(RNS) — When I started my career in interfaith engagement 16 years ago, Muslim-Jewish relations were generally characterized by friction and mutual suspicion. Many American Jews did not know Muslims and tended to view Islam through the dual lenses of 9/11 and the Second Intifada. Meanwhile, most American Muslims were not engaged with modern Jewish life and often saw Jewish advocacy as fueled by Islamophobia and anti-Palestinian bigotry. When tensions flared between Israelis and Palestinians, our American communities adjudicated the conflict with dueling press releases and reciprocal condemnations.
Reading American media headlines in the months after the 11-day Israel-Hamas conflict in May 2021, one might think not much has changed. We witnessed rancorous demonization on social media, blacklists, guidelines and public admonitions by Muslims and against Muslim engagement with Jews who express any type of support for Israel; and even one Jewish pundit labeling a Jewish group as Nazi collaborators for working with a Muslim organization that criticized Israeli policy.
However, in reality thousands of individual trusting Muslim-Jewish friendships among neighbors, co-workers and classmates have emerged in recent years, along with dozens of Muslim-Jewish interfaith initiatives.
These generally withstood the May stress test, because Jewish and Muslim Americans are learning to tread the path of partnership together. Today, conventional wisdom in both communities supports engagement over estrangement and cooperation over conflict. However, constructive partnership is not inevitable. For those seeking to travel the road of Muslim-Jewish relations, here are 10 useful tips:
1. Where we’ve been doesn’t tell us where we’re going.
Partners in Muslim-Jewish dialogue must reckon honestly with hostile episodes in our shared history in order to disrupt the cycle of enmity. A contentious past does not determine our present, but to write a new chapter in Muslim-Jewish relations we must also address and redress our own recent history of friction.
2. Many roads take us there.
From interfaith dialogue to joint advocacy against rising hate crimes, Muslim and Jewish Americans are charting diverse paths to partnership. Education about Islam or Judaism is productive, as are cultural exchanges, such as Muslim-Jewish iftars and Shabbat services. Communities standing in solidarity when the other is attacked — as seen after the massacres in a Pittsburgh synagogue and mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand — create connective tissue and strengthen our resilience to intergroup conflict.
3. Don’t feed the trolls.
Both communities harbor firebrands who wish to drive a wedge between Muslims and Jews. Some will claim only “those Jews” are halal or only “those Muslims” are the kosher ones. Others too casually invoke terms like “antisemite,” “Islamophobe,” “extremist” and “colonialist” to disqualify potential partners. In 2001 such voices were commonplace. In 2021 these trolls live under the Muslim-Jewish bridge and harass all those who wish to cross. However, their power flows mainly from the controversy they generate.
4. Pay the toll to cross the bridge.
Even as Muslim-Jewish engagement advances, wrongheaded assumptions about the other persist. Yet offensive stereotypes held among some — “Muslims are apologists for extremism” or “Jews relish Palestinian suffering” — are often thinly held and easily dispelled. If traversing communal boundaries requires that we pronounce what is obvious to us — affirming the right of Palestinians to self-determination or condemning antisemitism that seeks grounding in Islam — we should do so readily and repeatedly. The transformative impact on the other community is well worth the cost of entry.
5. Don’t live on the bridge.
Veteran bridge-builders are often tempted to make the network of interfaith activists their primary community. However, to effectuate change in Muslim-Jewish relations beyond a small inner circle we must be firmly rooted in our own identity groups. This is the only way to advocate for our constituents and empower them to cross the bridge with us.
6. Respect the distance, respect the difference.
Muslims and Jews hold many common ideas, such as monotheism, prophecy and ethical norms. Many of our ritual structures are similar (e.g., days of fasting and days of feasting, dietary laws and daily prayers). In the U.S. we also share social values such as education, religious freedom and civic participation. However, just as importantly we should honor our distinctive histories, commitments and challenges. Relationships founded exclusively on points of commonality will crumble when very real differences surface.
7. Share the load.
Partnerships with a power imbalance are unsustainable. In Muslim-Jewish relations, our initiatives should be administered with funding from both sides, mutual accountability, shared risk and joint control over decision-making. Neither community can be patron or pawn to the other.
8. Know the terrain.
Increased engagement between communities can lead to increased questioning within communities. “How do you know you are not being used?” “Why don’t they stand up for us like we do for them?” “Are they saying to their own people in private what they say to you in public?” Skepticism is not the same as cynicism and doubt can help guide us without controlling our path. When we know the terrain of our own communities our trust-building efforts will yield ever more convincing responses to these questions.
9. Wrong turns are inevitable.
For the first time in history Muslims and Jews are living side by side as minorities in free democracies with robust civic engagement. The opportunities are unprecedented, as are the challenges. In America’s polarized moment — characterized by turbocharged identity politics and loyalties vigilantly policed on social media — missteps are inevitable. A leader says something that offends the other; a house of worship invites a speaker deemed problematic; an organization tweets before it has all the facts. The long haul of Muslim-Jewish transformation demands we meet mistakes by our interlocutors directly and charitably whenever possible — and accept corrective measures when they are offered with sincerity.
10. Pause for breaks and enjoy the view.
Controversy commands more bandwidth than cooperation, and it is easy to obsess over points of conflict. As with any grueling journey, we must stop along the way and appreciate how far we have come. Muslim-Jewish programs and active friendships are flourishing across the country. Religious commonalities (and even common threats) ground our partnerships, even as we learn to surmount the tough topics that divide us.
The names of our respective legal systems, Shariah and Halakhah, both mean “path,” because both traditions view a life of meaningful action as a road that one traverses over the course of a lifetime. Building sustainable and constructive Muslim-Jewish relations is also a journey — one we must make together.
(Ari Gordon is the American Jewish Committee’s director of Muslim-Jewish relations and staffs the Muslim-Jewish Advisory Council. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)