In a classroom at Jerusalem's Shalom Hartman Institute, a group of mature students are learning about Tisha B'Av — the Jewish calendar's saddest day, when the destruction of the two Temples and a whole series of subsequent tragedies are commemorated.
Their teacher, Yehuda Kurtzer, reflects on how, after the loss of the Temples, a "rabbinical elite" in ancient times resorted to the use of synagogues to give Judaism the focal points it needed to survive. And he goes on to note that nowadays, "we don't have a dominant elite shaping the Jewish narrative."
Earnest discussion ensues. Somebody mentions the Holocaust and its place in that unfolding Jewish narrative. "We don't yet know the post-Holocaust nature of the Jews," Kurtzer ventures, suggesting that there are those — like Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — who see the legacy of the Holocaust as an imperative to be vigilant, because Jews will never be completely safe and secure. Others would highlight the need "never to be perpetrators" of evil, never to misuse our own power, he goes on. And still others, including many American Jews, stress the obligation not to be bystanders when evil is being perpetrated. Somebody asks which approach is winning. Kurtzer says it's too early to say.
The lesson is sophisticated, though not without the occasional light-hearted exchange, as you would expect of a class at Hartman, a pluralistic research and education institute with a reputation for open-mindedness within the Jewish tradition. So far, so unremarkable.
What is exceptional, however, is that the 20 or so students in Kurtzer's class today are not Jews. Neither are they Christians, for whom Hartman has run programs for many years. They are, rather, Muslims. American Muslim leaders, to be precise. Most of them are in their 30s and 40s.One is of Lebanese origin, another Algerian, a third Iraqi. Almost all are in Western dress. Two of the women wear hijabs. And they are here, in Jerusalem, because they want to learn about Judaism, Zionism and Israel.
This is not an interfaith effort. It is not an exercise in dialogue between two religions whose relationship overflows with violence, tension and bitterness. It is an educational program, whose participants have come to Israel to understand why Jews believe what they believe, how Jews see their history, why Jews are so attached to this contested strip of land — and thus to better engage with American Jews when they return to the United States. It's an effort by goodhearted people, a complicated, fraught, even dangerous effort, to throw some light into the dark abyss of ignorance and hatred that separates almost all Jews and Muslims worldwide.
These 20 or so students are the third "cohort" — the third group — in Hartman's Muslim Leadership Initiative (MLI). The cohorts go through a program that lasts a year — with two weeks at Hartman in Israel at the start, a series of lectures in the US, and two more weeks at Hartman at the end. This Sunday class is part of Cohort 3's opening two weeks in Israel. And as with their predecessors, the calm, scholarly atmosphere in the classroom belies the frenzy that their very presence in Israel is provoking.
On the previous Friday, the group went to pray at al-Aqsa mosque, which ought to have been a joyful highlight of their visit. Instead, it was a stressful experience, because the fact of their presence here in Israel was being hyped on some pro-BDS social media outlets as nothing short of treason. Participants in the previous two programs have been castigated by anti-Israel activists as "Muslim Zionists," traitors to the wider Muslim and specific Palestinian cause. They have been accused of being duped into "faithwashing... using religion to whitewash Israeli crimes and dilute the occupation," of undermining the "Palestine solidarity movement," of being engaged in "an effort to blunt support for Palestinian rights among North American Muslim communities." Their decision to go to Israel via "a Zionist, anti-BDS institution is incredibly shameful and dangerous," wrote a columnist in the Islamic Monthly last year. This program "undercuts the plight of Palestinians and normalizes Zionism – a racist ideology and institution that is antithetical to our own Islamic traditions of social justice – within our communities."
This time, a petition was being circulated against the group, and there were concerns that they might be physically confronted at prayers.
For that reason, Imam Abdullah Antepli, the founding director of Duke University's Center for Muslim Life, the university's first Muslim chaplain, and the prime mover behind the MLI program, did not go to Al-Aqsa with the rest of the group that day. He is the only member of the group whose name and face were widely known and publicized. Instead, together with author Yossi Klein Halevi, the MLI co-director, he sat with me for three hours to explain why he so energetically, insistently, indeed desperately pushed to establish the program, through which he ultimately aims to bring to Israel a "critical mass" of the most promising young American Muslim leaders — young leaders committed to better understanding American Jews, Zionism and Israel, and seeking to build better relations with North American Jewry.
It's not for Israel's sake. It's not for the good of the Jews, he emphasizes. It's for the sake of Islam, and most especially for American Muslims.
