Building bridges between Muslims and Jews

Shortly after the latest ceasefire expired in Gaza on Friday, Jacob Bender gingerly climbed the steps of the mimbar, the pulpit at the Islamic Society of Delaware.

A Jew in a mosque, his hands palpably quivering but his reedy voice steady, he read some brief comments to close the afternoon’s worship service, called Juma’a.

Mr. Bender offered both hope and censure, twinned: Muslims and Jews could still be “partners for peace and justice,” he said. Israel and Hamas shared responsibility for the current carnage, he added, and more hatred would lead to more violence, while love would lead to reconciliation.

After he finished those words, he intoned the Judaic funeral prayer, El Malei Rachamim, adapting its English translation to remember the victims in Gaza. He closed the prayer by saying “amen,” and the several hundred men and women replied in kind. Then, unbidden, they joined in sustained applause.

It was an emblematic moment for an unusual man. For the past 10 months, Mr. Bender has served as executive director for the chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) in Philadelphia — the first non-Muslim to ever hold such a high-ranking position within CAIR, as the council is commonly known.

“I feel like I’m living out a certain Jewish prophetic stance, albeit in a Muslim organisation,” Mr. Bender (64) said. “I’ve wanted to play a role as a bridge-builder, and I just couldn’t do it in the organised Jewish community because I insist on washing Israel’s dirty laundry.”

That chosen role has made Mr. Bender a reviled figure among some Jews. He has been assailed on the Internet as “CAIR’s court Jew” and “an ‘Interfaith’-schlock-peddler.” Yet the effects of the unrest may put Mr. Bender in the position of interlocutor between Muslims and Jews in America during a volatile time.

Mr. Bender’s path toward his present perch began as the child of secular Jewish immigrants in Los Angeles who taught him Yiddish as his first language and took him to “ban the bomb” rallies as a six-year-old. While earning a degree in religious studies at University of California, Los Angeles, Mr. Bender discovered the history of Muslim and Jewish coexistence, known as Convivencia, during the Moorish era in Spain.

That period became not just his scholarly interest but also the centre of a kind of belief system, a vanished Eden that needed to be recreated by modern peacemaking. While developing his career as a filmmaker in the 1970s and 1980s, Mr. Bender also served as a volunteer or paid staff member in a series of Jewish groups that were pushing for a two-state solution when such an idea was considered radical. He also lived in Israel for seven years over the decades and for part of that time worked at the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum in Jerusalem.

In the Jewish religious community, Mr. Bender’s fierce critique of Israel has found willing listeners only among the left-leaning fringe, primarily the small Reconstructionist and Renewal movements. The moderate mainstream, while less vituperative than the online antagonists in criticising Bender, has treated him as an outcast.

— New York Times News Service

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Printable version | Nov 30, 2021 9:02:51 PM |

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