A majority of Americans polled in March support Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s call for a ban on all non-citizen Muslims entering the United States.
That same YouGov/Huffington Post poll found that a proposal by Texas Sen. Ted Cruz to “patrol and secure” Muslim neighborhoods was supported by 45 percent of Americans.
Anti-Muslim attacks spiked to 53 during the month of December — 17 targeted mosques and Islamic schools — after Trump called for shutting down mosques in the wake of the Paris terrorist attacks, according to a Georgetown University survey.
The president of the Islamic Center of Long Island, Isma Chaudhry, said last week that such talk has led to a “backlash on the streets” in which Muslims are being told to “go back to your country” and “you don’t belong here.”
Amid such rancor, the American Jewish Committee, which bills itself as the leading global Jewish advocacy organization, has hired Robert Silverman to fill the new position of director of Muslim-Jewish Relations, a move that catapults the knotty issue to the top of the communal agenda.
“This is a community that is in some distress because of some of the speech that is coming out of politicians,” Silverman told The Jewish Week. “We as Jews should do the right thing … [and] the AJC is the right address to work on stronger ties between the two communities.”
He said that although both the Muslim and Jewish communities are minorities in the U.S., “we are the more settled, established community” and this is the “right time to develop ties with this community. Showing support at this critical time will lead to good results for the Jewish people down the road.”
Fluent in Arabic, Hebrew and Turkish, Silverman, 58, worked for 27 years at the U.S. State Department. A senior foreign service officer, he completed his tenure as director of regional and multilateral affairs in the State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs.
“I had nine overseas tours and all but one was in a Muslim country,” he said. “I have spent my entire professional career forming ties and friendships with different communities and mostly in the Muslim world. Even in my ninth country, Sweden, I reached out to the Muslim community.”
Muslim and Jewish leaders alike have welcomed the AJC’s appointment. Rabbi Bob Kaplan, director of the Center for Community Leadership at the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, said he knows of no other mainstream Jewish organization that has a staff person dedicated to Muslim outreach.
“I look forward to meeting with him and discovering how we can partner in this work,” he said in an email.
Imam Abdullah Antepli, who heads Muslim affairs at Duke University in North Carolina and co-directs the Muslim Leadership Initiative with Yossi Klein Halevi at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, said he was “extremely joyous, encouraged and inspired by this timely and very meaningful and needed appointment.”
He said he had already spoken with Silverman and was impressed with his “incredibly rich background,” which he said “shows how serious the AJC is to start a new relationship.”
“If any communities understand marginalization it is the African-American and Jewish communities because they have gone through much worse than we are going through now,” he said.
The AJC has paid increasing attention to the Muslim community over the past 25 years leading up to the creation of his new position, Silverman pointed out.
“The AJC has ongoing good contacts, particularly at the lower levels because the Jewish and Muslim communities are not hierarchal,” he said. “I’m inheriting a network of ties and we are going to expand and deepen American Jewish interests. … be they combating anti-Semitism, supporting Israel’s place in the world, or working on tolerance and freedom of religion.”
Among the challenges Silverman said he faces is dealing with the anti-Israel beliefs of American Muslims, something that is taught in Islamic schools here. Impact-SE, a Jerusalem-based organization, released a study in March that analyzed the curriculum used by five Islamic schools in North America. Although the material reflects “a generally tolerant tone,” the study said it “projects hostility to Israel,” “military jihad [is] taught,” and “Israel is delegitimized, knocked off maps.”
“Israel comes up in every conversation,” Silverman said. “Sometimes all you can do is have civil discourse and agree to disagree on issues. The tachlis [essence] will come with further relationship building. … Israel is the nation state of the Jewish people and the democratic state for all those who live there. There are 1.3 million Muslims living in Israel — more than in Qatar. Israel is the only multicultural democracy in the Middle East and home to the freest Muslims” in the region.
