Muslims and Jews in America: The Most American of All?

Muslim and Jewish students at a recent co-existence dinner at the University of Wisconsin. Photo: Muslim Jewish Volunteer Initiative

On college campuses where significant numbers of Muslims and Jews study, it may not be surprising to find that they have negative perceptions of one another. To characterize the overall dynamic between these two groups as tense is generally not accurate–there have been a number of service-based/interfaith dialogue initiatives between them–but the reality is that many students from both groups have been raised in environments that instil deep distrust for one another, sometimes bordering on hatred. And this is despite the fact that Muslims and Jews have shared more common experiences with each other living in a Christian-dominant US than with any other group. 

Yes, many observant Muslims and Jews avoid eating pork products, and thus eat both halal and kosher food products, but the similarities run much deeper than what’s seen on the surface. Both Muslims and Jews have been living in the US as small minorities for centuries. The first Muslim came to what is now the US in the mid-16th century, and the first Jews arrived about a century later.

African slaves accounted for the first waves of Muslims living in the present-day US and the vast majority of Muslims were descendents of those slaves until significant numbers of South Asian and Arab Muslims began arriving in the mid-1960s. The first major immigration of Jews to North America occurred during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, however the first Synagogue was built in 1763 in Newport, Rhode Island. Conversely, the first mosque in the US was built much later, constructed by Albanian Muslims in Biddeford, Maine, in 1915, since slave owners prohibited the use of Arabic and practice of Islam throughout the slave trade.

Today, there are approximately 3 million Muslims and 5 million Jews living in the US and both Muslims and Jews continue to face significant discrimination. Hannah Rosenthal, President Obama’s Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism, recently cited a study indicating that “Muslims and Jews are more likely than adherents of any other tradition in the US to conceal their religious identity.”

Muslims and Jews still aren’t considered true “Americans” by mainstream society, despite the fact they are the two most successful religious groups in the country in terms of education and wealth. According to Gallup, the two most highly educated religious groups are Jews and Muslims, among whom 61% and 40% respectively have a college degree, compared with 29% of Americans overall. These facts carry across gender lines as well, with Muslim females being the second-most educated religious group in the country, after Jewish females. Both groups also have household incomes above the American average.

Both Muslims and Jews in the US come from diverse geographic and cultural backgrounds. Another Gallup study concluded American Muslims to be the most diverse group, and a Pew Research Center project found that 63% of American Muslims are first-generation immigrants. While the majority of American Jews live in the New York metropolitan area, nationwide they represent a broad cross-section of identities: Ashkenazi and Sephardic (geo-cultural identifications), Orthodox and Reformist (religious distinctions), and a noticeable minority of Jews who identify with little of the cultural and religious background of their ancestors. And not all American Jews live in the Northeastern corridor. For example, there is a sizable group of Persian Jews who live in Southern California.

Diversity, higher education, and financial success are a few of the most valued aspects of being American, but for some, being Muslim or Jewish excludes one from becoming “genuinely American.” It’s a shame that the purveyors of misinformation and rhetoric largely generated by the Arab-Israeli conflict have divided these two natural allies, preventing them from more forcefully combating hate and division together. But there are signs of hope and progress: government programs and non-profit initiatives are beginning to engage on these issues. Americans of all stripes seem to be slowly recognizing the foundational values of our society, regardless of race or cultural background. Most importantly, passionate Muslims and Jews are building strong bonds to unite in solidarity, and thus demonstrating what it is be that much more American, together.

If you are Muslim or Jewish, do you relate to the discrimination that the other group has faced? Do you find yourself sharing more common experiences with each other than with other groups? If you are neither Muslim nor Jewish, how do you feel about the characterizations of shared experience between American Muslims and Jews?

10 thoughts on “Muslims and Jews in America: The Most American of All?

  1. As a white American male new to Islam, I hold an unique perspective of this situation. Having grown up with some culturally Jewish influences in my life (since part of my extended family is Jewish), and now as a practicing Muslim, in many ways I feel both Jewish and Muslim. However, since neither my name nor everyday dress distinguishes me as Jewish or Muslim, I’m an invisible witness to the discrimination and other challenges that many of my fellow friends and colleagues of Jewish and Muslim descent face in their daily lives. I’m the odd ball in the mixed American equation of identity, and while I face my own challenges, they pale in comparison to what many Jews and Muslims continue to face as minorities in the U.S. Interfaith efforts are incredibly important if we want to reduce hatred and bigotry, and I’d like to see more of these programs reach out to rural communities. The urban elites have been active with these efforts for decades, but what we really need is to build relationships and engage in less-diverse, rural areas with few cultural and educational resources.

