For months now, coverage has abounded on Israel’s newly forged ties with Gulf States with the hope that the peace treaties will pave the way to an era of détente between the state and more of its largely Muslim neighbors.
Yet well before these high-profile deals were inked, a set of alliances between Jews and Muslims in America and Europe have brought members of both communities together in pursuit of a growing list of overlapping priorities.
In a world where dual threats of bias-driven violence and anti-religious sentiment are on the rise, Jews and Muslims face similar challenges in their quests for physical and spiritual security. In an attempt to pool their resources, some have formed coalitions to help their communities maximize their effectiveness in advocacy, legal battles, and other more practical concerns.
An example of shared interests was recently on display when the official bodies of Switzerland’s Jewish community condemned a referendum in which 51% of voters supported a ban on face coverings for Muslim women.
The stakes of such populist-driven action against conspicuous religious practice are obvious for religious Jews and it was but one of an increasing number of movements that place both communities in common peril.
Side by Side in Brooklyn
In America, the groundwork is markedly different from Europe, as Muslims represent a far smaller percentage of the population and the march of secularization is yet at an earlier stage.
Still, as common challenges loom, the two communities have found areas where collaboration was beneficial.
New York City Councilman Chaim Deutsch, whose district contains large communities of both groups, has been instrumental in building bridges and finding areas where one can aid the other.
“Our two communities live side by side, we’re both of religious faith and have common concerns when it comes to our religious rights,” said Councilman Deutsch. “When a community fights alone sometimes it falls on deaf ears, but when two speak out together, the message comes across louder and clearer.”
Because both groups place great importance on swiftly burying their deceased, maintaining an efficient way of dealing with impasses in the release of bodies by hospitals and the medical examiner’s office is one area were Muslims and Jews have formed a coalition for some time. While the matter elicits little controversy, without city agencies being aware and sensitive to these needs, any number of delays can occur.
In 2018, Councilman Deutsch helped Misaskim and Muslim Funeral Services join forces to express their concerns over the rollout of the city’s eVital computerized system, which deals with documenting all those who pass away in New York. Advocates of both groups felt strongly that, unless kinks were addressed and realistic workarounds were made, burials could frequently be delayed. Eventually, city officials agreed to meet with the coalition and, after adjustments were made, new policies were put into operation with relatively smooth results.
In the early months of the COVID pandemic, as hospitals and city agencies were overwhelmed with sick and dying patients, the two communities once again joined forces for the grim work of ensuring that the unprecedented challenge would not impede proper respect for the dead. Councilman Deutsch once again played matchmaker, organizing a conference call between Misaskim, Chessed shel Emes, the Muslim funeral organization, and relevant city representatives to find a solution.
Imam Ahmed Ali Uzir, of Brooklyn’s Iqra Masjid on Dahill Road, said that the Jewish community’s willingness to open their connections with city government was essential in getting his congregants the services they needed.
“Unfortunately, in government they look much less at need and pay more attention to people they have relationships with,” he said. “These meetings allowed us [Muslim] clergy to have our issues heard and get the resources we need. The city took us seriously.”
Imam Uzir said that the pandemic made him and his colleagues realize that their efforts to streamline the burial process would be much helped if they could cut through more red tape to be recognized as funeral directors — an effort they are presently working on together with Councilman Deutsch.
“Both Jews and Muslims do not want someone handling a body just because they went through the city’s system. We want someone who knows and respects our traditions,” said Imam Uzir.
The partnership of Brooklyn Jews and Muslims has gone well beyond post-mortem issues. In 2019 the two communities successfully lobbied the City Council to budget funds for kosher and halal options for public school students.
Imam Uzir heaped generous praise on Councilman Deutsch, who represents his district, for his responsiveness on issues like winning accommodations for more parking on Fridays when Muslim prayers are more widely attended and for advocating for police to provide his community’s institutions with additional security.
“[Our communities] have so many similarities and when you have someone like Chaim Deutsch who tries to help without discriminating, we are encouraged to work together to win the help we need,” he said.
An accommodation that elicited some minor controversy was when the councilman arranged for a day with hours for men or women only at a beach in southern Brooklyn. Far more tumultuous were efforts to allow for shuls and mosques to hold daily services as COVID cases began to wane last spring and again in the early fall when an executive order from Governor Andrew Cuomo restricted them to 10 participants in “red zones” regardless of capacity.
“There clearly wasn’t too much about this mandate that was based on science and it came down hard on both of our communities,” said Councilman Deutsch. “New York City officials like to compliment how diverse the city is. But if you talk about diversity you have to be willing to accommodate the needs and traditions of those communities and I hold them accountable when their words don’t match their positions on religious rights.”
Common Cause in Court
The lawsuits that arose from Governor Cuomo’s restrictions on public prayer rippled far beyond New York and ultimately made their way to the Supreme Court, which declared the executive order unconstitutional. Before the case got that far, the Muslim Public Affairs Council, the Religious Freedom Institute’s Islam and Religious Freedom Action Team, and Asma Uddin, an attorney and scholar focusing on religious liberty, filed a joint brief supporting the case brought by the Agudath Israel of America.
