Malka Haya Fenyvesi + Aziza Hasan
Curiosity Over Assumptions
Malka Haya Fenyvesi is co-director of NewGround, and is the interfaith program coordinator at the Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA) in Los Angeles.
Aziza Hasan is co-director of NewGround, and director of interfaith programming for the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) in Los Angeles.
KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST: I’m Krista Tippett. Today, “Curiosity Over Assumptions: Interreligiosity Meets a New Generation.” We’ll shed a light on the friendship and shared passion of two 20-something activists, Jewish and Muslim, in the microcosm of Los Angeles. They take on conflict and honesty as part of real relationship.
AZIZA HASAN: One of the biggest struggles we actually face is also getting people to be honest and not necessarily polite. So first we have to get them to be willing to engage in conflict in a positive and healthy way and then we have to try to get them to actually like say what’s really on their mind.
MALKA HAYA FENYVESI: We refuse to be enemies and we’re just going to go into a situation with that in our mind. I refuse to be enemies and what does it mean to go into this very heated, contentious situation and really go in with an open hand?
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett. From time to time, we take a look at projects that defy the narrative of religiously driven conflict that is the beat of the news. I was captivated a couple of years ago by my guests this hour, two young women named Malka and Aziza, a Jew and a Muslim. I heard them present at a conference on the charged human and even linguistic obstacles of interreligious work that has nothing in common with singing “Kumbaya.” Or as they put it, they go way beyond bringing people together for hummus and hugs. They take on conflict and honesty as part of real relationship. We’ll shine a light on what they are learning in the microcosm of Los Angeles and, on a larger universe of risky innovation, of which they are part.
From American Public Media, this is Speaking of Faith, public radio’s conversation about religion, meaning, ethics, and ideas. Today, “Curiosity Over Assumptions: Interreligiosity Meets a New Generation.”
“Judaism and Islam,” the Muslim leader Ingrid Mattson has written, “share a similar tradition that even if the trumpet to signal the end of time is blown and you are holding a seedling in your hand, then you should plant it.” In 2007, Mattson’s Islamic Society of North America and the Union for Reform Judaism embarked on an unprecedented joint initiative, hosting each other’s leaders and pondering the specters of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia together.
This project and kindred others are controversial within each community and still in early stages. But if they succeed, it may be because the interreligious energy of the 21st century is underpinned by relationships close to the ground, relationships like the one we’ll experience this hour in the friendship and shared passion of Malka Haya Fenyvesi and Aziza Hasan. They are co-directors of an initiative called NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change. Aziza was born in Jordan to a Palestinian Muslim father and an American Christian mother, and she grew up first in Jordan and then in Kansas.
MS. HASAN: While growing up in Jordan for a good 17 years, I was constantly faced with that question: “What are you, Muslim or Christian? Isn’t one better than the other?” And even like the questions about, you know, “Your mom’s going to hell. How do you feel about that?” So I spent so much time praying as a child, you know, oh, I want my mom to go to heaven. And then we moved to Kansas and all of a sudden like we had great neighbors, but they all thought that I was going to here and my mom got to go to heaven. You know, things got flipped and it was, you know, an answer to my prayers, but it wasn’t exactly what I really wanted.
MS. TIPPETT: Aziza’s Jewish colleague, Malka, is a first-generation American whose parents survived World War II and the Holocaust.
MS. FENYVESI: My father came to the states in ’56 like many Hungarians leaving. My mother went from Hungary back to Paris, and they met in Paris in the early ’60s and came back to the states together in ’64. They were children during the war, and my father was saved by a really amazing woman who manufactured forged documents in the basement of an apartment building in Budapest. My mother was in Paris with her family who was Hungarian because it was somewhat of an easier place to be.
MS. TIPPETT: Today, Malka directs interfaith programming at the Progressive Jewish Alliance in Los Angeles. Aziza is with the Muslim Public Affairs Council there. With NewGround, they convene Jews and Muslims who are emerging leaders in many walks of … life, lawyers, educators, filmmakers, doctors. Los Angeles has a fraught recent history of public relationship between Muslims and Jews.
Some highly publicized dialogue among local leaders began after the signing of the Oslo Peace Agreement of 1993. But these disintegrated as the Oslo Accords unraveled, and they ended in the aftermath of September 11, 2001. So I began by asking Malka Haya Fenyvesi and Aziza Hasan what they are doing differently that can withstand a no less volatile present. What do they think their generation understands that previous generations didn’t?
