A former Islamist radical, a store clerk who hid Jews from a terrorist, and a woman who was taught as a child that Adolf Hitler was “a good man,” were among the Muslim speakers at the annual meeting of the AJC, one of America’s most influential Jewish groups.
It was part of an initiative during the annual meeting of the AJC, formerly known as the American Jewish Committee, earlier this month to improve Muslim-Jewish relations.
And it comes at a time when anti-Semitism is on the rise in Europe, and demographers predict that within a few decades Muslims will outnumber the approximately five million American Jews .
“Muslim-Jewish relations is the great challenge of the 21st century,” said Rabbi Noam Marans, the AJC’s director of interreligious relations.
“In any important venture, there needs to be some level of risk, and some willingness to make mistakes,” he added. “We cannot make the mistake of empowering those who are committed to destroying us.”
The conference began with a speech by Maajid Nawaz, a British-Pakistani former militant who heads the London-based Quilliam Foundation, dedicated to fighting Islamist extremism.
“The far left across Europe, the far right, and the Islamist extreme, agree to pick on the Jewish people,” he said.
But he added, “There are many, many Muslim voices emerging from across the world, in the Middle East, in Europe, in the United States of America, who are beginning to wake up to the threat that is Islamist extremism.”
The next day, Zainab Al-Suwaij of the American Islamic Congress told meeting participants that as a girl in Iraq she was taught in school that Hitler was “a good man.”
She condemned anti-Semitism as a deep-rooted problem in the Arab world, but stressed that Muslims are on the front lines of the struggle against terrorism. “In terms of condemning the extremism and violence, we are also the first victims,” she said.
Malian-born Frenchman Lassana Bathily was honored for rescuing customers in a terrorist attack on a kosher supermarket in Paris on January 9, by hiding them in a refrigerated room and risking his life by making a run for it to alert police.“If it were to happen again tomorrow, I would do exactly the same thing,” he said.
The key challenge for the dialogue is the diametrically opposed understanding that Muslims and Jews commonly have of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Al-Suwaij said she has been called a traitor and a self-hating Muslim for her outreach to the Jewish community. “And not only by Muslims,” she said.
And Marans conceded that many Jews are wary of engaging even with moderate Muslims.
“There is a culture of fear, and a culture of fear can only be mitigated by relationships,” he said.
Marans hopes the Muslim-Jewish dialogue can be as successful as the Christian-Jewish dialogue has been. This year marks the 50th anniversary of Nostra Aetate, a decree produced during the Second Vatican Council that ended the Roman Catholic Church’s treatment of Jews as a cursed people.