Jews And Muslims In U.s. Find A Shared Cause In Refugees' Plight Two Groups That Rarely Agree On U.s. Foreign Policy Are Finding Common Ground In Aiding Kosovars.

Posted: April 24, 1999

The war in Kosovo may have severed the contentious relationship linking many Serbs and Albanians. But in Philadelphia and elsewhere in the nation, it is helping bridge the equally quarrelsome divide between Jews and Muslims, say leaders from both communities.

"We are on the same side on this one," said Bert Siegel, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council in Philadelphia.

Two weeks ago, Siegel and leaders from various mosques in the region formed an interfaith committee to raise funds for the mostly Muslim Albanian refugees displaced by the fighting. Similar efforts, which include congressional lobbying in support of NATO air strikes and raising public awareness through rallies, have begun in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago and Baltimore.

So far, Muslim organizations have donated $3 million, and Jewish groups have taken in more than $2.5 million, said leaders of both faiths.

"Anything like this, when you work along with people, you come to respect them," said Muhammad Abdur-Razzaq Miller, the imam of the Shaikh M. R. Bawa Muhaiyaddeen mosque in Overbrook, which is part of the interfaith committee.

Unlike previous U.S. military maneuvers - such as the Persian Gulf war, the continuing air strikes on Iraq, or the bombing of alleged Islamic radical targets in Sudan and Afghanistan - the war in Yugoslavia has triggered similar emotions in Jewish and Muslim communities.

"The horrors are so outrageous that everyone is pulling together and all sorts of other issues are being put aside to deal with this," said Steve Schwager, a spokesman for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee in New York.

Leaders from both communities believe that this may be one of the rare American military actions in which Jews and Muslims overwhelmingly support the same U.S. foreign policy.

For Jews, the expulsions of the Kosovar refugees, which started around the holy time of Passover, have resurrected memories of the Holocaust and the biblical exodus of Jews from Egypt. For Muslims, the plight of their Islamic brethren is a sober reminder of Serbian atrocities against Muslims in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

No Jewish or Muslim leader is suggesting that agreement on the Kosovo crisis will spawn a solution to their complex differences and views, particularly those on the Middle East peace process. In fact, some Muslims argue that there could be more cooperation on Kosovo between Jews and Muslims if it were not for the sharp tensions now existing in the Middle East.

"There is a problem of trust between the two communities, and that has affected tremendously the effort now," said Khaled Saffuri, executive director of the Islamic Institute, a research organization in Washington. Still, Saffuri and others say that the unlocking of similar memories of persecution could lead to a better understanding between their communities.

"I think this crisis will bring Jews, Muslims and Arabs together because it forces them to look at their past," said Marwan Kreidie, president of the Philadelphia Arab-American Association.

"They both perceive themselves as victims, but not the other person," he added. "If both sides realize that they are both the victims and victimizers, it might bring about better understanding between them."

"A shared experience of any kind can bring disparate people together, particularly in our case," said Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, assistant director of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations in Philadelphia.

"We know what it's like to have relatives who all of a sudden we stop hearing from."

In Los Angeles, the Muslim Public Affairs Council, which educates people about Islam, is working with synagogues to raise funds and awareness. In Chicago, the Kosova Task Force, a coalition of 16 Islamic groups trying to raise awareness about the war, is discussing a closer relationship with Jewish groups, said spokesman Kamran Memon.

In Philadelphia, Rabbi Elwell has noticed Muslims at rallies held by her organization, she said. Siegel said he was in constant contact with Muslim leaders such as Miller who are raising money through their network of mosques.

"The reason we wanted to do it this way was the symbolism, that faith shouldn't be something that divides people, that faith allows us to do good things," Siegel said.

Some Muslim leaders hope that Jewish aid to Kosovo will change Israeli attitudes about Palestinian refugees.

"If [Kosovo] leads to a greater understanding of the plight of the Palestinian refugees, it would be a good thing," said Ibrahim Cooper, a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Washington-based advocacy group.

This is not the first time that Jews and Muslims in the United States have come together to support Muslims traumatized by war. During the Bosnian conflict, from 1992 to 1995, millions of dollars were raised.

Back then, many in the Islamic community in this country were outraged at what they considered to be a slow reaction by Western powers to help Bosnian Muslims. An estimated 200,000 people were killed before NATO air strikes in 1995 ushered in a negotiated end to the conflict.

This time, cynicism has given way to conflicted surprise among Muslims, many of whom feel that U.S. foreign policy, with attacks on Iraq, Sudan and Afghanistan, is usually hostile toward Muslims.

"There is this confusion," Memon said. "We know while Clinton is acting for humanitarian reasons in Kosovo, he is maintaining sanctions on Iraq. On one hand he's working to save innocent people, and on the other hand he's allowing innocent people to die."

Kosovo, leaders of both faiths say, emphasizes the necessity for such discussions in their communities.

"Muslims and Jews have special feelings about this kind of crisis because they are the two religious minorities both here and in Europe that has suffered some stereotyping and scapegoating that has led to the idea of ethnic cleansing in the Balkans," said Salam al-Marayati, director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council in Los Angeles.

"[Kosovo] underscores the need for our relationship."

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