Antepli stands for what he says is authentic Islam. For an Islam of tolerance and equality. For an Islam whose American adherents seek constructive integration into mainstream American society. And if this decent Islam is to be accepted in an America scarred by Islamic extremism, he believes, one of the central paths to that acceptance runs via the US Jewish community, which itself so successfully integrated into America. Put simply, if American Jews come to understand, empathize with, and most importantly learn to trust American Muslims, Antepli is certain, then the rest of America, the Christian mainstream, will gradually follow suit.
And how better, as Muslims, to try to demonstrate that you can be trusted by American Jews than to study Judaism at one of the Jewish world's most highly regarded liberal educational institutions — not in America, but teeming, divisive, complicated Israel?
The educating of an imam
The Shalom Hartman Institute's Muslim Leadership Initiative is a case of an irresistible force meeting a temporarily inanimate object. The irresistible force is Imam Antepli, who was born in Turkey, was raised an unremarkable anti-Semite, was self-motivated to seek out and promote a better Islam, and became only the second full-time Muslim chaplain on a US university campus. The temporarily inanimate object, now somewhat reanimated by Antepli's zeal and zest, is Yossi Klein Halevi, a Brooklyn-born former teenage Jewish Defense League activist turned Israeli journalist who, when their paths first crossed post-9/11 and in the midst of the Second Intifada in 2003, was the deeply disillusioned author of a book on the possibilities of interfaith relationships between Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
Says Antepli: "Everything starts with our friendship."
Recalls Halevi: "He said, What are you doing for Muslim-Jewish relations? I said, Nothing."
Over numerous cups of tea, with one break for prayer, and several phone calls to the group as it safely navigated prayers at al-Aqsa, Antepli poured out his life story — the road he traveled from Turkey, to southeast Asia, to his beloved US, and now regularly to Jerusalem — and explained the impetus behind this unique educational program. Immediately likable, overflowing with conviction and the palpable desire to do good, Antepli spoke fast, not-quite-perfect English, and seemed entirely un-offendable, even when I asked him a slew of questions reflecting the worst Jewish assumptions about Islam. Halevi listened intently and interjected occasionally, but, with admirable and uncharacteristic restraint, largely left the narrative to his Muslim friend.
Antepli, 42, was born in Kahramanmaras, a city in southeast Turkey not far from the Syrian border, the second of five children "in a very national, chauvinist, secular home which was very, very anti-Semitic." It didn't help that the first images he recalls seeing on television were of Israeli soldiers beating Palestinians in the First Intifada and that among the first books he read was a child's version of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Asked whether he grew up thinking Jews were terrible people, he answers: "That's an understatement. I really believed for a number of years that Jews as people and Judaism as a religion were irredeemably evil."
He left home in his teens to attend a regional high school and, at a time when he was "searching for some sort of answers about life," one of his science teachers introduced Antepli to the prayers and the rituals of Islam. "And religion clicked, intellectually. I met really educated, enlightened Muslims who were engineers, scientists and yet very religious people." By the end of high school, he felt that he "really wanted to learn this religion for myself. I wanted to own it." So at 18, he enrolled at an imam training school in Turkey's Black Sea region.
"I never thought this was going to turn into a profession," he says, "but the only way I could go deep, that I could deeply study the Quran, history and theology, was at a Madrasa, at imam training school." And when he got there, he says, one of the biggest shocks was to realize "how much anti-Semitism I had swallowed" and that anti-Semitism was not authentic Islam. "Learning Islam from the foundational texts, learning about the prophet and his relationship with the Jewish community in his time, it was a major wake-up call."
The conventional Jewish assumption, interjects Halevi at this point, is that the more religious you are, the more deeply devoted to Muslim sources, the more you are going to loathe the Jews. But no, counters Antepli. His studies at the Madrasa "challenged my hate, and the racism in me... I tried to get that poison out of my system."
It wasn't that the Madrasa was philo-Semitic. There was no effort to depict Jews in a positive light, or to encourage tolerance of Judaism. Rather, says Antepli, "they were teaching pure Islam, medieval Islam, an apolitical Islam. They were not in any way friendly to Jews. They were not in any way trying to promote a more peaceful side."
So why did his attitude change? "I went to that Madrasa with a lot of hate and anger and frustration in me, but I couldn't reconcile it anymore. I learned that the prophet married two Jewish women" — out of 13. "One converted to Islam, the other didn't. That means the prophet had Jewish in-laws! The prophet had Jewish neighbors, and had a friendly relationship with them."
