How Trump’s policies and rhetoric are forging alliances between U.S. Jews and Muslims

Ahed Festuk, a Syrian refugee, stands inside B'nai Jeshurun synagogue on New York's Upper West Side. She studies English in a free program housed in the synagogue's basement.
Ahed Festuk, a Syrian refugee, stands inside B’nai Jeshurun synagogue on New York’s Upper West Side. She studies English in a free program housed in the synagogue’s basement.
(Barbara Demick / Los Angeles Times)

Donald Trump may not be able to forge peace in the Middle East, but he is doing wonders for relations between Jews and Muslims in the United States.

Jewish and Muslim activists in the United States are forging alliances like never before in reaction to the president’s rhetoric and action toward Muslim immigrants.

Many Jewish organizations have interpreted Trump’s executive order banning entry by citizens of seven predominantly Muslim countries as a call to arms. Jewish delegations turned out en masse for a 10,000-strong demonstration Sunday night in New York. (“Granddaughter of Holocaust survivors standing with refugees, Muslims immigrants,” read one sign.)


Almost every day in New York this last week there was an interfaith conference or prayer service — involving Christian groups as well as Muslims and Jews — devoted to the current crisis over predominantly Muslim immigrants and refugees.

“We have common interests,” said Al Hadj Talib Abdur-Rashid, the imam of the Mosque of Islamic Brotherhood in Harlem. He was one of several Muslim leaders who appeared at a rally in Brooklyn in November after a playground was defaced with pro-Trump graffiti and swastikas. “The same kind of people who bomb synagogues [also] bomb black churches and now mosques.”

A Muslim-Jewish Advisory Council, made up of business and cultural leaders of both communities, both Democrats and Republicans, was formed days before the election and convened for its first regular meeting Wednesday in Washington to push the government for a coordinated response to hate crimes, up sharply against both Muslims and Jews.

The week after the election, Jonathan Greenblatt, chief executive of the Anti-Defamation League, raised eyebrows when he declared at a meeting in New York that if Trump imposed a Muslim registry, “this proud Jew will register as Muslim’’ — a dramatic statement for the head of an organization founded to fight anti-Semitism and protect Jewish identity.

There has been an incredible coming together of synagogues around the country to welcome Muslim refugees. Jews really understand what it is to be ‘the other.’

— Rabbi Jennie Rosenn, vice president for community engagement of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society

To many Jews, Trump’s targeting of migrants from predominantly Muslim countries evokes painful memories of Jews who were forced to identify themselves with yellow stars before their extermination at the hands of Nazis — and of the countries that turned them away when they tried to flee.


“It speaks to a lot of people very personally because their own families have stories about being refugees. There is a communal resonance,’’ said Shuli Passow, a rabbi at New York’s congregation B’nai Jeshurun, who recalled how her grandparents were hidden in barns and basements in Poland during the Holocaust.

In addition, Passow said there is a religious imperative to take in refugees. “One of the core tenets of the Jewish religion is welcoming the stranger. That is a phrase that is repeated 36 times in the Torah,” she said.

When a mosque in Texas was destroyed by fire on the same weekend that the immigration ban was announced, members of a nearby Jewish congregation offered the keys to their synagogue so their Muslim neighbors would have a place to pray.

Rabbi Jennie Rosenn, vice president for community engagement of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, was on the Greek island of Lesbos working with refugees when the news broke last week about Trump’s executive order suspending immigration from seven majority-Muslim countries and halting all refugee admissions.

“We are all heartbroken,” said Rosenn. “It is a betrayal of what America stands for, what we as Jews stand for, and is a terrible recollection of our own history.”

The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society’s work with Muslims predates Trump’s presidency, although the organization is feeling added urgency now.


Formed in 1881 to resettle Jews fleeing pogroms in Europe, it has in recent years devoted itself to helping non-Jewish refugees. In the last year, it helped resettle more than 4,000 in the United States, about half of them Muslim. Rosenn said that 270 synagogues and thousands of congregants nationwide have volunteered their time to find housing and furniture for refugees, to teach them English and enroll their children in school.

