By Diane Joy Schmidt
Rabbi Arthur Flicker was the orchestral leader, the choreographer, of an unprecedented and unusually well-attended event that brought large numbers of the Jewish, Muslim and Christian faith communities together. Close to 250 people gathered at Congregation Albert for a fundraiser for the American Civil Liberties Union on April 2, titled “United to Support Immigrant Rights,” that was co-sponsored by the Islamic Center of New Mexico and Congregation Albert and with New Mexico ACLU Executive Director Peter Simonson. The unexpectedly large turnout included clergy from many faiths, making it a strong statement by a spiritually-based interfaith community that came together to show its support for the ACLU and its so far successful legal challenges to Trump’s Muslim ban executive order.
What is perhaps especially significant is that the event was really made possible by a few singular friendships, between Rabbi Flicker and Muslim faith leaders, that have been maintained and nurtured over the years. In a brief phone conversation, Flicker shed light on how the event came about, “When President Trump initially announced his Muslim ban, Sharon Levin of Gourmet to Go said to me, “We should do something! I’ll donate the food and we should have a fundraiser,” for the ACLU or the ADL. “I began talking to Rabbi Rosenfeld and I called my friends at the Islamic Center. Congregation Albert wanted to host it and Sharon very generously prepared Middle Eastern food.” While Flicker was quick to point to community-minded Levin as the active ingredient, the truth is that it was many years in the making.
“The Islamic Center sent people, and Jews and many other clergy came,” said Flicker, who called the event the “icing on the cake” as he reflected on many years of continued interactions, explaining, “We have been building relations for numerous years. Faisal Nabulsi, Abbas Akhil and Jane Wishner and I met when, after 9/11, then-Governor Richardson formed the First Amendment Task Force. We met to write down, and to break down, what some of the barriers were.
“Catholics, Jews, Christians, Muslims—we met for about a year, working on education programs to help break down Islamaphobia. They [Muslims] have barriers too.
“Last year students from B’nai Israel and the [Islamic] day school and the Mennonite congregation got to gather to bake cookies for Syrian refugees. People had to come out.
For some of the Islamic community it was a first step, in the steps we want to have with the Islamic Center. For first generation immigrants, it’s been a long trek for each of us.”
Flicker, who recently retired from Congregation B’nai Israel, is now serving as rabbi for the Jewish Care Program, to unaffiliated Jews in the community, continues as a chaplain for the Albuquerque Police Department and as a volunteer at the airport.
Abbas Akhil, recent past-president of the Islamic Center, pointed to the larger importance of the event in a community that has had its share of scars from bumping heads. “I think there are two facets to this. One is, it breaks up stereotypes. The prevailing stereotype is that Muslims and Jews cannot get along when, as humanity, we as human beings [can] build on our deep religious roots” and in doing so, “this is a stereotype that is prevalent but it can be broken.”
Also he pointed to the opportunity for the Muslim community to learn from the Jewish community. “The Muslim community is relatively young, compared to the Jewish community. The Jews came back and fight back. There are things that we can learn from this.
How you have to stand up and defend the constitution, and that standing together is much better than standing alone.”
Akhil came from India in 1981 to NMSU to earn his degree in electrical engineering, and, lending his expertise in construction, literally helped to build the Islamic Center here. He recalls the working group, “It was the idea of bringing faith groups together and having them discuss issues, like a state-wide emergency plan. After Governor Richardson left office, the idea remained, we formed a friendship. Rabbi Flicker was the most constant. With Rabbi Flicker, we’ve had a long-lasting relationship, 14-15 years we’ve know each other.”
A friendship between Muslim and Jew, maintained over the years, led to what in recent years many have thought is unthinkable, a community-wide event, Jews and Muslims getting together and getting along – triggered by an emergency threatening the community.
When I first met Akhil, at the fundraiser, I said to him in a brief exchange: “It’s unfortunate this ban had to happen to bring us together.” He replied, with a short response that made a big impression on me, “Maybe this is what we needed to wake us up.”
Where does it go from here? Attitudes are slow to change, and it may be our children, and our children’s children, who will carry the day, but there is clearly an evolution taking place, in some ways revolutionary, based in good will and also the recognition that in a quickly polarizing political space, we need each other.
Faisal Nabulsi, now president of the Islamic Center, came to the U.S. from Syria to study electrical engineering in New Jersey, and in working for AT&T and others has been relocated around the country, to California, Chicago and now back to Albuquerque for the second time. He hopes, as does Flicker and Akhil, that relationships between the Muslim and Jewish communities here will continue to grow.
Nabulsi said in a recent phone interview: “We have to have activities like this and we should really build on it. We are, no matter how you look at it, we are minorities in this country and we need to stick together. As I said at the dinner, we are minorities because we are not together. Minorities become the largest majority if we are united.”
