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What Muslims and Jews Have in Common

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When we tell people that we have written a book together entitled Sons of Abraham: A Candid Conversation About the Issues that Divide and Unite Muslims and Jews, many respond with comments like: "There must be a million things that divide Jews and Muslims. But what could ever possibly unite them?"

The short answer is: There are far more unites than divides between us. What does divide us is, first and foremost, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Yet as the two of us have learned over the course of our friendship, it is eminently possible for Muslims and Jews to agree to disagree, respectfully, on how best to resolve the Middle East conflict, while embarking together on the holy work of connecting with each other and building ties of communication, reconciliation and cooperation.

Why are we convinced that this cause is not an impossible dream? Because we have learned from each other how much our peoples have in common. Here are five such commonalities, starting with the most basic:

1. As it says in the title of our book, we are both truly sons of Abraham, with a coterie of common patriarchs and matriarchs. Yes, things indisputably got messy between our forbearers with the estrangement between Sarah and Isaac on one hand, and Hagar and Ishmael on the other, but it should not be forgotten that the two sons of Abraham came together in peace to bury their father at the end of his life.

2. Indeed, there is nothing in the Torah or Quran which says we are fated to be enemies. To be sure, there are difficult passages in the Torah and Quran that seem, at times, to sanction hostility toward, or even violence against non-Jews or non-Muslims. Yet, as the two of us have learned from each other, each of the two faiths has a rich oral tradition (the Talmud, and later books in Judaism, and the Hadith in Islam) that put into context, or mitigate, these seemingly harsh and inflexible passages. The two faiths stand together in upholding the precept that we should treat the other as we would wish to be treated.

3. Judaism and Islam have many rituals and customs in common, including: circumcision, dietary laws, similar practices of ritual slaughter and burial customs. Both faiths extol -- indeed enjoin -- philanthropy, for which they have a common name: "tzedakah," in Hebrew, or "sadaqa," in Arabic. They have a common, moral imperative to perfect the world, and to offer succor to those in society who are most in need ("islah," in Arabic, and "tikkun olam," in Hebrew). As it says in both the Quran and Talmud, if you save one life, it is as though you have saved all of humanity.

4. In many countries around the world, both Jews and Muslims are minorities in multi-religious and multi-ethnic societies. While there have been relatively good times, and less good times, in the long history of Muslim-Jewish relations, only today, in the democratic and pluralistic societies of the West, can Jews and Muslims interact as equals. We have an unprecedented opportunity to talk and work together in the interests of both communities, and of the larger societies in which we live side by side.

5. Despite the good news above, we cannot ignore the sobering reality that both Jews and Muslims continue to endure discrimination and even persecution in many countries around the world -- including the relatively enlightened societies mentioned above. Attacks on both communities often take the form of incitement and hate crimes, coming from xenophobic forces that see both Jews and Muslims as sinister "outsiders." Yet, both faiths are also under pressure from so-called progressives -- especially in Europe -- who have put forward a barrage of misguided initiatives in legislatures and courts to ban some of the age-old Muslim and Jewish rituals mentioned above, including male circumcision and ritual slaughter.

Fortunately, as we have learned over the past five years Muslims and Jews can fight Islamophobia and anti-Semitism -- whether of the right or left -- much more effectively if they stand together, rather than trying to combat them alone.

Some critics dismiss the premise that Jews and Muslims have common traditions and common interests as "feel-good, kumbaya". Nonsense! When Jews and Muslims in countries around the world embrace our commonalities, and resolve to come together, it accrues to the benefit of both faith communities. We can transform the negative relationship between our peoples into a positive one, not in ten years or one hundred years, but right now -- by the simple act of setting fear and resentment and reaching out to each other.