Jews and Muslims have been at each others' throats forever — or so it might seem from blogs and headlines. But a look at history would show otherwise.
"How Islam Saved the Jews," in fact, is the title of a discussion this weekend planned for the Jewish Museum of Florida-FIU, on Miami Beach. The free forum is the first of a three-part series on Jewish-Muslim relations planned by Florida International University.
"This is so crucial right now," says Nathan Katz, an organizer of the series and academic director of the museum. "If we can show people that their God wants them to get along with the other side, it will be a big step."
Amanullah De Sondy, one of the participants in the FIU series, agrees.
"There is a lot of mistrust and fear between Jews and Muslims for a lot of religious, cultural and geopolitical reasons," says De Sondy, an assistant professor of Islamic studies at the University of Miami. "But Jews and Muslims have more in common than Jews and Christians."
The first event, starting at 2 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 10, will host a talk by David Wasserstein, a professor of history and Jewish studies of Vanderbilt University. Wasserstein will discuss how Muslim rule, including the Ottoman Empire, placed most Jews in a single state, permitting a flourishing of faith and culture.
Responding will be a panel of South Florida leaders and scholars, including FIU's Katz and Iqbal Akhtar, plus De Sondy of UM and Mohammad Shakir of the Coalition of South Florida Muslim Organizations (COSMOS).
Second in the series will take an equally surprising title: "The Shoah (Holocaust) Through Muslim Eyes." Giving the keynote talk will be Mehnaz Mona Afridi, director of the Holocaust, Genocide, and Interfaith Education Center at Manhattan College.
Afridi will touch on what she has called the "struggle with anti-Semitism within the Muslim community," including lack of education about the Holocaust. Her topic is also the title of her soon-to-be published book.
Third of the three-part series, "Sufi Music and Poetry," will bring back New York-based actor Peter Rogen and Turkish musician Alan Amir Vahab to perform works by Rumi and Hafiz. Sufism is a mystical form of Islam that emphasizes interfaith harmony and a direct connection with God.
The FIU series has some impressive support. Besides COSMOS, which includes mosques and other Muslim organizations, supporters include the Miami Coalition of Christians and Jews. Also endorsing the series is the Jewish Community Relations Council, a branch of the Greater Miami Jewish Federation.
Such endorsement was made possible largely because of Katz himself. Over the last decade and a half, he has built religious studies at FIU through hires like Erik Larson, who currently serves as the department's chair. And through the spiritual studies program, which he directs, Katz has also brought such diverse speakers to Miami as the Dalai Lama, Marianne Williamson, Christopher Hitchens, Dominic Crossan, W.D. Mohammed, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz and Sri Sri Ravi Shankar.
Modern eyes can be blinded by the conflict between Jews and Arabs in the Middle East, a conflict heightened by the creation of Israel in 1948. Katz says that Baghdad, Iraq, was once the greatest center of Jewish learning in the world. Jewish communities also flourished in Egypt, Morocco and Istanbul, he says.
"We have a shared history that is more friendly than not," Katz says. "I hope some people will come away [from the series] with more appreciation and understanding, and even affection, for people on the other side of the aisle."
Like other planners, Tudor Parfitt of FIU, who will moderate the panel talk on Sunday, voices a hope that friendships will grow out of the three-part series. "We're all interested in promoting discussion and interfaith harmony. We hope the communities will get to know each other."
They have an advantage in South Florida: Leaders on both sides have increased contacts for more than a decade.
JAM & All was formed by Jews and Muslims in 2001 to counter rising tensions after the terrorist attacks of 9-11 that year. Since then, it has expanded to include Christians, Buddhists and those of other faiths.
Shakir says COSMOS, the Muslim organization, was organized in 2010 with a similar impetus: to combat tensions over the planned so-called Ground Zero Mosque in New York.
Even before then, he was sent to Israel in 2002 by the Miami chapter of the American Jewish Committee to gather facts about the Second Intifada, a Palestinian uprising against Israeli rule on the West Bank. On returning, he wrote about his impressions for the Miami Herald.
"If we come out of the time box of the establishment of Israel, we can see that Jews and Muslims have been interacting for almost 1,500 years," Shakir says. "This may not solve the problem in the Middle East, but it shows that our communities are open and willing to work together.
"We can respect disagreements, find ways to heal and move forward."
Jews and Muslims have also met on the UM campus, discussing matters like the hijab, the headscarf worn by most Muslim women. And in 2012, De Sondy says, students watched a movie called Arranged, on marriage in an Orthodox Jewish family.
The activities have helped students of different beliefs get past stereotypes and see one another as people, De Sondy says.
"Jews, Muslims and Christians can use scripture to build bridges or burn bridges," he says. "But when you get up close and personal, you see how connected we are."
The Jewish-Muslim initiative is part of an expansion of Jewish studies at FIU, starting with the merger of the Jewish Museum with the university last year.
FIU has launched a project to examine Jewish communities around the world, working with advanced students. Parfitt, former professor of Jewish studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies at London University, cites work with Jewish groups in Israel and Argentina. He and a Ph.D. from Colombia plan to research Jewish communities in Burma and India.
Parfitt has also written a new book about Jewish museums around the world, due out in December.
"The idea is to be a great hub of Jewish intellectual activity," Parfitt says.
If you go
All the events will be at the Jewish Museum of Florida-FIU, 301 Washington Ave., Miami Beach.
First Event: "How Islam Saved the Jews"
When: 2 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 10
Featuring: Lecture by David Wasserstein, professor of history, classics and Jewish studies, Vanderbilt University, with panel of local experts
Second Event: "The Shoah Through Muslim Eyes"
When: 7 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 21
Featuring: Mehnaz Mona Afridi, director of the Holocaust, Genocide, and Interfaith Education Center at Manhattan College
Third Event: "Sufi Music and Poetry"
When: 6 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 3
Featuring: Actor Peter Rogen and singer-musician Alan Amir Vahab performing Rumi and Hafiz
Cost: Free, but RSVP requested via firstname.lastname@example.org or calling 786-972-3175.
James D. Davis