Multi-faith in Morocco

Yesterday and today marked the 79th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass, when ordinary Germans demonized their Jewish neighbors and lashed out against them in violence and hate. Soon after, once Hitler had control over France, the Vichy government there sent a message to King Mohammed V of Morocco: help us deport your country’s 250,000 Jews to Nazi concentration camps. As the story goes, the king responded saying, “We have no Jews, we only have Moroccans.”

There are academic debates to the historic accuracy of this account, however, not one Moroccan Jew was ever sent to a concentration camp, and the Jews of Morocco lived out WWII in relative safety and peace compared to their French counterparts.

I learned of this story while visiting the Mausoleum of King Mohammed V in Rabat, Morocco just a few weeks ago. Some of you may remember, I had the opportunity to visit Abu Dhabi in May as part of a conference called An American Peace Caravan: Working from the Marrakech Declaration. Our American delegation was responding to a group of over 300 Muslim civil and religious leaders that gathered in 2016 in Marrakech. Led by Sheikh Abdullah bin Bayyah, the Marrakech Declaration signees promised to protect the rights of religious minorities in Muslim countries.

In this most recent conference, rabbis, imams, and evangelical pastors from 20 cities in the US gathered in Rabat to continue this conversation and think about how we can bring this message of tolerance to the US, especially in light of recent anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. This multi-faith conference was a unique opportunity to challenge each other on tough questions and engage in deep, meaningful dialogue in an effort to better understand one another, for as we know, so much hate and mistrust is based on fear and lack of knowledge.

In this week’s Torah portion, Chayei Sarah, the portion begins with the death of our matriarch, Sarah. Abraham purchases a burial plot for her in the cave of Machpelah.

At the end of the portion, Abraham dies as well and his two sons, Isaac and Ishmael come together to bury their father in the same cave. This may seem fairly routine, brothers coming together to make funeral arrangements for their elderly father.

But it is a truly remarkable sentiment that Isaac, a Jewish patriarch, and Ishmael, an Islamic patriarch, came together at this moment. If you remember, the last time we heard from Ishmael, he was cast out of Abraham and Sarah’s tent along with his mother Hagar to presumably die in the wilderness at Sarah’s behest. God watched over the young boy and ensured that he too would eventually be the progenitor of the Muslim people. But this is not justification for being treated so horribly.

So why did Sarah throw the boy and his mother out of the household? According to the text it was simply because Sarah saw Isaac and Ishmael ‘playing’ together. This seems like a bit of an overreaction. However, according to one rabbinic commentary, Pirkei D’Rebbe Eliezer, written during the Islamic conquest of the Middle East, Ishmael’s crime is much more sinister. Using a fringe definition of the word mitzacheik, playing, Pirkei D’Rebbe Eliezer sees Ishmael’s actions as some type of sexual abuse of Isaac.

Nowhere in the text is there justification for this reading and most scholars point to this interpretation as a direct polemic against Islam. This type of vilification of Islam and ‘the other’ has sadly always been a part of Judaism and society, and still exists today.

We witnessed two mass killings in recent weeks. One in New York City at the hands of a Muslim, and one in a Texas church at the hands of a white American man. The New York attack was described as a terrorist attack. The attack at a church in Texas was described as the act of someone mentally ill. Both attacks were attacks of terrorism. Let us not forget that the majority of terrorist attacks in America are committed by white men.

It is not just politicians and the media that vilify Islam and ‘the other;’ many of us are guilty as well. I can say personally, that before my trips to Abu Dhabi and Morocco, I had many negative, preconceived notions about Muslims and Evangelical Christians. I thought all Muslims hated Israel. I thought all Evangelicals aligned themselves with a specific political party. I found both of these statements to be false when I got to know imams and pastors on a deeper level.

Now, I don’t want to sugar coat this and say that we agree on everything and all love each other. We have fundamental differences in our beliefs and irreconcilable points of view on certain issues. However, this does not mean we should be fearful or ignorant of the other. We may not ever agree on certain issues, but we can at least understand one another. And through understanding, we may not like one another or agree with one another, but we will hopefully stop creating evil caricatures of each other. Or as Brene Brown writes in her book, Braving the Wilderness, it is hard to hate close-up. So move in.

At the conferences in Rabat and Abu Dhabi, we were tasked with bringing this dialogue back to our communities so that we might all, in Brown’s words, ‘move in.’ In that spirit, Pastor Kevin Brown of the Perfecting Church, Imam Muhammad Abdul-Aleem of Masjidullah, and myself, with the support of some amazing lay leaders, have created our first series of dialogue events called, “Ambassadors of Peace.” Our hope is that our congregants will also have the chance to get to know one another and that, through meeting ‘the other,’ we can destigmatize, we can stop vilifying each other, we can see each person not as a stereotype of their religion, but as an individual.

The first dialogue took place last week at the American Bible Society, where we learned about Evangelical Christianity. The next dialogue will take place this coming Tuesday evening, November 14th at 6pm at the National Museum of American Jewish History. I hope many of you will join us as we teach others about Judaism.  

And the last part of the series will be held on December 7th at Masjidullah, a mosque on West Oak Lane, where we will learn about Islam. I’ll end with a story about that very mosque:

I was at Masjidullah with my mom, Laurel, and Josephine for a special multi-faith Iftar celebration a few months back. When we arrived at the mosque, my mother turned to me and said, “I’ve been here before.”

She couldn’t quite place it until the Imam, Mohammed Abdul-Aleem, invited us to come to a special room downstairs in the mosque. He was incredibly proud to show us some beautiful, old, stained-glass windows. The windows were clearly Jewish, and dated back to when the mosque was originally Temple Sinai. My mom then realized that the last time she had been there was 60 years ago for her cousin’s Bar Mitzvah.

What an amazing moment. To see a mosque that took extra precautions and extra steps to preserve sacred Jewish art. The next time someone tells you that all Muslims hate Jews, or that Islam is a religion of violence and is un-American, remember that this type of demonization and vilification needs to stop. Remember Masjidullah caring for our Jewish sacred art, remember the imams that showed up at Rodeph Shalom after the Jewish cemetery in Philadelphia was desecrated, remember King Mohammed V who saved the Jews of Morocco from the Nazis and remember to ‘move in’ and see the Divine in everyone.