MS. HASAN: Well, for one, a lot of the relationships that came together and flourished prior to September 11 had conditions attached to that relationship. So some leaders would say, “OK, if you denounce so-and-so, then I’ll stay at the table.” You can imagine. Like it just kept going back and forth like a ping-pong match denouncing different things and then finally one side decided they weren’t going to denounce, so the other side decided to walk away. So what’s really sad about that is that they allowed the outside world to completely control their relationships.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. You know, I read in some newspaper reports that someone wrote that Muslim-Jewish relationships were constantly held hostage to events thousands of miles away, which is, you know, a pretty vivid way to put it.
MS. FENYVESI: Part of what’s been happening with NewGround is that our organizations, Muslim Public Affairs Council and Progressive Jewish Alliance, really took a pretty, as I would say, chutzpadik, a very kind of risky move to partner together and, with real power in the community, said we’re going to do this and whatever happens, we’re making a statement that we’re better in this together than apart.
I also think that we really focus on the grassroots and, while we really value and respect and learn a tremendous amount from our leaders, you know, the grassroots often felt left out of some of those conversations. One thing that we really do is we wrestle with the elephant in the room and I think that that’s really important, and the elephant in the room being the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We don’t let the elephant take us hostage, but we really say, “What does this mean?”
MS. TIPPETT: You don’t pretend like it’s not there.
MS. FENYVESI: Exactly. And we really wrestle with some of the hard words. We do a lot of work on language because I think that that’s where our communities get themselves into trouble, that there’s trigger words in this conflict and in this relationship that mean dramatically different things to different people.
MS. TIPPETT: Right, and I heard the two of you at Eboo Patel’s Interfaith Youth Corps convention, I think it was about two years ago, talking about that, just about trigger words and about approaches of language and vocabulary. You know, that’s very interesting. It’s very nitty-gritty. I mean, give me some examples of what you’re talking about. It’s very practical, you know, rather than ceremonial, which I think a lot of interfaith work used to be.
MS. FENYVESI: Picture, you know, a table in a somewhat dilapidated community center in Los Angeles with lunch paper bags on it that say, “Occupation,” “Zionism,” “Apartheid,” “Israel,” “Palestine,” “1967,” “1948.” What we have is a group of people that have committed to building relationships with each other and committed to coming back and back to the table even when things are hard. They write down the first connotation that comes to their mind about what these words mean.
MS. TIPPETT: For each of these words, OK?
MS. FENYVESI: Yes, and it’s all anonymous. Then we make sort of a museum to these trigger words where we write it all up on butcher paper, as one of the bedrocks [laugh] of our dialogue. It’s all up on butcher paper all over the room and people get a chance to look at these words and I think the shock of those words and how they can mean such dramatically different things to people and how they’ve heard those words throughout the course of their life.
One particular story was around. We had … I think this is also reflective of the larger community. We had some Fellows that really wrestled with the word “Zionism.” Both Jewish and Muslim Fellows that really wrestled with that word and how it had such a diversity of meanings to people and how so many assumptions were made every time they heard that word. In dialogue, if they read it in the newspaper, if they heard it on the radio, and to some Jews in the group, it meant hope, it meant safety and to some Muslims in the group, it meant imperialism and it meant conquest, and where’s the bridge between those two things? And then what does it mean reading it in the newspaper in Los Angeles?
MS. TIPPETT: And is there always a bridge?
MS. FENYVESI: I think there’s always a bridge. The bridge is about understanding. I don’t think the bridge is about resolution. Part of what it means to do authentic dialogue work is that it’s messy in so many ways.
MS. TIPPETT: It seems to me from where I sit that, if there’s been kind of an evolution in terms of interfaith work or even just the way we approach pluralism, that there was a period when it was so new in American culture, at least new that it was out on the surface and more diverse than just [laugh] let’s say, you know, presumption, maybe different kinds of Christians and add Judaism into that, that it was all about finding our commonalities and it kind of often stayed superficial. But what you’re doing … you know, when you say that you are looking for bridges, but you’re not necessarily looking for resolution. You know, you’re staying with that messy humanity of these tasks, but that also, I think, keeps it anchored close to the ground and to reality and there’s substance and depth there.
MS. HASAN: When we’re talking about like especially pluralism and just difference of opinions, it’s the power of the personal that makes such a strong difference. Like in Malka’s example about the word “Zionism,” like that was one heated word and actually carried all the way through and past the program because, at the same retreat, we had one individual who was really wrestling with the term and he was really frustrated and he put a really negative spin on …
MS. TIPPETT: … was he Muslim or Jewish?
MS. HASAN: Yes, he was Muslim. But it really hurt another Jewish participant who chose to hold on to her opinion. But it wasn’t until months later at another session when she felt the courage to bring it up and say, “Look, what you said really bothered me because Zionism has meant so much to me as a Sephardic Jew.” They were actually finally able to resolve the issue. So sometimes, you know, we create bridges, but it takes a while for people to even be willing to exchange.
