It hasn’t been a good year for Jewish-Muslim relations. But in New York relations between the two groups are remarkably good.
The war in Gaza and the attack of a Kosher Supermarket in Paris are just a few examples of events both symptomatic of and catalysts for tensions between the two populations across the world.
In New York City, the war in Gaza saw a spike in hate crimes against Jews and Muslims alike. Events like the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and groups like ISIS have influenced the way Muslims are perceived even during peacetime, with increased surveillance and suspicion. This new status quo was evidenced by the controversy surrounding plans to build an Islamic Cultural Center near the former World Trade Center. Some Jewish groups and individuals joined opposition to the cultural center, like the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Zionist Organization of America, and infamous anti-Muslim activist Pamela Gellar. But others supported the center, like the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), an organization dedicated to identifying and fighting anti-Semitism, which denounced the attacks on the project, and Rabbi Joy Levitt, executive director of Manhattan’s Jewish Community Center, who came to the defense of the couple seeking to build the center, famously offering advice about how to sustain a thriving community center in New York City.
The controversy over the Ground Zero Mosque comes to bear in microcosm the nature of relations between Jews and Muslims in New York City.
Dr. Mehnaz Afridi, a Muslim woman, heads the Manhattan College Holocaust Institute and is uniquely positioned to discuss Muslim-Jewish relations in New York. Dr. Afridi was born in Pakistan and raised in Europe, and when she moved to New York, she encountered a lot of anti-Muslim sentiment, even among the Holocaust survivors she interviewed. Conversely, many Muslims in her community don’t know about the Holocaust, and cleave to anti-Semitic stereotypes. Dr. Afridi is frustrated by what she views as the misperceptions that both Jews and Muslims have of each other. “It is very deep rooted,” Dr. Afridi says, much of it connected to fear and mistrust, or Israel-Palestine, but primarily caused by a lack of proper education.
“[Muslims] are seen as extremists, stubborn, backward, oppressive to women, basically living in the ISIS world,” she says. “People don’t want to believe it but they’re so inundated with what they see.” Conversely, many Muslims are anti-Zionists, which Dr. Afridi sees as problematic because most Jews are Zionists.
Still, the local situation gives reason for hope. “Jewish Muslim relations in New York are way better than most places, but there are still problems,” Dr. Afridi says.
The problems she described were not readily visible on the streets of Brooklyn on a recent chilly afternoon in March. “Here is no problem,” says Ali, a forty-five-year-old cab-driver.
I met Ali while he was smoking a cigarette with some friends outside a Halal Supermarket in Borough Park, a neighborhood known for its thriving Muslim and Jewish communities.
Ali has lived in Brooklyn since he came to the U.S. twenty-six years ago from Pakistan. “I work for a Jewish guy for five years, no problems,” Ali said, and his friends nodded their assent. “Not in America. Maybe outside in the third world, but here, there’s no problem.” When I asked him why he thought things were different in New York, Ali chalked it up to one thing: “Because of law. The rule of the land.”
Ali believes that 95 percent of the members of his community feel as he does. “Whatever people I know, they have no problem. Because we are all human. We have to respect each other. We have to protect each other. We are not animals.”
Strolling through the streets of Borough Park, Ditmas Park, and Atlantic Avenue, strongholds of Muslim communities in Brooklyn, everyone I spoke to agreed with Ali—relations between Jews and Muslims are cordial.
“They don’t give me problems and I don’t give them problems,” said Javid, a Pakistani wholesaler. “They’re good people.”
Tanweer, a clerical worker, says he’s never seen conflict, and respects Jews, and the American dream trumps religious and ethnic differences. “Everyone here is just trying to survive,” he said, too busy with the pursuit of the American Dream to get distracted by hateful stereotypes.
On the Upper West Side of Manhattan, a neighborhood known for its large liberal and secular Jewish populations, everyone I spoke to felt similarly to their Muslim counterparts in Brooklyn. Yaelli is a 22-year-old Hebrew teacher who I met coming out of a kosher supermarket. She says she doesn’t meet many Muslims, but when she does, there’s no judgment.
