On Saturday, Jews around the world will commemorate the Exodus of the Israelites from enslavement when they celebrate the holiday of Passover, abstaining from bread and eating bitter roots to recall the pain of their forebears. Two weeks later, Muslims will begin their month-long celebration of Ramadan, a time of fasting but also heightened devotion and reflection. Writes Rabbi Marc Schneier
Both of these sacred events have always had empathy at their core, focusing our attention on those in need of emotional understanding and our generosity. But in many ways this year’s parallel festivities are more intertwined than ever before. In the Middle East, the renewed hope fostered by the recent Abraham Accords between Israel and four Muslim-led nations is palpable. And, even in the US, it is hard not to feel an unprecedented spirit of Muslim-Jewish unity taking hold.
Muslims and Jews alike rejoiced over the end of the “Muslim ban” imposed by former President Donald Trump, which prevented travelers from several Muslim-majority countries from entering America. The cynical attempt to brand the policy as a “travel ban” failed to hide its explicit anti-Muslim nature or its dangerous institutionalization of Islamophobia and xenophobia in the US.
Other than Muslims themselves, Jews opposed the ban more vociferously than any faith community in America. A large number of Jewish people joined spontaneous and organized demonstrations, including the 2017 “Today I am a Muslim too” rally that I led in Times Square, New York. Rabbis were arrested for protesting outside of Trump-owned properties and Jewish defense organizations engaged in court challenges to fight for Muslims overseas to be able to visit this country.
Over four years, the ban separated tens of thousands of spouses, children, grandparents and other family members from loved ones. Many more could not reach our safe shores to flee violence or escape persecution in their own communities. And, for millions of Muslim Americans, the ban was a galling daily reminder that members of their own faith were not welcomed by the US government, and that their own fundamental rights as citizens were at risk.
In all its callousness and cruelty, the ban represented the very opposite of the empathy we as Jews and Muslim are instructed to espouse — especially during Passover and Ramadan. During Ramadan, Muslims fast every day from sunrise to sundown, in large part to invoke the pain of people in need, including refugees requiring our succor.
On Passover, Jews are likewise enjoined to empathize with individuals of all faiths and ethnicities enduring oppression. In the Torah, God commands the Jewish people: “But the stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and thou shall love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the Land of Egypt.”
As we celebrate this year with friends and families, Jews and Muslims in the US can each honor the triumph of our common cause. In the 2020 election, more than two in three in both of our communities voted for President Joe Biden. Polling and anecdotal evidence indicate many of the same core values driving us toward a candidate who promised to put empathy at the core of his governing vision. By overturning the Muslim ban and reversing course on other draconian immigration restrictions, Biden has delivered on his pledges.
Traveling last month to the Arabian Peninsula and other Muslim countries, I met foreign leaders and officials confounded by Trump’s poor performance with Jews after his unparalleled support for Israel. As I explained to them, Trump’s penchant for xenophobic and fear-driven policies toward Muslims and other minority groups, including African Americans, Asians and Latinos, greatly disturbed the American Jewish community. History teaches Jews that they need an open, pluralistic and democratic environment to thrive.
When American Jews watch television coverage of Syrian refugees, or the plight of the Rohingya Muslims and Chinese Uighurs, we see the images not only through the lens of our biblical persecution and exodus. We reflect on the horrors of the 1930s and 1940s, when the world — including America — shamefully closed its doors to desperate European Jews seeking to escape the Nazi terror. Wherever Muslims suffer around the world today, Jews feel a deep solidarity and determination to use their voices to speak for those being silenced, pressured, threatened or worse.
Today, America is blessed with a president committed to the basic tenets of democracy, and to human empathy. As someone touched by tragedy throughout his own life, Biden has a special ability to feel the pain of others and offer them solace.
I am confident President Biden will tap into his deep well of empathy to advance peace between Israelis and Palestinians, building on the success of Trump and his son-in-law Jared Kushner with the Abraham Accords. Amid so much hope in the Middle East, and clear signs that Muslims and Jews are writing a new page of tolerance and understanding, this conflict still poses a regional challenge that we must address and overcome. Biden understands that Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation is critical to realizing the full potential of a global Muslim-Jewish partnership.
We are not there yet, but our two communities have come so far. On this Passover and Ramadan, I am hopeful Jews and Muslims can together renew our commitment to recognizing and internalizing the suffering of the other, in all his or her diversity. And we should continue our duty as peoples of faith to offer comfort and shelter for those in need, and truly serve as our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers.
Rabbi Marc Schneier is President of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding and co-author with Imam Shamsi Ali of “Sons of Abraham: A Candid Conversation About the Issues that Divide and Unite Jews and Muslims.”
Disclaimer: Views expressed in this article are of the author.