With a Single Forefather, Muslims and Jews Can Work Together

Co-authored with Ambassador Ebrahim Rasool

Ambassador Ebrahim Rasool welcomes Rabbi Marc Schneier at the Embassy of South Africa, Washington D.C., June 2013

As Nelson Mandela endures a grave illness with the same courage and dignity he evinced throughout his life, including the 27 long years he was held prisoner, Minister of Public Services Malusi Gigaba said recently that in his present weakened state, Mandela "is uniting the nation without even saying a word."

Indeed, Mandela's legacy is not only that he vanquished the evil system of apartheid that imprisoned him and deprived all South Africans of color of their liberty, but that upon finally attaining power, he eschewed the temptation to emulate his persecutors by persecuting them in turn.

Instead, he set a new paradigm by advocating unity among South Africans of all races and creeds. By choosing the path of reconciliation, Mandela was able to end apartheid non-violently.

Nevertheless, South Africa still has a long way to go to achieve Mandela's vision of a country in which racial and religious groups come together for the common good. For example, two of the most influential modern-day constituencies, the Jewish and Muslim communities, which once stood together in opposition to apartheid, have since become progressively estranged from each other.

Tragically, in recent years, these two religious communities have focused on their differences on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict instead of nurturing ties of communication and cooperation.

We addressed these issues head on last month during a breakfast at the Embassy of South Africa to the U.S. in honor of participants in a groundbreaking Mission to Washington of Muslim and Jewish Leaders from South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. The Mission was co-sponsored by the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding (FFEU) and Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), which work together tostrengthen Muslim-Jewish around the world.

After remarks by both of us and by Dr. Sayyid Syeed, national director of ISNA, urging Jews and Muslims in all three countries to put aside differences, South African participants in the Mission -- Adli Jacobs, co-founder and secretary-general of Call of Islam, David Jacobson, executive director of the Cape South African Jewish Board of Deputies and Rabbi Ron Hendler; project coordinator at the office of the chief rabbi of South Africa -- vowed to work together to end the non-interaction between Muslims and Jews in their country.

They expressed the hope that the two communities could find the same unity and common purpose as existed during the 1980s, when groups like the Call of Islam and Jews for Justice stood together in demanding the dismantling of apartheid.

We understand only too well that strengthening Muslim-Jewish ties is not an easy or popular cause, but one almost certain to be denounced by influential people in both communities. Yet this effort is very much worth the candle and nowhere more so than in South Africa, where ending the estrangement between these two influential communities is a vital component of ongoing efforts to build a sustainable sense of unity and common purpose among the country's diverse racial, ethnic and religious groups. South African Jews and Muslims owe it to themselves and the larger society they share to find a way to live together in peace and harmony.

One way of changing the present dynamic of conflict is to realize that the point of departure in Muslim-Jewish engagement should not be the modern-day Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but rather Abraham/Ibrahim, our common forefather and the source of our shared commitment to ethical monotheism. Both Islam and Judaism uphold the principles of peace, justice and mercy and a common moral imperative to help those in society who are most in need.

So let Muslims and Jews break bread together in Johannesburg, Cape Town and other cities to learn about the inspiring commonalities in our two faith traditions. Let us also perform acts of loving kindness together on behalf of South Africans of all backgrounds in need of succor by feeding the hungry and homeless, repairing houses in poor neighborhoods, and going together to hospitals and nursing homes to visit sick and elderly people.

As a Muslim and a Jew committed to our respective faiths and to the larger cause of universal peace and justice so stirringly evoked by Mandela, we believe that it is essential to heal the bitter rift between Jews and Muslims. South Africa can become a beacon of hope to Jews and Muslims around the world-including Israelis and Palestinians.

Rasool is the South African Ambassador to the U.S. and co-founder together with Adli Jacobs of the Muslim anti-apartheid organization Call to Islam in 1984. Schneier is president of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding.

Reprinted from Cape Times, July 15, 2013