This last month and a half has probably been the toughest time in my tenure as a rabbi who seeks to do interfaith and social-justice work. For fear of causing controversy, Muslim community partners who previously seemed happy to work with me have been leaving my messages unanswered.
And yet, I think this is the perfect time to renew our hope. In the spirit of Thanksgiving, and with the bit of light that we find from the planned release of 50 hostages (with the concession of a brief ceasefire), the moment to rebuild the bridges that I’ve personally seen dissolve between the Jewish and Muslim communities is now. And the best way I know how to do this is through food.
It’s easy to lose sympathy for someone you’ve never even met, or someone whose group is represented to you only by its most inflammatory personalities online. I find, though, that once a disagreeing person has sat down for a meal at your table, once they’ve met your family, and once you’ve heard about their family, it’s much more possible to find a starting place for a productive relationship. We stop seeing one another primarily as people on opposing sides of a dispute, and start seeing each other as people who want to live and continue our cultures in peace — and, ideally, in harmony with cultures.
There is no sugar-coating it, we live in a violent and an almost unbearably divisive time. Antisemitism is scarily on the rise, and Islamophobia lives on simultaneously. We can’t resolve this, though, by sitting on the sidelines and letting our most extreme factions fight it out. We have to fight the darkness by adding our own light, and by bringing the light out of others.
For me and the Muslim community members I plan to invite over, the starting point will be veganism. For all the presumed disagreements between Jews and Muslims, we can agree that our food practices are exceedingly similar. Food that is kosher can also meet the qualifications for being halal, acceptable to Muslims. Most certainly, vegan food, under careful preparation, can work for all. And so, I hope to bring vegan members of the Muslim community over to show together how bringing about a more peaceful world can start with what we eat. Thankfully, much of the middle eastern cuisine that we both cherish is already vegan.
I hope to share my spiritual reasons for being a vegan, and I hope my guests will find it in line with the teaching from the Hadith, “A good deed done to an animal is as meritorious as a good deed done to a human being, while an act of cruelty to an animal is as bad as an act of cruelty to a human being.”
Will we be able to find a solution for peace in the Middle East by the end of the evening? No. In fact, it will probably be best for us to avoid talking about the current war given the emotional intensity of our divergent views. But by finding the one shared point of light, I believe we will renew the possibility of our communities working together for justice — and hopefully, one day, the war, rockets, terrorism, and violence will come to an end.
Shamayim, the Jewish vegan movement that I founded, would love to partner with others in the Jewish, Muslim, and vegan communities to come together to share our visions for a less violent world. One of the moral dreams as a vegan is that we don’t need another to suffer for us to enjoy life. We can eat meals that are cruelty-free. So too we will ultimately need to figure out how to actualize our national aspirations and our aspirations for a religious homeland without causing suffering to others.
More broadly, we want to show the world that we can have truly deep disagreements and still learn how to come together around shared values. Going into an election year in America, this will be crucial for holding American society together. It can feel like fervent Democrats and staunch Republicans have nothing in common — and we should fiercely advocate for our values. We should realize, though, that the end goal of all of our values should be a world of peaceful coexistence and unity. As humans, our differences are very real but we have far more in common than not and we should never forget that.
Together, we dream of a day when all Israelis and Palestinians can peacefully coexist and share meals together, and although we’re so very far from achieving that right now, we can’t let the dream slip away.