Mrs. Uddin, who has also co-authored several other amici briefs with Jewish counterparts, said that the two groups have much common concern in legal struggles.
“There are some areas of overlap in practice, but more than that, another minority group whose practices are molded by a belief in guidance from G-d will have an easier time grasping common challenges,” said Mrs. Uddin. “So much of our understanding of religious liberty is premised on the Protestant Christian conception. We have a different idea of how our relationship with G-d works.”
Orthodox groups have long partnered with Christian groups who have led most of the nation’s high profile religious liberty legal battles. Howard Slugh, lead counsel for the Jewish Coalition for Religious Liberty who has co-authored several briefs and articles with Mrs. Uddin, said that this partnership with Christians leaves a gap.
“Partnerships with Christians are extremely important, but Judaism and Islam have specific practice-based requirements which government officials might not understand and [therefore they] might inadvertently enact laws that impede them,” he said. “Cases about zoning and kosher and halal show how our communities are uniquely affected. It brings religious liberty down to the practical level.”
Mr. Slugh added that another commonality is that the outward signs of religiosity can cause friction with laws and often elicit resistance from local populations who try to use zoning laws to block the construction of shuls or mosques.
In 2015, the Supreme Court ruled that a Muslim prisoner in Arkansas could keep his beard and that same year the justices said that a retailer had violated the law by denying a Muslim woman a job on the basis that her head scarf violated their dress code.
Both groups continue to fight what they see as bias-driven zoning restrictions in courts. Recently, the New Jersey town of Toms River agreed to undo zoning changes that had blocked the construction of shuls, under pressure from the federal Department of Justice. While the second wave of restrictions had been put in place after the town’s Orthodox Jewish community began to grow, the first moves were a response to applications from a mosque and Islamic school.
Some of the cases that Mr. Slugh and Mrs. Uddin have jointly filed briefs for include broader hot-button topics such as whether clergy employment protections extend to teachers in religious schools and another that focused on the right of religious student organizations to choose leaders who are adherents to their faith.
Another defended the rights of a Christian florist to refuse to service an event that conflicted with her beliefs. Even on areas like these, where larger Christian groups have thrown their weight behind claims, Mr. Slugh felt there was value in adding the shared voices of minority faiths.
“It shows that, contrary to what the opposition would like to show, religious liberty is not about a religious majority trying to enforce hegemony, it’s not a cudgel to go after unpopular groups,” he said. “Our voice shows that religious liberty is about believers sincerely doing what they feel they are commanded to do, being able to live life in the public square. That’s something especially important to minorities like Jews and Muslims, whose behavior in the workplace is something that cannot be separated from their religious observance.”
Mrs. Uddin said that presenting united Jewish-Muslim fronts was an especially valuable tool in challenging progressive narratives on religious liberty in the court of public opinion.
“There is an assumption that there is an inherent conflict between Jews and Muslims over the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Showing that we can put aside our differences sends a message that if these groups can get over their differences, maybe we should be able to get the politics out of protecting religious freedom,” she said.
Mrs. Uddin said that she hoped such joint efforts would increase as their effect would likely be commensurate to their prominence in the public eye. She said that the effort to defend religious liberty by upending stereotypical narratives is a theme of her upcoming book and is one of the key messages of minority faiths making their voices heard on such issues.
“Everything now is tribal and political. It’s not just a policy issue, it’s about what lifestyle you live and religion is part of this. If you’re a white religious Christian you’re lumped into the right-wing tribe, if you’re Muslim, you’re lumped into the liberal tribe,” said Mrs. Uddin. “The more we can cross-cut our coalitions and show that protecting the right to dress in accordance with faith or to act according to traditional morality is something our communities need, you begin to blur those distinctions and it becomes harder to dismiss religious liberty as a racist Christian idea.”
Building Fences Together
In Western Europe, a toxic cocktail of militant secularism and xenophobic ultra-nationalism has raised the stakes for efforts to defend the rights and security of Jewish and Muslim communities.
One of the unfortunate needs the two communities have seen increase simultaneously is increased security.
Since 1994, the Community Security Trust (CST) has served as British Jewry’s central organization for addressing the security needs of the community’s institutions and for working to combat anti-Semitism. As the group grew, Muslim institutions facing threats began to ask for advice. Eight years ago, a group of Muslims established a formal security and hate-crime-fighting organization, known as Tell Mama, and approached CST to forge a more formal partnership.
“We started off as the big brother in the relationship,” said Jonny Newton of CST who serves as a liaison to Tell Mama. “They borrowed our process of monitoring to better track anti-Muslim hatred.”
The two groups continued sharing methods as they evolved with a member of each sitting on the board of the other. Some projects, like programs to educate public school children about hate crimes, were run jointly by representatives of both communities.