MS. TIPPETT: To walk up to them or even think about walking across the street.
MS. HASAN: Exactly.
MS. FENYVESI: What’s important about that too is that we really believe that conflict is actually really healthy. It also, you know, can be very destructive and painful, but it’s also really healthy in terms of moving people and relationships and societies forward.
MS. TIPPETT: You know, sometimes what is so simple is hard to get at. I mean, it’s true in a marriage where two people love each other and have decided to spend their lives together that, if they can’t fight well, if they don’t know how to disagree, that has a bad effect on their relationship. So, I mean, there’s a way in which you’re learning some things that are just really basic to human relationship, but there has been this crazy expectation of harmony where there’s real difference.
MS. HASAN: One of the biggest struggles we actually faced in terms of inside the circle of the program is also getting people to be honest and not necessarily polite. First we have to get them to be willing to engage in conflict in a positive and healthy way and then we have to try to get them to actually like say what’s really on their mind because after, you know, they start building these relationships, they get really excited. “Hey, we’re getting along, I really like this person,” and then they don’t want to hurt each other. What they don’t understand is that, you know, sometimes you have to be direct in order to really have a solid relationship, and it’s our job really to push them to that corner.
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is Speaking of Faith from American Public Media. Today, we’re shining a light on a new generation of Jewish-Muslim relationship through the friendship and shared passion of Malka Haya Fenyvesi and Aziza Hasan of Los Angeles. Their joint work with NewGround is in its third year. Over 10 months, the people in their Fellows program come to know each other, to grapple openly with their differences, to engage in joint community service, and to take this experience back into disparate lives, communities, and professions. Aresh Nematollahi was a Fellow in the program’s first year. His younger brother, Ramin, followed him the next. And here’s part of a conversation they shared about those experiences with our colleagues at the StoryCorps project.
ARASH NEMATOLLAHI: So a news headline: “Muslims and Jews go in a room. They don’t kill each other” [laugh]. Yeah, it’s huge. You know what’s funny? The reason I joined the 2007 group of NewGrounds was with my identity. I was getting tired of only associating myself with Iranian Muslims or Muslims. I wanted to step outside of that, but I didn’t realize I would see certain things that, for some reason, I couldn’t see before.
For example, I saw this emotion amongst some of the participants or the Jewish community is that they are genuinely afraid of being annihilated. They’re genuinely afraid of being annihilated, that the state of Israel is going to be annihilated. Somebody like me, I guess to Muslims, that’s just ridiculous because Israel is a superpower, but they really believe Ahmadinejad whenever he rants and raves.
That was really interesting for me because I really didn’t sense that. I always heard them on news and radio talking about it. It never really sunk in. The other thing was that Jews are concerned about the state and plight of Palestinians. I mean, they haven’t divorced themselves or they haven’t done a frontal lobotomy on their emotions when it comes to Palestinians. But I think that fear they have of annihilation prevents them from stepping forward and saying what’s happening to Palestinians is wrong. That was very eye-opening for me, you know.
RAMIN NEMATOLLAHI: I think the interesting thing, I mean, that the whole notion of, you know, the nail that’s sticking out gets the hammer or whatever that saying is, it’s kind of the same way. The people who you see in the news, the people who you hear about, the fringes, you know, that’s what makes news. So you hear about Israelis who are like, no, we’re not going to live with Palestinians. We have to destroy all Palestinians, all this. We hear about Palestinians who say we have to destroy all Israelis and get rid of them and push them to the sea. You hear all this stuff, but there’s all these people in the middle who you just don’t hear because they don’t make the news. That doesn’t catch the news, you know.
ARASH NEMATOLLAHI: At the end of the day, killing innocent people on both sides is still wrong. It doesn’t matter how you justify it. If it’s defense or offense or they did it first or we did it last.
RAMIN NEMATOLLAHI: Don’t you think we came to a place already that killing itself is just wrong as humans?
ARASH NEMATOLLAHI: I don’t think we’re there yet.
RAMIN NEMATOLLAHI: You don’t think so?
ARASH NEMATOLLAHI: I think we’re far, far away from there, and we still justify murder, different ways. The state justifies murder by execution, people justify it through self-defense.
RAMIN NEMATOLLAHI: There’s that quote that I told you about, that Aristotle quote, about like happiness being the point of life and like everything should point to that. I really think, you know, it’s not this instant gratification kind of happiness, you know, just coming back from Vegas. That’s what Vegas is. Vegas is just instant. Everything is instant. But it’s this long-term happiness. I think, as humans, we’re like diverging from that happiness.
