It's Time to Rehumanize Muslims and Jews

Growing up Jewish in America, I was never encouraged to associate with Muslims. It's not that anyone ever said, "don't talk to those people" -- there just weren't many opportunities to interact with Muslims in the day and place I was raised (Minneapolis in the 1970s). And though it was unspoken, I sensed that Muslims, and Arabs in particular, were viewed by many of the Jews around me as "the other."

Back then the Muslim-Jewish rift didn't seem as sharp as it is today, but decades of Israeli-Arab wars and a growing antipathy between the United States and Muslim-majority countries have bred a culture of mistrust and fear between Muslims and Jews. Dehumanizing "the other" has become, if not the norm, at least widely accepted by far too many people.

Muslims and Jews who would otherwise be considered well-educated, decent citizens have reached the point where they ignore, accept or embrace behavior which runs contrary not only to their own religion's teachings, but is in conflict with the most basic standards of human decency.

Certainly these two religions don't claim a monopoly on violence and hatred, but there's no shortage of examples of the cruelty both inflicted and suffered by each in places like Gaza, the West Bank, Israel, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Afghanistan, to name a few.

Ask most Jews, and they'll tell you how we've been persecuted over the centuries from Haman to Hitler and how anti-Semitism is a threat without end. At the same time, one doesn't have to be a U.N. special rapporteur to recognize the extreme violence and systematic human rights abuses perpetrated during Israel's many wars, "operations" and daily interactions with people in Palestinian territories and neighboring countries.

The Israel I was raised to believe in as a child has become, in many ways, an international pariah often compared with apartheid South Africa and infected with bigotry and right-wing nationalism where some Israeli Jews have gone so far as to adopt Nazi slogans and imagery in their pursuit of hate.

At the same time, anti-Israeli and anti-Jewish vitriol thrives in both Muslim and non-Muslim settings around the world. Besieged by institutionalized religious bigotry and racism, when the possibility of coexistence (or, God forbid, peace!) has risen to its highest heights, it has led to the assassinations of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and, 14 years later, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, both killed by Muslim and Jewish extremists respectively.

In addition to multiple wars, internal political repression and incidents of terrorism far worse than we suffer in the West, Muslims also face the backlash from the savage attacks of Islamist political and terror groups like al Qaeda, Boko Haram, Daesh (ISIL), al Shabab and others. Terrorists fuel an anti-Muslim bigotry that extends to anyone perceived to be a Muslim, an Arab or even just vaguely "Middle Eastern-looking." Haters who in another time might have targeted Jews, are now hunting Muslims or, in some cases both.

The spike in Islamophobic hate crimes, property damage and physical threats since the Paris attacks comes on top of years of government surveillance, discrimination, and a narrative spread in the media that Muslims are to be feared. But the recent frenzy over accepting or rejecting Syrian (and other Muslim) refugees in the U.S. has at least spurred some reflection on how Jewish refugees were also viewed with suspicion as "the other" during World War II, providing a modicum of counter-balance to the fear-mongering that has jerked much of American society to the right like a speeding car overtaken by a crazed drunkard.

And yet American governors, members of Congress and Republican presidential candidates stampeded to outdo one another in a flurry of proposals to reject and restrict Muslim refugees, monitor, identify and introduce "religious tests," with the worst excesses calling for the United States to embrace torture techniques and reconsider internment camps.

In a toxic climate like this, the only real winners are the fear mongers, death merchants and powers that deal in suspicion and force, be they religious, corporate, political or non-state actors. Where does all this loathing and mistrust leave the everyday, ordinary Muslims and Jews just trying to get by in the world? Nowhere good, I'm afraid.

With so many forces pushing fear, it's never been more important to reject the dangerous narrative of hate and pursue a different path in which we acknowledge that our futures are inextricably bound. Further dehumanization of Muslims and Jews will only produce predictable results.

Fortunately, today we're not bound to a single source for communication and information. Walking around with pocket-sized super computers on our persons means we can easily connect to people outside our immediate social and cultural spheres. Muslims and Jews can see for themselves that the other is not inherently evil but, in fact, shares many of the same hopes and concerns.

Social media has meant that a Jew like me, living in a place with few Muslims (Hawaii), can still speak directly to people across the Muslim world. Jews and Muslims can and should contact each other, read each other's words and form relationships where they can exchange ideas, ask questions and come to view "the other" more like a sisters and brothers. With openness, honesty, humility and a sincere interest in the lives and well beings of others, there is plenty of room to plant seeds of respect that can bloom into a better tomorrow.

I've found many thoughtful people in other countries -- Turkey, Israel, Iran, Egypt, Saudi Arabia-- and elsewhere, who have similar outlooks. They too recognize that more animosity is a "lose-lose" proposition.

There are many examples of Muslim-Jewish coexistence, cooperation and unity, but we need more. Tolerance alone is not enough. We need to get beyond "us" and "them" because there simply is no more time for Muslim-Jewish antipathy.

Respecting and protecting each other isn't just a better way to live, it's the only way to survive.