I asked him then, “What do you see happening? Do you think the Jewish community and the Muslim community can help each other?”
First he gave a long sigh. Then, he said, “I think they can. We have to put certain issues aside. I can tell you, for my side, there are people in the Muslim community who were not very fond of the idea of collaborating with the Jewish community because of the Palestinian Israeli conflict. I’m sure you have the same elements on your end.
“Our position is, yes, there are conflicts out there …[but] we live here as American citizens. We need to take care of ourselves here at home. There are issues that are much more complicated than the issues we’re dealing here and we leave those issues to the experts on the international scene to address.
“If we are going to be marked down with every issue out there, there is nothing we can accomplish. We have much more urgent needs for our families here. […]
“The process takes time. Forming the relationships is the first step. We are forming a comfortable relationship. People need to know each other more. People need to interact with each other regularly. As they do that, they feel more comfortable opening up to issues that we think the parties can help each other with. You can’t jump to a united front.
“You can see that the masses have responded to it positively. It is important for us to know each other if we want to be united. It’s becoming very obvious to us that this is very serious. Individuals took time out of their schedule to be there so it’s a very powerful wave that we should really take advantage of and guide in the right channels so we can create something for ourselves.”
For five months, federal courts have fought back against Trump’s Muslim ban, arguing that it’s unconstitutional: ACLU brought suit on behalf of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society and others, federal judges agreed and blocked the ban and lifted it, Trump appealed and then revised the ban, federal judges blocked that, Trump again appealed, the U.S. Court of Appeals of the 4th and then the 9th Circuit upheld all the federal judges’ injunctions, Trump is now appealing to the Supreme Court. HIAS executive director Mark Hetfield stated, “We support refugees today not because they are Jewish but because we are Jewish.”
I asked Akhil and Nabulsi if they had met Suki Halevi, the Anti-Defamation League director here, and both spoke very appreciatively, saying she has attended many meetings and has kept them updated on related issues and also advised them on the process of communicating with the legislature regarding protections of constitutional rights.
I recalled when Halevi gave an Open Mind presentation at Congregation Albert, hosted by Janice Goodman who has kept the monthly luncheon event going now for 18 years. It was, coincidentally, the day of the attack in 2015 by the American Muslim couple in San Bernardino, California that killed 14 people, and Halevi scheduled to be there to explain why the ADL supports immigrants.
I vividly recall some of the strong push-back she received that day about Muslim immigrants. One older gentleman spoke forcefully, insisting that ‘they come here but they don’t want to become Americans, they want to keep to themselves, they want to keep their own laws,’ and another was saying, ‘they don’t want to change the way they dress, they don’t want learn English.”
I brought this up with Rabbi Rosenfeld in conversation, who pointed out that that was exactly the way his grandparents were when they came to Cleveland in the early 1900’s, that they sought out and stayed in the Jewish community, they spoke Yiddish, but then of course their children learned English. When I brought this up with Akhil, he recalled, wryly, a remark of an African-American Muslim friend of his, “America is the graveyard of languages.”
I asked Akhil and Nabulsi about the recent attack on the train in Portland over the young woman wearing the traditional head-covering, the hijab, and what people should understand when they see someone wearing this, since it now provokes so much anger. Akhil said maybe they think it is a symbol of oppression, that a man is making the woman wear this [which is not the case here today]. When I brought it up with Nabulsi, I added that perhaps it is because people react to someone who is different, the foreigner, the Other.
Nabulsi said that when his wife came to the U.S., they were living in one of the most bigoted counties in the country. People might look at her, he said, because she looked different, but there was no hostility. Now, it is different, because of the media, he said, that, ‘people think, oh, she must be a terrorist, she must be illegal, she must not have been born here.’ He said he has three daughters, two of whom choose to wear the hijab, because they are courageous and want to say they are proud of who they are as Muslims.
I said, when I see someone wearing the hijab, I think they are likely to be anti-Israel. I called Rabbi Min Kantrowitz to discuss this, who pointed out to me that, among other things, most Muslims around the world today are not even from the Middle East. She also spoke of reading an article that morning about African-American women who now wear the headdresses that slaves were forced to wear, to celebrate their heritage and identity.
Symbols do change over time. I remember that it was unheard of in a reform Jewish congregation fifty years ago for women to cover their heads. Now, modern liberated Jewish women wear yarmulkes in the synagogue.
For Kantrowitz, the event was about coming together as people supporting the ACLU protecting our rights. She also remarked on how meaningful it was to see another faith group praying in the synagogue.
For Nabulsi, it is about building on the event. He mentioned that there are plans to hold a field trip exchange between the Islamic day school and Nahalat Shalom, and will see how that goes.
More communication between Jews and Muslims can only lead to, well, better communication, and who knows what state-wide emergency may arise, or even a more open society, when we will need, or want, to be able to talk to one another.