ARASH NEMATOLLAHI: Yeah. I think happiness comes through struggle and we don’t want to struggle in a lot of instances. We don’t want to have to put ourselves to a test. Putting our identity to a test, putting our courage to a test, whatever it is, you have to be willing to find yourself in a situation where you don’t know the answer, where you’re lost. You have to admit that you’re lost and that’s not easy. So, I am hopeful. I think everybody will find their way.
RAMIN NEMATOLLAHI: That’s good. Well, thank you very much for your time.
ARASH NEMATOLLAHI: Thank you for your time. I appreciate it.
RAMIN NEMATOLLAHI: I enjoy being your brother.
ARASH NEMATOLLAHI: [laugh] I enjoy being your older brother.
MS. TIPPETT: I asked my guests, Malka Haya Fenyvesi and Aziza Hasan, for an example of how they and the Fellows in their program become, as they say, a window into the experiences of the other.
MS. FENYVESI: We … to give the most recent example, we decided to do … this is actually from the winter around the conflict in Gaza and in southern Israel. I think that our communities were so deeply in pain and so deeply in conflict with each other. I would just call Aziza and I would say, “So tell me, what did this sound like to Muslim ears?” I don’t know.
MS. TIPPETT: You mean hearing the news today from Israel, from Gaza?
MS. FENYVESI: Exactly. Also just to be able to reach out, I think, is critically, critically important.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. You know, I was going to say there’s a certain sort of internal discipline, not just a spiritual discipline, but like a civic discipline in being willing to ask that kind of question and really wanting to hear the answer. You know what I’m saying? Really be open to listening to the answer.
MS. HASAN: Yeah, because oftentimes we only want to speak and we don’t actually want to hear the answer. We’re not willing to really face the honest truth.
MS. FENYVESI: I think that there’s a certain courage in being able to ask the questions. We try to say that it’s the curiosity over assumptions.
MS. TIPPETT: Curiosity itself is a virtue. I like that.
MS. FENYVESI: I think curiosity is so important, and I think that it can be, you know, it’s so complicated for a lot of people to figure out how to be a Muslim or a Jew in America today, that if we can go with curiosity over fear and curiosity over assumptions and take that moment to really reach out to somebody else and say, “What does this mean to you and how does this feel when this happens?” And, “I heard this politician say this or I read this thing on a blog and what does it mean?”
MS. TIPPETT: I feel that the word “interfaith” or the adjective “interfaith,” even like the word “pluralism,” these words themselves are kind of safe and benign and maybe even boring. When, in fact, when people really have their hands and lives dug into this stuff, as you do, it’s anything but. I mean, it’s very dramatic. It’s galvanizing. It’s changing human life. Do you think about that, that problem of the words themselves getting in the way of communicating to the larger society, what the power of this is?
MS. HASAN: Absolutely, and I’m glad you brought that up because, when we first started the program, that’s how I would describe it. I would say, you know, this is an interfaith dialog group, and it just wasn’t deep enough. I mean like I’ve been there, done that. I don’t need to do hugs and hummus. If anything, I want to be part of something that’s real, and so to be able to finally like understand the complexity beneath the surface and the importance of having honest conversations that deal with issues like identity and diversity of opinion and gender and so many other things.
MS. FENYVESI: I also think a lot about what one of our Fellows who’s actually a Rabbinical student right now said to me. He said, “I really feel like NewGround is about what it means to be Muslim and Jewish in America today.” So that’s not as short as pluralism or interfaith, but I think there’s something about it that really covers what we do.
MS. TIPPETT: As we were producing this program, my producers and I found ourselves wanting to hear from some of the NewGround Fellows firsthand. Through the StoryCorps project, we discovered four pairs of participants who’d interviewed each other. They posed challenging questions and also shared lighthearted moments, sometimes filled with revelation, sometimes verging on awkward and tense.
On SOF Observed, our staff blog, we’ve isolated portions of these exchanges that reveal rather than describe the messiness and potential redemption of interreligious encounter. Look for all these links at speakingoffaith.org.
And we’d like to hear from you. What are you aware of or involved in in your immediate world? More importantly, tell us about a surprising or revealing moment that helped changed the way you think about the other. Share your reflection, download free MP3s and much more, all at speakingoffaith.org.
After a short break, more from Aziza and Malka, including the paradox that in interreligious work, encountering the other means coming to know one’s self and one’s own tradition in unexpected ways.
MS. FENYVESI: I remember a Jewish Fellow saying to me, “I definitely would never have met these Muslims, but let me tell you, I definitely wouldn’t have ever met these Jews.”
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett. Stay with us. Speaking of Faith comes to you from American Public Media.
