Some Notes on a Jewish/ Muslim Movement of Justice and Compassion in America
after September 11th
Marc H. Ellis*
It is simply not true that September 11th changed everything. This understanding
is widely cited like a mantra, as if repetition commands reality. But
this mantra cedes too much power to the few - those who destroyed - and
mystifies the power of America and the global economic system. The relations
of power between and within nations have not changed and if anything have
solidified in the wake of September 11th. After September 11th things
are as they were, and more.
Romanticizing religion has its place; in the wake of September 11th and
the threat of further demonizing Islam in the West, such an exercise was
indeed necessary. It was also largely successful. Though pressure has
certainly been felt and discrimination and profiling experienced, the
overall reality in the United States has been of quiet and respect. For
every case of Islamophobia there have been examples of support and embrace.
As a growing and in general immigrant religion in America, the wake of
September 11th has shown a remarkable political maturity among the general
public in response to Islam, at least in light of the history of the 19th
and early 20th century.
But romanticizing religion in order to protect the ordinary believer
or ethnic heirs of the religion may be used to separate the internal and
external and mobilize society for war with the other, in this case the
Muslim outside the borders. To say that Islam is only a religion of peace
and those who commit acts of violence pervert the religion is to strip
Islam of its rough edges, in the American mind to show its kinship with
a peaceful Christianity, itself tamed and stripped of its own history
of violence and atrocity.
In short, a crusade against militant Islam, incorrectly limiting jihad
to a spiritual struggle, allows a mystification of Christianity, as if
it has only functioned as a spirituality of peace. I use the term crusade
deliberately, for at its base America is an evangelical nation with its
own sense of mission and destiny in the world, and is historically Christian,
though today all citizens, no matter their specific faith orientation,
are enlisted and ultimately promote this evangelism. Like Christians in
the Islamic world who, while maintaining their specific identity and rituals,
are shaped by Islamic civilization, Muslims in the West will become increasingly
Christian in the broadest sense of the American definition of that term.
In the context of civilization, the Islamification of Christianity and
Christianization of Islam is perfectly understandable and can bear great
fruit in the diversification and evolution of both Christianity and Islam.
Though fought by religious authorities, the trajectory is clear in all
cases. Any ethnic or religious minority becomes over time more and more
like the majority. Assimilation is fought. Assimilation is the norm. September
11th will further assimilation in America and make safer the journey of
Muslims in the West.
In this Americanization of Islam, a further division between Islam within
and outside America will occur. But to what end? As a Jew this process
of assimilation is almost complete, but with a caveat: unlike Muslims
in America, Jews have arrived at a place of power within the American
political and cultural process. Unlike Muslims in America, Jews are now
free to connect with Jews outside of America in a solidarity that is insistent
and respected by non-Jews. Whereas for Muslims in America, the Islamic
world outside America is fraught with accusing images, the historic suffering
of European Jews and the images of triumphant Jews in the creation and
defense of the state of Israel have raised Jewish status in America.
The assimilation of Jews in America is a victory though in the shadow
of the destruction of European Jewry and the consolidation of the Sephardic
Jewish diaspora from the Arab world into Israel. Since aspects of European
culture and the Arab world are denigrated in America, Jews in the U.S.
have benefited, albeit unintentionally, from the events of Jewish history
in the 20th century. Israel is seen as a western, small European state
tied in a dependent way to the United States, so that even though it is
geographically located in the Arab world, it is a place of prestige for
Jews in America, perhaps, again, because of its culturally western orientation.
Jerusalem is important in this identity question for Jews and Muslims
in America, again functioning at cross-purposes, negative for Muslims
and positive for Jews, at least in the mind of non-Muslim and non-Jewish
In essence Jews have brought the whole Jewish world into the imagination
of America as somehow American while the Islamic world, even that part
of the Islamic world in the United States, is seen as an outsider. The
post-September 11th world in the long run will further the assimilation
of Muslims in America but the foreignness of Islam in general will remain.
Like Jews, American Muslims will become more Christian, but at least for
the foreseeable future, the Islamic world outside will remain a point
of contention and disconnect. It is doubtful that a museum dedicated to
Islamic civilization or any event in Islamic history will ever appear
on the Mall in Washington, D.C. or that Congress will swear allegiance
to a foreign government with a Muslim majority.
For the foreseeable future Jews can relate to Muslims in America as the
assimilated with the soon-to-be assimilated. The difference will remain:
Jewish assimilation will include a solidarity with other Jews religiously
and politically; Islamic assimilation will diminish or sever relations
with Islam in other parts of the world. Personal relations among Muslims,
especially through the extended family structure, will remain. However,
as time moves on more and more of the familial relations will be in America.
