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 The Jewish Muslim Project (JMP)

The first event and the origins of the JMP at the University of Wisconsin, Madison

Harlan Luxenberg

I walked up the front steps of my student union at 2 o’clock, January 20, 2004, carrying with me two large white Tupperware containers filled to the top with chocolate chip cookies I had baked this morning for the afternoon’s event. As I walk through the front doors of the union I see Alan, a friend and fellow planner of today’s event. Dressed in his dark blue, winter parka, he is holding a Walgreen’s bag containing three 2-liter bottles of sodas and a bag of cups. His face is red and his eyes look tired so it is no surprise when he tells me how sick he is as we walk up the two flights of stairs to the room assigned to us. I tell him how relieved I feel that he is still able to make it to our first event despite his untimely cold.

The room we have reserved is set up with what looks to be fifty chairs and three stands stacked with markers and large post-it paper. We are both nervous as we eagerly await our event to begin. Together he, Michal and I have spent many hours getting to know and befriend two female, Indian Muslims who were as enthusiastic and optimistic about the prospect of integrating Muslims and Jews together on campus as us. The five of us would become the co-leaders of the group that I would later name the Jewish Muslim Project.

Our Jewish Muslim connections first began when I sent an email to the Muslim Student Association member list at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, asking if anyone was interested in working together to create a Jewish Muslim student organization that would aspire to celebrate both religions and cultures on campus. I received a few dubious, ambivalent responses which I did not respond to because in my opinion they lacked honest enthusiasm. I already knew two Jews, Alan and Michal, who were passionate and willing to give their time and effort to create this group. I had met Alan, an orthodox Jew, in my Arabic class while Michal, a conservative Jew, was referred to me from many sources who told me of her similar aspirations. Both individuals were very passionate about creating a perennial group that integrates Muslims and Jews into one cohesive community.

A few months after my mass email, I received a response from a Muslim student, Maryam, who had just discovered the email I had sent out so many months earlier. On that particular day she had actually visited my Arabic class and was immediately after clearing out her email mailbox when she came across my email and read it for the first time. She went back to my Arabic class to see if my class was still there but due to an untimely fire drill, class had already been dismissed. Her response to my email was optimistic and clearly displayed her excitement to be part of such a group. She ended that first email with the words, “Thanks so much for showing so much interest in doing something like this, I think it’s really honorable.” I knew she was the person I was looking for.

Soon after her initial email we scheduled a time for us to meet and sit down for a cup of coffee on State Street and discuss the possibilities of starting an interfaith group together. When I arrived at the café, she was already seated with two other Muslim girls. After brief introductions, I was bombarded with a barrage of questions about my true intentions and aspirations concerning Jewish Muslim dialogue. I was not fully prepared for this interrogation but as a result of our honest and open conversation, we were already beginning to develop a positive working relationship.

During the meeting, we discussed different possibilities for starting a brand new group or creating an alliance between already established Muslim and Jewish groups. After the meeting we set a date to meet again a week later. One of the girls, Nabeela, who later became a coleader of our group along with Maryam, was very pessimistic about our chances of successfully creating a group for Jews and Muslims on a campus where their communities where very divided and adverse. On the other hand, it was also clear that she was excited about the challenge of creating this group. Next time I thought to myself I would bring my collaborators with me as well.

Over the next couple of months Maryam, Nabeela, Alan, Michal, and I spent many hours at different cafes or at the student union discussing what we wanted our group to do and how we wanted it to function. We discussed goals, ideas for events, and what role our organization would have in the greater Jewish and Muslim communities of Madison. In early November proceeding our preliminary introductory meeting, Nabeela sent an email to all of us outlining five points that we needed to address at our meetings. Summarized, her points are:

1.      It is important for us to get to know each other so that we can trust one other and understand each other’s motivations and intentions

2.      Each of us should be aware of our own personal goals and email them to each other before our next meeting

3.      Ask ourselves how much we know about our own and each other’s communities, religion, culture and politics

4.      How prominent will each of these components be to our group:  culture, religion and politics

5.      We should initially focus on issues that commonly separate the two groups or create general distrust between them

 The most important guideline was for us to get to know each other and to become aware of each of our own personal goals and objectives in this endeavor. Her guidelines served as a general outline for many of our future meetings because they clearly delineated the main questions and issues that we needed to reconcile and confront before we moved forward with our plans.