Studying Islamic history, he internalized that Jews and Muslims "had shared so much in common. There was such a great contrast there, from how I felt about Jews as people." But it was a slow process, he says. It's become a point of humor between Antepli and Halevi for the imam to say that he's "a recovering anti-Semite," but he insists there was long a great deal of truth in it.
After the Madrasa, Antepli went to Southeast Asia for eight years — five in Burma and three in Malaysia — working for a Muslim humanitarian relief organization setting up small orphanages and schools there and in the rural areas of Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.
Somewhere along that journey the teenage hatred for Jews had transformed into an anger at "the self-destructive, toxic poison" of Muslim anti-Semitism — "how it is disempowering us. The paranoid obsession that all the problems (in the Muslim world) are because of these people, and what they did, and how they are behind anything and everything — it's killing and freezing our willpower and also pumping hate. It's so destructive." The desire to challenge that, he says, is "a self-interest: to save us from ourselves in this regard."
But the real epiphany, and the real opportunity, Antepli says, came when he moved to the United States, at age 30, in 2003, to study Islamic chaplaincy and earn a masters degree in Islamic Studies at the Hartford Seminary in Connecticut.
He had been to the States before, in 1998, when he spent a semester at the University of Pittsburgh, and adored the country: "I fell in love with its silly culture," he laughs disarmingly. "It was pre-9/11. Muslims were, for the most part, having a rewarding time in North America. It's still to some extent the best country where you can practice Islam. Every Sunday I was going to a prison to talk to Muslim inmates. They said they needed somebody who could come and teach some religious knowledge to them. They were paying me! I said, 'What? I go to a prison and teach Islam, and people pay me?' In Turkey they would be arresting you. You can't do that kind of stuff."
Back in the US as a Hartford graduate student five years later, he quickly got a part-time job as a Muslim chaplain at the prestigious liberal arts Wesleyan University nearby. And the first thing he did when he got to Wesleyan was to organize a trip for 17 Jewish and Muslim students to Turkey and Israel.
Wesleyan was what Antepli calls "a very politically active campus" — by which he means that pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian groups were at each other's throats. Each side was inviting controversial speakers. Sometimes the police had to be called in. "One group is inviting self-hating Jews, and the other is returning the favor. It was wonderful," he says dryly.
The Jews must have been delighted by the arrival of a Muslim chaplain?
Antepli laughs. "Three days after I arrived, a group of pro-Israeli Jews visited my office. These students felt that even without a Muslim chaplain, these Muslims and Arabs on campus were already a pain. They felt it would get worse, now there was staff support. So they basically said to me, If you are going to run a pro-Palestinian campaign here, we see you packing in three months.
"I thought to myself, 'Hallelujah, Baruch Hashem!' This is exactly what I'm looking for. I don't remember my exact words to them, but I said I'm so happy to meet with you. I've been looking for you guys. I said I am an ardent student of Judaism. Can you teach me more about your world? How can I be of help? And how can you be of help to me? I told them about my journey, the books that I read as a teenager, and the kind of anti-Semitism I'd embraced. How many Israeli flags I'd burnt at demonstrations growing up in Turkey. Six or seven months later, they were all on the trip with me to Turkey and Israel."
How did the Muslims on campus feel about him? "This was post-9/11, and their concern was over the place of Muslims in post-9/11 America. They were divided over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There was a group of activist Muslim students — all they wanted to do was pro-Palestinian activism. But there was the other half who were indifferent, apathetic to this kind of activism."
There was a Jewish chaplain on campus, too, Rabbi David Leipziger — "initially skeptical and cynical" about Antepli, but ultimately "my very, very good friend. I said to him, 'How are we are going to heal our community? Let's take them one week to Turkey and one week to Israel-Palestine.'" As Halevi would be years later, Leipziger was won over. The rabbi agreed to lead the trip with the imam.
Itself worried about the friction on campus, Wesleyan also bought into the idea and covered some of the costs; the Muslim community put in some money toward the Istanbul leg; and the students paid part of the way.
For the Muslims — American Muslims living in a post-9/11 America where Islam often spelled bin Laden and terrorism — Turkey was a revelation, says Antepli. "These were students who had grown up in the US and seen very little of the rich history of Islam. The moment we walked into the Blue Mosque, this amazing mosque, one kid picked up the phone, calling, 'Mom you won't believe it, no church can beat it, no synagogue can beat it.' That was internalized pain speaking, that every church and synagogue is beautiful, but my mosque was just a basement room." This magnificent mosque "gave them a little bit of pride in who they are, their history and religion."
