Thursday, December 08, 2022

The American Jewish Committee (AJC), a leading national American Jewish advocacy organization, has made remarkable strides in Muslim-Jewish understanding and cooperation over the past six years

According to Dr. Ari Gordon, director of Muslim-Jewish Relations at AJC, the organization has been engaged in developing ties with the Muslim world for decades. AJC conducted regular leadership missions to the Arab world long before the Abraham Accords, bringing staff and board members for diplomatic and interreligious meetings in Jordan, Egypt, Morocco and the Gulf countries.

Gordon brings a unique communal perspective to his work. He attended Yeshivat Shaalvim in Israel in his gap year and got his undergraduate degree from Yeshiva University. He went on to graduate work in Islamic studies at Harvard Divinity School, learning Arabic along the way, including with immersive programs in Morocco and Jordan, and got his doctorate in Arabic and Islamic studies at the University of Pennsylvania in 2018. He is married to Teaneck native Shuli Taubes, who teaches Judaic studies at SAR High School in Riverdale, where they live. He previously worked in AJC’s interreligious affairs team after his undergraduate years and was recruited by AJC in 2018 to lead their efforts in building Muslim-Jewish connections.

Those efforts had already started to ramp up in 2016 when the AJC, in conjunction with U.S. Muslim community leaders, convened the Muslim-Jewish Advisory Council—a civil society coalition formed as a response to polarizing rhetoric during the presidential campaign. According to a fact sheet about the group, the Muslim-Jewish Advisory Council is “relentlessly bipartisan,” is focused on advocacy for domestic policy in America of importance to both communities, and its members are leaders in business, policy, faith, law, medicine, education, technology, entertainment and security. The Muslim-Jewish Advisory Council has regional councils in Dallas, Detroit, Houston, Los Angeles, Louisville, Miami, New Jersey, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C.

The Muslim-Jewish Advisory Council advocated for the Protecting Religiously Affiliated Institutions Act that was passed by Congress and signed into law in 2018; pushed for several Congressional hearings to assess the threat of white supremacism and domestic terrorism, which were held throughout 2019; hosts workshops with the U.S. Department of Justice on security for houses of worship; and conducts a social media campaign to counter hate online that has reached millions of users. In January 2022 the Muslim-Jewish Advisory Council spoke out to condemn the hostage situation at the synagogue in Colleyville, Texas.

In April 2019 the AJC signed a “historic” memorandum of understanding with the Mecca-based Muslim World League’s Secretary General Dr. Mohammad Abdulkarim Al-Issa. As part of this MOU, Al-Issa agreed to organize a multinational contingent of Muslim leaders who would visit the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz in January 2020. He stated at the signing of the MOU: “I believe that by paying my respects to the victims of Auschwitz, I will encourage Muslims and non-Muslims to embrace mutual respect, understanding and diversity.” AJC CEO David Harris commented at the MOU signing: “The launch of cooperative projects by AJC and MWL, and Dr. Al-Issa’s visit to Auschwitz, is a direct rebuttal to the extremists who threaten us all.”

Al-Issa’s and Harris’ January 2020 visit to Auschwitz involved 62 Muslims, including 25 prominent religious leaders, from 28 countries. This mission was the most senior Islamic leadership group to ever visit any Nazi death camp. AJC enlisted 24 Jewish communal leaders to participate, including a few who are children or grandchildren of Holocaust survivors. The day after the visit, the group joined together for a service at the Nozyk synagogue and a Shabbat dinner in Warsaw.

That same month the AJC also launched its online Arabic outreach initiative, @AJCArabic, creating a presence on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to offer short animated videos on Jewish issues such as the Holocaust, What Is Antisemitism, and Jewish connections to Israel. The combined social media pages have over 800,000 followers and the videos have racked up over 20 million views. They can be accessed at ajc.org/arabic.

The Muslim World League hosted an interfaith conference in Riyadh in May 2022, which attracted 100 representatives of the world’s religions, including Rabbi David Rosen, AJC’s director of international interreligious relations. The conference featured kosher food under the hashgacha of Rabbi Yaakov Herzog. That same month, the AJC held a mission to Morocco and then Israel, with 20 young leaders from AJC, in conjunction with the Moroccan Muslim partner organization, the Mimouna Association. In both countries the group met with political, religious and civil society leaders about advancing people-to-people ties, and promoting the Jewish heritage of Morocco and Moroccan Jewish Heritage in Israel.

The latest installment in the AJC’s drive to build and widen Muslim-Jewish ties was a 10-day leadership mission the group held in July to Indonesia, a place where (as an AJC press release points out) the group “has been engaged for two decades.” As part of this longer-term engagement, AJC has worked with the Leimena Institute (LI), an Indonesian NGO that advances pluralism, to offer international webinars on Jewish topics with the Indonesian Ministry of Religious Affairs. Over the past year AJC has worked with LI to teach a three-hour “Introduction to Judaism” class to Indonesian religious educators, including an “Ask Anything” session, as part of a Cross Cultural Religious Literacy (CCRL) certificate program. In its first year alone, the CCRL training has reached over 2,400 religious educators in 34 provinces in Indonesia.

In the leadership mission to Indonesia in July, AJC staff and board members met with prominent government officials, who strongly encouraged more people-to-people initiatives. They also met with journalists, religious figures, civic activists, academics and business leaders, and visited several religious schools and colleges. In a public program at the national Istiqlal Mosque (the largest mosque in Southeast Asia), AJC’s Rabbi Rosen participated in a public program on promoting mutual respect through education, along with the Grand Imam of the Mosque Sheikh Nasaruddin Umar and other national faith leaders.

AJC’s Gordon, describing the Indonesia mission, said the trip revealed that “we are further along in building ties than we might have expected, but there is still a long way to go.” Responding to a question from The Jewish Link about the lack of official recognition of the Jewish religion in Indonesia, he stated that the country is “struggling with several issues related to preserving their diverse democracy, which has a Muslim majority, but with no explicit Islamic character to the constitution”—87% of the citizens are Muslim—and he thinks there will be changes in this area in the years ahead.

Gordon said that while there are some limited private trade relations with companies based in Israel, Indonesia and Israel do not have diplomatic relations. Official Indonesian government policy supports the “two-state solution,” and in many conversations there, he heard optimism that things could change if and as Israeli-Palestinian relations improved, and no one he spoke with said it never would.

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