We each had different reasons that inspired us to start this group. Some of us did not want to limit the group to just Muslims and Jews, but wanted to disseminate our message of integration to other communities as well. Others were focused only on the dialogical aspects of integrating the Jewish and Muslim communities. My personal goal was to create an example for the rest of the world that showed that if Jews and Muslims could form a harmonious, altruistic community in the middle of Wisconsin, then they could do it anywhere else. I believed that if we could work together and create a comfortable community where everyone is able to trust one another then we could also build a community that accepts differences and has mutual respect for them.

The five of us had many great conversations and discussions and I think we surprised ourselves at how easily we were able to be open and honest with one another. The comfortable atmosphere at our meetings allowed us to be honest and speak without equivocation about how we thought Jews or Muslims on campus would react to certain programs, discussions and dialogue. One issue that was the hardest to find common ground on and actually something we never fully were able to delve into as a larger group was the quandary surrounding the politics of Israel and Palestine. Not only was this a difficult topic for us to candidly discuss, but it also became an obstacle for those individuals interested in our mission.

The topic of Israeli and Palestinian politics would come up throughout our programs, meetings and conversations. The issues intertwined with these politics became the largest obstacle we faced, particularly for Muslims who were interested in participating in or joining our group. Many Muslims on campus were irresolute about supporting a group such as ours. This was not due to animosity towards our goals, but rather that supporting a group with Jews would be viewed by other Muslims as consenting to Israel’s legitimacy over Palestinians and their land. This was a difficult issue for me to fully comprehend because as a Jew, I knew that most Jews’ opinions differed about Israel’s government and their rights to lands it occupies.

The difficult task and responsibility of convincing Muslim students that our group did not support or oppose Israel was completely on the shoulders of Maryam and Nabeela. This is one of the issues we were never really able to tackle, due however to a lack of time, not commitment. We unanimously agreed before creating the group that if we ever did attack the issues concerning Palestine and Israel, it would have to wait until we had developed a nucleus of members who had developed enough trust in each other to dialogue about this topic. While the topic did arise at other times, we often deliberately moved away from full discussions regarding it. 

Our first event was scheduled for the first weekend after winter break in January, 2004. We were confident that after all the time we had spent getting to know one another, discussing goals and our various apprehensions, we were ready to include others in our successful dialogue. Usually after our meetings we walked away ecstatic and upbeat, amazed at our good brainstorming or our great discussions our religions and cultures. Sometimes we would just ask each other about the other’s religion and continue to ask questions. We thought that if this method worked so well for us, we had to try it with others. After the success we experienced throughout an entire semester of dialogue among ourselves, we decided to model our first event with others after our own meetings.

The fundamental objective of our first event was to discuss persisting stereotypes and misconceptions that exacerbate Muslim and Jewish tensions and distrust. We wanted to create an environment that accepts and tolerates different ideas and values and would push individuals to recognize their own preconceived ideas and biases. This environment would further encourage critical self-examination and reflection by allowing individuals the opportunity to evaluate what they had heard from friends and the media in order so that they might better be able to evaluate their validity.

The secondary objective was to create an open forum so that individuals felt safe asking any questions they had about the others’ religion, culture, campus life, or anything else. We realized from our own encounters how many questions arise from successful dialogue. From the open and honest act of asking questions, we are encouraging individuals to articulate what they think and what they have heard and then to ask someone else, whose opinion they rarely, if ever, have the opportunity to hear. This is one of the most fundamental parts of dialogue because it allows the asker and answerer to explain how they feel to each other and then continue in the dialogue. A question does not simply end with an answer in dialogue; it is instead a new starting point from where to venture.

Back to the first event. The five planners had all arrived by 2:05. We briefly recounted our winter break travels and events before setting up the table of refreshments and then reviewed how our program would run and which part each of us would be in charge of. Our first event was not open to the public because we wanted to invite only those whom we knew would be respectful of our goals. We decided to invite an equal number of Jews and Muslims, females and males, as well as a general mix of individuals with contrasting values and opinions. The total came to 32 including ourselves with almost equal numbers of reform, conservative and orthodox Jews. I was not able to tell the different denominations and levels of observance of the Muslim students.

