Back in the 1990s, when Robert Silverman was serving as a political officer at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, he developed a friendly relationship with Osama El-Baz, a diplomat who had accompanied Egyptian President Anwar Sadat on his groundbreaking trip to Jerusalem in 1977. Silverman asked El-Baz how he could have the confidence to join Sadat and board a plane bound for the capital of a country Egypt had been at war with for generations.
“He told me ‘that was easy’,” said Silverman, staff member of the American Jewish Committee (AJC). El-Baz said that in Egypt he had Jewish friends in an apartment building he grew up in, Jewish friends in his school, and even dated a Jewish girl in middle school.
“It may have been apocryphal,” Silverman said. “But in his mind, he had grown up in a multicultural environment with Jewish friends and felt comfortable in pioneering Muslim outreach to Jews.”
El-Baz’s story, which Silverman recounted on March 15 via a teleconference breakfast meeting of 11 AJC members at its office in Millburn and 17 at the Jewish Center in Princeton, inspired him to follow a similar course. Since April 2016, Silverman has been the U.S. director of Muslim-Jewish Relations at the AJC. Prior to that he was a U.S. foreign service officer based in Sweden and in several Muslim-majority countries, including Azerbaijan, Turkey, Egypt, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Tunisia.
With the decline of a Jewish presence in many countries, the U.S. presents itself as the world’s best laboratory for increasing dialogues and relationships between Muslims and Jews, said Silverman, who believes “the potential to become extremely close, collegial, will work well for the Jewish people going forward.”
Thus far he has established the organization’s national Muslim Jewish Advisory Council and six regional councils in New York, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Dallas, South Florida, and Los Angeles. A seventh is expected to get off the ground in New Jersey within six months. The state AJC’s executive director, David Levy, told NJJN its makeup will be 10 to 15 hand-picked “diverse members” from both communities.
To avoid contentious arguments over Middle East policies, Silverman espouses pragmatism and is urging the groups to focus on a domestic agenda. “We are not trying to avoid elephants in the room,” he said. “We are trying to make progress in a positive sense, and shared domestic concerns are where we have the biggest impact.”
At the top of the Muslim-Jewish agenda is combatting hate crimes. Both Jews and Muslims are strongly backing a bill working its way through Congress that would impose harsher penalties for making bomb threats against religious institutions. Bomb threats are currently outlawed under state law, but the bill would make it possible for the threats to be classified as federal hate crimes, allowing the FBI to investigate and U.S. attorneys to prosecute.
“Getting a law passed by this coalition will be a good sign of our political strength,” Silverman said.
As he assumed his post at AJC in the midst of a bitter presidential campaign, “there was a lot of hateful rhetoric aimed at Muslims, but also an undercurrent of anti-Semitism going on,” he said. It made him realize there was “an opportunity to forge an alliance.”
The Muslim community in the United States, he said, is one of the most diverse in the world. About one third of the Muslims in America come from South Asia, principally Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh, and a fourth are Arab Americans.
Another 25 percent of American Muslims are African Americans, many of whom broke away from the Nation of Islam, the black separatist movement founded in Chicago on the 1920s as a reaction to racial segregation and Christianity, which their leaders deemed to be a “white man’s religion” that was forced on slaves by their owners. Last month its long-time leader, the Rev. Louis Farrakhan, made multiple hateful remarks at the Nation of Islam’s annual convention, including, “White folks are going down, and Satan is going down, and Farrakhan by God’s grace has pulled the cover off of that Satanic Jew — and I’m here to say, your time is up.”
Silverman described the Nation as “a cult that has virtually nothing to do with Islam.” But, he said, more than one million African Americans who were once members have become Sunni Muslims, which he called “a mainstream tolerant religion that is the most open to dealing with Jews.”
Silverman noted that Jewish outreach groups must learn to work with all three groups, as well as smaller factions of the American-Muslim community, despite differing views on Israel and the Palestinians. “People who have strong opposition to Israel,” he said, are not going to be good candidates for this group, but Muslims hold a variety of views about Israel, including those who support a two-state solution, a viewpoint believed to be held by the majority of American Jews. “It is less contentious than one might think.”
“The two communities have a lot of distrust of each other and we know that there is a lot of anti-Semitism coming out of certain mosques.” But, he added, “the rich tradition of anti-Semitism in Islam is probably less rich than Christian anti-Semitism. The Muslims don’t have as part of their theology that Jews killed the son of God, as some Christians had for many centuries.”
Genesia Kamen, president of the AJC’s Metro New Jersey Region, said, “it is a great idea to work on Muslim-Jewish dialogue. We need to find people who want to work on it and then find common ground. And just because it’s difficult, doesn’t mean we can’t do it.”
Added Ed Israelow of Westfield, who will replace Kamen in the summer, “I think it is a great idea because there are a lot of common issues affecting the Muslim and Jewish communities.”