The Big Question: Can Jews and Muslims Get Along?

The website recently decided to begin tacking the most difficult issues of the day in a series of articles called “The Big Question.” Rather than skirting the thorniest topics, Jewcy brings together respected intellectuals to parse through subject matter that may be too intimidating to broach in casual conversation.

With that in mind, Jewcy recently asked Stephen Schwartz, Executive Director of the Center for Islamic Pluralism in Washington, DC and Kerry Olitzky, Executive Director of The Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI), a centuries-old question to see if their extensive backgrounds in the fields of outreach and pluralism could shed any light on the subject: “Can Jews and Muslims get along?”

While ancient animosities are hard to quell, both Schwartzand Olitzky believe that a pivotal aspect of any relationship between two seemingly oppositional parties is a willingness to break down barriers that may separate the different sides.

Schwartz endured an odyssey during which he sought a religion that he felt was the right one for him. He finally settled on Islam because, as he said, “In Islam I found simplicity.” The weight of the rules of Judaism (such as abiding by the 613 mitzvot and the concept of being halakhically Jewish) Schwartz believed, acted as impediments to welcoming outsiders. Not only did he feel as if he himself were being excluded from possibly choosing Judaism as his own religion, but he felt as if the numerous rules and regulations only made life more difficult for believers themselves.

To deal with just the types of drawbacks of Judaism that Schwartz discussed, Rabbi Kerry Olitzky counters with JOI’s concept of “Big Tent Judaism,” a more welcoming and inclusive idea of the Jewish community. The ideals of Big Tent Judaism are grounded in a Torah passage:

“The stranger that lives with you shall be to you like the native, and you shall love him [or her] as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. I am the Lrd your Gd” (Leviticus 19:34).

Rabbi Olitzky’s goal of embracing rather than excluding the outsider lays the groundwork for better relationships between the Jewish people and all other people, Muslims included. The question “Will Jews and Muslims get along?” may not be fully answered in our lifetimes, but both Stephen Schwartz and Kerry Olitzky believe that, with the proper attitude of inclusiveness, Jews and Muslims can indeed break down enough barriers to facilitate better understanding in the future. How will we be able to gauge this progress, though? As Rabbi Olitzky states, “The real test will therefore be, can an inclusive Jewish community include Muslims as it does Christians?”

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