April 18, 2024

What Does Jewish-Muslim Friendship Look Like Right Now?

Jenan Mohajir and Rebecca Russo, both Vice Presidents at Interfaith America, narrate their personal stories and the friendship they insist on maintaining in the face of ongoing devastating news from Israel/Palestine.

In This Episode...

If you’ve ever wondered what bridgebuilding looks like, look no further than Jenan Mohajir and Rebecca Russo. Just two weeks after the Hamas attacks on Israel on October 7th and the subsequent Israeli bombing and invasion of Gaza, Jenan – who is Muslim and the mother of three beautiful Palestinian children – and Rebecca – who is Jewish and has multiple personal and familial connections to Israel (and is also the mother of three beautiful children) – came together to publish an op-ed insisting on “the importance of seeing each other and each other’s people as fully human.” In this episode, they tackle tough questions about what it means to be Zionist, pro-Palestinian, a committed partisan, and an unwavering bridgebuilder.

Jenan Mohajir's Headshot

About Jenan Mohajir

Vice President of External Affairs, Interfaith America

In her role, Jenan Mohajir focuses on building strategic relationships and programs with new partners across IA’s emerging sectors. Inspired by faith and family to work for change at the intersections of gender, sexuality, race, and religion, Jenan has served in leadership IA for 15 years where she as has trained hundreds of interfaith leaders from diverse backgrounds to foster a vision and practice of civically engaged interfaith leadership. Jenan completed undergraduate work at DePaul University and is pursuing her MA in religious studies at Chicago Theological Seminary. As a natural storyteller, she performs with 2nd Story, Chicago’s premier storytelling company. Jenan proudly lives on the south side of Chicago with her children and loves to collect vintage children’s books.

About Rebecca Russo

Vice President of Higher Education Strategy, Interfaith America

Rebecca oversees IA’s higher education strategy, with a particular focus on bridgebuilding programs and partnering with senior campus administrators. Rebecca has worked with IA since 2014 and sees college campuses as a laboratory where students can deepen and challenge their own worldviews and learn to build relationships across divides. Rebecca has worked in higher education for over a decade, including roles as the Director of Engagement at Northwestern University’s Fiedler Hillel and Executive Director of the Campus Climate Initiative at Hillel International. Rebecca holds a B.A. in Middle East Studies from Brown University and an MBA from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. Rebecca is inspired by her interfaith experiences living in Morocco and Jerusalem, and by the Talmudic concept of “these and those are words of the living God,” to work toward a society where religious diversity is engaged actively and positively. Rebecca lives in Chicago with her family and enjoys singing, hiking, and chasing around her three children.

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What Does Jewish-Muslim Friendship Look Like Right Now?


Eboo Patel: This is the Interfaith America Podcast, and I’m Eboo Patel. 


Welcome to a special episode of the Interfaith America Podcast. I’m Eboo Patel. I’m frequently asked, “What does an interfaith leader look like?” The simplest answer I can give is my friends and colleagues, Jenan Mohajir and Rebecca Russo, both Vice Presidents at Interfaith America. They each embody what it means to be an interfaith leader in their work, in their civic lives, in their respective religious communities, and increasingly, on the public stage. 

Just two weeks after the Hamas attacks on Israel on October 7th, and the subsequent Israeli bombing and invasion of Gaza, Jenan, who is Muslim, and the mother to three beautiful Palestinian children, and Rebecca, who is Jewish, and has multiple personal and familial connections to Israel, and is also the mother of three beautiful children, came together to publish an op-ed insisting on the importance of seeing each other, and each other’s people as fully human. 

Since then, they have presented together on numerous campuses and webinars, narrating their personal stories, and the friendship that, in the face of ongoing devastating news and pushback from their own communities, they insist on maintaining. I am so honored to turn over the Interfaith America Podcast to the two of them today to share their stories and perspectives with you. 

Jenan Mohajir and Rebecca Russo, I’m honored to be your friend and colleague, and I’m so grateful for your willingness to share your stories here on the Interfaith America Podcast today. 

[00:01:50] Rebecca Russo: Hi, I’m Rebecca Russo, and I’m the Vice President of Higher Education Strategy at Interfaith America. 

[00:01:56] Jenan Mohajir: I’m Jenan Mohajir, Vice President of External Affairs here at Interfaith America. 

[00:02:02] Rebecca: As we both know, and as I’m sure everyone listening knows, our civic spaces in the United States have been rife with conflict, based on the war in Israel-Palestine over the past five months or so. Whether we’re looking at school boards, or college and university campuses, people being fired in companies, there is so much intense pain that is present within communities here in America, and so many spaces where it feels like our fabric is starting to tear apart, because of what’s happening in the Middle East. 

[00:02:30] Jenan: I think following that, we both understand that these past five months have been visceral for both communities, and for many communities, which is built on decades of disagreement and conflict on this particular topic. It’s built on decades of violence and competing narratives. In this moment, it has really led many of us to go inward, and to focus on the safety of our own people. We understand this crisis feels, and is existential for so many of us. 

[00:02:58] Rebecca: I know I have been struggling with, and I think you have too, balancing how do I look inward, and support my people during this time? Also, how do I look outward, and build relationships, as hard as it is across divides? 

