Jewish-Muslim Seder in Time of Conflagration Gives Muted Hope for Better Days Ahead

Walter Ruby

Walter Ruby

On April 29, amid massive protests and incipient violence over Israel-Gaza on campuses across America, came a small but blessed ray of light — a Jewish-Muslim interfaith seder at the United Methodist Building on Capitol Hill. I felt emotionally and spiritually uplifted to be among 14 Jews, 10 Muslims and four Christians and Interfaith activists with special guest, Tricia Russell, chief of staff to Sen. Chris Van Hollen.

The diverse group, which included three rabbis and an imam, came together to celebrate the Festival of Freedom: with matzah, haroset and bitter herbs, and timeless rituals and songs. One variation from the normative seder was that we poured four cups of grape juice signifying compassion, truth, justice and hope, and discussed how those ideals might be implemented today, which led us to spirited but mutually respectful discussion about the present awful moment in Gaza and America. Through it all, participants in the seder, mostly graying veterans of decades of dogged interfaith work, evinced abiding affection for each other honed over many years of such encounters; buttressing a shared commitment to keep Muslim-Jewish brotherhood and sisterhood in America alive amidst the maelstrom.

The Jewish-Muslim seder, created in 2002 by Andrea Barron, founder of Washington Area Jews for Jewish-Muslim Understanding, was even more precious and uplifting this year because it almost didn’t happen. Several weeks ago, the All-Dulles Area Muslim Society (ADAMS Center), the northern Virginia mega-mosque that has hosted the Muslim-Jewish seder every year since 2006, dropped out as co-sponsor because of the impact of the war in Gaza on the congregation.

ADAMS’ decision to drop the seder was symptomatic of a pulling back from shared events by both Muslims and Jews across the U.S. in the six months since Oct. 7. This has been especially emphatic on the Muslim side, where many have argued that holding meetings with Jews serves to normalize Israel’s killing of Palestinian civilians in Gaza.

While an understandable reaction to unprecedented and highly traumatic events, the tidal wave of cancellations has been evidence of a rolling back of two decades of mutually beneficial relationship building, in favor of retreating into respective tribal corners; substituting the shouting of slogans over painful, but heartfelt honest dialogue.

Providentially, the Jewish-Muslim seder bucked this doleful trend and survived the cancellation by the ADAMS Center when Mike Mohamed Ghouse, president of the Center for Pluralism, stepped quickly into the breach and agreed that his mainly Muslim organization would co-sponsor the event this year together with Barron and the Am Kolel Jewish Renewal Congregation, and every year going forward. According to Ghouse, “This is a tremendously painful time for all of us, with the killing of 1,200 Jews and nearly 35,000 Palestinians. But this is precisely the moment we need to encounter each other face to face and strive to understand each other’s perspectives.”

According to Barron, “I was delighted that Mike stepped in and collaborated with me to fashion an event that felt authentic and meaningful for both sides. It was a traditional seder telling the story of the Exodus out of slavery that gave opportunities for Muslims, including Palestinians to learn about Jewish history and to tell own stories.” Indeed, there were intense exchanges at the seder as to the meaning and impact of Zionism, albeit with a palpable tentativeness to plunging full force into the Hamas mass killing of Israelis on Oct. 7 and the subsequent Israeli devastation of civilians in Gaza.

One Muslim participant who asked not to be named, argued that the event amounted to “a band aid over a gaping wound” that allowed participants to “check a box and feel good about themselves.” Yet it was striking to me that in post-seder interviews I conducted, nearly all the participants said the seder had been important and impactful.

Paul Scham, a Jewish professor of Israel studies at the University of Maryland, remarked,” The demonstrations at Columbia and other campuses have been dehumanizing on both sides, and have led even liberal Jews to feel that everyone out there hates us and wants to destroy Israel. That we were able to hold this event right now shows that opportunities for dialogue exist, and perhaps we have become too hopeless for our own good.”

Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, a Palestinian American scholar and president of the Minaret of Freedom Institute, who was born on a ship sailing to America after his parents were driven out of their home in the newly created state of Israel in 1948, stated, “I certainly don’t expect an event like this will change U.S. policy, but it definitely provides emotional comfort and an awareness that there are people of good will on the other side.”

Imam Mohamad Bashar Arafat, a Syrian American who is founder of the Civilizations Exchange and Cooperation Foundation, said he debated long and hard whether to attend, stating, “I knew I would be criticized in the Muslim community if I came here. But I had to support this joining together. Muslims and Jews can’t go on fighting and killing each other.”

In the end, does the survival of one Jewish-Muslim seder matter amid the present political meltdown over Israel and Gaza? Yes, and not only because the event gave emotional succor to a group of mainly retirement age American Jews and Muslims. Rather, it mattered because pitting Jews and Muslims against each other serves the interests of neither community but rather of the American Right, which has adopted the perils of antisemitism as a weapon to demonize Muslims and to limit free speech.

Hopefully, amid the anguish and anger we all feel over events in Israel-Palestine, Jews and Muslims will remember the need to stand together as the two largest faith communities in the U.S. in defense of democracy and pluralism, without which full-throated Jews and Muslim life in America will be impossible going forward. Despite our differences over Israel-Palestine, our communities are destined to either stand or fall together in our shared American homeland.

Walter Ruby is the president of JAMAAT (Jews and Muslims and Allies Acting Together).


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