A paternalistic relation between Jews and Muslims is part of the future
and in the wake of September 11th is already in evidence. More than any
other community, Jews will reach out to their Muslim neighbors, welcome
them, assure them of their dignity and safety. Like the African-American
community, Muslims find that often the ones who accept them as they are
and may even fight for their political rights in a difficult environment
The disciplining of Jesse Jackson as an African-American political leader
by the Jewish establishment is instructive here. As a civil rights leader
in the shadow of Martin Luther King, Jr., Jackson was acceptable to the
Jewish community, but as his leadership assumed its own dynamic and legitimacy,
as he grew in stature and internationalized his vision, as he reached
out in the Middle East conflict and embraced Yassir Arafat and then began
to address the nation in his presidential bids, he was severely and irreparably
disciplined by Jewish leadership. His sin was less the assumed leadership
status for African-Americans in their locality - living far away from
the masses of African-Americans, this movement was more symbolic for Jews
than of any concrete significance. Jackson's sin was his attempt to usurp
the direction of the movement from the watchful eye of the Jewish establishment
to include issues that are central to Jewish identity, status and affluence
in America. A paternalistic relationship of Jews and African-Americans
was assumed as critical to Jewish support. And since support for minorities
is hard to come by, could Jackson and the entire civil rights movement
afford to alienate the one minority with institutional, media and economic
power that would support African-Americans, albeit in a more limited agenda?
Even progressive Jews serve as brokers, introducing progressive Muslims
to liberal America. Again inclusion has a price. To be progressive in
America demands certain credentials and lifestyles, certain attitudes
and professions, approximating a creedal affirmation. Individuality is
affirmed over communal unity and the values of the progressive left in
all areas of life become the litmus test for authenticity. While there
remains a certain romanticism for dress and community, Muslims need to
assimilate here as well. For how to argue authenticity as an individual
with values of enlightened modernity when tied to what seem to be ancient
sensibilities and cultures? A division ensues that objectifies the external
and renders asunder the internal until schizophrenia becomes the norm.
How to be ancient, tied to the Muslim world as seen by the West, and modern,
aligned in life and thought with the post-modern?
The issue of Israel/Palestine is crucial here for Muslims of Palestinian
descent and Jerusalem the issue for Muslims throughout the world. The
price of admission to America for the Jewish establishment is Palestinian
and Muslim assent to Jewish equality in the land and city, at the very
least, and for many Jews, Jewish superiority. Often this "equality"
is itself superiority disguised by the power of articulation, status and
power. Among progressive Jews equality can also be superiority disguised
by the rhetoric of Jewish suffering, anguish and innocence.
The parameters of discussion, the thinkable thought of Palestinians and
Muslims in general is therefore constricted in many ways. The equality
of Jews and Palestinians, for example, is already a political assertion
of Jewish rights in the land; the proposal to divide the land into two
states for two peoples is already a victory for the Jewish claim that
Jews are indigenous to the land, like the Palestinians. The separation
of the two peoples into two states seems fair within this claim, yet the
land area, the cultural, political and military power are profoundly unequal.
How many progressive Jews, even in their assertion of equality between the two communities, propose equality in land, economy and military as critical to a new beginning for Jews and Palestinians? Leaving aside the historical claims for a moment, claims that are less than a century old in their assertion by Jews and resistance by Palestinians, how many individual Jews and organizations on the progressive left state the need for a redistribution of land in Israel/Palestine or the creation of a Palestinian military equal to that of Israel? In the years of struggle - during the last two years of intifada - where in America or among progressive Jews can Palestinians argue this land redistribution and military power? Or simply the recreation of
Palestine with Jews and Palestinians as equal citizens throughout the
Religion in Jerusalem has always been contentious and bloody. The vision
of Jerusalem as a place of prayer for the three monotheistic faiths has,
for the most part, been a messianic dream rather than a lived reality.
"Praying" Jerusalem, the children of Abraham returning to each
other and the one God, too often softens and even dispenses with the reality
of economic and political power. Prayer can be individual and collective
in private or in public places but without a supporting culture and politics,
without a communal dimension in the world, prayer becomes at most a symbolic
resistance. The beautiful mosques of Jerusalem become museum pieces and
tourist attractions when the community which supports and peoples them
is reduced to a tolerated presence and denied political rights.
The Abrahamic faiths become mystified, as if the gathering of buildings
representing these faiths in the city of Jerusalem are themselves a geography
of faith and hope. Just the opposite is true: without a vibrant and empowered
community the Abrahamic faiths and their gathering places become empty
symbols of arguments that were not made, paths thought impossible to take,
and visions that were, for reasons of propriety, suppressed.
