"What would it mean to have stronger, healthier relationships between American Muslims and American Jews?" That's the question that Imam Abdullah Antepli and Yossi Klein Halevi have been asking themselves for many years.
Their answer has been the Muslim Leadership Initiative, a program of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem that brings emerging American-Muslim leaders to Israel to explore how Jews understand Judaism, Israel and Jewish peoplehood. This summer, the number of graduates of the program will reach 100. Antepli, the Muslim chaplain at Duke University, and Klein Halevi, a journalist and author who made aliyah in 1982 from New York, co-direct the program.
The duo was in Chicago the week of March 13 to speak about the program and its potential and already-felt impact on Muslim-Jewish relations in America. They met with the editorial board of the Chicago Tribune , a group of 25 Chicago-area rabbis, Christian partners, about 50 organizational lay and professional leaders at JUF's Jewish Community Relations Council, and also spoke to nearly 100 Jews, Muslims and others at the Union League Club on Wednesday, March 15.
MLI participants represent all the ethnic, racial and sectarian divisions among the U.S. Muslim community, Klein Halevi said. Although MLI graduates have faced backlash from their own co-religionists for participating, an increasing number of Muslim Americans also believe in the need to engage American Jews.
"Mainstream Muslims are largely ignorant of how Jews perceive themselves," Klein Halevi said. "The same is true for Jews when it comes to understanding Muslims' self-perception."
While in Jerusalem, the participants study Jewish text, meet with Jewish journalists, academics and religious scholars, and explore Israel's religious diversity. The program also includes in-depth examination of the impact on the identity of both Jews and Palestinians through the lens of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Participants travel to various cities in the West Bank, as well as to northern Israeli Arab communities, where they interact with Muslim religious leaders, educators, students and activists.
Reflecting on the impact of the program, MLI graduates report that the experience is often "life changing." Challenged to confront deeply held beliefs, MLI participants gain a deeper sense of empathy for the Jewish connection to Israel.
Antepli says MLI graduates don't come away as "Muslim Zionists." Rather, the goal is to engage "serious people who understand the complexities of Jewish peoplehood, Judaism and Israel's place in Jewish self-perception," he said.
JCRC has placed a priority on creating opportunities for Chicago-area Jews and Muslims to engage each other.
"At a time when both communities are seeing a rise in bias-based incidents against them, working together is a prudent approach to combatting hate," said JCRC Chair David T. Brown.
"The increase in anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim incidents in this country and around the world demand a clear rebuttal from our elected officials and faith leaders," Brown said. "It also requires all of us to learn from and about one another in an atmosphere of mutual respect."