character and reputation of the other members.
They also asked why we had to go to Jerusalem for part of the 13-month journey? Why couldn’t we just learn in New York?
Based on my numerous trips to the region, I told them this journey had to be experienced. It is not comparable to reading about it in books, op-eds or seeing images on television. There is an incredible compartmentalization and segregation in the Holy Land. This is one of the most sad and enduring sicknesses of the conflict, where a Palestinian and a Jew living across the street from one another will pass by without ever acknowledging the other’s presence. The air is always thick and tense, filled with palpable tension, dread and unease. I always say that you have to be a little bit masochist to choose to live there.
But, I get it. There is also tremendous beauty, spiritual history, joy amidst the chaos and a living, pluralistic religious presence, which unfortunately is veering more and more towards dysfunction.
It is also the homeland for so many, a place of longing and belonging, the ultimate spiritual destination for monotheistic faith communities. For Muslims, it is our first qibla (the direction that Muslims face for five daily prayers) before Muslims turned to Mecca. It is also home to the Dome of the Rock and Masjid al-Aqsa, the third holiest site for our people.
I was adamant that in order to truly learn and understand these realities, in order for this educational project to work, one must go there.
SHI leadership also admirably understood that this program would not be credible and complete if it didn’t spend time listening to and studying the Palestinian narrative. The institution, again admirably, took great pains to facilitate rich conversations and exposure to a broad spectrum of Palestinians as an integral part of the program. They didn’t hide or censor anything.
We traveled to major cities and sites in the West Bank,including the refugee camp at Jenin, Bel’in, which is depicted in the documentary “5 Broken Cameras,” Ramallah, Nablus, El-Khalil (Hebron) and saw the brutal realities of an indefensible, decades-long occupation, an unacceptable moral stain on Israel and a gross, ongoing human rights violation against the Palestinians.
We traveled to major Arab towns within Israel and talked to a spectrum of Palestinian leaders, students, activists, teachers, imams. None of them was shy about telling us what they have been enduring throughout this conflict. They also described the many challenges for 1.5 million Palestinians who live in Israel as Israeli citizens but are subject to all sorts of systemic discrimination.
These Palestinian leaders were delightfully surprised to see a group of American Muslims taking this journey. We were very transparent about our relationship with SHI and why we chose MLI as an avenue to visit the land and they remained supportive.
The conversations were rich and enlightening. Almost all the Palestinians we met encouraged more Muslims, especially from the United States, to come and visit Palestine, to hear their stories, to see first-hand their daily challenges and to learn about their admirable struggles.
But just as MLI is experience right now, SHI received significant push back and skepticism about the program as well. Several prominent people in the Jewish community worried this was a horrible idea as they perceived they were voluntarily “aiding the enemy” with so much insider information and education that could be used against them. SHI admirably went ahead with the program despite this opposition and committed to continue it as long as possible.
The program was finalized as the following: an educational and experiential course running over a 13-month period, comprising a pre-program orientation session, two 12-day seminars held in Jerusalem during consecutive summers, two mid-year retreats in North America, and year-round long-distance learning.
The MLI curriculum, entitled Encountering Israel: Independence, Peoplehood, and Power, addressed a lack of understanding among Muslims about the way Jews see themselves—not only as a religion but as a people and a nation connected to a particular land. The curriculum comprises three units that address different aspects of Judaism, and presents classical as well as contemporary sources that demonstrate how Judaism relates to peoplehood, sovereignty and land. We discussed topics such as Jewish narratives and aspirations about power, democracy, pluralism. We discussed in depth how do Jewish values inform various aspects of Israeli society and what are struggles and challenges.
The program had no specific asks, no written or unwritten strings, no expectations or conditional language from both sides.
Every individual came into the program with a different, subjective set of expectations and left with different kinds of conclusions. The only request from both sides was that both sides just show up, literally. That’s it and let the rest unfold naturally.
Shalom Hartman’s Faculty was very gracious to welcome us to their internal conversations. They were pleasantly surprised to see Muslims who would like to learn Judaism with the same curriculum that SHI teaches to Jews in America and Israel.
