An Orthodox rabbi and Muslim cleric spoke about their joint mission to fight oppression affecting their religious groups at a South Jersey synagogue.
They may seem like an odd couple, but Rabbi Marc Schneier and Imam Shamsi Ali believe there is nothing more natural than two people who have come to understand each other using what they have learned to promote harmony between their people.
The Orthodox rabbi and Muslim cleric are on a mission to bring followers of Judaism and Islam together to join against oppression affecting either group — anywhere in the world.
Their recently published book, Sons of Abraham: A Candid Conversation about the Issues that Divide and Unite Jews and Muslims, relates their own journeys to understanding “The Other” and provides a jumping-off point for discussions they lead.
“We are not being Pollyanna-ish,” Schneier said during one such event on April 8 that drew more than 100 Jews, Muslims and Christians to Temple Emanuel in Cherry Hill, N.J.
“The journey has begun. It’s a Herculean task, but it has begun,” said Ali. “Dialogue is not about talking. It’s about meetings. It’s about smiling at each other.”
They point out that their religions are more alike than they are different, and more similar to each other than to Christianity.
Schneier, 55, comes from 18 generations of rabbis. The New York City native is founder and president of the Foundation of Ethnic Understanding, under whose auspices the book was written, and founding rabbi of the Hampton Synagogue in Westhampton Beach, N.Y. Ali, 46, spiritual leader of Jamaica Muslim Center, New York City’s largest Islamic center, and Al-Hikmah Mosque, also in Queens, was raised in an Indonesian village and studied in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.
“I had some very clear biases and prejudices when it came to Muslims. I had always viewed Muslims as the enemy,” Schneier said. But his first encounter with Ali in 2005, when both were on CBS commenting about interfaith relations following the death of Pope John Paul II, planted a seed. The following year, Schneier asked Ali to be part of a panel at New York University on Muslim-Jewish relations, and a deep friendship — a kinship, even — was born.
Schneier began his foundation 25 years ago to foster black-Jewish understanding. After 18 years, he and his partner in the enterprise, hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons, decided that their work was done. Simmons challenged the rabbi to work on Jewish-Muslim relations, which has been the focus since.
“It’s Jews fighting for Muslims, Muslims fighting for Jews,” Schneier said. The pair travel around the world, speaking out on everything from Denmark’s recent ban against ritual slaughter that runs counter to kosher and halal laws, to lobbying for Holocaust education among the Muslim population of Austria, where about 15,000 Jews are outnumbered by more than 600,000 Muslims.
“We need to acknowledge the reality that in the world today, there are 14 million Jews and 1.4 billion Muslims. We have to find a path to narrow the gap,” Schneier said.
The foundation’s work is primarily keyed to systemic change, Schneier said, focusing on leadership roles. It is starting Muslim-Jewish solidarity committees — rapid response teams that can mobilize quickly if either group is threatened. The goal is for Muslim and Jewish organizations to embrace the model of reconciliation offered by the rabbi and the imam.
Schneier said one of the most valuable lessons he learned while writing the book is that both Jews and Muslims have oral traditions that explain and interpret the Torah and the Quran.
“No one would ever read the Torah in a literal fashion. Therefore we should extend the same courtesy to our friends of the Muslim faith,” the rabbi said. “It is most insensitive to treat our Bible one way and their bible, the Quran, another way.”
The elephant in the room, Schneier admitted, is the Israel-Palestine question. In their book, Ali calls for the two-state solution.
“One can agree to disagree without being disagreeable,” Schneier said. “If there is a peace treaty, how will this peace be implemented when Muslims don’t trust Jews and Jews don’t trust Muslims?”
Both men caution against letting the question of Palestine cloud the larger issue. “Relations between Jews and Muslims must not be defined by the Middle Eastern conflict. It is bigger than that,” Ali said. “Our two religions are the closest, with historic parallels. Both our peoples came to America to find freedom of religion.”
Schneier noted that Ali has been accused of not being a real Muslim because he is not an Arab. But only 16 percent of the Muslim world is Arab, he noted, while the largest Muslim community is in Southeast Asia — most notably in Indonesia, with well over 200 million Muslims. Ali said the Indonesian government has asked them to translate their book into Indonesian, and the pair plan to visit the country in November.
“Everything’s a process. We take baby steps,” said Ali, who admitted to being an optimist.
Schneier calls it keeping the faith. “After 3,300 years of oppression, we are still celebrating Passover. We are moving in the right direction,” he said.
The clerics’ message resonated with the crowd who came to the Temple Emanuel event, which was sponsored by the Jewish Catholic Muslim Dialogue of Southern New Jersey in cooperation with the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Southern New Jersey.
Betty Ali of Winslow, Camden County, is a member of the nearby Voorhees Mosque, having converted from Catholicism to Islam eight years ago. “Jews and Muslims believe in one creator and we’re supposed to work together,” she said.
Laura Cohn of Bala Cynwyd, a Jewish batik artist who has lived in Indonesia and returns there annually, said it’s important to understand that a moderate, democratic Islamic country can exist. “I have never seen such a highly esteemed rabbi and imam working together like this. It’s the hard work we all have to do and a tenet of Judaism to stand up for one’s brother.”
Muslim Shazia Riaz of Voorhees added she is very hopeful, but was disappointed at tinges of Islamophobia she felt from a few Jewish audience members. “One in every six or seven people is Muslim. If that many people had that much hatred, there would be a lot of violence,” she said. “As the imam said, when we meet each other face to face, we humanize each other.”