[00:03:11] Jenan: Today, I think we’re going to explore some really important questions. How can we be better at understanding and engaging religious and cultural dimensions of this conflict, and build our muscles for empathy? How can we engage with each other more productively, in order to preserve and strengthen our shared life together here? 

[00:03:27] Rebecca: Let’s start with some personal storytelling, so we can share about who we are, and how we came to this work, and where we’re coming from around this topic. Would love for you to start and tell me a little bit about your story and background. 

[00:03:39] Jenan: Yes, sure. Rebecca, as I’ve told you many times, I’m sort of the poster child for a third culture kid, right? My family comes from India. I grew up in Qatar for most of my childhood and teenage years before my family resettled here in the suburbs of Chicago. Coming from a space like Qatar, where Muslimness was very much everywhere in public life, and then moving to the United States in the late ’90s, where my Muslimness, for the first time, was part of a minority community, it was a big change. 

I wasn’t particularly religious at the time, and was trying to figure out what it meant for me to be here, and to have that identity. It was really when I went to my undergraduate education, I went to DePaul University here in Chicago, which is a Catholic university. I went to DePaul because I was really attracted to the way that DePaul talked about service, and all of the service learning stuff that was very vibrant on campus. 

It was through that space that I actually found my way into being a much more observant Muslim. I very quickly became very active on campus, in the Muslim group on campus. My junior year of college was the year of the Second Intifada, what many of us call the Second Intifada. It was a year of much conflict and violence in Israel and Palestine. I was one of those college students who was actively putting together protests, and actively putting together learning tables, and being on campus and talking about Palestine in very important, and loud ways. 

At the same time, I was also a work-study intern at my college’s university ministry office, which was focused on helping many different religious student groups. I remember this one particular day vibrantly, which is, I was at a table in our quad, and there was a table of Jewish students across the quad from us, and there was a lot of yelling and intense conversation. 

When my shift at the table came to an end, I had to tag in my teammate, and then I had to go up to my work-study job. Part of my responsibility that day was to talk to the food provider for the campus, and I had to advocate for them to have more access to kosher and halal meals. I was sitting on a table next to the person who I was just screaming across the quad with, to ensure that they had kosher meals, and that we had halal meals, and that was part of my job, and I had to do that. 

That experience to me really sort of speaks to this particular moment in ways that I didn’t imagine as a 20-year-old that it would still carry in my 40s, which is, how do you sit with this really difficult time, and how do you advocate for the people that you care about, and the people that as suffering? At the same time, how do you hold shared space with people that you disagree with deeply? That’s one part of what’s brought me here to this moment. What about you, Rebecca? Tell me a little bit about yourself. 

[00:06:37] Rebecca: First, I just want to say, “Thanks”, for sharing your story. That last piece that you shared is something that always resonates with me, and I think is really such an example of the work that we are trying to do together, of what it means to hold your own ideological, political, or religious beliefs, and to really hold true to those and to fight for them, and to advocate for the needs of everyone at the same time. That’s just incredibly powerful, so thanks for sharing that. 

I’m glad to tell you a little bit about my background. I grew up here in the suburbs of Chicago in a very actively involved Jewish family. My grandparents were deeply involved in the movement to free Soviet Jewry during the 1970s, and around that time when Jews were repressed in the Soviet Union, and they were also deeply involved in organizations like Hadassah that worked to build up hospitals and social services, and infrastructure in Israel, and in Jerusalem to serve all of its residents. 

Those are just a couple of examples, but I grew up with a very strong sense of connection to Jews around the world, and a unique sense of– Really, responsibility and peoplehood for my people around the world. I didn’t encounter much diversity in my life. Sure, there were smatterings here and there, but really, when I got to college was my first experience navigating diversity. 

There are a couple of foundational moments that I think about, as I look back at what drew me to the work that we do now. The first was, I was living in Israel for a gap year before I went to college, and I decided to take a course on the psychology of the Arab-Israeli conflict. I honestly have no idea what drove me to take that course, but something about it piqued my interest, and it fundamentally shifted how I thought about Israel-Palestine, but also how I thought about engaging difference more generally, and really opened me up to understanding how narratives are constructed, how we construct this idea of us versus them, and the psychology behind that. 

It really made me fascinated to learn more about the perspectives that had not been demonized in my upbringing, but had definitely been seen as other, and made me interested in learning more about that, and becoming a Middle East Studies major. Eventually, studying abroad in Morocco, returning to Israel for another year after college, and spending more time in Palestinian communities, and really trying to understand Palestinian perspectives in a more in-depth way. 

The second foundational piece that I think about is, I got to college, and one of the first things that I attended was a diversity seminar. It was an eye-opening experience for me in a lot of ways to consider elements of my own identity that I had not thought much about before. We talked about race, class, socioeconomic status, gender, sexuality, disability, every facet of diversity that you might imagine, except for religion. 

I ended up sitting next to a Muslim woman named Lamia during that session, and we bonded over the fact that we both had this piece of our identity that was incredibly important to us, that wasn’t being welcomed into that space, but that we both shared in our own ways. We started to become friends, and that really sent me into a path of involvement in interfaith and multi-faith work on campus, and finding that I was able to connect with people in this very secular environment who had their own connection to their religious identities, and learned a lot from them. 

