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Why A Muslim Woman Attended A Major Jewish Conference

06/22/2015 05:33 pm ET | Updated Jun 22, 2016
Alicia Blumenfeld Chandler

Earlier this month, I attended the AJC (American Jewish Committee) ACCESS Summit, an annual event hosted by the young leaders' branch of a global Jewish advocacy organization. I wore a bright blue hijab, attended multiple sessions and chatted with hundreds of Jewish attendees, acting as if it was the most natural thing in the world for me to be there.

Except -- let's be honest -- it wasn't.

I was invited to the Summit because I participated in a series of small interfaith Shabbat dinners hosted by AJC ACCESS' NY regional office. I spoke on a panel about Muslim-Jewish relations at the Summit, which preceded AJC's Global Forum. The panel featured two other Muslim speakers, Dr. Mehnaz Afridi and Sami Elmansoury. The organizers gave me their blessing to attend Summit programming, so I did.

I choose to focus my interfaith engagement around domestic policies and interests. I didn't (and don't) want to discuss Israel, but it kept coming up. Although I view Israel as a political entity and Judaism as a faith, many Jews see the two intrinsically linked as part of their Jewish identity, and so it often comes up. At the Summit, many people asked about my views on Israel, and many speakers spoke about Israel.

The worrisome thing I heard was some folks conflating being anti-Israel with being anti-Semitic. We should all absolutely decry overtly anti-religious elements if they seep into political protests, but it's important to do so without falling prey to hate-mongering ourselves. The "us" versus "them" mentality has never landed humanity in a good place. The failure to see the grays and empathize exacts very real world human costs for everyone involved, on all sides.

More broadly, if interfaith engagement was predicated on supporting Israel's current policies, then I wouldn't be part of the effort. The good news is that membership in the interfaith engagement club does not require that.

I attended the Summit on the invitation of ACCESS members, young American Jews who seem to appreciate the importance of nuance. Were there speakers/attendees who didn't reflect that nuanced understanding? Yes. Were there speakers/attendees who seemed to reflect a certain generational perspective that seems to be rooted more in Israeli nationalism than issues of concern for American Jews in their everyday lives? Yes. But, if I'm being honest, I've seen that mirrored in some Muslim conferences as well. And in the same way those messages fail to resonate with me, I saw some of the more divisive messages at the Summit fail to resonate with some of the young Jews present.

Although ACCESS represents young Jewish leaders from around the world, most of my interactions were with young American Jews. I realize now that both of our communities struggle with sorting out our domestic and international priorities and young American Jews and American Muslims are the ones who have to pave a new path forward, even at the expense of making some in our community uncomfortable. Some of us may disagree on politics in the Middle East, but there is no disagreement that the rise of Islamophobia and anti-Semitism in the U.S. is, in its simplest form, the growth of hate against faith, and both our communities are impacted. Objections to our houses of worship, whether they be mosques or synagogues; to our articles of faith, whether they be kippahs or hijabs and to our customs and traditions impacts both communities in the same ways. Recognizing this, AJC was one of many civil rights and civil liberties organizations that pushed the Supreme Court to rule in favor of Samantha Elauf, a woman wearing hijab who was denied employment by Abercrombie & Fitch. That is what I care about.

My attendance at the Summit was not me signing off on the message of each and every speaker there. They weren't directing their speeches at me. And to the extent any particular speech or statement especially disturbed me, I shared that with either the speaker directly, the organizers and/or other attendees, and we discussed it in a constructive way. If I refuse to engage with an entire faith-based group based on a disagreement with some of its members, then I wouldn't have anyone left to engage with -- including my own Muslim community.

Based on my interactions, many young American Jews, like many young American Muslims, are desirous of moving forward constructively, seeing the dangers of isolation and fear-mongering and preferring instead to invest their energy and focus on forging new relationships and being open to new approaches and perspectives on how to make that happen. We are motivated by a desire to build community and put roots here, where we live. It is about adapting and giving ourselves license to embrace a nuanced and complex identity.

There are, admittedly, serious risks of engagement efforts backfiring, particularly if communities object to engagement with particular people and organizations or if engagement partners take controversial public stances. There is real potential of undermining my credibility within my own community, which would also render my interfaith efforts futile. So, I engage, but carefully and mindfully. I listen closely, I stay vigilant, I speak up and I speak out. I'm also invested in sharing my honest feedback with both sides.

I admit that it's a delicate balancing act. The biggest challenge -- and it's one that came up while writing this piece -- is not to let the things we disagree about take over the whole conversation. The biggest reward is the new friendships I've formed along the way and the many positive encounters I've had along this journey.

By being a very visible representative from another community sitting in on Summit sessions, listening to concerns and stories of Jews based in the U.S. and from around the world, I drew a lot of attention. I had deep conversations, but also light-hearted conversations with folks, answering questions about the logistics of doing interfaith Shabbat dinners balancing halal and kosher requirements, joking about Facebook-worthy profile photos and learning about Havdalah services. One of my favorite moments was when one of the Jewish attendees approached me with: "I don't know if you know this, but you sorta stand out." He introduced himself and we chatted about why I was there, how I attended a lot of interfaith Shabbat dinners in New York and how he might start attending some too.

I interacted with hundreds of people. Many wanted to start getting involved with interfaith efforts between Muslims and Jews. They felt motivated to become part of a positive, constructive way forward. And that's what I think interfaith engagement can represent and serve as a reminder of, as a way to positively counteract the pervasive focus on what potentially divides us. That is a positive and profound impact that I am happy to be a part of.

Many people approached me after the panel discussion to thank me for my participation and candor. My co-panelists and I spoke a lot of difficult truths in an effort to improve understanding on Muslim Jewish relations. Our honesty was well-received. One woman later said, "people often say that you aren't growing or learning unless you feel uncomfortable. Thank you for making us all uncomfortable."

I attended the Summit knowing full well I was going to feel awkward at times and I was going to make some others feel the same. Before the Summit started, I sat in my hotel room, willing myself to act braver than I felt and do the strange thing of attending a Jewish conference as a Muslim woman, committing to being comfortable with being uncomfortable.

I made a lot of asks of my Jewish counterparts -- I asked them not to view Islam as a monolith, with everyone having the same views. I asked them to stand by Muslims who view Jews as allies in the U.S. on domestic issues. I asked that they filter for rhetoric when they listen to public speeches by world leaders. I asked them to listen to difficult truths and engage in difficult conversations. I asked them to let me in and share their stories with me.

For all of my asks, I promise to do the same for them. Why? Because my American Muslim identity compels me to support religious freedom and protect against hate and ignorance, and it's what I see reflected in my American Jewish counterparts. And that's plenty to work with as we navigate a new way ahead.

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