“At this point we have a symbiotic relationship, and we benefit from it as much as they do,” said Mr. Newton.
CST is recognized by the British government and Mr. Newton said that joint advocacy for funding has borne positive results. He noted that while the cooperation between the two communities is inherently positive, the factors that forge their relationship are little to celebrate.
“There is a lot more that divides society right now than unites it and radicalization is a problem that poses a serious threat to minority faith communities,” he said. “We’re both caught in the crosshairs of that.”
As waves of Muslim immigrants began to change the demographics of Europe and more so as Islamicist terror threats rose, far right-wing sentiments crossed paths with left-wing secularists to form a coalition to ban practices that ruffled both of their feathers. Attempts to forbid religious circumcision methods by those advocating that parents do not have a right to violate the “right of the child” joined by those whose primary target is the Muslim immigrant community have been a growing threat in Scandinavia for over a decade and a ban was narrowly thwarted in Iceland two years ago only through strong international pressure.
Religious slaughter methods have met resistance from a similar coalition of anti-immigrant groups and animal welfare advocates. They have largely won the battle for popular opinion and in 2017 two of Belgium’s three regions passed a ban on schechitah and halal slaughter with nearly unanimous votes in their parliaments. Hopes for reversing the ban were all but closed by a ruling a few months ago by the European Union’s Court of Justice upholding the ban and saying explicitly that its nation members were free to pursue the same path.
“The concept of faith in 21st century Europe is generally thought of as old-fashioned, so even the liberal-minded do not see much value in defending it,” said Shimon Cohen, who heads the advocacy organization Shechita U.K. “Christianity can manage to tug along because its more about what they believe, but Jews and Muslims do things like shechitah and milah that come into conflict with the secularist view of child’s rights or animal welfare and in [many Europeans’] minds, these practices do not have a place in the 21st century.”
Mr. Cohen said that threats to shared practices have led to natural alliances and sharing of strategies on how to defend them. However, he said, as methods of both circumcision and slaughter differ significantly, groups have largely avoided formal partnerships so as not to allow nuances that could be significant in the minds of policy-makers to get lost. Mr. Cohen added that often two voices with similar messages but advocating from different angles has its advantages.
“In principle, the EU Convention on Human Rights protects faith groups, but in practice it only helps for those minority faiths that shout loudly,” he said.
After over a decade of ad hoc cooperation between Jewish and Muslim community advocates in Europe, in 2016 a group of rabbis and imams formed the European Muslim and Jewish Leadership Council (MJLC) to promote “a culture of respect and appreciation of religious identities.”
“Jewish and Muslim partnership [in western Europe] is crucial to the survival of both communities here,” said Imam Mohammad Ismail, who serves as a chaplain at the University of Sheffield in England and has worked closely with MJLC. “We are faced with a double-edged sword from the right and the left and the anti-religious lobby is growing in their alliances. The continent is facing its fair share of serious problems. History shows that in times of crisis society always tries to find a scapegoat, and that scapegoat is usually minority communities.”
Imam Ismail said that it took quite a few attempts to form the MJLC and that its success since then has been predicated on a mutual agreement “not to discuss Palestinian and Israeli issues,” and to focus solely on common threats faced in Europe.
Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, Chief Rabbi of Moscow and President of the Conference of European Rabbis, serves as co-chairman of MJLC together with Mufti Dr. Nedžad Grabus of Ljubljana, Slovenia.
He recently spoke out against the Swiss referendum to ban religious face coverings and said that many events had shown the Jewish community’s interest in protecting the rights of other faith communities.
“If religious freedom is not granted to one group, the rights of other groups will be threatened as well,” he said. “More than 10 years ago, after Switzerland banned minarets [on mosques], I wrote an op-ed in The New York Times that if this sentiment continues, shechitah and milah will be threatened as well. Unfortunately, I was right.”
Rabbi Goldschmidt said that ever more militant secularism is making distinctions between methods the groups use in their methods of slaughter and circumcision less important in the eyes of many Europeans and that Muslim demographic ascendency makes such partnerships increasingly valuable.
“I just spoke with some Jewish leaders who expressed their concerns about President Biden. I put it in context by pointing out that whatever his policy positions, Biden is a Catholic who goes to church every Sunday. There is not a single elected leader in [western] Europe that you can say that about,” said Rabbi Goldschmidt.
Imam Ismail said that while the European Muslim community is very large, the majority of its members are immigrants or first-generation Americans who are largely working class. As such, the partnership of Jews, who are highly integrated into the professional world and enjoy greater access to upper echelons of government in many countries, is mutually beneficial. The Imam was pleased that the two communities have raised their level of engagement, but said that given the level of threats faced, far more needed to be done to fully mobilize their mutual potential.
“I have told my own community, that Jews are a model for us. They have lived here for hundreds of years and maintained their practices, their language and culture,” he said. “As groups based on Abrahamic religion it is equally important to both of us to make sure there is a legal framework in place for future generations to be able to live here and prosper while remaining loyal to their faiths.”