At a quarter to three with three being the scheduled start time, the invitees began trickling in and sitting down. We were amazed that people were actually arriving early. In the front of the room, we had set a refreshments stand with different kinds of cookies, pretzels, and three types of soda. In front of the refreshments table were two sections of chairs, set out in rows of six and separated by an aisle for walking. As participants were coming into the room, Michal, Alan and I were conversing with the Jews on the left side of the room, while Maryam and Nabeela were on the right side speaking to their Muslim acquaintances. With a few exceptions, the Muslim students sat in one clump on the right side of the aisle, and the Jews in their assemblage on the left.

It was not surprising nor a bad sign that so many Jews and Muslims who did not know each other, quickly and somewhat naturally relegated to where they saw other Jews and Muslims, respectively. Perhaps both groups have become so accustomed to being a minority that it was only natural for them to search out those individuals who are members of their minority as well. It was clear from the beginning that the participants would not intermittently start conversing with those who sat across the aisle. This anticipated separation is exactly the involuntary dichotomy we wanted to impact.

At 3:05, almost everyone invited had arrived and taken their seats on their respective, unassigned sides. We collectively decided that it was time to start our event and explore a domain we had been longing to know. We were naively unaware that other groups around the world were trying to do the same things as us, with the same successes and the same obstacles. Naïve as we were, we each felt empowered to strive towards change and make a difference in our communities.

As the five of use stood in front of the other students who had showed up this cold January weekend, we looked out and saw excitement, hope, nervousness, and curiosity in the eyes of our peers looking back at us. None of us could believe that our group was finally starting. Maryam, who is the most comfortable public speaker among us, spoke first. She explained with a confident smile and a poised look how important it is to face stereotypes that separate communities and that only after facing those stereotypes can we begin to learn from each other. I spoke next and nervously recounted how the five of us had started meeting and getting to know each other and what a great success we had had in creating a comfortable atmosphere where we all felt that we could freely express ourselves and not feel resentment or shame. I explained that since we experienced so much success in our dialogues, we thought we could expand that feeling trust and openness to other people who were willing to speak freely and honestly and engage in meaningful dialogue.

After I spoke, Nabeela described the first activity we had planned. For the first activity, we decided to separate ourselves into two groups, the Muslims on one side of the room and the Jews on the other side, far enough so that they could have independent discussions without disrupting each other. We decided to do this so that the participants could feel comfortable brainstorming with people they knew and people of the same religion. We wanted everyone to feel comfortable so that they would be more open in the next parts of the event. The planners also split up along religious lines. Alan and I had already arranged the chairs in a semi-circle for the Jews to sit at. After sampling the refreshments, the students relocated to their new locations where they would be immersed in discussion for the next twenty minutes.

The planners for each group were then going to lead a brainstorming session. A list of topics for discussion we previously created was hung up to facilitate the brainstorming sessions. Those topics were: customs, dress, holidays, texts, sects, observances, gender roles, view points on Israeli Palestinian conflict, demographics, and prayer. In the Jewish circle, we first went around and introduced ourselves, although many knew or recognized each other from Hebrew and Jewish classes or from Hillel, a campus organization for Jewish students. People were shy at first, but everyone in the group had a question or comment to add to the rapidly growing list. We asked our side to think of all the questions they had about the practice, culture and observance of Islam. We also encouraged them to address stereotypes that they held or that they believe many Jews hold. Alan, who is very short, was standing on a chair writing down everyone’s comments on one of the large post-it pads. Some of the questions that stood out were:



See Appendix A for a full list of the questions

After twenty minutes and an extensive list that reached over 20 items we called time and moved into the next part. Throughout the brainstorming session, our group had great discussions about what we felt and thought and what we thought Muslims might think of Jews. Some of the stereotypes the Jewish group assumed the Muslim group would hold about them are listed below:

After we were done, the leaders switched groups and read to the other group the other’s list. The two groups’ lists were very different. While the Jews’ questions focused on Muslims’ relationship with America, media and politics, the Muslims’ list focused on politics and US-Israel relations. They also asked many questions concerning Jewish customs, practices and denominations. Some of the questions that standout from the Muslim’s brainstorming session are listed below:


See Appendix B for a full list of questions

For the next activity, each person needed to choose a partner of the same faith. I chose to partner up with my best friend Alix, a Jew who I had befriended in Arabic class. Each set of partners chose another set of partners from the other group and then had to find a place to sit together. We hung the posters with the brainstorming ideas up in a central location visible to everyone. Now it was time for the actual dialogue component of the event. People were now more comfortable and were ready to sit, question and discuss.

