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Muslims and Jews Co-Exist in Brooklyn

The traditional clothes one sees on both religious Muslims and Jews in the Midwood section of Brooklyn, near Coney Island, New York, easily recall the Middle East for many visitors. However, the two groups co-exist and even flourish there in a way that might seem almost utopian in Israel and Palestine. VOAs Adam Phillips went to Midwood, where he spoke with a wide range residents and merchants about their neighborhood and why it works.

To judge merely by the low-lying brown and stucco buildings and the vibrant street traffic, the ten square blocks of Midwood are typical of Brooklyn, one of New York's larger boroughs. But the throngs of shoppers in flowing Muslim dress and orthodox Jewish garb lend an exotic tinge to this scene.

Accountant Chris Orrio, a gentile who does not live in the neighborhood, has nevertheless been observing Midwood from his second story office window at the corner of Avenue "J" and 15th Avenue for 28 years.

"This is a very unusual area… There is no tension here… besides the ordinary tensions that you find in the city which is created by not finding a parking space or being in traffic. These are middle class people. Everybody is involved in making a living.

Q: "Do you like Midwood?"
A: "It's a very congested area. It's a dirty area. It's not exactly an American showplace. It would be a nice place to retire from."

Not everyone feels that way. "Lucille," a manager at a small neighborhood bank who prefers not to give her last name, has this to say.

Lucille: "I've been in banking for about 20 years now and I have worked in many neighborhoods. This is one of the nicest neighborhoods I've worked in. The people are so friendly, so congenial. I have very very little problems. Both Muslims and Jews, they are just very kind people. And they are not looking to give anyone trouble or to do anything against anyone."
Phillips: "Have you seen any business partner[ship]s between Jews and Muslims since you've been here?" Lucille:"No. I don't think so."

But there are other important business relationships between Muslims and Jews in Midwood. Mustaffa Rasbee, who runs a Pakistani variety story called the Urdu Bazaar, says "all of my wholesalers, most of them are Jewish wholesalers and they are good friends of mine. And they are great people to work with."

Still, Mr. Rasbee acknowledges that there is some mutual apprehension between the two groups. "If you take the traditional dress code for the Muslims let's just say, and you go into a Jewish neighborhood, people will look at you. Just as if a Hasidic Jew comes into a Muslim community, they are going to look at you funny. There is animosity. I've seen that. It's not a majority. There is, I'd say, close to 50-percent suspicion on both sides," he says. "Maybe they're just reacting to what they see on the news. It happens, that's all I'm saying. There is never a perfect society. But it's good. I like this."

Business is good for Shabir Nourani, a religious Muslim and Midwood native who runs a grocery store in the heart of Midwood's orthodox Jewish shopping strip.

Nourani: "Arabs and Jews are cousins! … And we learn a lot from each other.
Phillips: "What have you learned from Jews?
Nourani:"'Baruch Hashem' [meaning] 'Thank the Lord.' A Muslim would say 'Alhamdoo Lillah' [meaning] 'Praise be to Allah.'"
Phillips: "That's kind of a common ground you have?"
Nourani:"Oh, yeah!"

In Mr. Nourani's experience, simple good manners go a long way toward inter-religious harmony.

Nourani: "You just have to be polite to each other. Forget about the religions. As a human person, you have to be polite to each other.
Phillips: "And they can do that better here than they can in Israel and Palestine?"
Nourani: "Oh yeah! Forget about there! Because of the situation! There is no country like America."

Nothing is more American than a convenience store which sells newspapers, milk, candy bars, toilet tissue and other necessities to all comers 24 hours a day. This one is run by a South Asian Muslim.

While Yafna Schulman, an orthodox Jewish customer, photocopies a letter, she explains that she feels much safer in Midwood Brooklyn than she ever would in Jerusalem, or even in other parts of New York. "I don't see anyone being too afraid. I don't even see any problems. People are okay with each other, would say. I mean you hear on the news all these horrible things. But here I don't see it very much," she says. "Even though on the news yesterday I heard that, like, Midwood is one of the places that they are worried about all the violence breaking out, but I don't see anything. I haven't seen anything. I hope I don't either."

John Higgins, a mail carrier who serves both Muslims and Jews on his route through Midwood, offers his view on why the two groups get along better here than in some other parts of the world. "Well, this is America and this is everybody's land," he says. "So they are sharing it. The controversy isn't over here except what you get in the papers. I am sure they [Midwood's Muslims and Jews] have their views. But this is America. It's not the Middle East. So that's why it's pretty nice over here."

Despite the cooperation between the two groups, some feel the need for deeper cross- cultural understanding. Jagajit Singh, the director of programs for the Council of Pakistan Organizations, is about to open an athletic club where Jewish and Muslim children will play basketball together. "It would be a symbol of coming together [and] playing together. If you play together, you do everything together," he says. "It's not anything to do with politics. Kids want to play. Why segregate them… just because of ethnicity? Let them come together. They will be the future, let them build their future here in Midwood."

It appears that Midwood is off to a good start. With Muslims and Jews already living and working together, can playing together be far behind?