I still think about that experience today as I do my work in higher education, helping people think about, how do we invite this element of identity, how do we invite religious identity into campus spaces? 

[00:10:10] Jenan: We’ve spent so much time in relationship with one another, and building our friendship, our colleague work relationship. I often think about all of the ways in which we have marked other milestones in our life together, right? We both came to Interfaith America as young adults. We both became mothers here. We have navigated lots of different moments nationally in America, as tides have shifted, as things have happened. 

I think, in some ways, our differences have always been present in our conversations. They have not been invisible. At the same time, our other shared values and struggles as moms, or as colleagues, or as young people figuring out how to talk about Israel-Palestine, have also been such a big part of that. 

I just wanted to say that I have learned so much from you over the years, and it has really been a huge blessing for me, for us to have the kind of space to be able to say hard things, and also, to be able to share in really small, trivial pleasures, like how good the salami is at the Romanian butcher in Chicago, which I highly recommend everybody try out. I feel like that is a rare thing to have. I’m just really appreciative of that. 

[00:11:31] Rebecca: Oh, thanks for saying that. I definitely feel the same way and appreciate both the deep conversations we have, and the mundane parts of our friendship. I’ll pivot to the last few months, because I know that so many people have had their friendships, and their colleague relationships really tested over the last few months. Hearing from you in the aftermath of October 7th was such a powerful experience for me as a Jewish person during that time. 

I’ll share, on October 7th, I was celebrating Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath, I was celebrating the holiday of Shemini Atzeret, which Jews were celebrating on that day. It’s not a day when I typically use my phone, or communicate with folks, but I happened to be in my bedroom, and saw a phone call coming in from my father-in-law. I knew something was wrong because I’ve known my father-in-law for 20 years, and he’s never called me on Shabbat before. 

I chose to pick up the phone, and he had told me that there was an attack in Israel. At the time, we didn’t know exactly the scope and scale of what happened, but he told me that my brother-in-law and sister-in-law and my two nieces, now there are three, I have a new niece in Israel, as of this week. 

[00:12:39] Jenan: Oh, congratulations. 

[00:12:40] Rebecca: That’s exciting news from our family front. He told me that they were safe, and that as far as we knew, other family in Israel were safe, but they were still getting in touch with people, trying to find out what was happening. Over the course of that day, we went to synagogue, connected with our community, pieced together through various folks’ information about what was happening. 

A lot of our friends had family, and still have family in Israel and were wondering, “Are they safe? Is everybody okay?” Checking in on folks. On October 8th, you were the first, or one of the first people who was not Jewish, who reached out to me. You said something along the lines of, “This is so awful what’s happening. I hope your family’s safe. I’m thinking of you.” It was a simple message, and so powerful. 

It was already clear at that time, or in the couple of days after that so many of my Jewish friends were feeling lonely at that time, were feeling not seen, and supported. They didn’t have colleagues who reached out, even if they knew they had family in Israel. Folks were turning very quickly to blame Israel for what happened, or even to deny what happened on that day. 

I just appreciated that, when you reached out to me, it wasn’t about politics. It wasn’t an analysis of what happened that day, why it happened? It was just, you knew that this was personal for me, that I had family there, that I would be in pain. You reached out to me as a friend, and that really meant the world to me. I think really set the stage for us to be able to, not only continue, but really deepen our friendship over the last few months, and be able to talk about really hard things together. 

[00:14:15] Jenan: Yes, I think back to that day, and I was actually traveling when I texted you. I think if I remember correctly, I was traveling back from a trip for Interfaith America. I remember thinking, “I need to text my friends.” That was one of the first things that I wanted to do. I texted you, and I texted two other people. Then, the other thing I thought was, “I need to go home and talk to my kids.” 

I’m myself not Palestinian, but my children are part Palestinian. Their father is Palestinian, and comes from a family who had to move out of their village in 1948, and had to resettle in other parts of the world. That’s a really important part of our family identity, so I knew, especially, for my preteens, I knew they would be– They would have questions, so they would be hearing about it in their social studies class, and when they did their newsreels at the end of the period. I had to talk to them. 

I remember feeling this weight of, both the pain, and the sorrow that my Jewish friends were feeling in that particular moment, and also, feeling this like horrid anticipation of what was to come after, and how to prepare my children for it, and how to come into the space of being able to hold both of those things. I won’t say that was easy to do. It’s still hard to do. It’s still hard to be sitting in that space. 

Now, the devastation is so much larger than I could have ever imagined it could be. I think it’s– That’s the secret sauce here. It’s the possibility of being able to hold the empathy and love for each other, and for our own communities, in ways that helps us show up to this space. To understand that our conversation here is not going to change the situation in Israel and Palestine right now. 

At the same time, maybe that conversations like this can help us navigate how we effectively, as communities, speak for our people, and at the same time, be able to recognize that there are some things that perhaps we can work together on, even while disagreeing on other things. 

