How a tolerant UAE is welcoming Jews into the country

The Jewish community will soon have a prominent place to pray in the heart of the Gulf.

Jewish-man_16e9d5df1e7_largeDubai: “The fact that, for the first time in centuries, a new Jewish community established in the heart of the Arab world is nothing short of historic. This represents, in a way, its own call to prayer and I speak on behalf of the Jewish community, it’s our responsibility to answer,” said the newly-announced Chief Rabbi of the Jewish community of the UAE, Yehuda Sarna, during a speech on Tolerance Day on November 15.

UAE Embassy US


“The fact that there is for the first time in centuries a new Jewish community established in the heart of the Arab World is nothing short of historic.” – Newly announced Chief Rabbi of the Jewish Community of the Emirates (JCE) @RabbiSarna.

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For centuries, Jews and Arabs have peacefully co-existed. They’ve done business together, lived as neighbors and even married one another. Even the Prophet Mohammed peace be upon him, was married to a Jewish woman. Her name was Safiyyah Bint Huyayy.

From the time of the prophet until the early 20th century Jews and Arabs mixed together. From Baghdad to Beirut and Cairo as well.


The Pittsburgh Playbook: How the Jewish Community Worked With Their Christian and Muslim Neighbors to Heal

1.8027476.2268327494After the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in American history, interfaith ties, initiative and compassion led to organization and solidarity others can model.

In Pittsburgh, they don’t call the blood-soaked anti-Semitic rampage that began at 9:50 A.M. on a rainy Saturday one year ago, when a white supremacist gunned down 11 Jewish worshippers “the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting” – although that’s how it is commonly referred to elsewhere. Rather, it is referred to in the city by the date no local resident will ever forget: 10.27.

Pittsburgh, people there will tell you, is a thriving and close-knit city that they love and identify with deeply, whose residents have come together across all walks of life – despite differences in religion, race and politics – to repudiate the deadliest attack on Jews in American history. Pittsburgh is “Stronger than hate” as the ubiquitous signs created in response to the attack continue to remind passersby from front yards and shop windows.

That comprehensive response was closely coordinated, with Jewish communal agencies taking the lead and dividing up responsibilities of security and mental health care in the immediate aftermath of the attack and beyond. Those efforts were buoyed by long-standing ties with local churches and mosques, by strong support from the mayor and municipal officials, and by the city’s bedrock of foundations, nonprofit agencies and academic institutions.


Opinion: The Yom Kippur lesson I learned from a Muslim man

Yom Kippur begins Oct. 8. It’s the holiest day of the Jewish year, when Jews engage in self-reckoning and look for ways to fix their flaws. This year someone helped me with this. His name is Mohammed.

I showed up to my book club earlier this month to discuss Mohammed Al Samawi’s book, “The Fox Hunt: A Refugee’s Memoir of Coming to America.” In front of a coffee table filled with the usual nuts, chocolate and cheese, a smiling, dark-skinned man was sitting on the couch.

“I’m Mohammed,” he said.

And I said, “Wow.”

I had just read his book in a gulp. It is a gripping and true international thriller that, in the end, left me teary-eyed.

His story was miraculous, sure, but what really got to me were the lessons the book offers on how to heal the divisions that plague our country, our world and, ultimately, ourselves.

Al Samawi was raised in a devout Muslim home and trained in an educational system that taught him Western culture was corrupt and Jews were evil.

“The Jews are foxes,” one of his teachers told him. “Even if they seem good, they’re always hiding something.”

But first curiosity, then doubt, crept into Al Samawi’s mind. He began seeking out Christian and Jewish texts to see for himself. This led him to the internet, where Facebook groups brought him in contact with Jewish, Christian and Muslim interfaith activists around the world.

Mitzvah Day: Jews and Muslims come together to cook chicken soup

Traditional Jewish dish is prepared at East London mosque on day of social action.

 Jewish and Muslim volunteers prepare the soup for distribution to homeless centres. Photograph: Yakir Zur

It is a beloved Jewish dish, served at Shabbat dinners to family and friends and reputed to have powerful medicinal properties. It is not normally cooked or served in a mosque.

But on Sunday, vast quantities of chicken soup – often known as “Jewish penicillin” – were being made at the East London mosque by Jewish and Muslim volunteers to be distributed to homeless centres.

Mounds of carrots, garlic, onions and celery were peeled and chopped on long benches by Muslim scouts, volunteers from Muslim Aid, members of the B’nai B’rith Youth Organisation and the New Stoke Newington Shul.

