A Jew and A Muslim? by Affad Shaikh


A Jew and a Muslim…

…sounds like the beginning of a joke or the beginning of an unpleasant story. Yet the recent Jewish Journal article with aforementioned setup tells a different tale altogether. It’s a great read on NewGround – the Muslim-Jewish fellowship percolating within the Los Angeles community that is making strides at challenging perceptions inside and outside the respective communities.

The article itself starts off from identities rooted in Muslim and Jewish perspective then ends with an almost exclusive focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. While it does detail NewGround’s unique methodolgy, the article does not hone in on what the organization emphasizes most strongly- the fact that here in the United States, that relationship between Muslims and Jews is much broader than Israel and Palestine.

I myself am part of the most recent group of NewGround fellows, and while I am Muslim, I am not Palestinian. I identify as South Asian. I was born in Pakistan and moved to the US when I was two years old. But my grandparents were all born in India and migrated after 1947 to Pakistan. I have extended family in India and Pakistan. What I find ironic is that Pakistan and Israel were, in essence, created with the same purpose- to house a particular religious group that felt unsafe and uncertain about its future.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, however, cuts beyond the Palestinian ethnic and national identity. The repercussions of the conflict even go beyond Arab identity and affect the relationship of Jews with the greater Muslim world. That plays out here in Los Angeles and across the United States.

But what is surprising to many Americans is that Arabs only make up 12% of the worldwide Muslim population of one billion followers. The vast majority of Muslims in the world live in South East Asia, South Asia, Africa and Central Asia, including China. Here in the United States close to 30% of the American Muslim population are of South Asian ancestry- Pakistani, Indian, Kashmiri, Bangladeshi and Afghan. And while we South Asians don’t have direct involvement of any sort in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it still affects the relationship with the Jewish American community because of our religious connection to the land.

Going into the fellowship I felt that I had very little to offer to the discussion in terms of the conflict. As a Civil Right activist, for me it’s a human rights issue but I didn’t have personal stories or family history to share in the fellowship discussing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Yet I learned a great deal from the Jewish fellows. I also got a chance to have a meaningful space to discuss and challenge norms and ideas within the group of Muslim fellows. It was a space we created for that purpose, very few opportunities like that exists in our increasingly polarized environment.

I also got a chance to finally share what I wanted the Jewish American community to hear from me: I don’t hate Jews. I want to visit Israel. I want to pray in my Holy space and visit the graves of my prophets. I recognize the insanity and cruelty and brutality of the Holocaust. It happened. It was real.

These were important stories to hear. Many of them were stories we wouldn’t share in the normal course of building acquaintances with people without the container provided by the fellowship. They were challenging. They were real. They were at times uncomfortable stories to listen to.

The thing the Jewish Journal missed was that it’s not about achieving peace “over there.” It’s about building peace “over here” regardless of what’s happening “over there.” When something does happen, we as fellows should be to be able to reach out to each other, ask about the well-being of family, discuss and find a way to assist our respective communities- because that’s what humans should do. The ability to have conversations and break bread is the first step to having very difficult and uncomfortable conversations. We, as fellows, choose to try this revolutionary thing. Unfortunately, the status quo of tension and fighting has defined our two communities not because it’s better or more productive but simply because it’s familiar.

As fellows, we may not agree on everything, but we can respect each other’s opinions and still find the means to work constructively together on common issues. Through the course of the fellowship, we discovered so many commonalities and shared concerns that grew into community projects. I expect to write about many of these projects and share them with you here. Because, it’s not a joke (or a shock) that a Muslim and Jew can work together; it’s my reality and I am intentionally working to achieve it with all the wonderful fellows from NewGround.

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