MS. TIPPETT: Welcome back to Speaking of Faith, public radio’s conversation about religion, meaning, ethics, and ideas. I’m Krista Tippett. Today “Curiosity Over Assumptions: Interreligiosity Meets a New Generation.” My guests, Malka Haya Fenyvesi and Aziza Hasan are innovators and leaders in Muslim-Jewish encounter in Los Angeles. Malka is based at Progressive Jewish Alliance and Aziza at the Muslim Public Affairs Council, and together they co-direct a program called NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change.
The centerpiece of NewGround is a Fellows program where participants, an equal mix of around 20 Jews and Muslims, come to know each other and work in their community together over 10 months. Malka and Aziza have been describing how their approach differs from previous eras of interreligious work. They don’t immediately leap to commonalities. They understand conflict as part of relationship, any relationship, and they use the word “curiosity” more than they use the word “dialogue.”
MS. TIPPETT: It seems to me curiosity also is connected to valuing or to an openness and care for the other, which is there at the root of all three of monotheistic traditions, which is really a value that our world needs. And I think that, say, in the work the two of you are doing, you are really cultivating that virtue. I think, you know, unfortunately, it’s not what the three traditions are best known for, certainly not if you just judge that by news headlines, but it is there. It’s certainly at the core of Judaism and Islam.
MS. HASAN: Oh, absolutely. Actually, we quote several verses in the course of our … we have community Iftars in our sessions and, you’re right, like one of the Qur’anic verses is “We’ve made of you nations and tribes so that you may get to know one another.” Another verse after that says that “In order to truly be a believer, you have to be willing to engage in diversity and pluralism and that is the true sign.” That’s really what we drive home as part of the program.
MS. TIPPETT: And, Malka, what are your Jewish connotations that are attached to that idea of the other?
MS. FENYVESI: I think of a lot of things both in terms of text, but I also think historically what the Jewish people’s relationships have been to the other, and I think of the woman who was an other, who was a Christian woman in the basement of an apartment building in Budapest who, you know, manufactured 3,000 or so fake documents to save Jews. I thank God …
MS. TIPPETT: … including your father.
MS. FENYVESI: Including my father and my grandmother, and how blessed and lucky that is. So I think of that sort of relationship to the other and I think that otherness and thinking about the well-being of the other in addition to the well-being of yourself is huge and I think that the idea, again, of how you sit at a table together with people who are vastly different than you.
I think of some conversations that I’ve had with Rabbis through the course of doing this work and how some of them have said to me that this is the work that they did in the ’70s and ’80s between Jews and the African-American community and how this is sort of the evolving other as life and time moves on and politics shifts and society shifts in different ways that we have to keep on building relationships across divides.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. That’s interesting. We did a program on Abraham Joshua Heschel last year. A piece of the conversation was that, you know, he had such a very sophisticated theology and involvement with outreach to Christians and, you know, just speculating about how involved he might be and what his voice would add to this challenge of Muslim-Jewish relationships in the 21st century. It’s interesting to think about that.
MS. FENYVESI: It is. It’s interesting to think there’s some work being done on the Seder that never happened, that King was invited to Heschel’s house for Passover Seder and what would that Seder have looked like then and what would that Seder … I imagine I …
MS. TIPPETT: … and who would be invited today [laugh].
MS. FENYVESI: Exactly. I think it would be a fantastic Seder if it happened today. I think there would be a multitude of people there. Heschel’s a real prophet.
MS. TIPPETT: So you’ve both been involved to some extent, I believe, in a project that’s very interesting and it’s going to be fascinating to see it unfold, this Twinning project. I want to talk about that, but, you know, before I get into it, I want to ask you, Aziza, I was looking at an introduction to this peace-making initiative. It was a Muslim document and right in the first few paragraphs, there is a discussion of what peace means in Islam and a statement, “A true Muslim does not commit acts of violence either for the spread of Islam or for the purpose of achieving power in the name of Islam.”
I know that all the conversation partners and Muslim conversation partners have had these past years, you know, people feel that’s something you have to say. There’s this statement of differentiating yourself from this violence that’s been done in the name of Islam. I just want to ask you about that because I think that must also enter into the kinds of dialogues that the two of you are involved. You know, do you worry, Aziza, that you will forever have to preface every act and every good work and position paper, you know, with this kind of statement? Talk to me about having that as a reality.
MS. HASAN: You know, I do. It’s definitely a struggle, but something that I deem nonetheless essential because without saying it, it seems like we can’t really move on to getting into the real issues that are on the table. I don’t want to discredit the fear that comes behind and the reasons why we have to actually make those statements.
