In an effort to foster better relations between Israel and the Muslim-American community, the Israeli ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, will host dozens of Muslim-American leaders Thursday night at his Washington, D.C., home for an iftar, the traditional meal to break the fast during Ramadan.
While other diplomatic officials and politicians, including each president since Bill Clinton, have hosted iftars, the event is a first for an Israeli ambassador and comes as a time of continuing tense relations between Israel and the Muslim-majority Palestinian territories.
The evening's 65 guests include prominent Muslims and Jews, such as Akbar Ahmed, chair of Islamic Studies at American University; Rabbi Marc Schneier, president of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding and the founding rabbi of the Hampton Synagogue in Westhampton Beach, N.Y., and the New York Synagogue in Manhattan; and Abdullah Antepli, the Muslim chaplain at Duke University. A representative from the ambassador's office said it would release a full list of attendees after the dinner.
"My job is to reach out to different communities, including communities that have been connected with Israel and those who have not," Oren said in an interview Thursday. "Israel is a country with a large and respected Muslim minority. I just got back from Jerusalem two days ago and it's all decorated for Ramadan. They're an important part of our society."
Oren, who stressed commonalities between Jewish and Muslim traditions and experiences of immigrants from the two groups, said that he sees "American Muslims as a natural bridge for American Jews and the state of Israel."
The ambassdor, who has a Ph.D. in near eastern studies from Princeton University, also said he has a "personal interest" in Islam and the religion's traditions.
"I have a large background in Islamic philosophy and theology. I spent an entire year reading the Quran in Arabic," he said, adding that there is "a lot of disinformation" about the religion in the United States and Europe today, such as "when people talk about Shariah," or Islamic law, or about women who wear veils.
"Israel doesn't have mineret bans, doesn't have veil bans, doesn't have burka bans. We have Muslim members of the Knesset. They are an integral part of our society," Oren said.
While Oren, an American-born Jew who is now an Israeli citizen, is reaching out to Muslims, there are still many in the Muslim community who strongly disagree with his ardent defense of Israel when it comes to the conflict with Palestinians. During a series of university speeches in 2010, the ambassador routinely faced protests by Muslim students and Palestinian supporters.
But Oren said disagreements are not a reason to stop attempts to foster relationships with Muslims Americans and those who may politically be his opposite.
"There can be no end to efforts to generate greater understanding," Oren said. "It's a work in progress and there is a lot to be done."
UPDATE: At 11:04 p.m., the Israeli Embassy released a partial list of guests to the iftar. They included Paul Monteiro, Associate Director, White House Office of Public Engagement; Dennis Ross, National Security Council; Victoria Nuland, Spokesperson, Department of State; Suzan Johnson Cook, Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom; Congressman Eliot Engel of New York; Ghait Al-Omari, American Task Force on Palestine; and Omer Bajwa, Yale University.
Talib Shareef, imam of Masjid Muhammad mosque in Washington, D.C. and president of the Muslim-American Military Association, lead prayers during iftar.
Notably absent from the guest list were representatives of the largest Islamic groups in the U.S., such as the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) and the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). A spokesman for Mohamed Magid, the president of ISNA, said he was invited but had a conflicting event. A spokesman for the national CAIR office said that a representative of the group was not invited. In addition, Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota, a Democrat who is the first Muslim elected to Congress, was invited but was unable to attend because of an injury, according to an embassy official.