NEW YORK — They sat on either end of the congressmen’s couch, one a Jewish healthcare executive whose parents fled Germany in 1936, the other the Kashmiri Muslim chairman of a well-known American furniture chain. The men, Stanley Bergman and Farooq Kathwari, came to draw attention to an outbreak of hate crimes. But Bergman and Kathwari hoped their joint appearance would also send a broader message: that U.S. Jews and Muslims could put aside differences and work together.
“What drove us was the growing prejudice that has emerged in the United States,” Bergman said. “What starts small, from a historical point of view, often grows into something big.”
The men lead the Muslim-Jewish Advisory Council, created last year by the American Jewish Committee and the Islamic Society of North America, amid a flowering of alliances between members of the two faiths. U.S. Muslim and Jewish groups have been trying for years to make common cause with mixed success, often derailed by deep divisions over Israel and the Palestinians.
But bigoted rhetoric and harassment targeting both religions since the presidential election has drawn people together. Jews have donated to repair mosques that were defaced or burned. Muslims raised money to repair vandalized Jewish cemeteries. Rabbis and imams marched together against President Donald Trump’s travel ban targeting majority Muslim countries.
“I would never have thought I would see some people in conversation, or anywhere near each other. Then I saw people on Facebook standing next to each other at protests — Muslims and Jews,” said Aziza Hasan, executive director of NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change in Los Angeles, which has run community relationship-building programs.
Yet despite this surge of goodwill, questions remain about whether these new connections can endure. The sense of vulnerability Muslims and Jews share, and their need for allies at a difficult time, have not erased tensions.
“This is a start and we’ll see how it goes,” said Talat Othman, a financial industry executive and Muslim-Jewish Advisory Council member, who offered an Islamic prayer at the 2000 Republican National Convention. “We are hopeful.”
Jews and Muslims comprise the two largest non-Christian faith groups in the United States and have a long history of trying to work together.
The chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, the flagship institution of Conservative Judaism, initiated a dialogue with Muslims in 1956, according to documents in the school’s archive. Rabbi Jack Bemporad, a pioneer in Muslim-Jewish dialogue and founder the Center for Interreligious Understanding in New Jersey, said his efforts started in the 1970s when he led a Dallas synagogue and local imams started attending his weekly Bible classes.
Over the years, many initiatives on improving relations between the two faiths were organized internationally by governments and peace groups, while some American synagogues and mosques attempted to build friendships locally. Some progress was made, yet relations were often derailed when violence, war and policy disputes erupted in the Middle East.