“I feel like it’s much more open here, and people might be more open for dialogue,” Yaelli told me. When she tells Muslims at the local falafel joint that she’s lived in Jerusalem, she says she doesn’t feel judged or attacked. “You have crazy Muslims, you have crazy Jews. We need to be more open-minded to each other. Hate causes more hate.”
Others I spoke to agreed. Overwhelmingly, Upper West Side Jews believed that most Muslims are not extremists or terrorists, but moderates, like themselves.
I met Fred, a secular Jewish 58-year-old toy developer who lives in Westchester, a northern suburb of New York City, in a kosher, gluten-free bakery. Fred sharply distinguished between fanatical Muslims and the average Muslim. “People who want to blow up the World Trade Center, I don’t like them, but I’m anti- any fundamentalist group of all religions,” he said. “It’s more a problem with religion than Muslims. Fundamentalism exists in almost every religion, including the Jewish one, and is not a good thing.”
Outside the bakery I stopped Chaim, a 32-year-old contractor who lives on Long Island and wears a black velvet Yarmulke, to ask him what he thinks of Muslims. “They’re like any other person in the world,” he said. “I have a lot of contractors who are Muslims and I like working with them. We have a great relationship.”
Not everyone feels quite so cheery about things. My own Facebook wall over the summer was chock full of New York Jews taking the hard line regarding Muslims, calling for indescribable acts, and Muslim friends with equally violent desires.
On the street in Crown Heights where the Chabad Hassidic group is concentrated, I stopped a young woman to ask her how she feels about Muslims. She was worried because, as she put it, “More and more are moving into this neighborhood.” But in a kosher wine store down the block, a young man told me, “All people are pretty much the same. The problem is that the extremists get all the media attention.” Another Hassidic woman who lives in Williamsburg was convinced by friends not to hire a Muslim housekeeper, even though her community—Satmar Hassidim—are anti-Zionists. “They’re afraid of them,” her husband explained to me while recounting the story. “They read the news.”
An individual who lives in an ultra-Orthodox community in Far Rockaway said of his community, “I’d say that in general, the community is nervous about Muslims and suspicious of their intentions. At the same time, the community often finds common ground with the Muslim community on religious issues.” When I asked him why Muslims and Jews seem to get along better in New York than elsewhere in the world, he responded, “Because Muslims here don’t regularly murder Jews?”
In other words, in the more insular ultra-Orthodox and Orthodox communities, there seems to be more suspicion. “Considering the abundance of Islamic anti-Semitism that one readily sees and hears in the media, and the violence perpetrated by some Muslims in the name of Islam, it would be unreasonable to expect Jews in New York, or anywhere, to not at least be wary of Muslims,” explained Rabbi Avi Shafran, Director of Public Affairs of the Agudath Israel of America, which represents the ultra-Orthodox. “But I have never sensed any animus in the Jewish community toward Muslims — and on the occasions when individual Jews and Muslims interact, the interactions are polite and even friendly. It’s one thing to be suspicious of a population; quite another, to deal with a member of the population who exhibits no ill will. Jews and Muslims simply go about their lives here, paying little attention to each other.”
Rabbi Shafran explained that Agudath Israel has advocated for Muslims facing discrimination in the workplace, and the organization’s education affairs department, which handles private religious school issues, has been of assistance to Muslim schools, too.
“There is a certain appreciation among many religious Orthodox Jews — the population of Jews that lives near Muslims in Brooklyn — for the religious dedication of religious Muslims, which in ways mirrors their own,” he said. “Both groups dress modestly, and are invested in prayer and charity. So the ‘wariness born of Islamist anti-Semitism’ is somewhat counterbalanced by respect for the sincere religious conduct of moderate Muslims, the vast majority of the community.”
In other words, even in ultra-Orthodox’s more haredi corners, despite what one might believe in the privacy of one’s home or Facebook page, relations between Jews and Muslims in New York are cordial and respectful. And while many national Jewish organizations might take hawkish lines with regards to Muslims, the local, New York organizations tend to have warm relations with Muslim neighbors.
“In the United States there are certain affinities between the Muslim community and the Jewish community,” said Rabbi David Sandmel, Director of Interfaith Affairs for the ADL. Both are minorities in a primarily Christian culture with similar concerns for religious freedom and expression. “We share concerns about how to maintain our unique identity and traditions while at the same time taking in everything that the United States has to offer.”
