Reflecting on 10 Years of Jewish-Muslim Community Building
By Samuel Fleischacker
Sam Fleischacker is a professor of philosophy and the director of Jewish studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He is also the director of UIC’s Jewish-Muslim Initiative and serves on the advisory committee of the Jewish-Muslim Community Building Initiative at the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs.
The rift between Jews and Muslims is among the most fraught of all religious divides today, yet the Jewish Council of Urban Affairs (JCUA) is still one of the few organizations to address it.
JCUA established its Jewish-Muslim Community Building Initiative (JMCBI) immediately after 9/11. In a low-key, admirably pragmatic way, it has worked ever since then to help Jews and Muslims reach across the divide between their communities. Its premise is that Jews and Muslims in America share a similar history and have similar needs and interests.
They are both minority religions trying to ensure their integrity in a Christian country; they both consist of fairly recent immigrants, and know the difficulties of all immigrants; and they share many general human values. These similarities make it possible and useful for them to work together on local policy issues, regardless of their differences elsewhere, and that joint work can in turn help members of both communities recognize their similarities more fully.
Accordingly, JMCBI has been committed both to policy work and to social and educational events. It runs an evening of entertainment, Café Finjan, in which Jewish and Muslim poets, actors, singers, and others perform for audiences drawn from both communities. It runs an “Iftar” in a synagogue, bringing Jews and Muslims together around a meal to mark the end of a fast day in Ramadan. And at the same time, it works with Muslim allies on issues of immigration, housing, and religious rights.
These social and political events support each other. The friendly relations and better understanding built during the social events help strengthen alliances for political purposes, while the political work gives members of both communities a respect and warmth for one another that enables them to socialize. By combining the two types of events, JCUA thus shows its pragmatic wisdom.
Remarkably, JCUA remains almost the only official Jewish organization in Chicago to engage in this sort of enterprise. Indeed, it has had to weather regular complaints from other Jewish organizations that refuse to work with Muslim groups unless and until they can agree on aspects of the Israel/Palestine conflict.
It seems to me that JCUA in this respect understands the Jewish vision of redemption better than its counterparts do. We Jews do not believe in simply waiting for the Messiah to solve all human problems. Rather, we know that we need to take whatever steps we can to solve those problems ourselves. Only then we can hope that God will do whatever else is needed.
The work of JMCBI consists of limited, local contributions to the healing of the rift between Jews and Muslims — small steps, given the depth of the rift. But these steps bring out and foster a good will that would not otherwise exist: they enable our two communities to do justice and love mercy together. And only by way of such steps do we have any right to hope that one day the greater differences between us might be overcome.