We asked every individual to think of a question either on their own or to take one from the lists and ask the other pair. Everyone split up and settled down in their chairs. We had scheduled three rounds of this partner exchange so we wanted to appropriate sufficient time for each session. We agreed fifteen minutes should be enough time to get to know each other briefly and to have each side answer a question or two.

Alix and I walked over to two Muslim men, one an undergraduate senior majoring in business and the other a graduate student studying economics, and partnered up with them. After spending a few minutes introducing ourselves, we dove, head first, into Israeli and Palestinian politics. The younger Muslim was very direct and unambiguous about his thoughts about Sharon and the Israeli government. He first asked if all Jews supported Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, and then just as candidly and confidently labeled Sharon a war criminal. To defend his argument he referenced to a time in the 1980’s when Sharon was Defense Minister of Israel and led an invasion into Lebanon and murdered thousands of innocent Lebanese civilians.

This question, hard enough to discuss with Jews, was even harder to discuss with people who would not share the same belief that many Jews feel, primarily, that God gave Israel to the Jewish people and that they needed to protect it because it is the only place were they are safe from persecution and safe to practice their religion. First Alix answered and said that not all Jews in Israel or abroad agree with Sharon and defend his actions. She remarked that she too does not always agree with his decisions.

I was unsure how to respond because it is an issue I often struggle with myself. Sharon in my opinion is not a war criminal and I explained to our partners that I am cautious when criticizing him, not only because he is the leader of Israel but because I believe he has, along with former Israeli prime ministers, tried many different options that could have led to peaceful coexistence with the Palestinian people. I do not think he is a paragon of virtue, but I do think his political and personal goals include peace with the Palestinians. After stating these opinions, I did acknowledge to my Muslim partner that what Sharon did under “Operation Peace in the Galilee” in Beirut was an abuse of power and not appropriate.

It was now Alix’s turn to question our partners about their thoughts on a two state solution for the peoples of Israel. The younger of the two Muslims, a man I learned earlier was born and raised in Kuwait, enthusiastically began to articulate his thoughts. He spoke very passionately and elegantly and used his large hands to help exclaim and accentuate his views. The important thing, he said, was not whether there were one or two states but rather that there was peace and tolerance between the inhabitants. I felt my body temporally relax when he said this. I was dreading hearing him say that there should be no Israel and that the Jews had an illegitimate claim to the land.

What he said next made my eyes lock in on him and made me temporarily forget my time-keeping responsibilities for the event. He said that for hundreds of years the Muslim Palestinians had lived on this land and then they were forced out, and that basically they had more right to owning the entire land of Israel than anyone else. I have read about this view many times, but never had someone say it in my immediate presence that my people did not have a valid claim to the land. I looked to Alix to respond first, but the look in her eyes tacitly communicated to me her speechlessness and that it was my turn to respond first.

In a somewhat awkward utterance of words, I explained how I felt. I told him that this is the land that the Jews were promised by God over two thousand years ago and that it is the only place where the Jews can go and be free from religious oppression and persecution. I thought about how the Arab Palestinians had only lived there when the Jews were exiled, but decided against arguing it. I continued to say that I again agreed with his opinion that a one or two state solution was unimportant as long as peace was arranged and both peoples could live and coexist with tolerance and understanding. I am sure, however, if it were to be a one state solution, we were both thinking of a different ruling party.

We had a few minutes left before switching groups so I decided to ask one last question. I felt of all the questions I had of the Muslim students, this was the one that I really wanted to hear a Muslim opinion on right now. The day before I had read a New York Times Book Review article on a new book The Trouble with Islam by Irshad Manji, a book calling for reform in Islam because within the religion of Islam, there are more terrorists and acts of violence than in any other religion. I asked in reference to this article, whether they thought that reform was needed in Islam. The younger of the two Muslims again was passionately ready to answer.

