The partnership: How a bold American imam and his skeptical Israeli host bridged the Muslim-Jewish chasm

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“Since 2013, dozens of young US Muslim leaders have traveled to Israel to learn about Judaism, Zionism and Israel. This is the full story of their high-risk, taboo-shattering initiative — a vital step, they hope, toward Muslim-Jewish healing in America and beyond”

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In a classroom at Jerusalem’s Shalom Hartman Institute, a group of mature students are learning about Tisha B’Av — the Jewish calendar’s saddest day, when the destruction of the two Temples and a whole series of subsequent tragedies are commemorated.

Their teacher, Yehuda Kurtzer, reflects on how, after the loss of the Temples, a “rabbinical elite” in ancient times resorted to the use of synagogues to give Judaism the focal points it needed to survive. And he goes on to note that nowadays, “we don’t have a dominant elite shaping the Jewish narrative.”

‎Earnest discussion ensues. Somebody mentions the Holocaust and its place in that unfolding Jewish narrative. “We don’t yet know the post-Holocaust nature of the Jews,” Kurtzer ventures, suggesting that there are those — like Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — who see the legacy of the Holocaust as an imperative to be vigilant, because Jews will never be completely safe and secure. Others would highlight the need “never to be perpetrators” of evil, never to misuse our own power, he goes on. And still others, including many American Jews, stress the obligation not to be bystanders when evil is being perpetrated. Somebody asks which approach is winning. Kurtzer says it’s too early to say.

The lesson is sophisticated, though not without the occasional light-hearted exchange, as you would expect of a class at Hartman, a pluralistic research and education institute with a reputation for open-mindedness within the Jewish tradition. So far, so unremarkable.

An effort by goodhearted people, a complicated, fraught, even dangerous effort, to throw some light into the dark abyss of ignorance and hatred that separates almost all Jews and Muslims worldwide

What is exceptional, however, is that the 20 or so students in Kurtzer’s class today are not Jews. Neither are they Christians, for whom Hartman has run programs for many years. They are, rather, Muslims. American Muslim leaders, to be precise. Most of them are in their 30s and 40s.One is of Lebanese origin, another Algerian, a third Iraqi. Almost all are in Western dress. Two of the women wear hijabs. And they are here, in Jerusalem, because they want to learn about Judaism, Zionism and Israel.

‎This is not an interfaith effort. It is not an exercise in dialogue between two religions whose relationship overflows with violence, tension and bitterness. It is an educational program, whose participants have come to Israel to understand why Jews believe what they believe, how Jews see their history, why Jews are so attached to this contested strip of land — and thus to better engage with American Jews when they return to the United States. It’s an effort by goodhearted people, a complicated, fraught, even dangerous effort, to throw some light into the dark abyss of ignorance and hatred that separates almost all Jews and Muslims worldwide.

These 20 or so students are the third “cohort” — the third group — in Hartman’s Muslim Leadership Initiative (MLI). The cohorts go through a program that lasts a year — with two weeks at Hartman in Israel at the start, a series of lectures in the US, and two more weeks at Hartman at the end. This Sunday class is part of Cohort 3’s opening two weeks in Israel. And as with their predecessors, the calm, scholarly atmosphere in the classroom belies the frenzy that their very presence in Israel is provoking.

On the previous Friday, the group went to pray at al-Aqsa mosque, which ought to have been a joyful highlight of their visit. Instead, it was a stressful experience, because the fact of their presence here in Israel was being hyped on some pro-BDS social media outlets as nothing short of treason. Participants in the previous two programs have been castigated by anti-Israel activists as “Muslim Zionists,” traitors to the wider Muslim and specific Palestinian cause. They have been accused of being duped into “faithwashing… using religion to whitewash Israeli crimes and dilute the occupation,” of undermining the “Palestine solidarity movement,” of being engaged in “an effort to blunt support for Palestinian rights among North American Muslim communities.” Their decision to go to Israel via “a Zionist, anti-BDS institution is incredibly shameful and dangerous,” wrote a columnist in the Islamic Monthly last year. This program “undercuts the plight of Palestinians and normalizes Zionism – a racist ideology and institution that is antithetical to our own Islamic traditions of social justice – within our communities.”

