Eyal Bitton
Cantor, composer, lyricist.

My Brother the Muslim

Arabs and Jews. Muslims and Jews. Both of us are descended from Abraham, genetically or spiritually. We are brothers. But what kind of brothers are we to each other?

What happened in the past is secondary when I consider the times I live in today. That my ancestors fared well with their Muslim brothers in Spain and in the Maghreb eight hundred years ago is interesting and important but is not what concerns me today. That my father and my grandfather enjoyed life in Marrakech until tides began to turn doesn’t change the world I find myself in today when it comes to how I see my brothers today.

The one Jewish state in the world lives in a hostile environment in which Muslim neighbours to the north, east, south, and west, would like to see it wiped off the map.  I look at my Palestinian brothers and see little to no hope for peace. What we see today is a sort of “stabbing intifada”, borne out of a culture of hate for Jews. I see Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas fanning the flames of hatred. Instead of calming passions, Abbas, this past Monday, repeated the baseless accusation that Israel wants to change the status quo on the Temple Mount and that Israelis are executing Palestinians. These fabrications are incendiary and will not bring about calm but more violence against Jews in Israel – and pointless suffering on the part of Palestinians.

Then I consider the violence, terror, and death committed against civilians over the last decade in New York City, London, Paris, and elsewhere in the name of Islam. Have these actions been committed by all Muslims? Of course not. Do all Muslims bear responsibility for these heinous acts? Of course not. However, groups like ISIS and Al-Qaeda do what they do in the name of Islam and in the name of Allah. And they shout it from the rooftops, so to speak. Everyone sees them. Everyone hears them.

Jews have learned that the these radical Islamist groups, their admirers, and like-minded individuals, don’t just hate the West; they hate Jews as well. We are afraid – as Westerners and as Jews.

Jacob and Esau, Jew and Muslim

In Judaism, the Biblical figure of Esau, also known as Edom, is synonymous with Christianity. When Jacob, in this week’s Torah portion (Vayishlach), goes to meet his estranged brother, Esau, he doesn’t know how he will be greeted. Will Esau be civil or will he be vengeful? Jacob seems to be fear that it will be the latter. Jacob, it appears, believes that there is a very real possibility that Esau intends to kill him. But then, to his surprise:

Esau ran to greet him. He embraced him and, falling on his neck, he kissed him.

Genesis 33:4

Perhaps, in our times, Esau is not Christianity. Perhaps he is Islam.

The Brother I Fear

When a Muslim man, Mohammed Merah, kills a rabbi, a young boy, and an 8-year-old girl, in a school in Toulouse and says he did it because “The Jews kill our brothers and sisters in Palestine”, I fear my brother.

When a Muslim man, Mehdi Nemmouche, returns from a period of being radicalized in Syria, enters a Jewish museum in Brussels and begins to mow people down, killing 6, I fear my brother.

When a French pro-Palestinian demonstration in 2014 metamorphosizes into an anti-Semitic riot, in which Jewish-owned shops and synagogues are attacked, I fear my brother.

The list goes on.

But I remind myself that this is not the only face of my brother.

The Brother I Embrace

Lucy Aharish is an Israeli-Arab news reporter and host who recently spoke on television against the latest wave of Palestinian violence. She points out that the Palestinians are repeating the same mistakes of the past by engaging in senseless violence. She further says, “Even if the status quo in the Temple Mount has been broken, does that allow someone to go and murder someone else because of a sacred place? Or because of religion or because a Jew went there to pray in the house of God? I can’t understand it… What God are they speaking of that allows for children to go out and murder innocent people?” In Lucy Aharish, an Arab, a Muslim, an Israeli, I see a sister who I can embrace.

In 2013, the Muslim community of Bradford, England, launched a fundraising campaign to save a local synagogue from shutting down. The project was spearheaded by a neighbourhood mosque. Here is a community I can look upon and see brothers and sisters who I can embrace.

Mohamed Magid, President of the U.S.-based Islamic Society of North America, joined Muslim religious leaders from around the world on a trip to Auschwitz where they offered prayers in the memory of the victims of the Holocaust. Magid explained his position, “Whether in Europe today or in the Muslim world, my call to humanity: End racism for God’s sake, end anti-Semitism for God’s sake, end Islamophobia for God’s sake, end sexism for God’s sake… Enough is enough.” In Imam Magid and the Muslim leaders who joined him, I see brothers who I can embrace.

Malek Boutih, a French politician of Algerian parentage, compares radical Islam to Nazi ideology. Boutih speaks out passionately and adamantly against the rise of this phenomenon. He advocates recognizing that the problem is not just in the Middle East but in the West itself – and that changing the ideology locally is of utmost importance. He argues that these Islamists are fascists who cloak themselves in Islam. In Malek Boutih, I see a brother who I can embrace.

Muslims around the world have recently begun a social media campaign entitled “Not In My Name“. This has nothing to do with Israel or Jews. It’s about Muslims criticizing ISIS and what they stand for. I wouldn’t be surprised if many of the individuals lending their voices to this campaign see Israel in the worst light. Nevertheless, it’s encouraging to hear voices that actively denounce the actions of radical Islamists. These voices will help shape an environment that does not excuse, rationalize, or tolerate terrorism – anywhere.

When Jacob saw Esau, he didn’t know whether he’d be embraced or whether he’d be killed. As a Jew, the Muslim is my brother. I pray for the day that, unlike Jacob, I do not have any question in my mind about how I will be received when we approach each other. I pray for the day that I do not doubt, that I do not question, but that I know that my brother will be Esau, greeting me with an embrace.

About the Author
Eyal Bitton is the cantor of Congregation Neveh Shalom in Portland, Oregon where he incorporates Sephardi/Moroccan music, Ashkenazi music, popular adaptations, and original compositions into the service. As a composer and writer, his theatrical works have been produced in the US, Canada, Kenya, and China.
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