Eliezer Lawrence
Rabbi, Judeo-Linguist, Educator and Mohel

Jews and Muslims: Incitement for Identity

After reading this Times of Israel piece entitled US Islamic preacher calls on Allah to annihilate the Jews, I took the time to watch most of the chutba (sermon) from this past Jummah (Friday services) at the California-based Islamic Center of Davis. This linked “highlights” video is a fairly accurate representation of some of the “harder to swallow” portions of the nearly hour-long sermon about the growing conflict surrounding the Temple Mount/Haram Al-Sharif. But the subtext is also interesting.

In his sermon, Imam Ammar Shahin proclaims that assimilation and apathy have taken hold of Muslims globally, and to fight this, the Muslim Umma (nation) must recognize that the Palestinian struggle for Al-Aqsa is a Muslim struggle.

With an almost ironic admiration, the imam cries, “our fight with the yahud (Jews) in Palestine [is] not for a land… our fight is in “belief”…These people, they train their people to read the taurat (Torah)– the corrupted taurat that they have today. They make it as a belief that they must be taught it in school in [the] original language [in which] it is written and it becomes an obligation for them to raise the next generation with such a belief that this is the land of resurrection… that this is the land of [their] prophets; all of this is built in their children’s hearts.”

With regret, he continues, “We do not have the parents who sit with their children and raise their awareness of what is al-masjid Al-Aqsa (The Al-Aqsa Mosque) [and] why it is so important”

He explains to his congregants that the Jews have successfully instilled in their youth the importance of Israel and of the Jewish presence in the land. They model, even if falsely and heretically, what it means to be united around cause. But where is the unifying Muslim cause? He asks.

He uses the story of Jewish success in the Land of Israel as a foil through which to bemoan the state of religious apathy and of Arabic illiteracy amongst Muslims. His critique of his coreligionists may be fair; perhaps it would behoove Muslims to reinvest in their spiritual life and commitments. I certainly feel this way about Jews in America. But at what cost may one purchase identity?

Further, at what cost are we as Jews willing to sacrifice our own moral compass and our own places in society as contributors and beneficiaries?

We all have different red lines, which often can be reduced to the question of how to deal with conflicting values. For some Jews, any form of classical particularism is a line which must be crossed in order to fully take part in the American project; for other Jews, it is just the opposite– in order to preserve our particularism in this “wild west” of America, we must forgo Judeo-universalism.  But neither is exclusively ideal and neither is exclusively authentic. Both perspectives can be found within our tradition, and both can be applied in dangerous and consequential ways.

Similarly, there is no doubt that this preacher uses real tropes from within his own tradition to incite against Jews. Most who are invested in the (rather sad and often lacking nuance) project of “exposure of Islam” are familiar with the (in)famous hadith, Sahih Muslim 41:6985, referenced by the imam:

“The Day of Judgement will not come about until Muslims fight the Jews, when the Jew will hide behind stones and trees. The stones and trees will say O Muslims, O Abdullah, there is a Jew behind me, come and kill him. Only the Gharkad tree, would not do that because it is one of the trees of the Jews”

But perhaps we are less familiar with Surah 5:20-21:

“And [mention, O Muhammad], when Moses said to his people, “O my people, remember the favor of Allah upon you when He appointed among you prophets and made you possessors and gave you that which He had not given anyone among the worlds. O my people, enter the Holy Land which Allah has assigned to you and do not turn back [from fighting in Allah’s cause] and [thus] become losers.”

As it would appear, “holy struggle” with Jews and heavenly ordained Jewish sovereignty over the Land of Israel are both within the Islamic tradition. (Rhetorically speaking) How can and should the members of the Muslim community choose to grapple with their rich and complex tradition? How can this very grappling help instill relevant and thick identity? I am not Muslim, so it is not for me to say. But it appears that, as the first generations of free muslim immigrants are making their home here in the US, their community is facing a very similar struggle to that of our own in regard to preservation of religious and social identity.

True, the imam incites and charges his congregants for action because he is generally concerned for the safety of Al-Aqsa; we see this in his tears and because he is a believer. But also, as it would appear, he incites against Jews, at the very least those in Israel, and calls for the cause of unity under Al-Aqsa in order to foster what he determines to be a crumbling Muslim identity.

At what cost would we (or have we!?) make the same choice that he does to prevent the crumble of contemporary Jewish identity? At what cost would we as Jews sacrifice certain aspects of our tradition in favor of others for the project of self-preservation? Which things would we be willing to sacrifice?

About the Author
Rabbi Eliezer Lawrence serves on the Judaic Studies Faculty at the Leffell School, an independent Jewish day school in Westchester. An alumnus of YCT Rabbinical School, Yeshivat Ma’ale Gilboa and the Hadar institute, he holds an MA in Bible and semitic languages from the Kekst graduate school, a graduate certificate in Israel education from the Davidson School of Jewish Education and is pursuing an additional graduate degree in Hebrew Language Education at the Middlebury Language Schools.