A Cooling: Jewish-Muslim Interfaith Work after October 7 and Gaza

By | Feb 23, 2024
A graphic depicting a fractured united states with interfaith images superimposed on the country

At the time, a joint pilgrimage seemed like a good idea. Interested in their shared histories, Muslim and Jewish leaders would return to La Convivencia, the medieval era of “life together” on the Iberian Peninsula seven or eight centuries ago. Back then, the region was known as al-Andalus. It was under Muslim rule, but home also to communities of Jews and Christians coexisting with Muslims in relative harmony. The interfaith program, supported by the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) and the National Council of Synagogues (NCS), would combine study and tourism during a two-week trip to southern Spain and Morocco. Scheduled for early 2024, a description prepared in 2022 saw it as an opportunity to consider “a pre-modern model for living in tolerant pluralism” and to learn whether it could apply to today. A travel agent was arranging for as many as 40 participants, with a roughly equal number of Muslims and Jews. 

Then came October 7. And then the bombing of Gaza. Jews, both in Israel and around the world, were shaken to their core by Hamas terrorists’ slaughter of more than 800 Israeli civilians, with some 200 others taken hostage. The catastrophic bombardment of Gaza that followed, burying civilians each day in rubble, enraged Muslims and others around the world—particularly those with Palestinian connections.

The planned pilgrimage to Spain and Morocco was canceled. “The tensions over what’s happening in Palestine and Israel just took all the oxygen out of the room,” says Imam Saffet Catovic, who originated the “Andalus Project” as director of interfaith relations at ISNA, which has the mission of promoting diverse American Muslim communities. Rabbi David Straus, a key trip organizer in his role as the chairman of the NCS, which represents Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist congregations, says no new date has been set. “Right now,” he told me, “I think it would be very difficult to do this in a public way.” Leaders on both sides say they remain committed to the Andalus pilgrimage, at least in theory, but damage has been done. 

Imam Saffet Catovic (Credit: Courtesy of Imam Saffet Catovic)

Rabbi David Straus (Credit: Courtesy of Rabbi David Straus)

Even at a distance, the fallout from the carnage in the Holy Land was immediate, quickly overshadowing some interfaith efforts that had been years in development. Hala Hijazi, a prominent Palestinian-American civic leader in San Francisco with extensive experience in human rights work, learned in the opening days of the Gaza bombing that several dozen members of her extended family had been killed. “I am broken,” she wrote in a social media post, without saying more. Eva Borgwardt, a leader of the U.S.-based Jewish peace group IfNotNow, found out that one of her coworkers had a close friend in Israel who was murdered along with her two small children on October 7. “I had to figure out how to show up for work the next day,” she told me. “I was looking for the strength to continue.” Having worked to highlight Palestinian humiliation and hardship under Israeli occupation, she suddenly found herself caught between grieving friends on both sides. “The Jewish community and the Palestinian community are both reeling right now,” she says, “and in their trauma there’s less room for traditional approaches, which rely on meeting each other in an emotionally regulated place.” 

Such is the new reality for those engaged in work across faith lines. “There’s been a cooling,” says Imam Catovic, who left ISNA in April 2023 but remains an advocate for the Palestinian cause as a director of the nonprofit Justice For All. “I think there is a desire to continue having relationships,” he says, “but it can’t be the ‘same old, same old.’” Rabbi Straus from NCS is reluctant to say interfaith work has been set back, but he does not deny the barriers it now faces. “It was always difficult and challenging,” he says. “It’s even more difficult and challenging in the environment today.”

“It feels like everything inside is breaking”

In early December, the Holocaust Museum in Los Angeles hosted an interfaith panel discussion titled “Navigating Chaos and Division Together.” The event brought together Jordanna Gessler, the museum’s education director, and Aziza Hasan, a Palestinian American who directs NewGround, an L.A.-based organization that describes itself as “a Muslim-Jewish partnership for change.” Joining them was Joumana Silyan-Saba, who directs human rights work for the Los Angeles city government. It would be hard to find three people more committed to mutual understanding and more respectful in the language they use, but their meeting was not without some awkwardness, hinting at the new tensions in Muslim-Jewish encounters.

Aziza Hasan, of NewGround (Credit: Ryan Contreras)

Eva Borgwardt, of IfNotNow (Credit: Malka Svei)

Hasan identified herself at the outset as a “Muslim-Palestinian mother” and spoke of the “profound pain” she saw among friends with family members in Gaza. A week earlier, speaking at the Los Angeles City Hall, she had recounted the anguish she felt over what was happening 7,000 miles away: “I see images of a Palestinian child in a pool of blood on a hospital floor who looks like my son when he was that age—or a sweet little Israeli baby…A mom asks her dead child for forgiveness before she has to bury him, kisses upon kisses in a final embrace.”  

