Faith trumps hate: Muslim and Jewish youth participate in interfaith groups to combat discriminatory rhetoric
By Danielle Spitz
Joann Abdeladl has learned to stomach extra security checks at the airport and negligent service in grocery stores when wearing her hijab. Growing up in Greenville, South Carolina, the 17-year-old said it’s part of her life as a Muslim woman living in the South. But it wasn’t until three Muslim students were fatally shot as a result of a hate crime in Chapel Hill, N.C. in February 2015 that Abdeladl recognized the issue was bigger than herself.
“I realized that if there wasn’t something done about this lack of understanding and lack of education about religions, then it could lead to more than people’s personal problems,” Abdeladl said. “It could lead to violence and maybe death.”
Hate crimes against Muslims, like the North Carolina shooting, rose by 67 percent in 2015, the same year Donald Trump announced his campaign for presidency, according to a Southern Poverty Law Center report. In a Human Rights Campaign Foundation survey of more than 500,000 people ages 13-18, 70 percent of respondents reported witnessing bullying, hate messages or harassment during or since the 2016 election.
Roger Stone, former political adviser to Trump, said the president is opposed to hate crimes that target all Americans, even if he tweets more on attacks against Christians.
“Should we therefore not denounce Islamic terrorism and the hundreds of thousands of, or if not millions, of people that are murdering Christians?” Stone said. “To be politically correct and pretend this isn’t happening, I think that’s a greater danger.”
Some millennials are taking action and working to prevent discrimination and hate crimes.
An analysis conducted by the the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement found that 76 percent of millennial Clinton supporters and 58 percent of millennial Trump supporters studied were willing to volunteer for a community organization on a regular basis after the election.
In July 2015, one month after Donald Trump officially announced his presidential campaign, Abdeladl founded Youth Interfaith Greenville, an organization to promote inter-religious dialogue among high school and college students.
By focusing on youth relations, Abdeladl said she hopes to foster a future generation already prepared to work together rather than be divided over faith-based differences.
Aida Mackic was also inspired to become involved in youth-based interfaith work after experiencing an anti-Muslim hate crime.
After an arson attack occurred at Daarus Salaam Mosque in Tampa, Florida, last February, Mackic said the Muslim community was met with immediate support from other local groups of different faiths, including rabbis and their congregations.
“We didn’t have anything else, so we stood together,” Mackick said. “It wasn’t only Muslims empowering Muslims, but a whole community coming together.”
Mackick serves as the civil rights coordinator for the Council on American-Islamic Relations Florida and is now taking on the role of interfaith and youth program coordinator.
Mackick said the combination of the mosque fire and the Muslim ban prompted her involvement in interfaith work. She decided in order to combat the negativity in the current political climate, she would need to engage the younger population in unifying actions.
Mackick is in the early stages of spearheading a program that will include open dialogues about the values of Islam with Jewish youth.
“Isolating any person is really dangerous,” Mackick said. “The youth is our future and this work can unify our community.”
Abdeladl said most kids are willing to learn about other cultures in a respectful way, and almost all of the negative reactions her group receives comes from adults who don’t believe teens are qualified enough to discuss religion or don’t understand the purpose of interfaith work.
“Lots of parents have concerns that we’re trying to convert their children to a different faith,” Abdeladl said. “But our group is about educating, not conversion or persuasion.”
Leanna Rabinovitch, a Jewish teen who works alongside Abdeladl, said her dad didn’t understand the concept of acceptance of other faiths, emphasizing why it’s important to engage youth in interfaith work. She said she takes it upon herself to learn about other religions because that’s not what she was taught at home.
“When you’re in high school or college, that’s when you’re defining your life and figuring out who you want to be as a person,” Rabinovitch said. “Bringing in the youth aspect to interfaith work is essential because it sets the tone for what the rest of your life will be like.”
Despite some resistance within her community, Abdeladl said she noticed a spike in interest in her youth group after Trump’s election and the passing of the travel ban as teens became more curious about what the president describes as radical Islamic terrorism.
“Because of the political climate, more people are wondering if what they’re seeing in the media is legitimate,” Abdeladl said. “Whereas before they may not have had reasons to pursue questions about Muslims in their free time, now they’re more curious.”
Jewish studies professor at Northwestern University Barry Wimpfheimer said the Muslim ban caused a significant surge in American Jews’ empathic feelings toward the Muslim population, which have recently been difficult to achieve because of the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
But because the ban is reminiscent of Jewish experiences of denied citizenship, most recently the Holocaust, he believes positive Jewish-Muslim interfaith relations seem more likely to occur.
“When Jews see someone putting up a stop sign and saying ‘no immigrants allowed’ there’s a tremendous feeling of empathy because it’s very easy to see oneself in that position,” Wimpfheimer said. “The Trump election galvanized social action across the board and had forced groups that maybe aren’t so politically active to be very adamant about Jewish values and embracing people who are different.”
Shachar Cohen-Hodos grew up in a predominantly Jewish community in Los Angeles and said she didn’t notice her implicit bias toward people of different faiths until joining the high school leadership council, Muslims and Jews Inspiring Change.
The group, which is part of NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change, allowed Cohen-Hodos to interact with Muslim teens and find common ground.
“I had all of this stuff ingrained into my brain about what the world told me: that Muslims and Jews shouldn’t be friends and the conflict in the Middle-East was just a barrier to all relationships,” Cohen-Hodos said. “I was really surprised that there were these other Muslim teens who weren’t religious and liked video games and music festivals.”
Now a junior in the Jewish Theological Seminary at Columbia University, Cohen-Hodos is taking what she learned about interfaith relations from MAJIC to continue working in social justice and with the Jewish Student Union at her school.
“Sitting down at a table with someone is really the only way you’re going to get past prejudice,” Cohen-Hodos said. “You can have an idea of what you want from the world and what you see in the future, but you can’t do that without other people.”
Armaan Ismail, another MAJIC member, said interfaith work helped him in areas besides Islam.
“My leadership capabilities grew because I was trying to stand up for myself and my religion,” the 16-year-old said. “It’s about educating both the Muslims and Jews about changing their mindsets to live in equality.”
He said MAJIC allowed him to express his faith in a safe environment.
“I showed the Jewish students that Muslims aren’t the ‘terrorists’ they see on TV and we’re just normal human beings that love God just like them,” the 16-year-old said. “Our God is the same God as theirs.”