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Jewish-Muslim engagement on domestic issues isn’t enough

The Jewish Council for Public Affairs has adapted a resolution that, at first glance, warms the heart, according to the Forward. It proclaims:

“Jewish and Muslim Americans…should work in coalition to advance our common commitment to civil liberties, the struggle against all forms of terrorism, racism, anti-Semitism (and) anti-Muslim prejudice,” the resolution declared. It also strongly denounces anti-Muslim bias and harassment.”

Working together with Muslims is a wonderful idea. So is focusing on our common concerns as American citizens. But the article also notes:

Jewish activists currently involved in dialogue with Muslim groups agree that talks should focus on issues with potential for common ground — not on the Israeli-Arab conflict, which is viewed as a non-starter for interfaith discussion.

The Forward doesn’t explicitly state that the JCPA is advising its constituents to skirt the conflict, but that seems likely, and understandable. I’ve participated in several “dialogue groups” with Arab Americans. As soon as the topic of Israel comes up, passions become heated and the familiar Clash of the Narratives begins. It requires a very good facilitator to help people in both groups feel that ongoing dialogue, let alone working together, will accomplish anything. Good facilitators are hard to find. But even if this recent, laudable initiative has concrete success, there will still be a yawning gap that somehow must be filled.

What is missing from the Forward piece and the JCPA resolution is a little-known, vitally important fact: most Jews, Muslims and Arab Christians in the U.S. agree on the solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and on the need for energetic American diplomacy. According to a 2007 poll co-sponsored by the Arab American Institute and Americans for Peace Now, majorities of Arab and Jewish Americans wanted the U.S. government to press harder for a two-state solution. 65 percent of American Jews and 89 percent of Arab Americans believed it was “important” for Israel to end its occupation. 70% of the Jews and 82% of the Arabs supported the Arab League peace iniitiative.

Now, of course we need to take this with grains of salt. Sentiments may well be different now, as the poll was taken before the violent Hamas/Fatah split and the Israeli operation in Gaza. The pollsters didn’t drill down deep and explore opinions about the Palestinian right of return and other controversial matters. Also, the poll doesn’t provide insights into the large community of Muslim Americans who are not Arab (for that matter, more than half of Arab Americans are Christian, which makes this topic very difficult to write about). Nevertheless, there is clearly a wide swath of American Jews, Muslims and Arab Christians who share very similar political goals.

The peoples of the region need us to act on those goals. They need us to send the same messages to the Obama Administration, in order to give it political cover to engage in diplomacy that leans on both sides of the conflict, not just one side. Something along those lines has begun to happen in DC, where like-minded groups have begun to coalesce into a political coalition, e.g., the Arab American Institute, American Task Force on Palestine, Americans for Peace Now and its Jewish allies, and Churches for Middle East Peace. But we have a long way to go before different faith groups develop the kind of powerful political muscle that is necessary to counteract the conventional Israel lobby.

That is a daunting task. In my forthcoming book, (order now, please!), I devote a whole chapter to analyzing the obstacles to and possibilities for a truly effective, multi-ethnic alliance. It is called “The Shared Emergency.” I don’t sugarcoat the difficulties or the Clash of Narratives. But, I assert,

what is needed is a collective, willing suspension of disbelief about the impossibility of accomplishing something together, a process described by Hussein Ibish, a former Senior Fellow at the ATFP:

“Jewish and Arab Americans who are serious about peace…need to develop, insofar as possible, functional working relationships. I do not mean here simply Jewish and pro-Israel groups that oppose the occupation on moral grounds, but those that wish to end it for practical and selfish reasons as well. We are never going to convince each other to abandon the narratives that inform our support for Israel and Palestine respectively. But since, for different reasons, Israelis and Palestinians finally find themselves needing the same thing – an end to the conflict based on an end to the occupation – Arab and Jewish Americans ought and need to be able to build a working alliance to support that aim…”

The JCPA should not be expected to accomplish that. The organization, made up of local community relations councils and some national groups, requires consensus to do anything. It would be difficult to write guidelines for dialogue on the Arab-Israeli conflict that would work for all manner of American Jews. Nor could I find any viable candidates in the present array of Arab- and Muslim-American groups.

So, who will fill the vacuum? Tough question. Perhaps it is a naive question. Perhaps there is no answer. But I hope more people start asking it.


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