Tahir Iqbal, events director of Elite Caterers, was in charge of preparing 90 halal chickens for the pot. His company, which caters for Asian weddings and corporate events, donated the ingredients, equipment and transport for the cookathon.

“This is a new experience for us. I’ve never made Jewish chicken soup before, but I’ve been practising for two weeks, including on my family,” he said. The nearest Asian equivalent was chicken yakhni, a spicy broth, he added.


Muslims offer ‘wonderful’ gesture of support to local synagogue after it is daubed with swastika graffiti

etz-chaim-synagogue-0A group of Muslim men have offered a “wonderful” gesture to their local Jewish community, after a synagogue was targeted with racist graffiti.

The swastika and a racial slur were daubed on the sign outside the Etz Chaim synagogue in Leeds on Tuesday night, shocking the community.

In response, four local Muslim men brought flowers to show support and solidarity, where they were welcomed by the synagogue.

A members of the Etz Chaim community, Harry Brown, commented on Facebook: “I was truly humbled by [the] amazing gesture – the gift of flowers and your support.

“This is what we want to see, and equally the Jewish community should reach out not only to Muslim faiths but to all other faiths.

“From an unpleasant episode came a wonderful outpouring of support which the whole community appreciates.”

 The instigator of the gesture was 36-year-old Shahab Adris, the Yorkshire and Humber regional manager of Mend, a not-for-profit company which hopes to reduce Islamophobia and increase engagement and development within British communities.

Jewish-Muslim relations in the Age of Trump


The election of Donald Trump as president and the appointment of former Breitbart News chair Stephen Bannon as chief White House strategist have generated a great deal of unease in the Muslim community. As Jews, we have both a moral obligation and an enlightened self-interest to make sure Muslim Americans feel safe and completely at home in America.

Three years ago, North Brunswick resident Sheryl Olitzky launched the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom, the only national organization focusing on Muslim and Jewish women with the goal of living in harmony. Of the approximately 50 Sisterhood chapters already running or in the works nationwide, 14 are in New Jersey.

“By providing a safe environment for Muslim and Jewish women to come together to focus on commonalities, respect differences, and create enduring friendships, we find that attitudes toward another religious community improve overall,” she said. In the weeks since the election, Olitzky, who now serves as the organization’s executive director, said, “We have heard from hundreds of women that the Sisterhood is the only place where they feel like they are understood, can be honest about their concerns and feelings, and find support.”


Muslims, Jews benefit by reading each others’ holy texts

9-Velgenaidi-maha-withnameI recently attended and spoke at an interfaith iftar at Peninsula Temple Sholom, as the Burlingame synagogue opened its doors to celebrate Ramadan. Iftar is the evening meal at which Muslims end their daily fasts during Ramadan, and this event was packed with people from the synagogue as well as from nearby churches and mosques.

Conversation at my table was filled with questions about Islam that I hope I answered to the satisfaction of the guests. Based on feedback from my tablemates and others I chatted with, people were grateful that they were able learn more about Islam and Muslims, and they appreciated our sharing of ourselves.

Many of them left committed to continuing to work toward peace and harmony in our communities while fighting all forms of bigotry, including that which results from Islamophobia.

In turn, I am eternally grateful to Jewish communities and organizations that have consistently spoken out against Islamophobia and bigoted policies calling for banning Syrian refugees or Muslims from entering the United States. Their courage to speak out has given much comfort to American Muslims, showing them that they’re not alone in their fight against the onslaught of bigotry and hatred by politicians and religious leadership.

I am also grateful for the many churches and other Christian institutions, as well as interfaith councils, who have reached out to Muslims to host similar interfaith events or who have attended mosque open houses that have now become regular events during Ramadan and throughout the year.

I remain proud of my American Muslim community for its resilience, courage, openness and ability to adapt, change and improve constantly in its response to growing Islamophobia. I have never in my experience seen such rapid change and growth in such a short span of time — between 9/11 and the present — by any minority community that is under siege as the American Muslim community is.

Once this idea that Muslims are foreign to America is put to rest, I look forward to the time when American Muslims will regularly reciprocate by inviting Jews and Christians to mosques to learn about Christianity and Judaism and to understand better the traditions, practices and values of our neighbors.

I know many Muslims believe that they already know those other religions, since Islam comes after them in chronology of revelation. I, too, thought the same thing until I had the opportunity to actually read the Gospels and parts of the Torah.


