Interfaith peace efforts strained by Israeli-Palestinian violence

Members of the Sror family inspect the damage of their apartment in Petah Tikva, Israel, after it was hit by a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip on May 13. — Oded Balilty/AP Members of the Sror family inspect the damage of their apartment in Petah Tikva, Israel, after it was hit by a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip on May 13. — Oded Balilty/AP

The escalation of violence in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is dismaying American Muslims and Jews who’ve been working to build bridges between their communities and are now struggling to quell fear and anger in their own circles.

“We’re heartbroken,” said Muslim attorney Atiya Aftab, the New Jersey- based co-founder of a major interfaith group, the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom. She added that the situation threatens to derail the group’s work.

The organization, which seeks to build trust and friendships between Muslim and Jewish women and teenage girls, issued a statement regretting the “violent response” by Hamas, the Islamic militant group ruling Gaza, but was more expansive and forceful in condemning actions by Israeli security forces.

“The Israeli government has a responsibility to stop settlers and extremists from taking over the land and allow those who live in East Jerusalem to rightfully live there in peace,” the group said. “As Muslim and Jewish women of faith . . . we have a responsibility to rise up and respond to injustice and prejudice.”

The grim events in Israel and Gaza have fueled “raw discussions” among members of another Muslim-Jewish partnership, Los Angeles-based NewGround, according to its executive director, Aziza Hasan.

She said a private Zoom gathering was planned to address tensions within the community, which includes Palestinian Americans, Muslims with origins elsewhere and Jews holding a wide range of political views. Many members have relatives or friends in areas wracked by the violence.

“NewGround has been working hard to listen deeply to the enormous anger and fear,” Hasan, a Muslim, said by email. “There is fear that the violence is becoming increasingly personal in shared neighborhoods.

“We do not know the immediate path through this, but we are certain that until we humanize one another, there won’t be a path at all.”

Andrea Hodos, NewGround’s associate director, has close family in Israel and worries for Israelis taking refuge in bomb shelters. She has Palestinian American friends for whom she is also concerned, including one with family members in Gaza where there’s little protection against Israeli air strikes.

“We need to keep all these people in mind,” said Hodos, who is Jewish. “Our goal is to get as many people to stay at the table as possible, hearing one another’s stories. That’s what softens our hearts.”

Ingrid Mattson, a Muslim scholar and former president of the Islamic Society of North America, wrote on Twitter that she fears “meaningful interfaith relationships” among U.S. Christians, Muslims and Jews are in jeopardy “if those involved continue to be silent on Israeli attacks on Palestinians in Jerusalem and Al-Aqsa Mosque” during the holy month of Ramadan.

Mattson was anguished by what she saw as a muted response from some faith groups as that holy site was attacked.

She said there have been important statements by allies, citing groups such as Rabbis for Human Rights and Jewish Voice for Peace that have strongly condemned Israeli policies and actions as cruel and unjust. But Western Christian denominations, she said, have been largely silent beyond calls for both sides to be peaceful.

“I feel like people should have learned something from the last year of public education about anti-Black racism and police violence against Black people in America — that you have to say what’s wrong,” she said.

Jewish Voice for Peace, a California-based advocacy group critical of Israeli policies toward the Palestinians, lists interfaith outreach as one of its core missions.

“We’ve built deep partnerships with Muslim American groups,” said the organization’s executive director, Stefanie Fox. “To see this happening, in this most sacred period, is truly horrifying. . . . There’s this incredibly urgent call to work together to hold the Israeli government accountable.”


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