Unlike the young Antepli, these students were not hate-filled anti-Semites, but they saw so many parts of the Muslim world — Pakistan, Afghanistan, parts of the Middle East — suffering with all sorts of social, economic cultural problems, with very little to be proud of. In Turkey, they glimpsed elements of "a better version of a Muslim society."
As for the Jewish students, says Antepli, "they saw that Muslims are not people who are wired to hate. An immediate post 9/11 propaganda was created that Islam is evil and Muslims are terrorists. This is absolutely not true. The Turkey trip really challenged what they'd heard about Islam. Even before 9/11," he says carefully, "they'd grown up receiving somewhat biased information about Islam and Muslims."
So the Turkey week, says the imam, "was a home run on both fronts."
And the Israel-Palestine leg? Not so successful. "We didn't plan it well. The entire group, more or less, came out really pessimistic. We met the settlers, we organized debates with one Palestinian and one Jew because we wanted to understand both narratives. It turned out a shouting match. We saw how the situation is so complicated and how much hate is out there. For the first time I met a Jew showing me a Bible and saying, 'This is my deed, I don't care what anybody says, everybody has to get out. This is my land and everybody has to get the F out of here.' An American Jew, grew up in Queens. The kind of nightmares that I have about the Taliban, ISIS, or people like that? It was the Jewish version of that."
When the group left Jerusalem to head back to the US, Antepli says, "I threw up. I just vomited."
But he didn't change ideological course. "If anything, it made me more determined to make a difference. I already feel this calling from God: I am going to spend a significant part of my energy in improving Jewish-Muslim relations. Globally, but especially in the United States."
Antepli pauses. "I hope it's not coming across as arrogant," he says. "I don't have enough moral legitimacy to speak about the Jewish community. I will let Yossi assess his own community. But my mainstream community, the way we understand this problem, the way we try to solve it, the way we advocate for a solution, it hasn't yielded many good results. And there is surely room for improvement, for trying some new stuff, and being creative.
"So since then, since that Israel trip, I was shopping: Who will be my Jewish version? What institution will tell me their story? Is it possible for pro-Palestinian Muslims and Zionist Jews to talk, and try to understand each other's language? Because to me, what often defines Jewish-Muslim relations is lack of knowledge and lack of trust, mainly because of the toxic impact of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which polarizes us and creates a zero-sum game."
Enter Yossi Klein Halevi.
The reluctant partner
Graduate student Antepli had been assigned "At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden," a book in which Halevi details his search for common ground with Muslims and Christians in the holy land, by a lecturer at Hartford named Yehezkel Landau.
Antepli says he read it as "the story of a former follower of Meir Kahane who'd said maybe there is a different, alternative way, and who was trying to see the presence of God in the book's cross-religious, cross-faith conversations. That was exactly what I was into. I felt that I wanted to be able to see the world through his eyes, through the prism of the values that his religion teaches him." In short, "I said I have to meet with this guy."
Planning the Wesleyan students' Israel trip, therefore, he contacted Halevi, and asked him to lecture to them. To Antepli, "It was love at first sight, in the spiritual and intellectual realm, I felt he was really the person that I was looking for."
The feeling was not mutual. "Yossi wasn't interested," Antepli remembers, laughing happily.
Almost silent for the best part of the past hour, Halevi takes up the story. "'At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden' was published on September 11, 2001 — that was literally the publication date," he remembers, still staggered by the timing. "And for me, that was in some way symbolic of the fate of that journey: I'd tried. I spent a year and a half going into the faiths of my neighbors. I went into mosques, monasteries. I wanted to learn their way to God. I wanted to learn how Muslims and Christians experienced the sacred. And then the Second Intifada comes, and then 9/11, and I basically disowned that book for a while."
Not, therefore, the best time for him to be speaking to this wide-eyed, harmony-seeking Muslim spiritual leader and his improbable group of American Muslim and Jewish students. "It's 2003, and I'm really fed up about the Palestinian national movement, and feeling betrayed the way most Israelis felt. We tried to make peace in 2000, and got back exploding buses.
"Abdullah invites me to speak to his students, expecting the author of this interfaith journey to appear. And instead this angry and disillusioned Israeli shows up." Halevi said he could see that Antepli was "the sweetest guy. But I'm not there. And the talk that I gave to his students was really not the talk that he wanted."
Except that Antepli wouldn't let go of that "Garden of Eden" Halevi. He asked why Halevi had given up on the hope of Muslim-Jewish relations, and Halevi explained that he had no hope anymore, that there were no relations anymore. "Whatever fantasy I had in this journey, was exactly that — a fantasy," he felt.