[00:16:24] Rebecca: Absolutely. There’s so much that our communities have in common, and it’s easy to lose sight of that. My oldest child is actually part of an interfaith program right now at his Jewish day school. They visited a local Catholic school last week with a Muslim school. There are three schools that are joining together. It was heartening for me. He has his own perspectives on the topic. 

He’s not quite as interested in interfaith stuff as I am, but he was starting to learn about Ramadan, and about Muslim practice. I just appreciated that he is starting to learn about other communities, and be able to identify what are some of those common threads. This actually came up as we were talking about a Jewish fast day that’s happening this week. He was mentioning that Muslims also fast during Ramadan. Those simple things give me a little bit of hope amidst the challenges. 

[00:17:15] Jenan: Yes, absolutely. Let’s pivot a little bit to the broader communities that we’re part of, and how this particular moment where each– Wrestling in our own way to be part of those communities, and also the dynamics that are happening there right now. What are some of the Jewish values that are really informing, and animating the way that you are responding, and wrestling with this current moment? 

[00:17:40] Rebecca: Thanks for asking that. It’s something that I have been thinking about a lot in the last few months. I know something that we have talked about is, the importance of recognizing the humanity of everyone involved in Israel-Palestine. Even as we may find ourselves on one side or the other, recognizing that there are thousands of human beings whose lives are being impacted, or destroyed by this violence, and making sure to hold the humanity. 

For me, that comes from my Jewish values. Part of why this has been so hard for me to navigate is, that I am holding multiple Jewish values in tension at this time. As I mentioned before, I have a deep commitment to Jewish peoplehood. I really see the larger Jewish community as my extended family. I’m also grounded in the idea from the Torah that all people are created in the image of God, and that the idea, that saving a single life is like saving the entire world. 

We really value in our tradition the importance of humanity, and each and every human being. There are so many times in the last few months when those values have been in conflict with one another. It’s hard to think about how do we balance them. Part of our Jewish tradition, and many of the holidays that we celebrate are around, people tried to persecute us, and we were able to survive it. 

We need to focus on our own self-preservation. At the same time, when I am for myself alone, what am I? I’m not living out my values in the world as a Jew, if I’m only focused on myself, or the needs of my own community. This also comes deeply out of our texts and tradition. As we think about the Exodus story from the Jews leaving Egypt, and being freed from slavery, we are always taught, “Do not oppress the stranger, because you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” 

That the lesson of, “We were oppressed,” is also not just focus on our self-preservation, but don’t oppress others, and don’t oppress the stranger. I hold these two things in intention and with one another for me as Jewish values. As I think about both, how do I support Jewish survival, and Jewish safety and continuity, and my unique responsibility to my own community? I also think about how do I uphold the value of preserving human life, and seeing every human being as infinitely valuable. Those values are guiding me right now, and it’s hard to figure out how to live those out in the world in such a challenging time. 

[00:20:07] Jenan: There’s a hadith, which is a saying of the Prophet, where, someone asked the Prophet, “What do we do if it’s the end of time? What do we do?” The Prophet says something, and I’m paraphrasing, “Even if it is the end of the world, and you have a seedling in your hand, you still plant it.” Even when there is apocalypse around you, you still plant the seedling, because you don’t know what that little inkling of hope could do. You don’t know what that little good deed could actually manifest into, even in the last hours of our time together.” 

To me, in some ways, that’s how this feels. It feels like it is a time of so much crisis, that every little seedling of hope, every little seedling of cooperation, every little seedling that leads to something better, can maybe lead to something better. How do we not– We can’t divest ourselves from that. We can’t retreat from that. [chuckles] 

There’s a verse in the Quran that I have often gone back to in a time of crisis, which says something like, be witnesses for justice and for good, even if it is against yourselves, and your family, and your people, and your community, right? I have used that often in times when I am looking at my own Muslim community, specifically, my American Muslim community, critically in a time of crisis, and asking myself the question of, “Am I being a witness for good? Am I being a witness for justice? Am I willing to be a witness against my community if needed?” 

I feel like I’m asking that question now in this particular moment, specifically, seeing the devastation in Gaza, and also in parts of the West Bank, I’m actually asking that question, not just of myself, and my community as Muslims, but I’m actually asking that question of our broader American community as well. That is a moment that has been a moment of pause for me. 

What does that mean for us right now to sit in this responsibility? Are we doing everything we can in this moment of responsibility, while also pushing back on anti-Semitism, pushing back on anti-Muslim bigotry? Is it possible to do all of those things at the same time? It’s hard, and I don’t have answers, but I have seedlings, and that’s like where I’m sitting right now. I just have seedlings that I will plant everywhere in hopes that something will bear fruit. 

[00:22:33] Rebecca: I love that framing of planting seedlings. It resonates with me a lot too in thinking about what can we do, and what can’t we do? Of course, we can advocate for American foreign policy that we think is most important. We also need to prioritize our life together here. One of the things I’ve been thinking about a lot is just intellectual humility. It astounds me how many people have become Middle East foreign policy experts in the last five months. 

[00:22:58] Jenan: Everyone. 

