While out to dinner a few weeks ago, I had an unusual conversation with a stranger. During it, I glimpsed something discomfiting about the Jewish duty to stand in solidarity with those of other minority faiths.

When I meet people outside of my normal circles (who don’t know me from either Temple Beth Or or my doctoral program), it is fairly common for them to be curious and to ask me questions related to my being Jewish; this is especially true of those who have not interacted much with Jews before. That is how this encounter began. The stranger with whom I was speaking informed me that he was Christian, I told him that I was Jewish, and he happily peppered me with questions about Judaism.

juan camilo guarin p 476615 unsplashOur conversation was completely pleasant…until it wasn’t. It went awry when he (proudly!) informed me, in what I experienced as an attempt to show his own solidarity with Jews, that: “I’ve seen a few synagogues before; I’m always happy to see them. What I don’t like seeing are mosques.” This comment was, obviously, a showstopper. After rebuffing his sentiment, I reluctantly continued in a polite-but-terse discussion with him, and I was only too eager to finish talking and say goodbye. I do really mean it when I say that this conversation had been quite pleasant. However, my perception of him—and the situation I was in—had greatly changed.

For days after this conversation, I wondered about this man’s motivation in sharing such a repulsive, bigoted sentiment with me—me myself being someone of a minority faith, someone whom he had just met, no less! All I could imagine was that he had internalized from the general American ether that Jews dislike Muslims, and that, as such, I would be encouraged to hear that he too harbored such intolerance.

The more I thought about this encounter, the more I reawakened to one of the realities of discrimination that makes it such an insidious issue:  In the real world, very few of those who harm others, those whom we would like to call “villains,” stand around twirling a mustache.

So, let us be fair to this man. It is not as though it is unfathomable how a person in the United States would think such a thing. We live in a post-1948 world, 70 years after the creation of the modern State of Israel, where the conflict between Israel and her neighbors—most of whom are majority-Muslim—has been acrimonious and public. The bitter fruit of this decades-long, bloody conflict has been the deterioration of a once-healthy relationship between Muslims and Jews.

Leaving aside the political realities of Israeli peace plan politics (the minutiae of which I can’t meaningfully discuss here), we ought to recognize how sad and problematic it is that Jewish-Muslim relations (interfaith matters) have been a casualty of this longstanding political dispute. Even though we may have political disagreements (and exceptionally heated ones at that) with regard to Israel, we should work to ensure that a long history of Jewish-Muslim fellowship not be abrogated without a second thought.

In that vein, after further reflection, it might be true that my non-mustachioed interlocutor may have been less heinously villainous than my initial gut-instinct indicated. Nevertheless, we can’t, as Jews, become inured to the denigration of the “other.” It remains our ethical obligation to stand up and to control the discourse on Jewish-Muslim relationships in our time. So long as there are those who imagine that Jews would be sympathetic to any notion of discrimination, we still have work to do.

Rabbi Ari Ballaban

Photo by Juan Camilo Guarin P on Unsplash