Tuesday, February 20, 2007

NewGround - A Program for Muslim-Jewish Dialogue

Permission to reprint by InFocus ... the largest Muslim newspaper in California

NEWGROUND: A Groundbreaking Muslim-Jewish Partnership

By Abdussalam Mohamed

The Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) and the Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA) have recently launched NewGround, a bold new program that aims to jumpstart dialogue and community building between American Muslims and Jews. The program intends to put forth a new initiative for creating a dynamic and constructive way to promote Muslim-Jewish relations.

"The program has been on our minds for a long time," said Aziza Hasan, MPAC’s Interfaith Program Coordinator. "Each time tensions rise in the Middle East we feel that Muslims and Jews need to be talking to each other," she added.

Malka Fenyzesi, PJA’s Interfaith Program Coordinator echoed that sentiment by saying, "We want to be engaged in an honest and constructive dialogue that brings Muslims and Jews together."

According to Hasan, NewGround is the result of extensive research of previous Muslim-Jewish dialogue conducted in the Los Angeles area and around the country. Fenyzesi said that many in the Jewish community are looking to engage with the Muslim community in a substantial way.

In order to implement its challenging vision, NewGround has a four-pronged initiative. An intra-faith phase that will invite members of the same faith to address issues that pose both challenges and opportunities for understanding the "other;" an inter-faith phase, which would encourage Muslims and Jews to learn about each other and discuss common ethnic and religious issues such as anti-Semitism and Islamophobia; a civic engagement phase that would prompt members of the two faiths to address a joint social issue within the city of Los Angeles; and a fourth phase that would deal with each community’s Achilles Heel: The Palestinian/Israel issue.

Asked whether the Middle East conflict could be divisive enough to potentially derail NewGround’s efforts, Hasan was confident it would not. "We’ve conducted a research project on interfaith initiatives across the country and were able to learn from models already in place," she said. According to Hasan these existing models are based on academic research conducted by university professors and organization leaders.

"The goal of this dialogue is not to agree as much as it is to listen and try to understand each other," said Fenyzesi.

Other community organizations expressed support the idea. "Any dialogue that aims to widen the area of cooperation between the two communities is always welcome," said Hussam Ayloush, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) Southern California office.

Ayloush said that in order for such dialogue to work, "There has to be an agreement between all groups that views on Israel are not going to be the litmus test for acceptance."

Hasan said that the reason previous dialogues between the Muslim and Jewish communities have failed was because there was no process for people to discuss emotionally explosive issues (such as the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians) as they happen in a controlled environment. "With a system of accountability, members of each faith would have to follow key ways to express their feelings," Hasan added.

Rather than being exclusive among organization leadership, NewGround will target attitudes within members of the Muslim and Jewish communities. It aims to train groups of dedicated persons who will take their newly learned skills to their respective communities with the expectation that they would impart what they have learned to other community members.

In spite of his optimism, Ayloush noted that such a dialogue was going to attract people who already believed in dialogue. "We need to find a way to engage those who are opposed to it," he said.

Hasan acknowledged that fact but added that, "At this stage, we’ve had significant interest from individuals who belong to groups who are part of the mainstream Jewish community." Fenyzesi agreed. "The focus of our project at this stage is our community members even though we are in contact with the leadership of both our communities," he said.

NewGround was launched last month of this year and has full time staff working in the Muslim and Jewish communities. It remains to see how well it will perform in the coming months and years especially if another Middle East conflict ignites.

Tensions in the region notwithstanding, both Hasan and Fenyzesi are confident that the new project would help their respective communities engage in a positive and constructive dialogue. "NewGround is a step in the right direction," said Fenyzesi. "We’re optimistic it will work," seconded Hasan.

1 comment:

nuh ibn zbigniew gondek said...

As salaam alaikum.

Sounds like a great program - alhamdulillah!

There is a Rabbi named Dovid Weiss(a hassid)who is doing a tonne of great work to bring Musims and Jews together in spirit.

Wa salaama,

nuh ibn