MS. TIPPETT: Tell me, how old were you in 2001? How old were you?
MS. HASAN: I was 21. So I remember because my TV was set as my alarm and my TV turned on the very moment like when the planes were crashing into the towers. I’ve felt like my life was a daze ever since I woke up that morning, at least for a good chunk of time. It was definitely a scary time because, you know, my mom, though she was Christian, taught at a Muslim school. So for weeks, we were constantly worried about boxes that were left randomly outside the mosque, whether or not they were going to be blown up, and just living in that fear, just from a Muslim kind of perspective.
I recognize that people are scared, and if people are scared, then we need to be able to speak to those fears. So that’s why we need to make these statements at the beginning of every conversation by saying like, look, we stand for justice and we will hold everyone to that same standard, no matter whether they’re Muslim or from any other religion.
MS. TIPPETT: So I’m kind of hearing you say that you don’t feel it is a burden so much as just a reality.
MS. HASAN: Yeah. I mean, it’s a frustrating reality, but one that exists nonetheless and who am I to discredit someone else’s fear?
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is Speaking of Faith from American Public Media. Today, “Curiosity Over Assumptions.” We’re shining a light on a new generation of Muslim-Jewish interreligious innovation through the work of Malka Haya Fenyvesi and Aziza Hasan in Los Angeles.
The Twinnings project just mentioned is pairing mosques and synagogues in major cities, first in North America and next in Europe, an initiative launched after a first ever national summit of rabbis and imams in 2007. That same year, the presidents of the Union for Reform Judaism, or the URJ, and of the Islamic Society of North America, known in short as ISNA, made unprecedented speeches to standing ovations at each other’s annual conventions.
When he spoke before ISNA, URJ president Rabbi Eric Yoffie frankly named Jewish concern over anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial within global Islam. He also said the time has come to put aside what the media says is wrong with Islam and to hear from Muslims themselves what is right with Islam.
At his own convention later that year, Rabbi Yoffie declared that the experience of anti-Semitism can impart Jews with a particular compassion for Muslims who faced generalized animosity in the post-9/11 world. I asked Malka Haya Fenyvesi and Aziza Hasan how they and their friends and colleagues take in such words.
MS. FENYVESI: I very much was inspired by Rabbi Yoffie and Ingrid Mattson speaking at those conventions. I think that that’s such a huge outreached hand where sometimes there hasn’t been that hand and I think that that’s really beautiful. I think this connects to ideas of otherness that our experience, you know, as Jews coming to this country at different points through history and that experience of trying to build our lives and our institutions definitely gives us perspective and experience that can be, you know, helpful in any way to other communities like the Muslim community.
MS. HASAN: I think it’s essential to recognize, you know, that what Rabbi Yoffie and so many others are doing is cutting edge in the sense of like not many people agree with it. You know, for him to say, you know, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia are equally like wrong is a huge thing, especially since he has a lot of heat on him from so many other organizations. I mean, he’s not the only one.
You know, with the Twinnings project, it’s brought all sorts of heat. At the same time, you know, we welcome the heat because at least we’re having the conversation. But at the same time, you know, people are speaking out, but it’s taking a lot and they need support from all over to let them know that people do indeed like not only agree, but are willing to back them up.
MS. TIPPETT: Now I was looking, I believe, at bios of some of your Fellows and I think what struck me is also something that struck me at that event of the Interfaith Youth Corps where I first met the two of you, which is that the people who are involved are not for the most part going to become religious leaders. They’re not training to be clergy people, right? Some of them are, but they are in IT and wealth management and entertainment and law and engineering.
I think something else that is distinguishing the work your generation is doing is it’s not about religion or religious identity in a compartment. It’s about these things finding a fuller expression in every sphere of life, a fuller and healthier expression. Would you agree with that or how do you see that?
MS. FENYVESI: We really make an effort to mirror the diversity of our communities and the diversity of our Fellows, so we have a few who are training to be clergy, but not at all a majority. The rest, as you said, doctors, lawyers, people in the financial industry, teachers, graduate students and also, you know, people who ethnically are Pakistani or Indian or from different countries in the Arab world, converts, Jews that are from, you know, Sephardic Jews, Ashkenazic Jews, people from a very wide variety. I think these are the people that, while it might not be their main profession, these are the people that are sitting on boards and advisory councils of major Muslim and Jewish institutions and these are the people that are going to be helping really shape the conversation.
One of the most exciting events for me of the past few months, excuse me if I’m getting the timing wrong, but we had a Fellow who went to the U.N. Conference on Racism in Geneva, and one of the things that he and I spoke a lot about was this idea, which comes from an Israeli peace activist, is we refuse to be enemies. We’re just going to go into a situation with that in our mind. I refuse to be enemies, and what does it mean to go into this very heated, contentious situation and really go in with an open hand?