For her part, Gessler came to the museum event most troubled by the “rampant antisemitism”she suddenly saw developing in Los Angeles after October 7, “this horrific increase in hatred against Jews because of a political thing happening very far away, translating into real actions, real words, horrific graffiti, protests, violence against people who happen to be Jewish…[Los Angeles] has become a place where it is okay to hate Jews.”

In the panel discussion, Silyan-Saba tried to keep the focus on moving forward collectively. “We can no longer stand in a place and say, ‘You’re either with us or against us,’” she said. “That is a self-destructive narrative. We’re dealing with the complexity of it. This is not just one side versus the other.” Gessler later told me Silyan-Saba’s admonition against taking sides gave her momentary pause. “I think it’s okay to create some binaries,” she said. “We need to live in a world where hatred of Jews is not socially acceptable. I think it’s okay to have a stance.” In her remarks at the museum, Gessler made no mention of the Palestinian suffering in Gaza. She explained later that she sees interfaith events like the one at the Holocaust Museum as an opportunity above all to “explain how we feel and hear how other people feel. As individuals and as communities, we need to know who we are before we build coalitions.” Still, Gessler may have missed an opportunity at the museum event by not forthrightly acknowledging Palestinian pain. “The words we use and don’t use impact us,” Hasan told me.

Research has shown that antisemitism and Islamophobia in the United States rise and fall in tandem.

One notable feature of the interfaith challenge is that the stories they tell set them apart. For many Palestinians, a defining experience is the displacement that occurred as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. Aziza Hasan’s family, like many others, fled to Jordan. Hasan, who was born there, was taught from an early age to know her Palestinian roots. “One of my earliest memories was sitting around with the family for tea,” she told me. “They would ask me what my name is, and I would stand up really tall and recite my name and my dad’s name and my grandfather’s name and my great-grandfather’s name, going back generations, to the little Palestinian village where we’re from. I grew up on stories of this mystical place.” Such experiences mold identity.

Many Jews, meanwhile, have a deep awareness of the lived experience of antisemitism and a perpetual sense of the nearness of terror. “I grew up hearing about when my grandfather was in hiding during the Holocaust,” says Jordana Gessler. “Guards would come up to kids on the playground and say, ‘Sind Sie Juden?’ Are you Jews? And today, when I hear someone say, ‘Are you Jewish?’ it’s definitely a trigger for me.” Gessler’s grandmother moved to Jerusalem as a child to flee the Nazis, only to experience a terrorist bombing there as a teenager when her building full of Jewish residents was targeted in the 1948 Ben Yehuda Street bombings. Now 92, she had to cope with yet another massacre of Jews on October 7. “So her life is bookended with identity-based violence and hate against her as a Jewish person,” Gessler said at the Holocaust Museum event.

Hasan says her work at NewGround now focuses on getting people “to see and feel what others are seeing,” but that it is a constant struggle. “It feels like everything inside is breaking,” she told me. 

Past efforts to transform interfaith relationships

The current Muslim and Jewish unease over the state of interfaith efforts comes after years of work to strengthen relations. In 2007, ISNA and the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) partnered in a project titled “Children of Abraham: Jews and Muslims in Conversation.” Ingrid Mattson, then the ISNA president, spoke to the annual URJ convention, and the URJ president, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, spoke to the ISNA convention. “The time has come to listen to our Muslim neighbors speak,” Yoffie said, “from their heart and in their own words, about the spiritual power of Islam and their love for their religion.” Mattson told the URJ that the Muslim community she represented “is now ready to engage in a meaningful way with Jewish communities.” The two conventions formally agreed to support the establishment of democratic Israeli and Palestinian states, side by side.

Rabbi Eric Yoffie spearheaded interfaith efforts as president of the Union for Reform Judaism. (Credit: Courtesy of Rabbi Eric Yoffie)

Rabbi Eric Yoffie spearheaded interfaith efforts as president of the Union for Reform Judaism. (Credit: Courtesy of Rabbi Eric Yoffie)

Another push came in 2013, when the Shalom Hartman Institute in New York launched the Muslim Leadership Initiative (MLI), aiming to build relationships of “understanding, respect, and trust between North American Muslim and Jewish communities.” The interfaith initiative is jointly directed by Imam Abdullah Antepli, a Turkish-born Islamic scholar who was then serving as Duke University’s first Muslim chaplain, and Yossi Klein Halevi, an American-Israeli writer. The program has since brought more than 150 young American Muslims to Jerusalem for seminars and retreats. In 2016, ISNA and the American Jewish Committee (AJC) jointly launched a “Muslim-Jewish Advisory Council,” with the goal of developing “a coordinated strategy to address anti-Muslim bigotry and antisemitism in the U.S.”  