He began with very definitive statements, making the argument that you cannot reform Islam because it is not possible. Islam, he continued, is the word of Allah and therefore perfect. You cannot reform perfection and therefore you cannot reform Allah. Many people who call themselves Muslims need to be reformed, he injected. It is possible to take paragraphs or passages in isolation from the Koran, especially times when it says it is okay to kill, and use it for personal ambitions. He seemed somewhat defensive about this because he said, “I’m sorry, but you can.” He continued and declared that those who do this are not really Muslims. I am impressed but do not agree with his answer.

Looking once again at my watch, I now realized that we were running five minutes over. For the first time, I gazed around the room to look at small groups scattered around the room. Everyone’s face was lit up with engagement and interest. I was relieved. People were learning and questioning, and appeared to be thoroughly enjoying this event.  I made an announcement to the group that it was time to wrap up these conversations and to switch groups. People looked at me and then went back to their discussions. One minute went by and no one has moved. I am overjoyed that people are so focused on their discussion and seem unwilling to split up, but I figure that more points of view is the objective of this event so I decide to again remind everyone that it is time to move on. People take another minute or so and than began to end their conversations with their partners. As I watch this happening I see many people shaking hands and expressing with smiles how much they enjoyed the dialogue.

The next set of partners Alix and I would join was two girls, one dark-skinned and dressed modernly from Egypt while the other was much more talkative and opinionated and a conservative Pakistani Muslim wearing a black hijab covering all of her head except her beautiful face. I began the conversation by asking a question I had been wondering about for sometime. Since working and becoming friends with Maryam and Nabeela, I had felt limited and constrained to express the warmth and admiration I felt for them. With good friends, we normally hug and sometimes exchange a kiss on the cheek on Shabbat or when we have not seen each other for a long time. I had forgotten about the Muslim tradition that women do not touch men other than those in their family when I once tapped Maryam on the back to say goodbye from an event. I could tell she was startled but she smiled at me anyways. Only later did I realize why she had been so startled and did I learn that she acknowledges that living in a community vastly different from her own that one cannot always push people back.

The question, then, that I posed to the two girls was, “do Muslim women ever feel confined or limited to express emotions in a physical way?” The conservatively dressed of the two responded that religious laws are not supposed to confine individuals, but liberate them while also promoting safety. She confidently told me that her beauty is reserved for herself and her future husband and that her body should not be touched, looked at, or admired by anyone else. That is her reason for wearing a Hijab and unrevealing clothing.

Her words poured out and she exclaimed that she did no want guys staring at her ass. It was American women who were degrading and oppressing themselves by showing off their bodies. She said this form of dress empowers Muslim women. To essentially answer my question, she told me that nothing attracts her to having friendship with males. She believes that her husband will be “all the man I need.” I find her answers intriguing and temporarily try to imagine my life without physical touch. I do not think it would be possible for me to not be able to communicate emotions both verbally and physically after having lived this way my whole life. The girls than asked us a few questions concerning the denominations within Judaism and about why orthodox women shave their heads. (I later found out that someone in the larger Muslim group mentioned this during the brainstorming session and everyone was curious about it.)

We ended the event by asking everyone to bring their chairs to the front of the room. We stood in front of the assemblage of Muslim and Jewish students, the five fearless planners who only an hour and a half earlier had been fearful about how this event would turn out. With only a few minutes left, we wanted to add some closure to the event. Maryam asked for questions and comments and people raised their hands. As I scanned the room, I saw my Jewish friends as well the four Muslim students whom I had had the privilege of deliberating with. As my eyes met those of my friends, my friends gave me looks of gratitude and accomplishment.  Four of them gave me thumbs up and others mouthed words of appreciation and acknowledgment.

At the end before everyone left, we reiterated our goals. Nabeela and Michal listed the goals which the five of us have thoroughly discussed. Alan then gave a two-fold personal goal, first to recognize that there are stereotypes and tensions between the two communities and second to be able to come together to resolve them. I concluded the event with one more goal. I said, “My goal is for us to be a model for other groups and to set an example of how two different cultural groups can have dialogue that can lead to a better understanding of others and themselves. We can be an example for everywhere there is strife between Muslims and Jews and where people too quickly denounce the prospect of peace between the two communities. People can look at us in Madison, Wisconsin and say if they could do it, so can we. We can be that example.” We then thanked everyone for coming and people clapped and mingled for a bit.