The ADL has gotten involved in advocacy efforts to help Muslim communities, like contacting municipal authorities when zoning laws were used to block the construction of mosques.
And by and large, in both communities, relations are good, says Sandmel. The anti-Semitism he has encountered has come from anti-Israel activists, and from certain corners of the native-born Muslim population—in particular, Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam, an Islamic religious movement that caters to the African American community. “There’s a long history of problematic statements being made by Minister Farrakhan, and the ADL reacting to them,” Sandmel said.
When I asked if there is any anti-Muslim sentiment in the Jewish community, Sandmel said that there is some. Some of it is connected to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and some of it stems from the fact that “Jews are not necessarily better informed than other Americans about Islam or about the Muslim community.” But overwhelmingly, prejudice is frowned upon in Jewish communities, Sandmel says.
And it goes both ways. “I wouldn’t identify the Muslim American community as a hotbed of anti-Semitic activity in any way,” he said.
Why is America and specifically New York so different from cities around the world where the animosity between Muslims and Jews runs so deep?
For one thing, Muslim-Jewish interfaith efforts abound. For example, the organization “T’ruah: A Rabbinic Call for Human Rights” brings together faith leaders from all Jewish communities to combat Islamophobia. “New York is a wonderful example of a large, very diverse, cosmopolitan city really working together strongly,” said Marisa James, Senior Organizer of Truah. Recently, the Muslim holidays of Eid al-Adha and al-Fitr have been added to the New York City public school schedule. “People are deeply committed to our faith and to civic justice in a way that’s just American,” James said.
Sheryl Orlitsky founded “The Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom” whose mission is to bring Muslim and Jewish women together to build trust and respect through relationships with the belief that “it’s very difficult to hate someone you like,” Orlinsky says. She says she does encounter negative stereotypes in individuals prior to engaging with the Sisterhood. But as people get to know each other the women she works with realize they have something very important in common: they are women of faith living in a Christian country.
Another organization doing interfaith work is the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, helmed by Rabbi Marc Schneier and hip-hop magnate Russell Simmons. The organization began as a way to improve relations between Jews and blacks, and now has a branch dedicated to bringing together Muslims and Jews to break down misconceptions and build bridges. Stereotypes like “Jews want to kill all Muslims” and vise-versa, or that the Jewish concept of being chosen is elitist, are among the beliefs that advocates work to reform at the grassroots level. I asked Tamar Schneck, director of communications, what the biggest challenge in her interfaith work. “Sometimes people don’t want to hear it,” she said. “People are bombarded by bad news, but you have to keep the discussion going forward.” She says that her policy is not to address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict immediately, which can bring her work “to a screeching halt.”
But some believe that the reason Jews and Muslims are able to get along so well in New York is precisely because the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not close to the hearts of many of New York’s Muslims, most of whom are not in fact of Arab origin. While the government census data does not track religion, over 200,000 New Yorkers emigrated from South Asia, while only 70,000 came from Western Asia (and 20,000 of those are Israelis). This means that the majority of New York’s Muslims are probably not Arab but Southeast Asian. In America more generally, only 25 percent of Muslims are from Arab countries, while fully 35 percent are native-born Americans, and 20 percent of those are African Americans, while 18 percent nationally are from Southeast Asia.
“The Arab Israeli conflict is not high on the priority scale for Muslim Americans,” says Rabbi Yehuda Sarna, executive director of NYU’s Bronfman Center, whose close relationship with Imam Khalid Latif led to the first multi-faith studies academic minor at NYU. “African Americans are concerned about civil rights issues here. Indians, Pakistanis, and Bengalis are not preoccupied with Jews particularly. If anything, that demographic looks at Jews in the US in light of their professional accomplishments as someone they would like to emulate. And the Arab community is small.”
In addition to the lack of focus on Israel-Palestine, Muslims are much more integrated into American society more generally than they are elsewhere, despite the fact that Muslims rank the lowest on the scale of how warmly Americans feel towards people of different religions (Jews ranked the highest).
