In the Wake of Colleyville, Muslims and Jews Can Do the Hard Work of Compassionate Honesty
guest post by Aziza Hasan and Andrea Hodos
The hostage-taking at Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, TX occurred almost three weeks ago. Many Jews continue to feel vulnerable, and at the same time, there is still concern in the Muslim community about a backlash as a result of this incident. Both in Colleyville and across the country, we see Muslims showing up for Jews and we hear Jewish voices warning against backlash. This moment presents a crucial opportunity for Muslims and Jews to harness the solidarity we have built. It is the moment to engage with compassionate honesty to ensure we do not cause one another greater harm.
As director and associate director of NewGround, an organization that has been building strong and resilient relationships between Muslims and Jews since 2006, we know the importance of addressing honestly both the anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim bias and hate that goes unchecked in our communities and in the broader culture. At times, this hate is clear and identifiable; at other times, it is more insidious. The latter kind can create an environment in which toxic rhetoric and stereotypes flourish, and can lead to dehumanization. From our work at NewGround, we know that Muslims and Jews have the capacity to be the strongest of allies. But we also know that our communities can unwittingly harm one another by engaging in dangerous stereotypes or by failing to address them when they arise.
We know that through candid and perhaps difficult dialogue, we can help one another recognize and question the bias as it arises in our midst. NewGround runs a yearly fellowship for Muslims and Jews in which we can have courageous and messy conversations that help us all confront biases lingering beneath the surface. It is a space in which a Jew who knows she has absorbed messages about Muslims as inherently violent can be honest about her perceptions, ask uncomfortable questions, and learn to see things differently. It is a space in which a Muslim who grew up hearing stories about Jews as evil masterminds can share these stories without shame and approach Jews and Judaism with deep curiosity.
The way that Muslims and Jews are standing up for each other in the aftermath demonstrates the importance of building resilient relationships. Many Muslim leaders are speaking out against antisemitism, and many Jewish leaders are measuring their language to anticipate and prevent Islamophobic reactions. Now is the moment to build on these strengths and examine our biases and blind spots more deeply. It is crucial that we build real relationships of both solidarity and honesty – ones like those that Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker engages with in Texas. Compassionate honesty is crucial in building relationships that don’t shy away from hard conversations, that give us the capacity to hold each other’s rough edges, and our own – and that rest on honesty. Compassion must precede hard and honest conversations. Compassion helps us listen when our instinct is to close off and allows us to show up when it’s uncomfortable to do so.
The study “America’s Divided Mind” produced by Beyond Conflict, an organization that combines insights from brain and behavioral science combined with thirty years of experience in conflict resolution, makes a compelling point about the “Us vs. Them” mentality. “The more we feel disliked and dehumanized by members of the other party, the more likely we are to express greater dislike and dehumanization toward them. In this way, the divide between actual and perceived dislike and dehumanization can create a downward spiral of hostility that fuels further toxic polarization.” One solution the study offers, perhaps the only practical one for individuals, is to engage in effective dialogue across differences that allows us to confront our biases and transform our connections.
We have seen this over and over again, through the thousands of conversations we have held between Muslims and Jews working to build sustainable relationships. When people feel they have been seen in the wholeness of their experience and humanity, they are able to open their own minds, and – perhaps more importantly – their own hearts to take in one another’s perspective on a much deeper level. It gives people the strength and the capacity – and sometimes even the inspiration – to examine their own biases.
In the wake of these moments, it is most important to slow down, take stock and listen deeply to one another. Muslims and Jews have an opportunity to move to the next level of solidarity that this moment requires. As members of this society and this world, we swim in antisemitism. We swim in Islamophobia. Many of us will dip in without realizing it. When we move forward without thinking about our own contribution or inaction, we will be less effective in addressing hate, and we will cede our power to those who would propagate violence against us. The way forward is to hold up a mirror to ourselves, mindful of our foibles and biases. And to do so in the company of our allies. Not with shame or judgment, but with compassion and honesty. We need spaces in which we can be vulnerable enough with one another to begin to see and clear our blind spots. This is what makes us all stronger.
Aziza Hasan is the executive director of NewGround: a Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change, and Andrea Hodos serves as the associate director.