[00:22:59] Rebecca: [chuckles] I feel so certain that they know that what they think is just, and what they think is right, and what they think will lead to peace, or what they think will lead to justice. Certainly, we’re all entitled to our opinions, and we can all advocate as we want to. I was a Middle East studies major. I’ve spent time studying this conflict. For me right now, it’s hard to think about what I think is a just and rightful solution, how we get from where we are now, to peace, and to living together. 

Where I can plant seedlings is here, and in communities here, and thinking about how do we make sure that this doesn’t tear us apart as it’s threatening to right now, even whether we are approaching what happens in the Middle East with certitude, or with lack of clarity and intellectual humility. How do we plant our seedlings here where we know that we have to share space together? 


[00:23:48] Jenan: Yes, absolutely. 

[00:23:51] Eboo: Keep it right here. More to come after the break. 


[00:23:59] Jenan: I think this is a great segue into questions that we want to ask each other that maybe other folks are also wondering, and that are maybe, for some folks normal questions, and for some folks, spicy questions. [chuckles] We’ll go into those. Rebecca, as you know in a lot of pro-Palestinian communities, there is a lot of effort to distinguish between Jews and Zionists. What do you think about that differentiation? How does that sound to you? Can you give us a little bit of insight on that? 

[00:24:26] Rebecca: I think this is such an important question, because the word “Zionist” has been demonized. It’s been used in many circles as really a slur word, which is really different than how people who identify as Zionists identify themselves. I think actually being able to unpack, and define terminology, and explore how we understand terminology differently, is so important to trying to bridge some of the gaps of understanding right now. 

I’ll unpack a few things about that question. Zionism has been understood today and in Jewish history in lots of different ways. I think there are a few important things to share. One is that, generally speaking, Zionists support the right to Jewish self-determination in the land of Israel. [00:25:06] Today, mostly, that takes the form of supporting Israel as a Jewish nation state. There were earlier Zionists who had different ideas of what self-determination looked like, that wasn’t in the form of a nation state, but generally, Zionists support the existence of Israel as a Jewish state. 

There is a wide range of political views among Zionists. There are Zionists that support the current war, and the way in which it is being waged. There are Zionists who don’t support the current war. There are Zionists who support the occupation, and there are Zionists who fight actively against the occupation. Within the realm of Zionism, there’s just a huge range of views, including many Zionists who also see fighting for Palestinian rights, and justice, and liberation, as a part of their Zionism, which I think is often not part of the conversation about Zionism. 

The last thing I want to say about this is that, most American Jews see Zionism as part of their Judaism. When we try to distinguish between Jews and Zionists, I understand, in theory, why people might want to try to make that distinction. In practice, the vast majority of American Jews and Jews worldwide are Zionists. There isn’t really as much of a distinction in practice, as folks might think that there would be in theory. 

What that ends up doing, is alienating, or speaking badly of the vast majority of Jews. For many Jews, and probably most Jews, Zionism is also grounded in a deeply held religious belief. Regardless of what you think about the current politics of Israel and Palestine, it is a fact that, for thousands of years, Jews have been praying every day to return to Jerusalem, which is our ancestral birthplace. 

As the people have been yearning to return there, praying for a return to Jerusalem. If you look at the Jewish prayer canon, so many of our prayers focus on returning to Jerusalem, returning to Israel. Regardless of where you hold, in terms of your current politics, understanding that Zionism comes from a longstanding return desire for people to return to their home, is really important in understanding the term in its current context. 

[00:27:14] Jenan: Rebecca, let me ask you a question. Can someone identify as a Zionist, and still care about Palestinian rights, or establishing a Palestinian state? Add whatever else you might want to add in that line of thinking. Is that possible to do? 

[00:27:28] Rebecca: I think so. I’m sure there would be people who would argue otherwise, but absolutely, there are lots of people who identify as Zionists, and who believe that the best path towards a strong and safe Israel, is also a strong and safe Palestinian state, and community alongside Israel. That isn’t the opinion we often hear in the popular discourse these days, but there are many Zionists who believe strongly that Palestinians have equal rights to justice and self-determination, just as Jews do. 

[00:28:00] Jenan: Thank you for that. 

[00:28:01] Rebecca: I have a question for you, Jenan. There are many issues that impact Muslims around the world, some positively, some negatively, certainly, unfortunately, many examples of places where Muslims are persecuted. Why do so many Muslims in the United States seem to care about, and advocate for the Palestinian cause more than other issues that are affecting Muslims worldwide? 

[00:28:22] Jenan: I think there’s a few different ways to answer that question. On the one hand, I think there’s a question of, is Palestine a specifically religious issue for Muslims, and is that the only way that we see it? Or is Palestine an issue about land and liberty, and establishing a Palestinian state, and that is a secular Palestinian state, and that is the only way that we see it? I actually think the answer lies somewhere in between. 

I will say that, for a lot of Muslims, Palestine and Jerusalem, in particular, are really important. It is a space that is religiously very important to Muslims. Before the establishment of Mecca as the direction that we faced for prayer, Muslims faced Jerusalem, and that is the direction that we faced for prayer in the early prophetic community. It is a space that has a lot of significance religiously. 

