On Saturday, Oct. 27, 46-year-old Robert Bowers stormed the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, shouting anti-Semitic slurs and opening fire on the worshipers, killing 11 of them in a furious, hate-filled, 20-minute-attack. The murders are made doubly worse because they happened in a house of worship, a place where believers sought peace and comfort in the midst of our country’s many troubles.
Americans are reeling in the aftermath of this horrific massacre, wondering where our country is headed and whether we’ll ever be able to heal and grow. At times like this, it is important to seek out reasons for hope —and focusing on the solidarity efforts that have emerged after this and similar recent attacks should give us that hope.
Members of my own religious community have stepped up in a big way to ease the suffering of their Jewish brothers and sisters, raising hundreds of thousands of dollars to rebuild the synagogue, pay for the funerals of the slain and the medical bills of the wounded survivors.
This unity has deep historical precedent. During the Holocaust, for example, Muslims sheltered Jewish refugees from Germany and Austria. Albania, a small, majority-Muslim country, rescued approximately 2,000 Jews. When the Jewish refugees arrived in Albania, the government hid them from discovery by giving them documents publicly declaring them Muslims. Even after Albania fell to the German occupation, Albanian citizens refused to reveal the Jews among them, claiming many of them as family members. These resistors persisted despite facing an imminent threat that they themselves would be deported to concentration camps. By the end of World War II, Albania was perhaps the only country in Europe that had a larger Jewish population after the war than before.
In more recent times, Muslim-Jewish cohesion has become fraught with complexities. Muslims are sometimes accused of forming alliances only to spread “propaganda” or “sharia.” Political divisions around the Israel-Palestine matter also complicate interfaith cooperation between these two groups.
Despite these obstacles, the communities have persisted in finding common ground and supporting each other. In addition to the Muslim community’s financial and emotional support for the victims of the synagogue shooting, the Muslim community has also raised large sums to help several Jewish cemeteries rebuild after vandals attacked them.
And the efforts are not just in response to specific tragedies. The work is ongoing, aimed at buttressing the communities for when the inevitable attacks happen.
For example, the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom holds monthly meetings in cities across the United States as well as an annual conference that brings together Muslim and Jewish women to “build bridges and fight hate, negative stereotyping and prejudice.” These women “are changing the world, one Muslim and one Jewish woman at a time!” And the Sisterhood has made an impact — the grassroots initiative has 50 chapters in 20 states and its annual gathering draws hundreds of participants.
The Muslim-Jewish Advisory Council is another important effort. It joins two national organizations, the American Jewish Committee (AJC) and the Islamic Society of North America, in projects that highlight the contributions of religious minorities in America and push back against the rise in hate crimes. AJC also employs a team specifically focused on U.S. Muslim-Jewish Relations, with the aim of “building effective partnerships” between these two religious groups.
My own web-magazine, altMuslimah.com, has partnered with the Jewish web magazine, Jewschool.com, to publish articles and host public conversations on how Muslims and Jews can collaborate in the face of the rising tide of Islamophobia and anti-Semitism. The collaboration tackles a central question: How are those phenomena fundamentally similar and what are strategies for mutual resistance?
In today’s polarized climate, with incendiary speech coming from the highest level of our government, acts of evil will, tragically, continue. To keep from falling into despair, our attention should stay focused on solidarity efforts — efforts that we have to celebrate and amplify so that, in time, they drown out the hate.
Asma T. Uddin is senior scholar at the Religious Freedom Center of the Freedom Forum Institute. Her email address is: [email protected].