  2. In most muslim countries, the Jews are considered filth. In fact all non muslims are considered such. Living in America as Jewish or Muslim is a cake walk!

  3. Colin, you are right on about the commonalities of Muslims and Jews. We at Progressive Jewish Alliance & Jewish Funds for Justice believe in building interfaith relationships and serving the common good. We have a great program called the Community Organizing Residency that places people of all faiths in organizations that are working to organize the community for social change. You can learn more about this and our other work at http://www.jewishjustice.org.

  4. I think so much of the discussion that this article can create depends on where the given person is reading it, and therefore, the context of their experiences. Being a Jew born and raised in NY, educated in DC, and now living and making a living in LA, I can honestly say that I have never faced one iota of anti-semitism.

    I would argue that the comparison in terms of treatment of Muslims and Jews is totally disproportionate, regardless of locale. The attacks of 9/11, whether justified or not, have only perpetuated many negative stereotypes of the Islamic faith and the Muslim people. Take the mosque in NYC as a prime example. In this country such a debate should never happen, but I cannot think of a community in the country that would oppose the building of a synagogue and at the same time allow the construction of a mosque. The reverse exists in far too many communities across this country.

    In the end, the fact that the two communities have not come together to form more of an understanding and common ground is unfortunate. Hopefully the examples you give of cross-cultural dialogue and relations is only the beginning of a more peaceful coexistence among each other and the entire American community for years to come.

    Thanks for posting and sparking discussion.

  5. This was a timely, much-needed piece to lay out just why animosity between Semitic cousins is senseless considering the similarity in the general thrusts of the two religions’ structures and worldviews as well as in the struggles that both have faced in overturning the mistrust with which the majority continues to view them despite their deep roots in the US.

    My only quibble is reducing the impact of the Arab-Israeli conflict to merely rhetorical fodder in the context of your analysis of why a relationship that in principle should be robust and amicable has in fact soured to the degree we see today. I think the issue of the Holy Land goes to the heart of the matter and can actually shed light on the current abnormal levels of Jewish-Muslim hostility as well as on some of the differing characteristics in the two communities’ integration (even though, as you mentioned, there exist many parallels).

    Although both groups have experienced many obstacles in assimilating, Judaism and Islam are radically different animals to the everyday Christian and even the post-Christian American mind. Judaism makes sense and has a place in the sacred history of Christianity. There is a fundamental link between the two’s holy books and for these and other reasons, it’s almost second nature to think of Judeo-Christian culture and almost inconceivable for your average Joe to imagine Islam as being embedded in this shared civilization, as Professor Richard Bulliet has argued for in his The Case for Islamo-Christian Civilization.

    In other words, although both Muslims and Jews are “the Other”, there is a vast difference in degree and–especially in Evangelical circles–this leads to an understanding that there can be a fellowship with Jews who are unformed, potential Christians which cannot be extended to Muslims who are heretics through and through.

    Here is where the Israel/Palestine issue comes into play. In many ways, the partnership between extreme Zionists and a particular breed of messianic Evangelicals has paralyzed the discourse on an equitable solution to the problem. The kinds of compromises and concessions needed to reach an agreement are difficult enough to achieve, but having world’s greatest power arbitrating and throwing its weight around in a partisan way makes it nearly impossible.

    Misinformation and explosive rhetoric definitely add fuel to the fire, but at the core this problem does have a religious component stemming from the fact that the piece of land in question has a spiritual significance for both parties that feeds into its geostrategic importance. Without the accommodation of both sides’ claims, you get perceived feelings of injustice and the buildup of pious rage. As long as you have such strong emotions hanging over the collective consciousness of both communities, it’s hard to imagine the normalization of relations that reflect the obvious affinities between two. It’s a shame because Jewish-Muslim collaboration in the States on numerous common issues can be much more potent than either acting alone.

  6. Muslims and Jews have more commonalities than I think most of us are willing to admit (Jews and Muslims both). While many Americans would probably say that Jews are classified as “white,” that was never the case, especially if we look to historical records at Ellis island that classify Jews as “Hebrew.” Growing up in Philadelphia my father was physically barred from entering certain clubs and shops, as well as from drinking from certain water fountains. The signs read, “No Black, No Jews.” Even into the 1990’s my father was afraid of being “discovered” in mostly white neighborhoods.

