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Overcoming the Obstacles to Effective Jewish-Muslim Dialogue

Overcoming the Obstacles to Effective Jewish-Muslim Dialogue

A Conversation with Imam Abdullah Antepli

Blue and white glass evil eye amulets hanging together in a bundle

imam biennial badge_0.jpgImam Abdullah Antepli is Duke University’s Muslim chaplain and senior fellow on Jewish Muslim Relations at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. I sat down with the Turkish-born cleric to hear his insights on the current state of Jewish-Muslim relations in the United States.

Reform Jews protested the Muslim ban at airports, and Muslims donated money to help restore vandalized Jewish gravestones. Do these actions signal a new era in Jewish-Muslim relations?

Imam Abdullah Antepli: I welcome these goodwill gestures, but I’m skeptical that they can overcome the main obstacle dividing our communities – namely, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Jews and Muslims everywhere have become proxy foot soldiers, defining each other as adversaries through the prism of this conflict. There’s nothing wrong with being pro-Israeli or pro-Palestinian, for lack of better terms, but defining an entire community in the context of that conflict is suffocating us and empowering anti-Semites in the Muslim world and anti-Muslims in the Jewish world. I want to emphasize that I am not making some false equation. For the most part, Muslim anti-Semitism in the Muslim world is on a much larger scale and a lot more serious.

To what extent do you think Muslim anti-Semitism is an outgrowth of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

Muslim anti-Semitism has always existed, but it had always been on the margins, and not a core theological teaching. The creation of the State of Israel brought those marginal elements to the forefront. Whereas for Jews, the creation of Israel is experienced as a homecoming story, not only in the aftermath of the Holocaust, but because of 4,000 years of connection with that part of the world, for Muslims, it is seen as a Judeo-Christian-European land grab, another wave of Crusaders humiliating the world of Islam. This narrative has shaped the overall image of Judaism and Jews, Zionism, and Israel and pumped all sorts of toxic information into the hearts and minds of Muslims.

How would you evaluate Jewish-Muslim dialogue in the U.S. on the national level?

With the exception of the Reform Movement and a few other progressive Jewish organizations, mainstream Jewish and Muslim communities have for many decades been in an adversarial relationship, attempting in various ways to undermine one another.

One way has been to invest in each other’s renegades. Some Jewish groups, for example, reach out to marginal, self-hating Muslims who enrich themselves by validating the monstrous image of Islam and Muslims. Returning the favor, some Muslim organizations commission self-hating Jews to reinforce their existing anti-Jewish stereotypes.

How effective has Jewish-Muslim dialogue been on the local community and college campus level?

Most interfaith conversations I’ve witnessed are well intentioned; unfortunately, they do little to bring the two faith communities closer together on a lasting basis. Too often, these encounters either take the shape of political debates that turn into shouting matches in 15 minutes. Or, to avoid confrontation, they settle on eating humus together and talking about what kosher and halal chicken have in common.

What I’ve seen on college campuses for the past 15 years is increasing polarization between diehard anti-Israel groups, such as those that advocate BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) and equally zealous pro-Zionist Jewish partisans. But even more troubling to me is the increasing numbers of Jewish and Muslim students who are so alienated and disillusioned with this seemingly intractable conflict that they walk away, check out permanently.

How do you respond to such students who say “a plague on both your houses?”

I try to engage them in a deeper conversation about the causes of divisiveness in our society; in particular, the kind of racism, bigotry, and disinformation that makes us vulnerable to character assassination. 

An example: About 29% of Americans still believe Barack Obama is Muslim, and that it is a bad thing, because 70% have negative attitudes and views towards Muslims and Islam. Those who insist he is a Muslim actually mean he is Black. The fact that they don’t just say Obama is Black in a pejorative sense is a safe way of unleashing their own racism.

What is your message to Jews and Muslims who want to fight racism and bigotry?

I tell them that the Jewish and Muslim communities cannot defeat anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim bigotry on their own. We need each other. We need to be conversation partners. We need to develop a deeper, sustained relationship that can withstand the violence of another Gaza war or the diplomatic disappointment of another Oslo Accords.

Even if the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were solved tomorrow, that conflict has gone on so long, it may take generations of work to bring our communities into peaceful equilibrium.

We have no time to lose. If not now, when?

Imam Abdullah Antepli will be a featured speaker at the Union for Reform Judaism’s Biennial convention in Boston, December 6-10, 2017. Learn more and plan to attend.

Aron Hirt-Manheimer is the Union for Reform Judaism's editor-at-large.
Photo credit: Rose Eichenbaum

Aron Hirt-Manheimer
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