A Pew study in 2007 found that Muslim Americans are “mostly middle class and mostly mainstream.” They have a more positive view of the American work ethic than the general American public, with 71 percent believing that hard work will result in getting ahead in life. Muslims in America are only 2 percent more likely than the general population to be poor, whereas in Britain, France, Germany, and Spain, Muslims are 18-23 percent more likely to be poor. 61 percent of Muslim Americans surveyed were very concerned about the rise in Islamic extremism, and 83 percent felt that suicide bombing can never be justified.
“Despite all the profiling and security checks and the media constantly associating Islam with terrorism, Muslims are more integrated here than in countries in Europe,” Sarna says. “There’s not the same hostility as you find in some European countries, where the country is a former colonizer of the country where the Muslims are coming from. And the path to upward social mobility is clearer than it is in countries in Europe.”
Muslims in New York also tend to live in heterogeneous neighborhoods, unlike in European cities. “One of the byproducts of laicite”—the French principle of secularism in the public sphere— “is that it is faith blind, so there’s nothing like affirmative action,” said Rabbi Sarna. “In Muslim immigrant communities, the educational structures are not built so people can get those high scores. They’re just not going to succeed in the same way.”
“The American system does not require communities to be assimilated, but rather, to be integrated,” explained Dr. Ahmad Jaber, a Muslim religious educator and cornerstone of interfaith efforts across New York City. “Some European countries are trying to assimilate the Muslim population, forcing them to leave their heritage and their culture, and adopt the new culture, whether it’s French or German or Swedish. But in the American system, you keep your language, you keep your culture, you keep your heritage, but you integrate as part of the society and are recognized as such, without having to deal with either I am an American or a Muslim. No, I can be both.”
Dr. Jaber is originally Palestinian, and moved to the US in 1974 to become a successful OBGYN and interfaith activist. His interfaith work has been mostly with liberal and Reform Jews, and less with Orthodox or Hassidic Jews, but he doesn’t rule it out for the future.
He says that in his community there is no anti-Jewish sentiment as such. “As a community, we separate between Jewish, and Zionist— which refers to Jews who are subjecting Palestinians for unnecessary occupation and the harassment and suffering of Palestinians.” This separation comes in no small part because Jewish organizations that support the Palestinian cause. “And Judaism as a religion, we do respect them, and the same goes for Islam. We do have a lot of Jewish groups who stand with us against the Islamophobes who are attacking Islam and Muslims.”
But Dr. Sarah Sayeed, Director of Community Partnerships for the Interfaith Center of New York, says Israel-Palestine plays a big role in how people of different faiths see each other. Theologically, Sayeed says, Muslims share a lot with Jews. Islam is monotheistic, and there is a shared orientation to certain key historical figures. The conflict lies elsewhere. “I think for all communities, whether progressive or conservative or traditional, there is a weight that the Middle East conflict has, no matter what your political views,” Sayeed says “A lot of the overt clashes that happen across communities have something to do with what’s going on overseas.”
The Interfaith Center of New York engages in religious diversity education for secular audiences. They also organize grassroots religious leaders to discuss social issues that are important to New York State communities. “I think there’s lots of things to be hopeful about a lots of things to be done,” Sayeed says about the relations between Muslims and Jews in New York.
But she worries about the larger picture, and wonders whether interfaith dialogue can impact the elusive peace overseas. “Dialogue initiatives here make a lot of effort to keep what’s happening overseas off the table,” she said. “They want to focus on building positive relations here, and that’s all great, but we’re in a context where we’re supposed to be engaged citizens of a democracy and we’re supposed to have a say in foreign policy, and our country is playing a role in a conflict that impacts people’s daily thoughts and feelings. Interfaith dialogue hasn’t seriously grappled with that. How de we do interfaith dialogue and at the same time support engaged citizenship when a foreign policy matter has such an intimate relationship or such a serious consequence for the nature of relations between communities?”
If there’s any city in the world where her questions might be answered, that city is New York.
Batya Ungar-Sargon has a PhD from University of California, Berkeley. Her work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the New Republic, Aeon Magazine, Haaretz, Jewish Telegraphic Agency, the Forward, Tablet Magazine, and others. She lives in Brooklyn.
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