He was getting emails at the time from well-meaning, mainstream Protestants, he recalls, saying, We've read your book and we were so moved. And I would get angry. I would say, Why? Why were you moved by this book? Do you think that because I danced with a few Sufis, that we're going to have peace in the Middle East?! Look at reality! It's not happening! It was such a strange experience for me, to be alienating and pushing away readers."
Halevi admits he was moved by "this Muslim guy who'd read the book and wanted a connection with me. I was very touched by that, but I didn't think anything was going to come of it. He kept pushing. He said, I'm not going to let you off the hook, we're going to do something together. I said, OK, great. But I didn't believe it for a moment."
Enter the Hartman Institute.
A full decade went by, and Halevi was by now a senior fellow at Jerusalem's Hartman Institute, completing his landmark 2013 book, "Like Dreamers" (which tells the history of modern Israel through the lives of members of the Paratroopers Brigade that fought in Jerusalem in 1967).
For 30 years, Hartman has run an annual theology conference — bringing together some of the best international minds from the three main monotheistic faiths. There is no shortage of top-notch Jewish and Muslim scholars, but, given the grim rupture of most every Jewish-Muslim relationship, the institute unsurprisingly finds it ever more difficult to cajole prominent, credible Muslims into attending. One day, one of the organizers happened to ask Halevi if he knew of any Muslims they might invite, since they had almost nobody coming from the Muslim community and the conference was only two weeks away.
Halevi's first response was, of course not. Even if he could think of someone, nobody would accept so late an invitation, because they'd know they'd only been invited after everybody else had said no or canceled. "And then I said, 'Wait a minute. I know this great guy. He'd come!'" (He and Antepli laugh uproariously.)
Halevi gave the organizers Antepli's email. And the rest, once you've spent any time with Antepli, is almost inevitable.
Two weeks later, the imam, who had since moved from Wesleyan to a more prominent position as Muslim chaplain at Duke University, was at the Hartman Institute.
Antepli had not been idle in the interim. True to what he felt was his calling, he had been trying to counter the lack of education in Islam about Judaism, and vice versa, and trying to find partners to help overcome the lack of trust. But it had been largely an exercise in frustration.
He'd been in touch with several major US Jewish organizations, "but quite honestly all they were looking for was propaganda. I was invited to come to Israel many times. People heard that I had been to Israel as an imam, and I received five-star invitations." But these organizations didn't understand that his was a larger quest and effort.
He'd been invited to speak at various synagogues, but would sometimes look at their speaker series, and see they had hosted "some horrible people" who demonized Islam.
Then there were some Jewish institutions in the United States that were, he says, "so defensive" about Israel "that you can't even have a conversation."
And then there were the doubtless well-intentioned efforts at Jewish-Muslim conversation that were just a waste of time. "They'd invite me to be a speaker at an event, and in the flyer, it states clearly that we will not talk about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, we will only talk about the kosher kitchen, halal kitchen, humus and falafel. If anything, it's a disservice."
He'd tried to learn about the American Jewish community — "to understand the role of Zionism as an ideology, Israel as a state, and the Holocaust as a historical factor. How does this play in the life of the American Jewish community?"
In that cause, in 2010, with a group of 12 imams, he went to Auschwitz, to Dachau and several other concentration camps. "That was a major wake-up call for me," he says. "Only then was I able to understand the scale of destruction." And only then did he internalize that when, say, "Iran talks about wiping out the Jewish state, which had come across as plain silly, it doesn't sound silly to the Jews."
Before the trip, Antepli acknowledges, he'd seen Iran's president Ahmadinejad as "obviously a fool," and wondered why anybody would take him, or his regime's threats, seriously. Now he internalized why: because 70 years ago, six million Jews were wiped out. Israel's anguish over Iran, he says, "comes across to many Muslims in my community and all over the world, as a Goliath, this rich powerful community, crying like a little David. It didn't make sense. Until I went there, I thought it was crazy German soldiers in the heat of the war doing some bad stuff." When he saw this well-planned, incredibly efficiently run horror, he recognized, he says, that "if humanity is capable of doing something with this genocidal sophistication, who can blame these people when they get what seems to be paranoid? When someone says I am going to kill you, they take it seriously."