If the situation was reversed, if Jews and Judaism were on the margins
of the West with Muslims and Islam the empowered minority after a long
history of suffering, would inclusion carry the same price for Jews as
it does for Muslims? The argument from the history of those societies
informed by Islam, including Palestine and Jerusalem, is of interest and
has its importance. Certainly it is true that societies informed by Islam
have in the main and over a long period been more accepting of Jews than
European societies formed by Christianity. In the most extreme of examples
there is no history of holocaust toward the Jews in the Islamic world
as there is in the western Christian world. Anti-Jewishness in general
has been much more pronounced and with the gravest of consequences among
Christians rather than Muslims.
But the argument of history falls short of prediction. In different circumstance
and time periods the dynamics of religious traditions change, to which
the recent and revolutionary rapprochement between Jews and Christians
in the West attests. There is no argument from history that structures
respond for the good or ill. There is no guarantee, for example, that
the Islamic world would accept Jews in great number and as a political
community in the Middle East today regardless of the detailed studies
of positive interaction between the two communities in previous eras.
Of course there is no need for such a guarantee to be made if indeed
the Jewish community organized in an empowered political entity is anathema
in Palestine and the Arab world. Still the argument often put forth is
disingenuous, at least in theory, that if two states were established
they would live side by side in peace. This could happen if military power
and an overall consensus on both sides agreed that strategically this
was in the best interests of both communities but it does not necessarily
follow from the history of Islam and the trajectory of Palestinian society.
This is not a criticism or an affirmation of the acceptance or non-acceptance
of an empowered Jewish presence in the Middle East. It is simply a warning
against a romanticism. Jews and Judaism are not innocent but neither are
Muslims or Islam.
There is a place beyond innocence in our personal and communal lives.
And there is a place beyond the understanding that our histories carry
an exclusive redemption through God or the land. In all places and times
the redemption promised in the Torah, the New Testament and the Koran
must be internalized and relativized, lest the redemption of one's own
becomes a disaster for the other. There must also be a place beyond the
Constantinian synthesis of church and state, synagogue and state, mosque
and state, where religion becomes the handmaiden of the state and legitimator
of injustice. The belief in innocence and redemption and the use of state
power to assure that both are accepted as true and defining of Islam and
Judaism, of Muslims and Jews, is the dead end of religion and religiosity
and the beginning of an assimilation that becomes a cycle of self-congratulation
Who can argue against this sensibility of assimilation and desire for
acceptance by the state for the many who seek ordinary life in their homeland
and especially in a recent diaspora? The drive to be like the powerful
or at least be by their side is strong as is the need to keep other communities
within one's power to define. Ultimately the question is neither blame
nor the potential of role reversal. Rather, after the long and necessary
analysis of social and political reality, the central question reverts
to the religious. What does it mean to be religious, to be Jew or Muslim,
and how does that relate to the community that carries that designation?
The religious person and the religious community may be connected by a
deep and historical bond but there may also be a deep cleavage and a crossing
boundary that is surprising and instructive. In the end our declared solidarity
as Muslim and Jew to the Islamic and Jewish communities may be a romanticized
notion and a sociological imposition calling for evaluation and interpretation.
There is much to be explored here as we continue to probe September 11th
and its aftermath. Now the categories of Muslim and Jew seem more and
more discussed and defined. Later the substance of these categories will
be found wanting. Now Muslim and Jew, Islam and Judaism are mobilized
for defense and aggression, one Constantinian in its power, the other
aspiring to that status. Yet the emptiness is apparent. Many who carry
the label of Muslim and Jew are neither religious nor culturally identified
except for external circumstance and need. And those who identify with
Judaism and Islam at a deeper level often use it to distinguish themselves
from the worldly pursuits of power which in their lives they either already
enjoy or seek out.
Posturing is deemed, at least in America, as the art of politics and
indeed this too often is the case. Yet religious and ethnic posturing
is legendary. Both contribute to the cycle of violence and atrocity that
seems to define our times and so much of history. We always seem to want
to ask the questions that release us from this posturing and this cycle.
Judaism and Islam seem vehicles for those questions but the exigencies
of life throw us backward into identities that do not correspond to the
wrestling peculiar to the human condition. Of course once, before Judaism
and Islam, before Jew and Muslim, there was a wrestling that is recorded
in the Torah and the Koran. And there have been followers of these paths,
these ways of wrestling with God, truth and each other. But the religions
and the politics of identity and community have usurped these paths as
definable and codified and as callings to a transcendent that becomes
narrower and more militarized in times of crisis.
If there is neither secularity nor religiosity on a communal
level without power and identity and the state, then assimilation is the
norm and the attempt to set a community apart or above is false and misleading.
