Restoring Sanctity to Our Sanctuaries: An Open Letter to the Muslim and Jewish Communities

Dear Communities,

The month following President Trump’s inauguration has seen Muslim and Jewish groups come together like never before. In addition to existing collaborative efforts between our faith communities, this moment demands a renewed commitment to partnering together. It has been a source of pride and joy – and justice – to watch Jews stand together with our Muslim friends in airports across the U.S protesting the Muslim ban and to hear Muslim groups condemn the recent rash of anti-Semitic behaviors and statements.

As two proud women of faith, an American Muslim and a Canadian Orthodox Jew, we believe this is a unique opportunity to unite in a way that goes beyond sharing a meal, a prayer service, or our views on Israel and Palestine. In this time of heightened empathy and unity, we must partner with one another to confront the intractable problem of sexual violence committed by and against members of both religious communities.

Through our fieldwork and research, we see an urgent need for increased awareness and education on sexual violence in our faith communities. Efforts at preventing abuse and intervening appropriately when it arises are sorely needed. If we fail to tackle this problem, survivors will continue to suffer in silence and abusers will walk away and prey on others. Inaction also discredits our communities and its leaders because passivity does not align with the values of morality and justice that both Islam and Judaism espouse.

In keeping with the tenets of their respective faiths, Muslims and Jews can collaborate to advocate on behalf of survivors of sexual violence, to dismantle the stigma around sexual violence, and to ensure that our institutions do not serve as spaces of unaccountable refuge for those who engage in abusive behaviors. This work has already begun.

In the last year, the two of us in our professional capacities have trained members of the clergy, educators, leaders of religious institutions, and their staff to better protect their communities. We have also assisted them in developing policies and protocols for their institutions regarding sexual violence.

HEART Women & Girls, which promotes and publishes accurate yet culturally-sensitive sexual health information and sexual violence awareness in Muslim communities, also organized a day long interfaith conference on sexual violence. As conference attendees quickly discovered, the myths about sexual violence which contribute to the silence around abuse are astoundingly similar for Muslim and Jewish communities. For example, both groups fear that abuse scandals will attract negative attention to their communities and add to negative stereotypes that already abound. Given the current political and social climate of outright Islamophobia and anti-Semitism, it is crucial that we do not become complicit in sexual violence in our communities through fear-based silence.

Today, we ask you to join us in this work. You don’t have to be an activist or a lawyer. You don’t even have to be religious. You just have to be committed to building a world where all are free from violence and oppression.

The following practical steps can help us restore sanctity to our places of worship and religious institutions before and after sexual violence has occurred:

  1. Listen and offer support toward healing. In the aftermath of sexual assault or abuse, many victims just want to be heard. Listen to their stories with empathy. Tell them you believe them and that it’s not their fault. Support can range from accompanying survivors to file a police report, covering their counseling or legal expenses, and offering support groups or prayer services for survivors and their family members.
  2. Remove perpetrators from positions of power and seek criminal consequences where relevant. If you are being abused or suspect someone else is, report the abuse to police and child protection services and hold perpetrators accountable.
  3. Know where to get help. When survivors do disclose their victimization, it is usually to loved ones or religious leaders. For this reason, it is crucial to be familiar with local resources before sexual violence arises and build alliances with experts and institutions such as law enforcement, mental health professionals, and professional anti-sexual violence agencies.
  4. Start a conversation at your synagogue or mosque. Too often, survivors do not disclose their assaults because of the silence of faith communities around sexual matters, especially sexual violence. Let’s replace blame, shame, and stigma with openness, support, and healing. Religious leaders can also incorporate sexual violence awareness into their sermons.
  5. Incorporate best practices and policies. Religious institutions should explicitly outline acceptable and unacceptable behaviors and go beyond the criminal code to include the behaviors that offend the moral consciousness of the group. Proactively think through the policies of your institution and the ways in which it prevents abuse and responds to allegations or instances of these acts. Create better policies before an emergency arises.

Sexual violence knows no faith boundaries. Let us come together and demonstrate that the care of our faith groups extends beyond the religious realm to include the moral and the just.

*This article, co-written with Nadiah Mohajir, is published in AltMuslimah and The Times of Israel to promote continued partnerships between Muslim and Jewish communities.

nadiahNadiah Mohajir is co-founder & Executive Director of HEART Women & Girls. In just six years, she has led a primarily volunteer, Muslim women staff to reach more than 5,000 people through their workshops across the country and more than 25,000 through their publications. She brings over twelve years of experience working in public health and reproductive justice spaces.

Guila Benchimol is a PhD candidate in sociological criminology at the University of Guelph. Her research and advocacy focus on crimes committed in religious communities and on sexual violence. Guila is also a consultant for Jewish institutions on community safety and protection policies, a research assistant at the Centre for the Study of Social and Legal Responses to Violence, and a Wexner Graduate Fellow/Davidson Scholar. Guila brings over 10 years of experience as a Jewish educator to her current work.  

About the Author
Dr. Guila Benchimol is a consultant, researcher, educator, and victim advocate whose work focuses on gender, abuse, and power. She holds a PhD in Sociological Criminology from the University of Guelph and is also a trained restorative and transformative justice facilitator. Guila was one of the key advisors who guided the launch of the SRE Network in 2018, where she continues to serve as the Senior Advisor on Research and Learning. She is also the Director of Faith-Based and Community Accountability at Ampersands Restorative Justice and sits on the board of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP). Her first 10+ year career as a Jewish educator in and outside of Orthodox communities informed her understanding of the need to address victimization of all kinds. Guila lives in Toronto and was raised in its Spanish Moroccan Jewish community, which was built by the families who fled Tangier.
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