MS. TIPPETT: But does not being enemies not necessarily imply that there’s not still conflict?
MS. FENYVESI: I think that’s it. I think there’s still conflict, but there is a willingness to hear and there’s a willingness to understand and there’s a willingness just to sit at the table across from each other. I think that that … from what I read and heard about the reports from Durban, that was very hard for people to do, not just to yell across the room, but to actually say let’s sit down together.
MS. HASAN: Absolutely, because if we really want them to be living their faith and, like Malka said, mirror the community that they’re actually living in, it was really essential to have a diverse group of people, so whether it was professionally or even religiously, like we very intentionally made sure that we had modern Orthodox Jews with Conservative and Reform in addition to not only Sunni, Shia, but also Israeli and Sufi so that they can go back into those communities and bring their new relationships so that this becomes part of a much larger public conversation.
MS. FENYVESI: And I think that speaks to the intrafaith at work that we do, which is something that’s often left out of the interfaith world as what it means to really talk to people of the same religion. I remember a Jewish Fellow saying, “I definitely would never have met these Muslims, but let me tell you, I definitely wouldn’t have ever met these Jews.”
MS. TIPPETT: Right. So some of the encounter and the curiosity ends up also being with the people in the group of their own faith or their tradition?
MS. FENYVESI: Oh, definitely. Again, going back to the butcher paper in a community center in Los Angeles, we explored the question together of what do you feel that those of the other faith most need to know about your faith? You know, the old saying is three Jews with 30 opinions [laugh]. The Fellow’s first question to me was, “Oh, we don’t have to agree, do we?” I said, “No, of course not, but you need to explain why you don’t, you know, you need to explain it. It can’t just be, oh, we don’t agree, so we don’t even need to talk to each other because I practice this way and you don’t practice at all according to my definition.”
What they ended up doing on this big sheet of paper, they put a big circle in the middle that said, “Jew” and off of that, they each kind of claimed their own corner. On one end, there was Torah, Israel, family, God. On another end, Sandy Koufax, Woody Allen, bagels. On another end, there was a map of Israel that said “falafel,” “kibitz,” “work.” I have to say, it was very fun, but there was definitely some nail-biting about how are we going to talk about these differences?
MS. TIPPETT: Do you remember the Muslim counterpart to that?
MS. HASAN: Oh, yes. Like this is actually one of the most memorable sessions, no matter what group we do it with, because the Muslims initially start with the concept of unity. They’re like we have to provide a united narrative on exactly how to present Islam because we cannot be not united.
Usually, each group always has to overcome that first before they can actually start writing. So they try to hash it out back and forth and back and forth. It’s really an eye-opening experience because they realize they’re like, wow, how are we supposed to talk to Jews about like Israel, Palestine and gender and all this other stuff when we can’t even agree on how to present our own religion? And the fact that they see the religion in so many different lights.
MS. TIPPETT: So I think that this story you’ve just told illustrates something that one of you said early on in our conversation that I think a lot of people wouldn’t understand, something else that gets hidden by these terms intrafaith, which is you said that someone that came out of your program said, “Really this is about what it means to be Muslim and what it means to be Jewish in the world today.” Because there is this paradox of interfaith work when it’s really profound that not only do people come to know the other, they get to know themselves better.
MS. FENYVESI: Definitely, for a lot of our Jewish Fellows, this was a real surprise. They came in because they thought, oh, I want to talk about politics with the Muslim community. I want to do this. I can’t tell you how many of them I see and say, “So I joined a synagogue” or “I have been celebrating Shabbat at home now.”
How they sort of changed since the days of being more of a hardcore activist, I think that the solutions to these complex, multilayered problems that we’re facing locally and domestically and internationally right now are very creative and very interdisciplinary, that we need everybody to be there at the table. I mean, not everybody, but I think we need both and people from the middle.
MS. HASAN: You know, I think Ali Abu Awwad, an individual you’ve had on your show before, said it really well. I would substitute a word. “It’s not about being right. It’s about being honest.” I would substitute the word “truth” for “right” because if it’s always about being right or about being on the side of, well, this is the truth and that’s it, then we’re really not ever going to get anywhere. It’s about being honest with ourselves and with each other and to truly evolve to a genuine place of where respect can exist and flourish. This is something that I really struggled with for a long time as a child. Could I really respect my mother if I really thought that she was going to be going to here all the time?
MS. TIPPETT: Your Christian mother, yeah.
