Q&A: Jewish rabbi battles Islamophobia in the US

Jonah Pesner, one of the most influential rabbis in US, talks about “religious duty” to combat anti-Muslim hate crimes.

Rabbi Jonah Pesner
Jonah Pesner has been described as one of the most influential rabbis in the US [Religious Action Center]

The West has seen an increase in Islamophobia and hate crimes against Muslims following attacks in Europe and the US that have been blamed on supporters of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

But, in response, some non-Muslim political and religious leaders have stepped up efforts to tackle discriminatory treatment and violence.

In a recent example, Bernie Sanders, a popular US presidential candidate who is Jewish, launched a campaign known as #AmericaTogether, in which he posted a tweet in Arabic saying: “America becomes a greater nation when we stand together and say no to racism, hatred and bigotry.”     

Jonah Dov Pesner, the director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism who has been described as one of the most influential rabbis in the US, has taken part in initiatives across North America to speak out against Islamophobia and support Muslim refugees.

Pesner talks to Al Jazeera about why he considers that a religious duty.

What were the key factors that motivated you to speak against Islamophobia?

As a rabbi of the Reform Jewish Movement and a faith leader, I see it not only as my job but also as my religious duty to foster interfaith dialogue and understanding, as well as break down stereotypes about race and religion.

Before my time as the Director of the Religious Action Center, I witnessed attacks on the Islamic Society of Boston from members of the Jewish community. They tried to label members of the Muslim community as terrorists and used every possible method to condemn the mosque, including speaking out against a rabbi who stood with a Muslim leader.

It was unacceptable for me to witness members of my own community attack our Muslim neighbours, and furthermore criticise a rabbi for showing support to the Muslim community.

In response we gathered nearly 100 rabbis to share the message that “for Jews to attack a rabbi for standing with a Muslim is unacceptable”.

This moral calling has been particularly affected by the recent increase in anti-refugee and Muslim rhetoric by state and national politicians. At a recent speech I gave at the Islamic Center in Tennessee, hundreds of people from the Muslim community came to hear me stand up against Islamophobia, which was a reminder of how much they are feeling under siege.

READ MORE: Donald Trump calls for halt to Muslims entering the US

Therefore, I feel it is my duty to stand up against this hateful rhetoric and convey the Reform Jewish response, which is that of understanding and community building.

Have you come across any serious hurdles or opposition in your mission?

In our effort to combat negative stigma currently associated with those of the Muslim faith, we continue to see those who are bigoted against those of particular religions.

Even before joining the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, I witnessed individuals of my own religious community holding these hateful views. However, if we’re going to be the family of Abraham, we must work together to call out Islamophobia.

As I said at a mosque in Tennessee last month, we have to beat back the forces of bigotry, whether it’s anti-Jewish bigotry, anti-Muslim bigotry or bigotry in any form in America.

Do you feel there is any religious connection between Judaism and Islam that needs to be highlighted?

In the book of Genesis during the binding of Isaac God says “Take your son, your only one, the one you love, Isaac”. There is a Midrash from the classical commentator Rashi who says that Abraham responded to God’s commandment to take his son by saying, “I have two sons,” referring to both Isaac and Ishmael.

When God says the one you love, Abraham responds by saying, “I love both sons.” It is not until God says Isaac, that Abraham is sure which son. This Midrash shows the close connection Jews and Muslims have as cousins, and that God loves us both.

All religions hold a message of tolerance and acceptance of others, of which I believe Judaism and Islam share. Perhaps just as importantly, there is so much brokenness in our society, from our treatment of immigrants to climate change to racial injustice, and we must work together as religious communities to repair the world. We can only do this if we come together as people of different faiths toward a common goal.

We must also work as an interfaith community to stand up against religious bigotry, because an attack on one faith is an attack on all faiths.

How has the Jewish community in the US generally reacted to the rise in Islamophobia?

Speaking for the Reform Jewish community, congregations across North America have been working diligently to uphold our moral call to “welcome the stranger” by welcoming Syrian refugees into their houses of worship and their communities.

Particularly, Reform congregations in Canada have taken great strides in their response to this crisis. Due to different laws in Canada that allow individuals and groups to privately sponsor refugees, Reform congregations in Canada have committed to resettle at least one Syrian refugee family as they arrive in Canada in the coming months.

READ MORE: ‘We have the same God’: A priest helps Syrian refugees

Additionally, as a Reform Jewish community we have and will continue to advocate for refugees of all religious backgrounds to be welcomed to the United States. I believe there could always be more support behind the efforts to combat religious intolerance, but I have been very impressed with how Reform clergy have been united on this issue and have a clear message that we will not stand for Islamophobia in any form.

What are your future plans in combating this problem?

Our congregations will continue to engage others in their communities and be a welcoming place for refugees and those of Muslim faith. And wherever and whenever possible, I will continue to engage the religious leaders I meet with to make this issue a priority.

Source: Al Jazeera