“There has been an incredible coming together of synagogues around the country to welcome Muslim refugees. Jews really understand what it is to be ‘the other’ and to arrive in a strange country,’’ said Rosenn.

One of the beneficiaries of their hospitality here is Ahed Festuk, who fled Syria in 2015 after being targeted by Islamic militants for driving a car and for her activism. Growing up in Aleppo, Festuk never met a Jew and never hoped to. Everything she had read in the public school textbooks was about the violence of the state of Israel.

Fleeing Syria: A desperate migration »

Once in New York, she started to meet Syrian Jews, who in turn introduced her to American Jews who were eager to help her get settled in her new life.

“They told me that their families were refugees too. People helped them and that they would help me,” said Festuk, 29, a bookkeeper who has flowing blond curls and wears skinny jeans.


Festuk has been studying English in a free program that is now housed in the basement of the B’nai Jeshurun synagogue, located on New York’s Upper West Side. Her English is now good enough that she volunteers as a translator — and speaks out against the Trump travel ban.

“Syrian people are victims, not criminals,’’ she said.

Trump’s executive order prompted almost universal condemnation from the leading American Jewish organizations, which often squabble among themselves on issues relating to Israel and gay rights. This time, it was not just from the predictable liberal groups, but also from more traditional groups such as the Orthodox Union and the Rabbinical Council of America. Even the conservative synagogue in Washington, D.C., where President Trump’s daughter Ivanka is sending one of her three children to school, spoke up against the ban.

It didn’t help that the ban was issued on Holocaust Remembrance Day, timing which the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society called “incredibly offensive” and the Anti-Defamation League called “tone deaf.”

Trump also managed to offend some of his Jewish supporters by issuing a statement for the remembrance day that omitted mention of Jewish victims. Even Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, which has been staunchly pro-Trump, wrote that he felt “compelled to express our chagrin and deep pain” at the omission of any mention of the 6 million Jews who died at the hands of Nazi Germany.

On the Trump presidency so far, there is divergence on the question (posed so often that it is a cliche) of whether he is good or bad for the Jews.


Roughly 71% of Jewish voters opted for Hillary Clinton, but Trump has strong support from hardliners on Israel. (He also has two children who are married to Jews, including Ivanka, who converted to Judaism when she married Jared Kushner, now a senior White House aide.)

Trump has called for the U.S. embassy in Israel to be moved to Jerusalem, satisfying a long-standing demand of the Israeli government to recognize the disputed city as its capital, and his nominee to be ambassador, David M. Friedman, is an unabashed supporter of Jewish settlement in the West Bank.

“Within the Jewish community, differences come up about many issues, like how to bring peace and security to Israel, but almost universally we support religious pluralism and share the same concerns about religious prejudice,’’ said Steven A. Fox, chief executive of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.

Despite New York City’s image as a melting pot, relations between Jews and Muslims are not always as harmonious as the city’s boosters like to claim. Fighting in the Gaza Strip in 2014 led to sporadic incidents in Brooklyn, including one in which Orthodox Jewish teenagers waved Israeli flags outside a mosque where worshipers were observing Ramadan. Jewish groups have occasionally complained about anti-Semitic slurs linked to Palestinian activities at the City University of New York.

But over the last year, the strains between Jews and Muslims in the city have been dwarfed by the perception that both communities are under threat.

Khalid Latif, an imam and head of the Islamic Center at New York University, said that just after the election, pro-Trump graffiti was scrawled in a Muslim student prayer room, while Jewish students found their dorm room door covered with Post-it notes bearing swastikas, Trump slogans and messages such as “Make America White Again.”


“In Social Justice 101, the fundamental concept is you don’t put struggle in competition with each other. You are able to come together and collaborate and build solidarity to take on inequity in all of its forms,’’ said Latif.

Twitter: @BarbaraDemick


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