This time, a petition was being circulated against the group, and there were concerns that they might be physically confronted at prayers.‎

‎For that reason, Imam Abdullah Antepli, the founding director of Duke University’s Center for Muslim Life, the university’s first Muslim chaplain, and the prime mover behind the MLI program, did not go to Al-Aqsa with the rest of the group that day. He is the only member of the group whose name and face were widely known and publicized. Instead, together with author Yossi Klein Halevi, the MLI co-director, he sat with me for three hours to explain why he so energetically, insistently, indeed desperately pushed to establish the program, through which he ultimately aims to bring to Israel a “critical mass” of the most promising young American Muslim leaders — young leaders committed to better understanding American Jews, Zionism and Israel, and seeking to build better relations with North American Jewry.

It’s not for Israel’s sake. It’s not for the good of the Jews, he emphasizes. It’s for the sake of Islam, and most especially for American Muslims.

Antepli stands for what he says is authentic Islam. For an Islam of tolerance and equality. For an Islam whose American adherents seek constructive integration into mainstream American society. And if this decent Islam is to be accepted in an America scarred by Islamic extremism, he believes, one of the central paths to that acceptance runs via the US Jewish community, which itself so successfully integrated into America. Put simply, if American Jews come to understand, empathize with, and most importantly learn to trust American Muslims, Antepli is certain, then the rest of America, the Christian mainstream, will gradually follow suit.

And how better, as Muslims, to try to demonstrate that you can be trusted by American Jews than to study Judaism at one of the Jewish world’s most highly regarded liberal educational institutions — not in America, but teeming, divisive, complicated Israel?

The educating of an imam

The Shalom Hartman Institute’s Muslim Leadership Initiative is a case of an irresistible force meeting a temporarily inanimate object. The irresistible force is Imam Antepli, who was born in Turkey, was raised an unremarkable anti-Semite, was self-motivated to seek out and promote a better Islam, and became only the second full-time Muslim chaplain on a US university campus. The temporarily inanimate object, now somewhat reanimated by Antepli’s zeal and zest, is Yossi Klein Halevi, a Brooklyn-born former teenage Jewish Defense League activist turned Israeli journalist who, when their paths first crossed post-9/11 and in the midst of the Second Intifada in 2003, was the deeply disillusioned author of a book on the possibilities of interfaith relationships between Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Says Antepli: “Everything starts with our friendship.”

Recalls Halevi: “He said, What are you doing for Muslim-Jewish relations? I said, Nothing.”

Over numerous cups of tea, with one break for prayer, and several phone calls to the group as it safely navigated prayers at al-Aqsa, Antepli poured out his life story — the road he traveled from Turkey, to southeast Asia, to his beloved US, and now regularly to Jerusalem — and explained the impetus behind this unique educational program. Immediately likable, overflowing with conviction and the palpable desire to do good, Antepli spoke fast, not-quite-perfect English, and seemed entirely un-offendable, even when I asked him a slew of questions reflecting the worst Jewish assumptions about Islam. Halevi listened intently and interjected occasionally, but, with admirable and uncharacteristic restraint, largely left the narrative to his Muslim friend.

‎Antepli, 42, was born in Kahramanmaras, a city in southeast Turkey not far from the Syrian border, the second of five children “in a very national, chauvinist, secular home which was very, very anti-Semitic.” It didn’t help that the first images he recalls seeing on television were of Israeli soldiers beating Palestinians in the First Intifada and that among the first books he read was a child’s version of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Asked whether he grew up thinking Jews were terrible people, he answers: “That’s an understatement. I really believed for a number of years that Jews as people and Judaism as a religion were irredeemably evil.”

‘I went to that Madrasa with a lot of hate and frustration in me, but I couldn’t reconcile it. I learned that the prophet married two Jewish women. One converted to Islam, the other didn’t. That means the prophet had Jewish in-laws! The prophet had Jewish neighbors, and had a friendly relationship with them

He left home in his teens to attend a regional high school and, at a time when he was “searching for some sort of answers about life,” one of his science teachers introduced Antepli to the prayers and the rituals of Islam. “And religion clicked, intellectually. I met really educated, enlightened Muslims who were engineers, scientists and yet very religious people.” By the end of high school, he felt that he “really wanted to learn this religion for myself. I wanted to own it.” So at 18, he enrolled at an imam training school in Turkey’s Black Sea region.

“I never thought this was going to turn into a profession,” he says, “but the only way I could go deep, that I could deeply study the Quran, history and theology, was at a Madrasa, at imam training school.” And when he got there, he says, one of the biggest shocks was to realize “how much anti-Semitism I had swallowed” and that anti-Semitism was not authentic Islam. “Learning Islam from the foundational texts, learning about the prophet and his relationship with the Jewish community in his time, it was a major wake-up call.”