MS. HASAN: Right, exactly. And I finally, finally like after several years, came to a place where I can really respect her as an individual for her faith and respect the Christian faith. So it’s not about the exclusivist theology that I so held on to so tightly when I was younger.
MS. TIPPETT: But it’s also not about giving up a strong identity of your own.
MS. HASAN: Oh, absolutely. And that’s the thing. You don’t have to give up who you are in order to embrace somebody else. I think that’s actually probably one of the strongest lessons we’ve learned through NewGround is that you don’t have to be giving up anything about being Palestinian or about being Muslim in order to engage in this conflict. Instead, it’s actually about being able to share your identity in a very succinct and truthful way so that you can both grow together as a group with the other people at the table.
MS. TIPPETT: How do the two of you think about impact and why your work matters? I mean, it’s hard now to see at a global level, at a geopolitical level, how the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, for example, can or will be resolved. There’s new crisis with Iran that’s on the mind of both of your communities. You know, do you imagine that what you’re doing in Los Angeles with 10 or 20 people at a time might in some way affect that or does that not matter? Is that not the point? How do you think about that?
MS. HASAN: I mean, ultimately our faiths are really intertwined. I mean, our fates are intertwined [laugh].
MS. HASAN: You know, we really have to be paying attention to what’s going on everywhere because we’re really impacted. If we’re really going to be able to make change, then we have to start in our own back yard. Like Malka said earlier, I mean, these are young leaders in their own right. They’re already leaders before they get to us. They’re sitting on boards of institutions.
They’re active citizens, and the ripples, you know, you start them small, but then they grow much larger and they have a much bigger impact. And because American Muslims and American Jews have a strong stake really in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, we would dare to say that, yes, it would definitely influence at least the conversation in many different ways, especially in terms of like how money is delivered to different places, like whether people are active in different organizations.
MS. FENYVESI: I go back to the interdependence that I learned as a child so strongly in that, you know, our diaspora communities greatly influence what happens in our “home countries” around the world. I think that there’s a hearts and minds element to NewGround, which I think is very powerful in terms of whether it’s about reading the newspaper and seeing an article about something that happened in a Palestinian village and, you know, picking up the phone and calling a NewGrounder and saying, “Does this affect your family? What does this mean?” Or even if you’re a little bit shy and you’re not picking up the phone, you read the article with more compassion than eyes.
MS. TIPPETT: You have faces and voices to attach to that.
MS. FENYVESI: You have faces and voices, and I think that the other piece is that, yes, the connection to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But also recognizing the ethnic diversity, that we have Fellows that care deeply about Kashmir and about issues between India and Pakistan. We have a lot of Fellows who care deeply about Iran and we have Fellows who are invested in redevelopment in Eastern and Central Europe.
I think that goes back to the notion of what it means to be Muslim and Jewish in America and in the world today is that we have heartstrings spread all over the world. I think that understanding what those connections are and building off them, I think, is very, very important. And I also think that the events that happen, whether it be in Iraq or whether it be in Israel or Palestine, it really brings people into the circle. They want to engage in something that’s local, that’s hopeful, that has that ripple effect and that helps them understand themselves better and helps them thus understand the world better.
MS. TIPPETT: Malka Haya Fenyvesi and Aziza Hasan co-direct NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change based in Los Angeles. Malka is Director of Interfaith Programming at the Progressive Jewish Alliance, and Aziza is Director of Interfaith Relations at the Muslim Public Affairs Council.
In the past several years, I’ve interviewed an exhilarating range of people who are engaging with their religious other in the most difficult and unlikely of circumstances and on many levels, personally, communally, institutionally. One of my most memorable experiences and one which Aziza mentioned earlier was sitting down with Ali Abu Awwad, a Palestinian who’d lost his brother at the hands of an Israeli soldier, and his friend and comrade, Robi Damelin, an Israeli whose son was killed by a Palestinian sniper. They’re part of a web of relationship across the Israeli-Palestinian divide that seems unimaginable, given the headlines.
Find that program, which we called “No More Taking Sides,” and other like-minded programs on Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Eboo Patel’s globally ambitious Interfaith Youth Corps, all of that on our Web site, speakingoffaith.org.
And we’d also like to hear how your life and experience might suggest new, concrete, and perhaps more spacious possibilities for our cultural imagination about the terms “interfaith” and “interreligious.” Share your experiences and insights through the Reflection link on our home page, speakingoffaith.org.
The senior producer of Speaking of Faith is Mitch Hanley, with producers Colleen Scheck, Nancy Rosenbaum and Marc Sanchez. Our online editor is Trent Gilliss, with Web producer Andrew Dayton. Special thanks this week to StoryCorps. Kate Moos is the managing producer of Speaking of Faith, and I’m Krista Tippett.