The Aqsa Mosque, which is in Jerusalem, has a lot of religious significance for Muslims. I will say that, it is not only a religious issue. Palestinians are both Muslim and Christian, and probably folks who don’t believe in any religion, or are secular, or atheist, or humanist. It is also an issue of establishing an independent secular state of Palestine that caters to all of its citizens, Muslim or otherwise, and it’s a really important political issue about land and borders, and what that means for nationhood and nation states. 

In terms of how a lot of Muslim communities feel solidarity with Palestinians, and it’s a really important cause, I will say that, I have seen that in lots of different spaces, not just here in the United States, but also globally that, that solidarity exists. A lot of Muslim communities feel that solidarity towards other conflicts as well. I think maybe sometimes I don’t see that outside of the echo chambers of my Muslim communities. When I’m looking at the many WhatsApp groups that I’m on that are talking about issues important to American Muslim spaces, I will regularly see folks working together on what it means to give importance to refugees coming from Afghanistan, or refugees coming from Uyghur communities in China, or refugees coming from Sudan, because of what’s happening in Sudan. 

We hear and see all of those issues in the echo chambers. I don’t see them translate outside of those echo chambers necessarily. I don’t have an answer to why that’s the case, but that is just an interesting thing to notice. I also think that a lot of times there is solidarity between people who are trying to establish liberty for themselves. I would say it’s somewhere in between. 

It’s not just a religious issue, and it’s not just a land issue. It’s in between for a lot of people. It’s important to realize that nuance, and to not frame it just as one or the other. 

[00:31:16] Rebecca: I appreciate the nuance on that. Thank you for sharing. It’s also interesting to think about, less than a century ago, Jews were also fighting for their own liberation, and finding their own state. It’s just interesting to think about the reality we’re in now, and also the historical context, and how do we try to understand the reality now for what it is, but also understand the complex history that got us where we are. 

[00:31:41] Jenan: Yes. I think one of the things that’s really interesting in that space is, how the narratives that we have in our communities, sometimes can just live in their own echo chambers, and how those narratives are never put in tension with, “Narratives from the other side.” I think we were talking a lot about this a few weeks ago when we were comparing our social media feeds on Facebook, or our social media feeds on Instagram, or our what I would call dark social media feeds on WhatsApp groups or text threads or things like that. 

How we were seeing that stories that were on my feed, which was mostly American Muslim, were so different from the things that you were seeing on your social media. I think if I remember correctly, one example was, in early November, there was a Muslim student at Stanford University who had been, I think, struck by a car, and someone had yelled like a anti-Muslim sentence at them, as they drove off. 

My whole community on Facebook, on text threads, everywhere, was talking about this incident. I remember I mentioned that to you, and then you were telling me about a story that was on your social media that I had not even heard of until that day, which was about a protester in LA. Do you want to share a little bit about that story? 

[00:33:02] Rebecca: Sure, yes. Just around the same time on November 6th, a Jewish protester died during what turned into a violent incident in a protest in Southern California. That was all over my social media feeds. The echo chambers around this are so real, and it’s hard to even think about how do we move beyond our polarized views on this when we’re not even accessing the same information. 

We’re all listening to stories and examples that reinforce our worldview, and we can find those stories. If we’re not seeking out what else is happening outside of those echo chambers, it’s hard to think about how we can move forward in constructive ways. 

[00:33:40] Jenan: Yes, that is something that’s really– I literally do not know how to solve for that, because so much of that is social media algorithms, right? If you click on [chuckles] a particular story, then that’s what animates the kind of stories that you get, and that you see. If you’re not looking for the story about the “other”. If you’re not looking, if I as a Muslim, I’m not looking for stories about Jews in America right now, I would not see any of those stories. 

If someone wasn’t looking for stories about Muslims, or Muslim communities. Even in that, I think there is a nuance of what kind of story are you looking for, and you’ll just get reinforced. Your bias just gets reinforced in some ways, which is kind of a tragedy, if I think about it. Because I feel like, in some ways, I would hope that when you go into the world, whether that’s online or elsewhere, you would come face-to-face with something that may be in tension with you, or you come face to face with something that may feel different than the way that you see the world. 

To not have that be a possibility, or to not have that be something that occurs naturally is, I don’t know how to solve for that. I actually don’t know how to come out of that echo chamber in some ways. In this moment, it feels like, it’s actually very risky to ask someone to step out of their echo chambers, in terms of how each community feels safety is with their own people. Safety is to stay in the echo chamber, and not necessarily leave it. 

[00:35:14] Rebecca: Absolutely. I don’t want to minimize that there are real fears of safety at stake, both here in the United States. The violence that we have seen against our communities in the last few months is really scary. Of course, for those who have family in Israel, or Gaza, or the West Bank, there are very real fears of safety. This isn’t just emotional safety, but people are really afraid for their lives, their families’ lives. 

I understand why people are wanting to draw inward, and hear those reinforcing messages. Especially, as more people are getting their messages, and their news from social media, and not from mainstream media, even if some of those mainstream media sites are biased, you could argue one way or the other. You get at least some sense of a broader picture of what’s happening. On social media, we don’t even have access to that. 

[00:36:04] Jenan: Yes. 

