We need more of this:
Sitting at an outdoor cafe, wearing knee-high black leather boots and hip sunglasses, Sarah Bassin doesn’t look like most people’s idea of a rabbi. She’s young, lively, and personable. Bassin believes in the need for greater Jewish and Muslim dialogue. From her perspective, it’s a no-brainer.
“The greatest predictor for whether somebody is going to be Islamophobic, is if they already hold anti-Semitic beliefs,” she says.
Research indicates that both Muslims and Jews tend to suffer equally from discrimination and hate crimes; that’s one experience that these two faiths have in common.
“A lot of the way the fight against Islamophobia has been framed for communities outside of the Muslim community is, that’s the right thing to do,” says Bassin. “And that’s true. I think it’s also important to speak to that added element of self-interest. It’s not just this altruism, that we’re reaching out and saying this is an issue that needs to be addressed: It’s an issue of self-protection, right?”
Self-protection, the idea of defending one’s beliefs and religious identity, is only one of the many issues taken on by a project called NewGround.
The idea came in the summer of 2006, around the breakout of a 34-day conflict in Lebanon that pitted the Israeli military against the militant group, Hezbollah. The war also pitted Muslim and Jewish religious leaders here in Los Angeles–over which side was wrong, and who Americans should support.
Things got so bad that Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa convened a task force to bring Muslim and Jewish leaders to the same table. This effort gave birth to NewGround, a joint fellowship project by the Progressive Jewish Alliance and the Muslim Public Affairs Council. In 2011, NewGround became independent from these two organizations; today, it is housed within the city’s Human Relations Commission.
On a recent night at Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills, a group of about 20 people — Muslims and Jews, young and old; not all of them devout — sit in a circle and discuss their faith. Over the past three months, this group has been meeting weekly to ponder big questions and figure out exactly what makes them a Jew, or a Muslim.
“People feel very strongly, and they can talk about their experiences as a white person, or as a black person, or as an Asian American person. They can talk a lot about gender, you know, male or female,” says Tasneem Noor, one of the facilitators. “But for a lot of people when it comes to religion, there’s I think, a lot of exploration that needs to be done on that level.”
A lot of these NewGround explorations can be somewhat esoteric: Do all Muslims read lines in the Quran in the same way? What’s the difference between how Jews and Muslims think of heaven?
Kiran Hashmi and her husband first heard about NewGround last Ramadan, as they attended a service at the King Fahad Mosque in Culver City.