For Antepli, the Hartman invitation was a mini-miracle
But still, he could find no Jewish partners in his bid to educate and build trust. "And over the years my frustration and sense of urgency increased, my fear that something bad is going to happen. I saw the rising hatred within my own community, and rising anti-Muslim sentiment in the United States with significant Jewish involvement. The Jewish and the Muslim communities, in some circles, treating each other's very presence in America as a source of threat."
So for Antepli, the Hartman invitation was a mini-miracle. "When I came to the conference it was one of those hallelujah moments. I saw what this institution has done for Judaism in 35 years, reviving Judaism, connecting with modernity. Understanding Judaism beyond dos and do nots, beyond the strict limitations of Halacha. The interest in ethics and morals and values. And then I heard about the Christian Leadership Initiative (CLI) that Hartman runs. They did this intellectual and spiritual journey towards Christians. They taught the same syllabus as they were teaching to Jews! I talked to many CLI graduates. I asked them, 'Was it a propaganda? Did you feel that they were trying to recruit you? Did you ever feel you were being used by Hartman?' But it was so clear. This was a serious educational endeavor. Also, there was the fact that Yossi was here, and he could testify that these people are not interested in scoring cheap political points."
Right there and then, at the theology conference, he suggested there be a Muslim Leadership Initiative.
Halevi remembers objecting, not unreasonably: "We don't have any Muslims."
To which Antepli retorted: "If I bring you Muslims, will Hartman do this program?"
Halevi: "And I said, with all the authority I didn't have, 'Of course Hartman will do the program.'"
Antepli went to see Hartman's President Rabbi Donniel Hartman, who promised, as Halevi says he knew he would, Bring us Muslims and we will teach you!
Antepli: "I ran to Donniel's office. I said we can do a Muslim version of this program. This is a dream come true. This is exactly what I have been trying to do." The imam could see that the rabbi was skeptical. "He thought, Are you joking? No Muslims will come. Muslims will come to Israel, to a Zionist Israeli institution, to learn about Zionism, Judaism, and Israel?"
But Antepli assured Hartman that he could bring participants, impressive participants. "I said, 'I will bring them.' And he said, if you bring them, we will teach them."
Within weeks, Antepli had sent Hartman a Who's Who list of emerging Muslim-American leaders — chaplains, journalists, two of the great emerging writers of the community, the founder and editor of the first American Muslim women's magazine, and more.
Some of these were people with whom Antepli had long been friendly. "I told them, 'I've found the kind of Jews that we are looking for. You have to believe in me. It will be messy, it will be very controversial, but I think this might work. This might create a different paradigm. This might help us to educate ourselves and build a respectful relationship to the American Jewish community without appearing as sellouts to our own, without signing on to any policies of the State of Israel, without undermining our emotional, ethical, moral commitment to Palestinian suffering.'
"We tell people we accept the right of Israel to exist, but it's not enough, just saying that," he remembers saying to potential participants. "We have to go there, we have to earn this trust from the Jewish community, we have to deserve their trust and we have to take not only a leap of faith but action. We have to come to Israel."
At the Hartman Institute, Antepli's list of potential Muslim Leadership Initiative participants was received with some wonderment. "We realized that what we had here was really the gold standard," says Halevi, "and that we had better start putting together a program."
In June 2013, the first 16 students — Cohort 1 — landed at Ben Gurion Airport. The Muslim Leadership Initiative was born.
Nothing was simple
Abdullah had sought out participants who were relatively young and who had leadership positions — religious leaders, blogger activists, people with resonance — from a mix of backgrounds representative of US Muslim demographics: Afro-American, South Asian, Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi.
Since the program was so controversial — mainstream American Muslims coming to Israel to learn Judaism from Zionists — they were promised two things: One, the only expectation of them was that they participate — no other conditions at all; and two, they could each decide for themselves if and how to make the fact of their participation public. To this day, no group picture of any of the cohorts has been published.
The Hartman organizers, Halevi readily admits, really had no idea what they were getting themselves into — including in terms of basic organization. Personally, says Halevi, "The ignorance that Abdullah talks about, ignorance of Judaism among Muslims, well, that was certainly mirrored for me." And, indeed, for Hartman. When it came to setting up a prayer room for their guests, for instance — dealing with what would be needed in the room, what time breaks would have to be scheduled for prayer — "really, we knew nothing," says Halevi laughing.
Says Antepli: "Someone from Shalom Hartman called me all the way to (Duke) in Durham, North Carolina, to ask me, 'What are the prayer times in Jerusalem?' I said, 'You live in Jerusalem, one of the holiest sites of Islam. Is there nobody there who can tell you?'"
And then there were the logistical issues that, if mishandled, would have strangled the initiative at birth.