    Thus, there is some distinguishing factor that lingers. Several authors (notably Sander Gillman), argue that much of the stigma attributed to Jews and Muslims manifest themselves bodily, as if Jews and Muslims have physically been “marked.” Besides circumcision for males, this “marking” isn’t created by Jews or Muslims themselves, but rather stems from the “otherness” attributed to them. It is no secret that Jews and Muslims have often been portrayed via bodily manifestations. Jews were called “dirty” and subhuman during the Holocaust. Muslims are called “dirty” and “uncivilized” in Germany today. Why are these links so unsurprising?

    Muslims face discrimination on a day to day basis, especially since 9/11. Thus, 9/11 pointed a spotlight on the Muslim community making them a new target in the United States (and elsewhere). In fact, I have several Muslim friends who are often mistaken as ethnic Mexicans. Americans draw Muslims into the larger racist immigrant discourse that has plagued America since it’s inception, and which continues on, despite evidence that suggests the positive role that immigrants play in American society. It is easy to perpetuate the stereotype that Muslims and Jews share inherently conflicting ideologies. In fact, it may be beneficial to various governmental and nongovernmental organizations. The fact remains, however, that many Jewish and Muslim groups who are willing to put social constructs aside, recognize the immense similarities in culture and religious ideology. It is these Jews and Muslims who will prove that building bridges between the two groups will be more beneficial than erecting borders (as in Israel/Palestine).

  7. I have participated in interfaith projects which included Christian, Jewish and Muslim people – as well as those of other faiths (Buddhist, Hindu, Pagan, etc) and have learned first hand the commonalities that exist.
    However, differences also exist and it is up to the individual, and sometimes communities, to decide how they will respond to them.
    It is my perception that Jewish communities are more likely or willing to communicate and cooperate with Muslim communities than are Christian communities. This may be due to the “minority” status that both groups share.
    Personally, I always feel much more comfortable working with a Jew (or Muslim) who is clearly observant rather than someone I cannot discern their religious orientation. The reason, for me, is that I can hold a reasonable expectation that they will operate in an ethical, just and kind manor.
    My financial advisor is an observant Jew and we have spent more time over coffee talking about various issues in our respective faith traditions than we ever did talking about the stock market or my portfolio. It was fun when we’d come across issues that were common – his face would light up with surprise. I consider him a good friend.

  8. “Interfaith dialogue is a must today, and the first step in establishing it is forgetting the past, ignoring polemical arguments, and giving precedence to common points, which far outnumber polemical ones.”
    “Tolerance, a term which we sometimes use in place of the words respect, mercy, generosity, or forbearance, is the most essential element of moral systems; it is a very important source of spiritual discipline and a celestial virtue of perfected people.” (Fethullah Gulen)
    You can find out more about Gulen here

  9. I am a dark-haired reform Jew. I grew up in a very Jewish part of NY, and never felt like I experienced discrimination.

    But then I went to college. On my campus, there are not many Jews: it is hard to see who is Jewish (since nearly none are observant), and many Jews here are not dark-featured, and do not experience as much “outsider”-ness. Muslim students frequently approach me and think I am Lebanese, Iranian, Arab in some way. A few do not, or are not interested in being close. The Muslim friends I’ve made make me feel more at home than anyone else on the West Coast. I’m SO grateful to have people to bond over, that look like family, are smart and quick-witted, have similar values and customs, and speak with love and honesty.

    Thank you, for all the interfaith efforts. It will take many of us to love, and move beyond wounds.

  10. Arielle, I enjoyed reading your piece.

    The truth, as opposed to fantasy, is that…

    1- The numbers matter little: One side dominates…I want to say…ALL the vital institutions in the US…both houses of US Congress, the W. H., nearly ALL of mainstream media, the banks, the courts, the museums, the corporations, the unions, the school curriculae, the college campuses, the symphony halls, the not-for-profit organizations, nearly all the foundations that sponsor public television shows, the real estate industry, the oil, gold, and diamond industries, and many other industries…

    …while the other group is routinely portrayed grosso modo as an inferior people, a “violent” (lol) and backward people, deserving of bombings, coups d’etat, occupations, torture, etc…

    Our domestic and foreign policy as a nation, our religious convictions, our loyalties…they’re all compromised by the control of an incredibly powerful minority.