How Our Muslim/Jewish Partnership Can Help America Overcome Divisiveness | Opinion

It's no secret that we are a nation divided. Polarization has become the defining feature of 21st century American life. And yet, it is equally obvious that our future depends upon overcoming these divisions and finding our way back to unity, one rooted in our glorious diversity.

Our experience working together from what are often seen as identities in conflict—one of us leads a Muslim organization, the other a Jewish one—has taught us something important about overcoming difference and shaping an agenda of tolerance rooted in deep pride in our unique identities as well as a commitment to all that we share. It has given us a blueprint for how to recommit to pluralism without sacrificing difference, identity or history. And it's a lesson that could not be more important in an America where intolerance is rising on both sides of the political spectrum.

The last five years were a wakeup call for many with the rise of right-wing extremism and exploding levels of antisemitism and anti-Muslim bigotry. But the Left has not been immune. We have seen Muslims who work with pro-Israel groups branded and even disinvited from major events. This means that for many major Muslim organizations, virtually no Jewish organizations are acceptable for partnerships; not a single one of the 53 member organizations of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the recognized consensus body of the American Jewish community, is halel (kosher) for partnerships with many major Muslim American organizations, according to the far Left.

By virtue of its narrow-mindedness, this approach, which mirrors that of radical Islamists, fails to accurately represent the tremendous diversity of opinion within the Muslim American community—and yet the many Muslims who don't agree with boycotting Zionists are frequently silenced or marginalized by those in the Leftist camp.

There's an irony to this quasi-Islamist view having so much sway over the American and European Left. After all, it's getting more and more incongruous around the world as the Middle East and North Africa move toward a more pluralistic future and Israel integrates into the family of Muslim-majority nations, normalizing relations with Bahrain, Morocco, the United Arab Emirates, and Sudan.

More importantly, Islamists do not speak for American Muslims. One of us, Zainab, leads the Muslim American Leadership Alliance, which has thousands of testimonies from American Muslims who reject hate and embrace America's pluralist society, which is scorned by Islamists. MALA is also a proud partner of the American Sephardi Federation, a member of the Conference of Presidents, led by another one of us, Jason.

Jewish Muslim relations

For over five years, MALA and ASF have been building deep inroads with Jewish and Muslim communities, developing a new approach to interfaith collaboration. First, we stress the importance of recovering positive examples from the past of interfaith collaboration, including the Prophet Muhammad's early Jewish allies and the Golden Age's remarkable intellectual collaborations. Second, we refuse to inherit unhealthy baggage from past generations that drives us apart and forces us to stagnate. Instead, we celebrate common culture—from calligraphy to cuisine to spiritual monotheism—and look to the emerging new reality in the Middle East as a source of inspiration rather than division. Finally, we dare to dream of an even better shared future for our children, one not based on victimhood or polarization but on collaboration and creativity.

This is how we counter extremism, by emphasizing the very values we cherish as Americans: pluralism, tolerance, and freedom of choice and creed.

And this is how America, too, can find its way to a renewed unity, not one that erases diversity but one that is built on it. The same roadmap we built for interfaith work can apply to healing our political divide. Americans on either side of our polarized nation should stress past instances where Right and Left found common cause, times when we were able to agree to disagree without being disagreeable. We should all refuse to obsess over distorted perceptions of the past and instead find things we share, in the realm of food or sports or religion or music (here is an irony: Historically contentious subjects like religion and sports may now be unifying forces). And we must all remember that the world we are leaving for our children must be a better one.

As Jewish and Muslim American leaders, we call for a renewed commitment to the American principles of patriotism, courage, intelligence, dignity, and character. If we Muslims and Jews can see that more unites us religiously, culturally, and historically than divides us, so can our fellow Americans. It is now up to us to come together for the benefit of our communities and our country.

In Morocco there is a tradition known as "Matrouz" in which ideas, languages, and genres are combined and remixed. Bayt Dakira, the multifaceted "House of Memory" in Essaouira, is adorned with banners reading "Salam Lekoulam" and "Shalom Aleykoum," combining the Arabic and Hebrew traditional greetings of peace.

This is what we aspire to. This is what we hope to realize in the United States—for all our Americans.

Zainab Zeb Kahn is the Chair & Executive Director of the Muslim American Leadership Alliance (MALA), and Jason Guberman-P. is the Executive Director of the American Sephardi Federation (ASF). Both will be speaking at "Combating Racism and Antisemitism Together: Shaping an Omni-American Future" 24-25 October 2021.

The views in this article are the writers' own.