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Paving a Road to Nowhere

Based on estimates, there are about 7 million Muslims living in the US today, surpassing the number of Jews by about 2 million.  In the last couple of years prominent voices, such as the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and The Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, have naively called for redirecting efforts and allocating resources in order to open a dialogue with the Muslims in the US.  Principally, having a dialogue is a good thing, however, I believe that it would be a mistake to go down that road at this time.  Some of those voices go further and argue that efforts in establishing dialogue should take precedence over maintaining and fostering relations with the Catholic Church.  Abe Foxman, of the Anti-Defamation League, also disagrees; saying “neither we (Jews) nor they (Muslims) are ready for a significant dialogue.”

Since this idea of dialogue is in its infancy stage, it could serve as an important juncture for examining some of the issues associated with such an attempt.  Jews in America have experience in developing relationships with minorities.  In the 1920s and ’30s, a common bond arose between Jews and African Americans in response to American anti-Semitism and racism, culminating in the civil rights movement.  But the rise of Black nationalism that carried its own undertones of anti-Semitism often polarized the groups.  One flashpoint was Jesse Jackson’s 1984 reference to New York as “Hymietown” and the 1991 Crown Heights riots which erupted after a Lubavitch-driven vehicle accidentally hit and killed a Black child in Brooklyn.  Ann Schaffer, director of the AJC Belfer Center for American Pluralism, says relations are strained.  “We’re not seeing the kind of reciprocity that we would like to see in the relationship,” she said.  Many Black leaders are consumed with internal issues, such as job discrimination and poverty.  In addition, the Black community “is not forthcoming” in defending Israel and condemning anti-Semitism.  In part, that’s because Blacks identify with the Palestinians, who they see as disenfranchised like themselves.  It seems the current phase in the relationship between Jews and African Americans today can be at most described as neutral.  That is unfortunate, considering the dialogue started about 80 years ago.

The Jewish minority experience, in the US and elsewhere, hinges on one important and strongly held axiom—that maintaining identity does not preclude integration and contribution to society for the benefit of all.  This precept is shown to run contrary in Muslims populations who are minorities in various parts of the world, Muslims do not come to integrate into societies, they expect societies to integrate into their Dar-al-Islam (the house of Islam, Arabic).  The Pew Research Center reported (July 6, 2006) that most Europeans doubt that Muslims coming into their countries want to adopt their national customs and way of life.  Substantial majorities in Germany (76%), Great Britain (64%), Spain (67%) and Russia (69%) say that Muslims in their country want to remain distinct from the larger society.  The level of Muslim identification in Britain, Spain and Germany is similar to that in Pakistan, Nigeria and Jordan—even higher than levels in Egypt, Turkey and Indonesia.  At about 20% of the world’s population and growing, integration for Muslims does not seem to be critical nor religiously or culturally desirable, and time is on their side.

The voices that call for establishing a dialogue with the Muslim minority in the US should seriously reassess their efforts in terms of resources and cost/benefit.  The US, the Jewish community, and Israel would be better served by efforts directed at establishing a dialogue with the Latino population, which truly strives to peacefully integrate into American society.  This fast growing minority is already making significant in-roads in terms of political clout.  Furthermore, it is safe to say that this friendly group is also a tabula rasa (blank slate, Latin) in terms of issues dealing with Israel and the Jewish people.  It would be an opportunity to develop a meaningful relationship with a group who can greatly benefit from the Jewish experience and be appreciative of the effort.  Taking this route may prove to be an important catalyst for repairing and improving relations between Jews and African Americans, and the current US President is uniquely positioned to play a major role in making it happen.

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