Many people, Muslim and Jewish, came up afterwards and told me “this was really good” and “thank you for including me.” My friends all beamed at me and asked to be included in future events. I felt exhausted as I cleaned up and prepared to leave. As I left the student union with two friends, I couldn’t help but think what a success this program has been and that the people who came today would be changed. When talking about Judaism and Islam, Palestine and Israel, they would remember the people they met today, different with opinions, ideas and values, and this would help to remind them not to generalize others. Today I felt we made a difference, just by putting people together and letting them speak.

In the ensuing months, we lead other dialogue events between Muslim and Jewish students. In addition, we helped raise money to bring representatives from Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salaam, an Arab Jewish village in Israel, to Madison to meet with us and tell the greater community about Muslim Jewish dialogue around the world. We also ran events with a non-denominational Christian organization on campus, The Crossing. Today, the group has become a coalition between Jewish and Muslim groups, but still works to bring Jews and Muslims together to learn about each other and to live in harmony.


Appendix A

Jewish Students Brainstorming:

Questions and Stereotypes about Islam and Muslim students:

  1. What does the Qu’ran/Islam say about other people/non-Muslims, Jews in particular?

  2. Are texts other than the Qu’ran used in Islam?

  3. What are the different sects/denominations, how do they regard each other, how are they represented on campus, what are their views on Muslim countries?

  4. What’s the difference between Muslims and Arabs, what’s similar?

  5. How do Muslims feel about their representation in the media?

  6. Do Muslims support women’s rights?

  7. How do Muslims feel about Islamic/Jewish fundamentalism?

  8. Two-state solution or one contiguous Palestine?

  9. What are their views on the Geneva Accords?

  10. What are Muslim organizations in America?

  11. How do Muslims view America as a homeland?

  12. Is there a need for change in Islam? What is that change?

  13. Are there efforts to convert non-Muslims?

  14. Do they feel judged while wearing religious Islamic dress?

  15. Are there tensions between generations?

  16. How do they deal with assimilation

  17. What are the views on persecution after 9/11?

  18. What’s the relationship between Jihad and suicide bombers?

  19. What is Islam’s view in the afterlife?

  20. Do they think Jews rule the world by proxy?

  21. Stereotypes Muslims may have of Jews:

  22. All Jews support everything Israel does,

  23. Jews are a tight-knit community,

  24. Jews believe they are “chosen people”

  25. Jews are exclusive

  26. Jews are wealthy, east coast, and live in the expensive college dorms

  27. How do Jews reconcile the idea of a Jewish state with democracy?

Appendix B:

Muslims students Brainstorming:

On Judaism and Jewish students:

  1. Jews always portrayed as victims?

Media bias?

  1. Do U.S. and Israeli interests coincide?

  2. What is the Jews’ connection to Israel?

    1. Spiritual homeland

    2. What are the principles of Zionism?

    3. Israeli/Jewish not the same thing-What’s the difference?

  3. Various views on Sharon-

    1. some think he is moving towards peace while others don’t

    2. Do Jews’ have unquestioned support for Israeli leaders?

  4. Judaism:

    1.  cultural identity vs. religious identity

    2. Conversion to Judaism—Only be Jews by blood?

    3. Is Judaism a race?

    4. Is there a discrimination between nationalities/sects/observances of Jews           

  5. What is a Bar Mitzvah?

  6. Kippah? Why wear it? About remembering God? Cover hair while praying?

  7. Orthodox Judaism- Do women shave or cover their heads? Why?

  8. General dress code for women?

  9. When do you pray?

  10. A specific way of praying?

  11. Where does Talmud fit it?

    1. Commentary on Mishnah (oral torah)

  12. What is oral torah?

  13. How many people still speak Hebrew? How does it fit into the Jewish religion?

  14. What is the difference between the New verse the Old Testament

  15. What are the orthodox /reform/conservative denominations?

  16. Levels of observance?

  17. Schools of thought?

  18. Is Hassidim part of Orthodox Judaism?

  19. Media- dominated by Jews and US politics influenced by Jewish lobby

  20. How do Jews view Christian Zionism?


Copyright 2005, by the author.

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