Separately, Jewish and Muslim leaders have supported each other’s communities in times of crisis, as in 2017 when many Jews vigorously opposed Donald Trump’s call for a ban on travel and immigration from predominantly Muslim countries, or when Muslims in the Pittsburgh area stood with the Jewish community after the 2018 shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue. In 2022, when a British Pakistani man took a rabbi and three others hostage at a synagogue in Colleyville, Texas, Imam Omar Suleiman, president of the Yaqeen Institute for Islamic Research in nearby Irving, immediately drove to the synagogue to assist in the hostage negotiations, staying until all four hostages were free, eleven hours after the standoff began. By the fall of 2023—before October 7—dialogue efforts had advanced enough that Ari Gordon, directing the AJC’s Muslim-Jewish Advisory Council, said that the initiative held the promise of “a transformation of Muslim-Jewish relations in the 21st century.” 

Since October 7, interfaith bridge building is secondary

In the immediate aftermath of October 7, the interfaith efforts seemed to be paying off. Imam Talib Shareef from The Nation’s Mosque in Washington, DC, a member of the AJC Muslim-Jewish Advisory Council, issued a statement within 24 hours. “The wanton gunning down and hostage-taking of noncombatants by Hamas is not acceptable in Al-Islam,” he said in a statement. “Even while facing the ravages of war, we are to adhere to the demands on us for genuine respect for human life, particularly the life of noncombatants. They should NEVER be the target of our violence—NEVER.” In early November, Imam Antepli, codirector of the Hartman Institute’s Muslim Leadership Institute, delivered a blistering attack on Hamas at a public forum. The massacre on October 7 was an act of “monster terrorism,” he said. “For those of us who are Muslim, the least we can do is to condemn in the clearest terms possible this barbaric savagery, without ‘ands’ or ‘buts.’”

As the war on Gaza continued, however, with women and children accounting for 70 percent of the casualties and the civilian population almost entirely displaced, Muslim voices in the United States became increasingly critical. “After the attack on Gaza, [my] statements were broader and more in solidarity with the Palestinians,” Imam Shareef told me. Imam Antepli came under fierce and threatening criticism from other Muslims for his condemnation of the Hamas attack. He has not commented since. 

Imam Omar Suleiman, from Texas, says that interfaith work will necessarily be impacted by the "genocide" in Gaza. (Credit: Yaqeen Institute for Islamic Research)

Imam Omar Suleiman, from Texas, says that interfaith work will necessarily be impacted by the “genocide” in Gaza. (Credit: Yaqeen Institute for Islamic Research)

In Texas, Imam Omar Suleiman, himself a Palestinian American, began posting increasingly strident messages on his social media accounts, blasting the Israeli government for its attacks on Gaza and condemning the Biden administration for supporting those actions. In his profile on X , Suleiman continues to describe himself as a “bridge builder,” but in an email he told me that “all work that is secondary to achieving the goal of ending the [Gaza] genocide has slowed down.” As for interfaith efforts, “I do believe Muslim-Jewish relations will inherently be affected by what occurs in the Holy Land.” 

For their part, some American Jews were dismayed when Muslim friends with whom they had never discussed the Middle East suddenly began posting messages such as, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” or maps that did not include Israel, suggesting the country should disappear. Among the most distressed Jewish leaders is Rabbi Yoffie, the URJ president who reached the landmark accord with ISNA. That agreement had rested on a recognition of Israel, a premise now challenged, he says, with the proliferation of anti-Zionist rhetoric. “Hamas put this front and center: ‘Does Israel have the right to exist?’ And their answer is a resounding, overwhelming ‘No.’ And to the extent that there aren’t Palestinians who are prepared to come forward and take a different position, the idea of Muslim-Jewish dialogue is going to be deeply and profoundly problematic.” Now the URJ president emeritus, Yoffie considered reaching out to some of his past Muslim contacts in the weeks after October 7, but ultimately chose not to. “I’m not necessarily proud of this,” he says, “but I pulled away.”

Having imagined Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation in his bestselling 2018 book Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor, the Israeli-American writer (and codirector of the Muslim Leadership Initiative) Yossi Klein Halevi is now more pessimistic. “We don’t even know how to speak to each other anymore,” he told me. Whereas previous iterations of the conflict involved disputed territory under Israeli occupation, Halevi notes, the communities attacked on October 7 were within Israel’s pre-1967 borders, their legal status unquestioned. “This was not about the occupation. It’s about Israel’s existence,” he says. “The atrocities were not an incidental outcome of the war. The purpose was to terrorize Israelis and bring us to a point of despair so that we’d think we have no future in this country, because we’re facing an enemy that is capable of absolutely anything. Our job on October 8 was to undo that perception.”