Jew over Muslim is political and economic in a certain context bound by
time and space. Muslim over Jew is a theological projection that makes
sense only in a framework backed by status and power. In this sense Jerusalem
is neither here nor there, not worth the fight religiously, either the
domination of or resistance to domination, in an ultimate sense. In the
cycle of conquering and being conquered Jerusalem stands out as perhaps
the pre-eminent example of the absolute need to demystify and relativize
claims of geographic and sacred space. The beauty of Jerusalem arises
here in the space between claim and relativization and in the appreciation
of a history that lacks a definitive conclusion and has aroused so much
This may be the intersection of Jews and Muslims in their diaspora, a
relation to and a suspicion of Jerusalem and the claims made in its name.
Inside Jerusalem there is a desperate need for the ability to live an
ordinary life. Outside Jerusalem there is a realization that ordinary
life is precious and that Jerusalem has often denied this very need. Jerusalem
is less a place of triumph; its holiness is covered with blood. Jerusalem
is the middle of Israel/Palestine, crucial to both Jews and Muslims, Israelis
and Palestinians, but it is also broken, the meeting ground of religious
and political visions that often as not has produced a cycle of violence
Thus the broken middle that Jerusalem represents can be a new metaphor
beyond the claims and counter-claims of unity or division. A religious
and political vision characterized by middle and brokenness demands the
demystification of history and teleology in the public arena while allowing
eschatological sensibilities to be embraced in synagogues and mosques.
The overarching citizenship of all those who live in Jerusalem would free
the concept of ordinary life to compete with the extraordinary claims
of the messianic. Investment in ordinary life and the fruits of that life
are the only remedy to a history of religions that are infused with violence
and atrocity in the name of God.
The place of intersection, the broken middle of Jerusalem, may give birth
to a Jewish/ Muslim movement of justice and compassion after September
11th in the land and in the diaspora. Here the disparity of power and
status is recognized, resisted and struggled within. No slogan - End the
Occupation! The Right of Return is Inviolable! - is worth the death of
innocents and no slogan will transform a route into a victory. Slogans
of ending and return mystify the reality and transform a politics into
a religious crusade, whether the people shouting the slogans are religious
or not. The transformation of a strategic and contextual politics into
a war unto death is precisely what must be avoided. Victory is not right
around the corner when the very survival of a people is in question. And
one wonders what that victory would produce. Who and what survives victory?
And who and what survives the anticipated reversal of defeat into victory?
The broken middle of Jerusalem forces us to survey the geography of loss,
a reality much more consistent with Jewish and Muslim life today than
the slogans invoked. The Islamic loss in Palestine and elsewhere is easier
to trace than the Jewish one, but again that ease is measured in the language
of power and coercion. Of course Jew and Muslim in America meet in America,
in diaspora, precisely because of defeat and weakness and trial in other
parts of the world. Both Jew and Muslim are struggling within histories
of contribution and struggle, victory and defeat, power and weakness.
These long histories have experienced too much to hoist flags of superiority
or even to mobilize for the next battle in a never-ending war.
The geography of loss alerts us to casualties of this never-ending war
in the present. The casualties are lives lost and the emptying of the
ethical content; the very center of each tradition, articulated in text
and liturgy, is a casualty as well. For without justice and compassion,
tending to the weak and the estranged, what is there left of Judaism and
Islam? Within the context of violence and atrocity, the very claims that
both religions repeat daily are found wanting. What is left is an identity
to assert, to rebel against and within. What remains is the persecution
of those who place conscience over identity or conscience as the essence
of identity by the very people who call themselves Jews and Muslims.
Today there is a civil war in both communities around this question of
identity and conscience. And it seems that both sides of the Jewish and
Islamic community who seek the continuation of violence and atrocity are
much closer to one another and that those Jews and Muslims of conscience
are likewise closer to one another. The geography of loss - of land, death
and ethics - forces an end of sloganeering on the one hand and of identity
politics on the other. For if we are closer together on the very issues
of life and death, can we be very far apart on the question of meaning
Jews of conscience are Jewish and more than that. Muslims of conscience are Muslim and more than that as well. Thinking critically about politics and religion is thinking about the possibilities and perils of assimilation for our communities of birth and identity, at the same time giving birth to a new community that moves beyond the old. All movements of solidarity and compassion are by their very nature transforming of the old; they point to another reality that is never realized, to be sure, but always on the horizon, the something more promised by the local prophets of Moses and Mohammad. That Judaism and Islam hold out that something more demands respect even as we realize that the traditions and institutions that claim these prophets often betray that vision.
* University Professor of American and Jewish Studies, Baylor University,
Waco, Texas. This paperhas been presented, on September 18, 2002, at a
conference on "Islam and America: Rights and Citizenship in a Post-9/11
World." This conference was sponsored by the Center for Middle East
Studies and the Department of African American Studies.