Antepli had been to Israel nine times before the first MLI session and went through several "incredibly disgusting interrogations at the airport." One time, he was held on landing for nine hours at Ben Gurion Airport. "Around the 4th hour of interrogation, I lost my temper, and I must have been loud and raised my voice to this 22-year-old lady: Why are you asking me the same questions over and over? She was asking my grandfather's father's name. I don't know it. I must have expressed some anger and she says, 'Okay, strip search.' They kept me in a room completely naked for an hour. I begged them, please at least allow male soldiers to handle this. It's so part of my religion. I have never been naked in the presence of a woman. It was one of the most humiliating experiences."
'This is educational engagement — not interfaith conversation so much as interfaitheducation. Mainstream Muslims educating themselves about the Jewish narrative, taking this back to America, and being in conversation with the American Jewish mainstream'
He says he told Halevi that if the groups were put through that kind of ordeal, they'd turn around and head straight back home.
Working through the Foreign Ministry, with the key help of Halevi's friend, then-ambassador to the US Michael Oren, a special arrangement was institutionalized. "It works miraculously."
The first group sailed through Ben Gurion, and Halevi was waiting to meet them. He and Antepli "just took a look at each other and we said, it'll be OK."
They drove to Jerusalem, placed their belongings at the Mishkenot Sha'ananim guesthouse and, before heading to Hartman, went to Al-Aqsa. And there, says Antepli, the prime force behind the entire adventure, he suddenly found himself praying with a sense of "intensive anxiety and guilt." He recalls asking himself, "Am I violating my loyalty to the Palestinians by coming here? Am I adding insult to the injury? Many Jews when they come to Israel, I see it in their face at Ben Gurion: They are so happy. For many in our group, there was a sudden fear: perhaps this was a terrible mistake, a sort of inadvertent treason."
Donniel Hartman, in his introductory talk that afternoon, helped assuage some of those moment-of-truth concerns. He told the group that he knew they had taken a tremendous risk, and that Hartman's reciprocal gesture would be "to be vulnerable in front of you" — to invite these Muslims "into our Jewish struggles," into the heart of the battle for an Israel of values, into the heat of the debate about the Israel-Diaspora relationship.
Hartman also made immediately clear that the program "would not be shoving the Holocaust down their throat," says Halevi. "We don't teach Holocaust. We do not take them to Yad Vashem. This is probably the only program in the history of the State of Israel that doesn't do that. We make it clear to them that they're here to study Israel, and the Jewish story as it relates to this place."
Adds Antepli: "And it's not about solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Absolutely not. That looks pretty complicated," he says dryly. "This is educational engagement — not interfaith conversation so much as interfaith education. Mainstream Muslims educating themselves about the Jewish narrative, taking this back to America, and being in conversation with the American Jewish mainstream. MLI aims to put mainstream North American Jewry in conversation with their Muslim counterparts."
On the first day of that first program, and indeed on the first full day with all three cohorts to date, one of the participants has said something like, "So what you're really saying is that you're here not because of the Holocaust? You're here because you have an ancient connection to this land? Did I get that right?" And each time, Antepli and Halevi looked at each other, wordlessly. Antepli: "Dayenu!"
Halevi: "Dayenu! That's it. We succeeded. That's exactly it. What we're trying to do is undo that perception of our story widespread in the Muslim world, that perception that the reason we're here is because of the Holocaust."
As that first course unfolded two years ago, says Antepli, "every lecture was a home run." It was everything he had hoped for, and expected: "I'd seen this even in the United States before coming here: If Jews and Muslims can relax and trust each other a little bit, the opportunities are so obvious. It's an instant intellectual, spiritual attraction to one another."
All three cohorts have proceeded with similar success, with one exception — a Palestinian-American in the second group, who, on his return from Jerusalem, quit the program.
Antepli takes pain to stress that the participants are from the American Muslim "mainstream." "I brought representative Muslims here... We are not marginal, sell-out Muslims, self-hating Muslims. We are credible Muslim leaders with a standing in the North American Muslim community."
Halevi: "This is exactly what drew me to trust Abdullah in this project. I told him, 'You know, I am not a dove. I am not a leftist. My positions are very mainstream, skeptical Israel.'"
Antepli: "And I'm not interested in marginal Jews who will agree with everything Muslims believe about Israel."
Halevi: "Abdullah and MLI have allowed me to resume the journey into Islam I began with the 'Garden of Eden.' They've given me back something precious that I thought I'd lost."