Part of the new disconnect is an inability to agree on the most elemental facts: Did Hamas fighters rape and mutilate Israeli women in a deliberate effort to terrorize? Do Israeli forces make any effort whatsoever to avoid hurting civilians? Do Hamas commanders use Israeli hostages and Gazan residents as civilian shields and hide their arsenal in civilian installations? What war crimes have been committed? The charge of genocide has been leveled by both sides. Reaching any consensus on what has happened may be impossible. 


In the United States, the polarization between Muslims and Jews is complicated by a sense on both sides that they are alone. Jews are facing a dramatic increase in antisemitism, notably evident in some pro-Palestinian rallies around the country. In California, the Oakland City Council, after passing a resolution calling for a Gaza cease-fire, rejected an amendment condemning Hamas for the October 7 attack after numerous speakers defended Hamas as a legitimate protest movement against Israeli rule. American Muslims may also feel isolated, convinced that Palestinian suffering is not adequately recognized. Aziza Hasan sees it in the reaction to Israeli and Palestinian flags being flown in public. “I see the blue and white everywhere,” she says, “but then when someone flies the other one, the red, green, black and white, people bristle. And I think, ‘You were already flying one flag, why can’t you see the second one and make space for it?’ People don’t see how they’re coming off to each other.” In her public prayer at the Los Angeles City Hall, Hasan said she worries about “the fear and anger that stifle our compassion.”

Dialing back expectations of interfaith partners

My conversations over the past few weeks with 18 prominent Jews and Muslims, U.S.-born or immigrants, suggest that interfaith efforts are in a fragile place, at least for now—“a crisis point,” in the view of Yossi Klein Halevi. “The level of trust between the two communities on the leadership level hasn’t been this low since I’ve begun following the relationship,” he says. Imam Saffet Catovic, who was impressed by the way American Jews rallied in support of his fellow Bosnian Muslims in the 1990s, is likewise discouraged. “The expectation of some was that these sentiments were just going to last a few days,” he says, “but I don’t see the frustration, the anger and the pain disappearing.”

Barring such progress, those American Jews and Muslims who remain committed to each other have dialed back their expectations to focus more on their personal relationships and less on establishing preconditions for a broader dialogue. “We need to show up in different ways,” says Aziza Hasan. NewGround under her direction does not do “litmus tests,” she says. “We’ll have a conversation with anyone who’s willing to have a conversation, as opposed to setting parameters for who we want to talk to.” Rabbi Straus, who relinquished the chairmanship of the National Council of Synagogues in June 2023 and now serves as the organization’s executive director, has been meeting informally since October 7 with a group of Muslims and Arabs in Philadelphia, most of whom he has known for many years. “We want to better understand our communities,” he says, “and we want to be neighbors. Just as we were neighbors before October 7, it’s even more important that we be neighbors after October 7, as difficult as that might be.”

One factor that favors the Muslim-Jewish bond here in the United States is that the groups share a minority status and are therefore connected in their common vulnerability to bias. Research has shown that antisemitism and Islamophobia in the United States rise and fall in tandem, a fact Rabbi Straus emphasizes with his Muslim neighbors. “The forces of antisemitism and Islamophobia mean that whoever is coming after me first is coming after them second,” he says. “And whoever is coming after them first is coming after me second.” Imam Catovic says that’s a message he emphasizes as well. “Muslims are Friday Americans. Jews are Saturday Americans.  Everybody else is a Sunday American,” he notes. “And so we Friday and Saturday folk know what it means not to be Sunday folk.”

In the end, the deepest bond between Muslims and Jews everywhere is that their religious traditions are intertwined. The ISNA-URJ collaboration, after all, was titled “Children of Abraham.” The San Francisco-based Palestinian-American human rights activist Hala Hijazi, still deeply grieved by the loss of so many of her relatives in Gaza, says it is that connection that keeps her focused in her ongoing interfaith relationships with Christians and Jews. “While this has devastated me personally,” she says, “I know the work must continue. We must continue opening our congregations so that when we get on the other side of this, we’re still intact. This is faith in action. At the end of the day, a dead child is a dead child. We are all God’s children.”

2 thoughts on “A Cooling: Jewish-Muslim Interfaith Work after October 7 and Gaza

  1. Abdul Rahman Shareef says:

    The human being if we follow scripture traces our true origin back to Adam. And Adam was created from dust. Be you Jew, Christian, or Muslim, who is best in their obedience and sacred regard for
    G-d according to the best of their understanding. Try to see the human spirit in the human family.

  2. Thank you for this thoughtful and well-reported update on Jewish-Muslim interfaith dialogues.

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