[00:36:06] Rebecca: I want to share just as one example of how this has played out in a recent report that I read from the University of Chicago that explores college students’ fear and beliefs in the wake of the October 7th Hamas attack, and Israel’s ongoing assault on the Gaza Strip. They highlighted one example of how language is just used and understood differently. 

They asked about perceptions of the very controversial protest chant, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.” They asked if people perceive the chant as referring to the expulsion and genocide of Jewish Israelis. They found that when they asked the question of Jewish students, the vast majority of them, about two-thirds, 66%, perceived the chant that way, and 62% reported being afraid. 

When they asked Muslim students how they understood that phrase, only 14% of them thought that it referred to the removal, or genocide of Israeli Jews. We have a situation where people are using a protest chant that they understand one way. Other people are hearing that chant, and understanding it totally different, understanding it as a direct threat to their safety, or their family’s safety. 

You can understand why we’re having so many challenges when we can’t even understand, or agree on language use, and our definitions, because we’re so strongly in those echo chambers. 

[00:37:27] Jenan: I think the lack of trust that has now become a very public reality. The lack of trust is, basically, that there is no universe in which someone can hear that phrase, and in the Jewish communities, and I’m speaking for you, so correct me if I’m wrong. In a lot of Jewish spaces, it is taken only as a threat. This is a direct threat to the safety and lives of Jews. 

On the flip side, in Muslim communities, when someone is challenged with that threat, so when someone asks a question of like, “Isn’t this like a threatening statement to make?” The vast majority of people that I’m in community with, are like, “No, of course it’s not. It’s only about gaining rights, and liberation for Palestine.” That is what that phrase is about. It does not indicate any harm to Jewish communities. I don’t think either side can really see how the other side sees that as something that is not threatening, and is actually about something entirely different. 

[00:38:29] Rebecca: Absolutely. That’s one of the reasons why I find it so valuable, as hard as it is, to be in community, and in real conversation with people that I disagree with on these issues. If someone who’s chanting that protest, and someone who feels triggered by it, could be in conversation with one another, they might identify that there are still areas of deep disagreement, but not disagreement that is about threatening the lives and physical safety of the other. 

That it’s actually something different. Until we are able to have that conversation, we can’t really unpack what is language difference, and what are areas of real disagreement, let alone, how we can move forward. 

[00:39:07] Jenan: Thinking about safety and disagreement, and the kinds of challenges that we’re seeing right now, I wanted to bring forth a story just from a few days ago. The Downtown Islamic Center here in Chicago was recently vandalized. A man came into the building, while Muslims were coming in for their nightly prayers that happened in Ramadan, and started to say, started to scream, actually, anti-Muslim things to the folks who were walking in, including, “All Muslims should die.” 

Then, when he was asked to leave the building, he went and got some kind of object. It’s unclear in the video what kind of object it is, and throws it at the Center’s door, which then, obviously, the door shatters. Similarly, just a few weeks before that, the north and northwest neighborhoods in Chicago received various incidents of anti-Semitic flyers. More than one time. 

I think it was something like three or four incidents were reported of the cars in neighborhood streets being flyered with anti-Semitic flyers, and that becoming yet another way that we see anti-Semitism play out regularly in the city, to have posters or flyers placed on buildings, or on doors. It’s almost as if this has become like the status quo right now. 

I saw some preliminary data recently from the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University that states that, hate crimes in 2023 increased nearly 13% from 2022, driven in part by the increase of hate crimes towards Jews and Muslims, specifically. I wanted to, both, recognize and mark that we are sitting in a moment, where Jewish and Muslim communities are under increasing threat in a year, where we are going into a very polarized election cycle, and recognizing that and marking that, and appreciating the people who do the work of pushing back on those things. 

I think that our work of cooperation also pushes back in some ways on both anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim sentiments. I would love to think and talk a little bit about, what are we seeing that is giving us hope in this particular moment. 

[00:41:23] Rebecca: Absolutely. I think it’s so important that we find those pieces of hope and things to hold on to, as we’re in this challenging time. Of course, not to minimize all of the terrible things that you just shared, and the reality of that for both of our communities. A couple of things come to mind for me. One is, there was a campus where an outside group brought out a truck to dox pro-Palestine folks, who were activists on campus, and to share their public information, and to humiliate them publicly. 

There was a group of pro-Israel students that came to block the doxing truck, and to say, “We don’t agree with their politics, but they shouldn’t be shamed, they shouldn’t be humiliated on campus.” Examples like that inspire me, and remind me a little bit of the story you shared earlier about advocating for Palestine, and also advocating for kosher food at the same time. 

There are examples of people showing up to say, “We can disagree on politics, but you still deserve dignity as a human being. You shouldn’t be shamed and humiliated, and publicly doxed for what you’re doing.” I would love to see more of that. Where are the opportunities that we can name the disagreement, affirm the disagreement, but still stand up for each other? 

I would love to see more Jewish college students standing up against Islamophobia on campus, and Muslim college students standing up against anti-Semitism on campus, and not seeing that as incongruent with their politics, but it’s happening in small places, and would love to see more of that. Another example that I want to share is from Cornell University, where they’ve actually started a new Jewish Muslim group over the last few months. 