Throughout our studies, we never felt we were being talked down to or force-fed propaganda or simply given “one” version of the complex narratives. SHI has a spectrum of faculty from every walk of Israeli intellectual, political, religious and academic life. They taught us these topics from a panorama of perspectives and there was always spirited discussion, back-and-forth push back, and question and answer exercises with the MLI participants. Often times, faculty members would respectfully disagree with the interpretations and conclusions of their peers. This made for a very intellectually rich, diverse and stimulating learning experience.
The education we received was incredibly helpful, eye opening, inspiring and healing. I, along with other participants hope to write much more extensively about the topics that we covered through MLI and our learning outcomes.
Throughout MLI, I couldn’t help but wonder how many Muslim institutions of religious learning could do the same. I mean, take a group of proud, committed, practicing Christians, Jews and others and proudly teach Islam and Muslim cultures with no real expectations other than communicating known and vital parts of our history, tradition, our past, present and future. In all honesty, I don’t think many.
At the same time, I understood this had the potential to fail and recognized that both sides took risks in attending and invested significant equity.
The first initial test run, to me, proved that its success was beyond anyone’s expectations. If MLI can run long enough with more participants, it could potentially be a modest game changer, at the very least, for American Muslim-American Jewish relations, God willing, and I say this as someone who has been in the field for a few decades now.
I am grateful to TIM leadership for giving me an opportunity to explain and elaborate this program, my involvement and its content and more importantly to dispel some of the misconceptions.
In most American Muslim and Jewish relations, Israel-Palestine is the big elephant in the room that sucks up all the oxygen. To foster interfaith or political engagement on the topic from any direction is like grabbing the third rail. I realize that. I appreciate people’s fears, understand their hesitations and accept their skepticism about this unique MLI program.
I also recognize that there will have to be ultimate political compromises in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but those are not coming now. As American Jews and Muslims we have to do what we can to build up goodwill, to bring about the political transformation. That political goodwill is not going to come by itself when most parties are moving towards more and more isolationist perspectives, and thus engagement is needed to jumpstart us morally, spiritually, and eventually, politically.
Regrettably, I must also admit that I am painfully disappointed and incredibly hurt that a few who heard of MLI would so quickly assume the worst about our intentions and believing the most insidious, inaccurate and hurtful conclusions about our beliefs, our opinions, our motivations and our takeaways from this endeavor without ever bothering to even talk to me or others.
However, to me that is just a small, necessary and perhaps inevitable pain to endure when embarking on this journey. It will only force those involved to further purify their intentions and do a better job next time, God willing.
Finally, I am currently writing this piece as the world responds in shock and horror to the senseless and tragic kidnapping and murder of 3 Israeli teens – Eyal Yifrah, Gilad Shaar, and Naftali Fraenkel – whose bodies were found in the West Bank.
In response to the murders, the Israeli military has continued on collective punishment against innocent Palestinians, including hundreds of arrests, clashes, beatings, demolition of homes and military strikes on Gaza. The murders have incited a frenzied mob mentality in certain Jewish circles, their anger and hate is being meted out on anyone perceived as “the enemy.” This includes the horrific revenge attack on 16-year-old Palestinian Mohammed Abu Khieder who was burned alive before being killed. His 15-year-old cousin Tariq Abu Khieder, an American citizen, was brutally beaten and was incarcerated in Israel but has thankfully returned home to his family in Florida.
I have prayed and continue to pray for them and grieving families on all sides.
This is the sheer madness that makes the MLI experience more relevant and necessary. All of us bleed the same blood and all mothers grieve and shed the same tears. We cannot allow our moral compass and shared humanity to be hijacked by hate and anger that is lashed out collectively against innocent people.
Action speaks louder than the words.
This was the intent and hopes of MLI for me- to create something positive that could at the very least help our communities to heal and to move towards shared goals inspired by our shared humanity. Therefore, I will tirelessly continue to pursue these hopes, continue to work hard and try to make a positive contribution with or without the MLI program.
To that hopeful and idealistic end, all I can say is Inshallah. God willing. And we begin the work by saying Bismillah. In God’s name.