The conventional Jewish assumption, interjects Halevi at this point, is that the more religious you are, the more deeply devoted to Muslim sources, the more you are going to loathe the Jews. But no, counters Antepli. His studies at the Madrasa “challenged my hate, and the racism in me… I tried to get that poison out of my system.”

It wasn’t that the Madrasa was philo-Semitic. There was no effort to depict Jews in a positive light, or to encourage tolerance of Judaism. Rather, says Antepli, “they were teaching pure Islam, medieval Islam, an apolitical Islam. They were not in any way friendly to Jews. They were not in any way trying to promote a more peaceful side.”

So why did his attitude change? “I went to that Madrasa with a lot of hate and anger and frustration in me, but I couldn’t reconcile it anymore. I learned that the prophet married two Jewish women” — out of 13. “One converted to Islam, the other didn’t. That means the prophet had Jewish in-laws! The prophet had Jewish neighbors, and had a friendly relationship with them.”

Studying Islamic history, he internalized that Jews and Muslims “had shared so much in common. There was such a great contrast there, from how I felt about Jews as people.” But it was a slow process, he says. It’s become a point of humor between Antepli and Halevi for the imam to say that he’s “a recovering anti-Semite,” but he insists there was long a great deal of truth in it.

‎After the Madrasa, Antepli went to Southeast Asia for eight years — five in Burma and three in Malaysia — working for a Muslim humanitarian relief organization setting up small orphanages and schools there and in the rural areas of Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.

Somewhere along that journey the teenage hatred for Jews had transformed into an anger at “the self-destructive, toxic poison” of Muslim anti-Semitism — “how it is disempowering us. The paranoid obsession that all the problems (in the Muslim world) are because of these people, and what they did, and how they are behind anything and everything — it’s killing and freezing our willpower and also pumping hate. It’s so destructive.” The desire to challenge that, he says, is “a self-interest: to save us from ourselves in this regard.”

But the real epiphany, and the real opportunity, Antepli says, came when he moved to the United States, at age 30, in 2003, to study Islamic chaplaincy and earn a masters degree in Islamic Studies at the Hartford Seminary in Connecticut.

He had been to the States before, in 1998, when he spent a semester at the University of Pittsburgh, and adored the country: “I fell in love with its silly culture,” he laughs disarmingly. “It was pre-9/11. Muslims were, for the most part, having a rewarding time in North America. It’s still to some extent the best country where you can practice Islam. Every Sunday I was going to a prison to talk to Muslim inmates. They said they needed somebody who could come and teach some religious knowledge to them. They were paying me! I said, ‘What? I go to a prison and teach Islam, and people pay me?’ In Turkey they would be arresting you. You can’t do that kind of stuff.”

Back in the US as a Hartford graduate student five years later, he quickly got a part-time job as a Muslim chaplain at the prestigious liberal arts Wesleyan University nearby. And the first thing he did when he got to Wesleyan was to organize a trip for 17 Jewish and Muslim students to Turkey and Israel.

Wesleyan was what Antepli calls “a very politically active campus” — by which he means that pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian groups were at each other’s throats. Each side was inviting controversial speakers. Sometimes the police had to be called in. “One group is inviting self-hating Jews, and the other is returning the favor. It was wonderful,” he says dryly.

There was a Jewish chaplain on campus, too, a Rabbi David Leipziger — ‘initially skeptical and cynical’ about Antepli, but ultimately ‘my very, very good friend. I said to him, how are we are going to heal our community? Let’s take them one week to Turkey and one week to Israel-Palestine’

The Jews must have been delighted by the arrival of a Muslim chaplain?

Antepli laughs. “Three days after I arrived, a group of pro-Israeli Jews visited my office. These students felt that even without a Muslim chaplain, these Muslims and Arabs on campus were already a pain. They felt it would get worse, now there was staff support. So they basically said to me, If you are going to run a pro-Palestinian campaign here, we see you packing in three months.

“I thought to myself, ‘Hallelujah, Baruch Hashem!’ This is exactly what I’m looking for. I don’t remember my exact words to them, but I said I’m so happy to meet with you. I’ve been looking for you guys. I said I am an ardent student of Judaism. Can you teach me more about your world? How can I be of help? And how can you be of help to me? I told them about my journey, the books that I read as a teenager, and the kind of anti-Semitism I’d embraced. How many Israeli flags I’d burnt at demonstrations growing up in Turkey. Six or seven months later, they were all on the trip with me to Turkey and Israel.”

How did the Muslims on campus feel about him? “This was post-9/11, and their concern was over the place of Muslims in post-9/11 America. They were divided over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There was a group of activist Muslim students — all they wanted to do was pro-Palestinian activism. But there was the other half who were indifferent, apathetic to this kind of activism.”