A group of folks came together in the fall last year from the Office of Spirituality and Meaning-Making, the campus rabbi, the Muslim chaplain, and a group of interested students who said, “We’ve had our healing spaces, our separate healing spaces for Jewish and Muslim students over the last couple months, and we really want to find ways to come together, and be in relationship with one another.” 

They planned a Jewish-Muslim dinner last fall, that they expected would be a small number of students, and 80 students showed up in December to that Muslim Jewish dinner, and they put away their phones, and they had table prompts where they shared moments on campus, where they were acutely aware of their religious identities, and they shared about their experiences of the last couple months. 

They started to build really beautiful relationships and friendships, and that is now an ongoing series. I want to share that, not to say that it isn’t hard to build new relationships in this moment, but it’s possible. They really started from scratch at Cornell with the efforts of some people that were dedicated to building bridges, and they’ve started to build a really beautiful community. 

[00:44:05] Jenan: Thank you for that. I think another example that comes to mind for me is a more communal example that actually starts with a horrific murder of the six-year-old Palestinian American boy, Wadea Al-Fayoume, here in the suburbs of Chicago in the aftermath of the October 7th attacks, and the beginning of the war in Gaza. 

Attending this little boy’s funeral was one of the hardest things I have done as a mother, but also as somebody who has spent the last, almost two decades to the work of cooperation. It felt like such a defeat to be at the murder of this six-year-old child in a time when so much devastation was happening, both in Israel and Palestine, but at the same time, thinking about what was to come here in the United States. 

One ray of solace in that moment, and one ray of hope in that moment was to see the various Chicago rabbis who attended the funeral of this boy at this predominantly Palestinian mosque in the suburbs of Chicago. I’ll say without any hesitation that those rabbis did not agree with the politics of that community. They did not hold shared values when it came to Israel-Palestine, or their opinions on Israel-Palestine, but they came to that funeral, in order to show their humanity, and in order to show and to sit with the sorrow of this family, who had just lost a child. 

That was really meaningful to me, and it was really important to me to see that in that particular moment, because it was, and it continues to be so dark, and it’s moments like that, that bring some light to this situation to say that there are ways that we can come together in really difficult times, even if it means we sit in discomfort in order to do that, in order to take that step. 

There’s a new campaign that Interfaith America has just launched in partnership with the Ad Council called Shared Tables. There’s a wonderful line in this ad that says, “Stronger communities are just outside of your comfort zones.” What does it mean for us? What does it look like for us as American Jews, and American Muslims, and American Palestinians, and American Israelis, and all the different ways that we would identify each other as communities? 

What does it mean for us to step outside of our comfort zones, and to think of how to build a community together, while also, staying true to our commitments when it comes to Israelis and Palestinians? For me, it’s really important to go back to this paragraph that we wrote in the op-ed that we wrote together now five months ago, which feels like forever- 

[00:46:46] Rebecca: Wow. Yes. 

[00:46:48] Jenan: That said, if you believe Palestinians have suffered under decades of occupation, and must fight for justice, you can still express devastation and heartbreak for the killing of over a thousand Jews. If you believe Israel has suffered for decades under existential threat from terrorism in neighboring countries, and must defend itself, you can still express devastation and heartbreak for the continued killing of Palestinians. 

This does not require belief in moral equivalence, only compassion and honoring of human life. If the only way to make a case for our people, whoever they are, is to dehumanize another community of people so far that we no longer see them as people, then we risk losing our own humanity, too. 

[00:47:28] Rebecca: Those words from October still really hold true for me, too. I hope that in this moment, we will take time to learn and hear the stories of those impacted, even if they challenge our narratives. I hope that members of all communities will lead with care, and create space to honor the distinctive pain of both Israelis and Palestinians, and that we will all ensure that people who are personally impacted by the current violence, whether those in the Middle East, or those here at home, have the support and the structures that they need to thrive. 

[00:48:01] Jenan: I hope that American communities are physically safe, both Muslim and Jews, and are highlighting our shared humanity, and mourning with all of those who are still grieving. I hope that Jews, Muslims, and all Americans who disagree on this crisis will still be able to learn, and live together in community, so our institutions can function, our public life can flourish, and we can do what we do best. 

There’s a quote by Gwendolyn Brooks that I often go to in moments like this, and she says, “True, there is silver under the veils of darkness, but few care to dig in the night for the possible treasure of stars.” Doing this work of deep disagreement and figuring out where cooperation can happen, where it does happen, for me, in a lot of ways, is about digging in the night for the possible treasure of stars. 


[00:48:52] Rebecca: Thank you so much for doing this work together. Thank you. We hope to hear from you. Let us know if the conversation resonated with you, and if you would like more conversations like this from unlikely pairs, navigating hard moments. Message us in the comments, or wherever you live on social media. You can find us on Twitter at InterfaithUSA and Instagram at InterfaithAmerica. To read more about this conversation and to find resources and stories about bridge building in our religiously diverse nation, visit our website, interfaithamerica.org. 

Intro/outro music provided by Mysterylab Music and composed by Mott Jordan.

Credit music provided by Die Hard Productions.

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