two women smiling, one wearing a hijab
Attending Muslim-Jewish Halaqa-Seder in 2016 are Muslim community consultant Camisha Fatima Gentry-Ford (left) and Ilana Kaufman of JCRC.

Jewish and Muslim groups draw closer in heightened atmosphere of hate

In the era of President Donald Trump, another new era has dawned: a more intensified and compelling collaboration between Jewish and Muslim communities around the country, including in the Bay Area.

That shift was illustrated at a recent Jewish-Muslim solidarity gathering at Peninsula Temple Sholom in Burlingame. Organizers of the Feb. 26 event had planned for about 100 attendees, but 350 to 400 people showed up, many of them Muslim.

maha elgenaidi
Maha Elgenaidi

It was a surprise, but no mystery as to why, according to Islamic Networks Group executive director Maha Elgenaidi. “It was the result of the election,” she said, “and growing Islamophobia.”

Cooperation between Bay Area Jews and Muslims on a range of interfaith programs and issues is not new. But collaboration between the communities has taken on a particular urgency in light of a spike in hate crimes and Trump’s stayed executive order banning travel from seven Muslim-majority countries.

In the months following Trump’s election, representatives from Jewish and Muslim organizations have experienced an outpouring of mutual support. They say their two communities have been able to find common ground on many core issues — as long as they put aside the thorny issue of Israel-Palestinian relations.

Elgenaidi said there are three major areas of common ground. “We’re both victims of bigotry. We’re both concerned about our kids maintaining their identity. We’re also concerned about security,” she said. “We’re minorities, and we’re never really safe because the tide can turn against us.”

rita semel
Rita Semel

Part of the reason for increased cooperation has a basis in history. “I’m old enough to remember Kristallnacht,” said Rita Semel, a board member and past president of the San Francisco Interfaith Council and former executive director of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council. “We didn’t know about it in the United States for a number of days. But now, if a cemetery in St. Louis is damaged, everyone in the world knows. It’s important because maybe we can do something about it before it gets out of control.”

The deluge of mutual support began almost immediately after the election and has brought in many people who hadn’t been politically active in the past.

“We’re all targets right now, and I think we realized after the election that there were a number of communities that were going to be affected,” said Madihha Ahussain, staff attorney with Muslim Advocates. “Since the election, we have heard from many people who are interacting with us for the first time, who are actively reaching out.”

JCRC executive director Abby Porth said the appetite for cooperation is strong on the Peninsula, where synagogues, schools and Jewish institutions have established a formal partnership with local Muslim organizations. A part-time JCRC staffer will coordinate and foster relationships between the two communities.

Other Bay Area communities are strengthening ties as well. In early February, the Interfaith Council of Contra Costa County held a “Ring of Solidarity” event in Walnut Creek as a symbol of togetherness and self-protection in the wake of Trump’s first travel ban. The program featured Muslim, Jewish, Christian and Sikh leaders.

We’re both victims of bigotry. We’re both concerned about our kids maintaining their identity.

The Bay Area efforts come amid similar national examples of Jews and Muslims supporting one another. Notably, MPower Change and CelebrateMercy — both Muslim organizations — launched a crowdfunding campaign to help repair the toppled headstones at a Jewish cemetery in St. Louis. So far the campaign has raised $154,000, vastly exceeding the $20,000 goal organizers initially set. There have been offers to assist at a vandalized Jewish cemetery in Philadelphia as well.

Jews also have stepped up to support a crowdfunding campaign to repair a Tampa, Florida, mosque damaged in an arson attack, donating in denominations of $18, representing chai, or life.

Efforts to build bridges between the Jewish and Muslim communities in the Bay Area date back to the 1980s, Semel said, but the formation of the San Francisco Interfaith Council in 1988 was a major step forward. And groups that have set aside Israeli-Palestinian politics have been able to build constructive ways for Jews and Muslims to work together.

As a result of the work over the years, both communities are perhaps more prepared to handle any threats in the current tense atmosphere.

“A number of us in the interfaith world are used to responding when something happens to one of us or another,” Semel said. “If something happens, all up and down the Bay Area there will be individual and group action.”

max cherney
Max A. Cherney

Max A. Cherney is a former J. staff writer.