There was a Jewish chaplain on campus, too, Rabbi David Leipziger — “initially skeptical and cynical” about Antepli, but ultimately “my very, very good friend. I said to him, ‘How are we are going to heal our community? Let’s take them one week to Turkey and one week to Israel-Palestine.’” As Halevi would be years later, Leipziger was won over. The rabbi agreed to lead the trip with the imam.

Itself worried about the friction on campus, Wesleyan also bought into the idea and covered some of the costs; the Muslim community put in some money toward the Istanbul leg; and the students paid part of the way.

For the Muslims — American Muslims living in a post-9/11 America where Islam often spelled bin Laden and terrorism — Turkey was a revelation, says Antepli. “These were students who had grown up in the US and seen very little of the rich history of Islam. The moment we walked into the Blue Mosque, this amazing mosque, one kid picked up the phone, calling, ‘Mom you won’t believe it, no church can beat it, no synagogue can beat it.’ That was internalized pain speaking, that every church and synagogue is beautiful, but my mosque was just a basement room.” This magnificent mosque “gave them a little bit of pride in who they are, their history and religion.”

Unlike the young Antepli, these students were not hate-filled anti-Semites, but they saw so many parts of the Muslim world — Pakistan, Afghanistan, parts of the Middle East — suffering with all sorts of social, economic cultural problems, with very little to be proud of. In Turkey, they glimpsed elements of “a better version of a Muslim society.”

As for the Jewish students, says Antepli, “they saw that Muslims are not people who are wired to hate. An immediate post 9/11 propaganda was created that Islam is evil and Muslims are terrorists. This is absolutely not true. The Turkey trip really challenged what they’d heard about Islam. Even before 9/11,” he says carefully, “they’d grown up receiving somewhat biased information about Islam and Muslims.”

So the Turkey week, says the imam, “was a home run on both fronts.”

‎And the Israel-Palestine leg? Not so successful. “We didn’t plan it well. The entire group, more or less, came out really pessimistic. We met the settlers, we organized debates with one Palestinian and one Jew because we wanted to understand both narratives. It turned out a shouting match. We saw how the situation is so complicated and how much hate is out there. For the first time I met a Jew showing me a Bible and saying, ‘This is my deed, I don’t care what anybody says, everybody has to get out. This is my land and everybody has to get the F out of here.’ An American Jew, grew up in Queens. The kind of nightmares that I have about the Taliban, ISIS, or people like that? It was the Jewish version of that.”

‘Since that Israel trip, I was shopping: Who will be my Jewish version? What institution will tell me their story? Is it possible for pro-Palestinian Muslims and Zionist Jews to talk, and try to understand each other’s language?’

When the group left Jerusalem to head back to the US, Antepli says, “I threw up. I just vomited.”

But he didn’t change ideological course. “If anything, it made me more determined to make a difference. I already feel this calling from God: I am going to spend a significant part of my energy in improving Jewish-Muslim relations. Globally, but especially in the United States.”

Antepli pauses. “I hope it’s not coming across as arrogant,” he says. “I don’t have enough moral legitimacy to speak about the Jewish community. I will let Yossi assess his own community. But my mainstream community, the way we understand this problem, the way we try to solve it, the way we advocate for a solution, it hasn’t yielded many good results. And there is surely room for improvement, for trying some new stuff, and being creative.

“So since then, since that Israel trip, I was shopping: Who will be my Jewish version? What institution will tell me their story? Is it possible for pro-Palestinian Muslims and Zionist Jews to talk, and try to understand each other’s language? Because to me, what often defines Jewish-Muslim relations is lack of knowledge and lack of trust, mainly because of the toxic impact of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which polarizes us and creates a zero-sum game.”

Enter Yossi Klein Halevi.

The reluctant partner

Graduate student Antepli had been assigned “At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden,” a book in which Halevi details his search for common ground with Muslims and Christians in the holy land, by a lecturer at Hartford named Yehezkel Landau.

Antepli says he read it as “the story of a former follower of Meir Kahane who’d said maybe there is a different, alternative way, and who was trying to see the presence of God in the book’s cross-religious, cross-faith conversations. That was exactly what I was into. I felt that I wanted to be able to see the world through his eyes, through the prism of the values that his religion teaches him.” In short, “I said I have to meet with this guy.”

Planning the Wesleyan students’ Israel trip, therefore, he contacted Halevi, and asked him to lecture to them. To Antepli, “It was love at first sight, in the spiritual and intellectual realm, I felt he was really the person that I was looking for.”

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