The AJC appointment also comes at a time when the Islamic State is having some success recruiting American Muslims to its cause. In Minneapolis, three Somali-Americans are being tried on federal charges of plotting to join ISIS. Nationally, more than 80 Americans — mostly Muslims — have been arrested for seeking to join the group.
Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, said he is concerned also about Syrian refugees who pose a danger to the United States. He cited an Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies poll of 900 Syrian refugees taken last November in which fully one-third said they are ISIS sympathizers and 13 percent said they supported ISIS. In addition, he said the poll found that 77 percent of Syrians support Hamas, which has vowed Israel’s destruction. And Klein noted that a Pew Research Center survey found that in majority Muslim nations such as Syria, more than 90 percent of their residents held anti-Semitic attitudes towards Jews.
Although not challenging those statistics, Sayyid Syeed, national director of the Office for Interfaith and Community Alliances for the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), said they must be understood in context.
“Those people have been living for years under a dictatorship and their minds have been poisoned,” he explained, referring to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. “This is our chance to work together to welcome them and help them go through a transformational experience. Let them see and experience [life here], and they will become our best advocates against that false ideology.”
Silverman called for caution.
“American Jews should be careful not to add to a climate of fear that exists in our country regarding immigrants,” he said. “We need to separate legitimate security concerns from fear-mongering, and our voices should help inform this debate and that difference.”
Klein cited statements of FBI Director James Comey and National Intelligence Director James Clapper in which they expressed concern that ISIS operatives might slip through the vetting process and enter the U.S. as refugees.
Asked about that, Silverman said in an email that he would “carefully distinguish between unvetted asylees who, when fleeing Syria, end up in Europe and seek refuge in Europe, and the refugees whom HIAS and other NGOs like Catholic Relief Services resettle in this country. A third category are immigrants who enter the U.S. under other categories (e.g., family preferences and finance visas). In short, attempts to mesh the different types of immigration … doesn’t help inform the U.S. debate, which our public is having.”
Klein pointed out that the 18-to-24-month vetting process the Obama administration had assured Americans would screen out ISIS terrorists has been cut to three months in recent weeks in order to ensure that the U.S. accepts the 10,000 refugees Obama promised by Sept. 30.
But Melanie Nezer, vice president for policy and advocacy at HIAS, the country’s only Jewish resettlement agency, insisted that the same screening process is in place and that the only thing that changed is an “infusion of resources to make the process go faster.”
“The screening is being done in a condensed way with no steps eliminated,” she told The Jewish Week.
Asked about the comments of Comey and Clapper, Nezer said: “There are many different security agencies involved, including the CIA. Plus, State Department officials and the Department of Homeland Security know conditions in the country … and if any question at all is raised [about an applicant], that person doesn’t come in.
“I encourage everyone to talk to a refugee who has resettled here. They will be reassured that these people escaped horrible violence and are extremely grateful to be in a place that is safe and welcoming,” she said.
Rabbi Jack Moline, executive director of the Interfaith Alliance, helped write a statement supported by nine Jewish groups and more than 20 other organizations that backs a bill by Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) that would prohibit barring anyone from the U.S. on the basis of religion.
“Concerns about national security are mixing with unchecked anti-Muslim bigotry and fomenting unjust fear and scrutiny of Muslim refugees and immigrants,” the statement said. “To close our doors to Muslim immigrants and refugees in need would betray both the First Amendment and our nation’s great history as an open and welcoming land.”
Rabbi Moline welcomed the AJC’s new appointment.
Among the groups signing the statement was the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, whose founder and president, Rabbi Marc Schneier, termed the AJC appointment a “validation of our work [Jewish-Muslim relations] that we pioneered 10 years ago.”
Catherine Orsborn, campaign director of Shoulder to Shoulder, an interfaith group that is part of ISNA, said she has been encouraged to see “so many Jewish organizations and Jewish leaders come out recently against anti-Muslim bigotry.”
“Standing up for other communities other than one’s own when they are under attack is really critical to protecting our democracy,” she said. “This appointment only raises the importance of this issue in the Jewish community.”
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