Efforts at Jewish-Muslim Understanding Grow despite Attempts to Demonize Islam

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DESPITE THE efforts of some Israelis and some in the American Jewish community to demonize the religion of Islam rather than focusing their attention on the minority of extremists within the Islamic community, efforts toward Muslim-Jewish understanding are growing.

Recalls Rabbi Bruce M. Lustig, senior rabbi at the Washington Hebrew Congregation, one of the largest Jewish congregations in North America with more than 3,000 families served: "Shortly after 9/11, I invited Bishop John Chane (Episcopal bishop of Greater Washington and the National Cathedral) and professor Akbar Ahmed (Ibn Khaldun scholar of Islamic studies at American University) to share with them the idea of starting an Abrahamic faith dialogue. My simple premise was based on what my mother told me as a child: Stay away from strangers. If these two men and their faiths were to remain strangers to me, I would only grow to fear them, not know them. Soon after, we held one of the first Abrahamic faith forums in America. We also forged a friendship that has been transformative. These men are my friends, my mentors, my sounding boards."

Although "we do not agree on every social or political question," Rabbi Lustig notes, "we have deep respect for, and a deep honesty with, each other. Having others challenge my ideas and demand clarity of creed is a powerful and uplifting experience. They have helped me to become a stronger Jew and a better rabbi. To my children, the answer to what it means to be Christian or Muslim is not abstract; it is the love they know from John and Akbar, who join us at our table and who teach us by example."

This past November, more than 50 mosques and synagogues across the country participated in the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding's Weekend of Twinning.

With a stated premise that "we are all children of Abraham," the weekend brought together synagogues and mosques to combat Islamophobia and anti-Semitism in their communities.

"What we realized is that we don't know enough about each other," said Rabbi Gregory Harris of Congregation Beth-El in Bethesda, Maryland. "We're relatives in the Abrahamic sense, but we're total strangers in every other sense of it."

Beth-El paired with the Islamic Center of Maryland in Gaithersburg to hold "Judaism 101 and Islam 101" classes on the fundamentals of each religion.

The phrase Judeo-Christian should be replaced with "Abrahamic."

According to Rabbi Marc Schneier, founder and president of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, who helped establish the weekend, the goal is to "create a paradigm of Jewish-Muslim support that we can export to other parts of the world...We must take advantage of these opportunities, especially within the Muslim world, where we are now beginning to see the emergence of a more moderate centrist voice that has a particular interest in reaching out to the Jewish religion."

Rabbi Schneier met in New York in November with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, a core supporter of the initiative.

The weekend fulfilled a pledge faith leaders took in 2007 at the World Conference of Dialogue in Madrid. Co-sponsors are the World Jewish Congress, the Muslim Affairs Council and the Islamic Society of North America.

Daniel Spiro, author of the novel Moses The Heretic (Aegis Press), argues that the phrase Judeo-Christian should be replaced with "Abrahamic." He notes that although the world faces a real problem of Islamic terrorism, the religion also contains elements that are "uniquely beautiful," and that "We Jews need to seek them out. Most of us viscerally appreciate Christian ethics as a useful add-on to the foundation of Jewish ethics. But when we think about Islam, most of us don't appreciate what is profoundly beautiful. We basically see Islam as a violent outgrowth of monotheism. I want that changed."

In Spiro's view, "To borrow from another religion, if we want peace in Israel we need to generate good karma. …