Interfaith ‘sisters’ seek common ground

In New Jersey Muslim and Jewish women gather for a day of dialogue

SalaamWomenAE_300_200_90Days after a massacre in San Bernardino, Calif., drew national attention to the radical ideology of its two Muslim perpetrators, 350 Muslim and Jewish women gathered in Princeton to build bridges and fight hate, negative stereotyping, and prejudice.

On Dec. 6, the women joined together at Princeton University for the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom’s annual Muslim and Jewish Women’s Leadership Conference to learn about each other’s experiences, get pointers on interfaith dialogue and social action, and motivate one another to make change.

Founded by Middlesex County residents Sheryl Olitzky and Atiya Aftab in 2010, the sisterhood now counts chapters in 15 communities, with more on the way.

The Dec. 2 shootings in San Bernardino, which left 14 people dead, weighed heavily on the proceedings, as women discussed how to promote dialogue and social change and how to deal with potential obstacles.

Asmy Ahmed from Robbinsville and Nasreen Rashid from Monmouth Junction, two Muslim members of the Princeton chapter of Salaam Shalom, both recalled their gut response to the San Bernardino violence: “Please let it not be a Muslim who is involved.”


Muslim scholar Focuses on Holocaust Studies

Mehnaz AfridiIn a sane world, there would be nothing in any way eyebrow-raising about a Muslim scholar teaching a course about the Holocaust at a Roman Catholic college.

No, no, scratch that. In a sane world, there would not have been a Holocaust.

But suppose that after the war ended and the camps were liberated, the world came to its collective senses, recoiled in horror from what it saw, and decided that such evil never could happen again. In that world, there would be nothing at all surprising about a Muslim scholar teaching a course about the Holocaust at a Roman Catholic college.

We do not live in such a world. So it is both a surprise and an ongoing act of courage that Dr. Mehnaz Afridi, who is the director of the Holocaust, Genocide, and Interfaith Education Center at Manhattan College in Riverdale — and who will give the keynote address at the Interfaith Holocaust Memorial Service in Ridgewood, New Jersey this year  has chosen to devote her life to it.

She lived in Pakistan, Dubai, London, and Geneva. Later, she moved to Scarsdale, N.Y., where she finished high school.

Dr. Afridi speaks an unaccented, colloquial English — occasionally she will come up with usages that are not entirely familiar here, but that is rare. “I feel very native in English, but I learned it when I was 9,” she said. “I worked at not having an accent, because as a teacher, you don’t want to sound like a foreigner.” But the language she spoke at home when she was growing up was Urdu, she had a tutor who taught her classical Arabic, and she “is comfortable in four or five languages,” she said.


Mideast conflict affects all Muslims and Jews: Marmur

At times such as these it’s impossible for Muslims and Jews living outside the Middle East not to be affected by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in their relationship to each other. Those living far from the scene often hold even more extreme views than those in the region. Others believe that they can make peace there by acting here.

Shai Har-El, businessman, scholar and rabbi is among the latter. His book, Where Islam and Judaism Join Together, argues contrary to received wisdom that religion doesn’t fuel the conflict but is potentially “a catalyst for action in the battle for peace in the Middle East.” With this in mind he founded the Middle East Peace Network in 1990 and has since also helped to establish the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Chicago.

In a recent interview Dr. Har-El, who was born in Israel and holds degrees from the universities of Tel Aviv and Chicago, outlined his plan that notwithstanding its political agenda would harness the religious forces that make for unity and tolerance in the service of a lasting peace between Palestinians and Israelis. But despite his seemingly good intentions, his efforts don’t appear to have had much of an impact.

His utopian desire to temper politics with religion isn’t unique. For example, theLevantine Cultural Center in Los Angeles, which was launched more than a decade after the Middle East Peace Network, seems to have a similar agenda. In addition to its religious base it promotes intercultural activities and political discussions that include criticism of Israel and Zionism. As a result, Jewish mainstream organizations have kept their distance and it’s not clear to what extent Islamic groups have embraced it. Again, the effort may be praiseworthy but the results seem meagre.

The proposed House of Prayer and Learning in Berlin aims to be very different. Instead of seeking to solve the conflict in the Middle East, its stated purpose is to establish good relations between Jews and Muslims locally. While respecting religious differences, it stresses the fundamental similarities between the monotheistic faiths. The dialogue it promotes seeks to mirror the multiculturalism of the German capital.