A lot of people harbor the misconception that Jews and Muslims never get along. This might arise from misunderstanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and an accompanying assumption that Jews and Muslims globally are necessary enemies as a result (we are absolutely not).
Mostly, I think it arises from a general ignorance of both Jewish and Islamic history. Every ethnic and religious community has a unique story in the United States. The Jewish and Muslim communities each have significant ethnic and cultural diversity within them, but have a lot in common as well. Both are immigrant communities, non-Christian Abrahamic faiths that have a Semitic language as our holy script. We have similar daily prayer practices and dietary restrictions for the observant.
When I’m getting to know someone who is Muslim and they find out I’m Jewish, this is often what we talk about — how vowels are situated surrounding the consonants in both Arabic and Hebrew; how we’re supposed to abstain from pork (though some of us are more stringent while others have a little pepperoni now and then). Contrary to stereotype, I’ve never had a Muslim person react negatively upon finding out I’m Jewish.
Like Muslims today, in the early 20th century American Jews were under a great deal of scrutiny. The early 1900s were a time of leftist organizing; a few of those groups were violent, and committed what we would today call terrorist acts. Jewish activists contributed to both peaceful — and violent — political action. American Jews, already marginalized in the United States, and many remembering oppression from their native Europe, came under even more scrutiny because of the acts of an extremely small segment of the community. A climate of anti-Semitism continued in many places even after the Second World War.
Connections have also been seen today between the Jewish people’s history as refugees and today’s tide of Muslim refugees from Syria and other destabilized regions. I’m not the only Jewish person to see parallels between anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim racism in the United States. Organizations like Jewish Voice for Peace have made organizing against Islamophobic racism a major priority. It’s been extremely heartening to see Jewish and Muslim communities in the United States come together. When there was a spate of vandalism against Jewish cemeteries earlier this year, a coalition of Muslim Americans raised money for repairs for a cemetery in St. Louis, Missouri — and recently, Jews helped guard publicly praying Muslims in New York City during Ramadan. Muslims and Jews in the United States have so much in common and I look forward to increasing solidarity in these troubling times.
Our Muslim friends, neighbors, family and co-workers deserve to live their lives without having to answer for extreme, unrepresentative groups with which the vast majority have no relationship. That’s why I have been so happy to participate in Interfaith Initiative Centre County.
Now more than ever, it’s important to have spaces for interfaith dialogue and mutual support. I have recently moved away from State College for work, and can no longer regularly participate in IICC activities, but I am so glad to have known about it and hope to make similar interfaith connections wherever I live.
Hilary Barlow is an archivist and freelance writer who grew up in State College, and participatedin Interfaith Initiative Centre County: InterfaithInitiativeCC@hotmail.com.