Within Hartman's walls, says Antepli, it was clear that some Jewish staffers not involved in the program didn't know what to make of the new, highly atypical students. He says he saw a certain recoiling at the hijabs and the gatherings for prayer. "But once they get over it, they are deeply moved, to see visible Muslims doing visible Muslim stuff in a Zionist Israeli Jewish institution."
Then there are some of the kitchen and other staff, who are Muslims. "I saw two of them crying," says Antepli. "They couldn't believe it. They thought this was some sort of a dream. They have been working here for a long time. It's a very welcoming, nice environment. But they never thought that there would be a group of Muslims visibly and proudly expressing Islam at this institution. Now they take care of us like we are VIPs."
It must be encouraging for them, to see that there can be some kind of harmony in this crazy country? Antepli nods enthusiastically. "One of them said, 'You restored my faith, that something positive is possible.' The level of pessimism and hopelessness is so heart-wrenching in this part of the world."
And then came Gaza
As soon as the first graduates got back to the US, Antepli says, "it was already obvious: their tone had changed." They'd internalized "that something's incredibly wrong" with Muslim-Jewish relations, "and we need to do something about it." Many told their Jewish colleagues that they'd been to Israel to study Judaism at Hartman, and "they saw how the walls came down and how the education they had received was so helpful."
Most resonantly, one of the participants, Rabia Chaudry, a fellow of the Truman National Security Project and the New America Foundation, wrote a Time magazine opinion piece about the program, under the incendiary headline, "What a Muslim American Learned from Zionists." She had hesitated before signing up, she wrote, "because Hartman is an unapologetically Zionist institution and, like all the participants, I have been committed to the Palestinian cause throughout my life. Other than posing an ethical dilemma, it also required putting our credibility with the Muslim community on the line and opening dialogue with Zionists, a thought once an anathema to our sensibilities. Zionism is a toxic word in the pro-Palestinian community; it stands for an opportunistic land-grab in the wake of the Holocaust from people who had nothing to do with that tragedy... I have always been proudly anti-Zionist."
What she learned in the Hartman program, she went on, however, was "that Zionism means something very different for Jews. The Jewish people's longing of thousands of years for a homeland, a return from exile, a sanctuary from being a hated minority in the diaspora, an opportunity to establish Jewish values and honor God, a Biblical promise, a chance for redemption." She simply hadn't known this, she acknowledges, partly "because in the U.S., interfaith work means talking about everything except Zionism and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict."
Chaudry's short article is emphatically worth reading in full, and its conclusion is a vindication of everything Antepli strives for: "After a year we built the trust necessary for a needed exchange of admissions," she wrote. "The Muslim fellows understood Jewish fear and the Jews' deep desire for a homeland after thousands of years of being a mistrusted minority. And Israeli Jews affirmed to us the daily devastation of the occupation and the shattering of Palestinians through which Israel was born. These exchanges between Zionists and pro-Palestinians were monumental. They are also an affirmation that there is still hope for dialogue and relationships that can actually make a difference... The walls have been built so high that breaching them to reach out to the other side is tantamount to treason. Hartman and the participants both took huge risks in being part of this program with hopes to forge a new way forward."
'Someone phoned my house, saying, We know where your children go to school. We will make you feel how Gazans feel. You are a sell-out Zionist, despicable, disgusting scumbag, and we will kill you, we will destroy you'
Halevi calls Rabia's piece "a model of the relationship" that the MLI is trying to build. "Her piece was very critical of Israeli policy. In parts it was painful for me to read," he says. "But she wasn't only angry at Israel. She was also angry at the Muslim world for not telling the truth about how the Jews understand themselves, about our 4,000-year connection to this land and how central it is to Judaism and Jewish identity. This was shocking for our people (on the MLI program). It was shocking and it made many of them angry: Why didn't we know this? Why is the Muslim world not telling itself the truth about the Jews?"
Antepli says there was nothing in the article that he disagrees with. But there was a problem with its timing. Days after its publication on June 24, 2014, the 50-day Israel-Hamas war erupted. With Chaudry having made the program so public, all hell broke loose. "The whole BDS crowd" turned on the MLI, organizing petitions against it, publicly shaming the participants in social media, accusing them of betraying the Palestinian cause, and specifically targeting Antepli, as its architect. He received several death threats. "Someone phoned my house, saying, 'We know where your children go to school. We will make you feel how Gazans feel. You are a sell-out Zionist, despicable, disgusting scumbag, and we will kill you, we will destroy you.'
"Law enforcement came to my house. They took it very seriously. It was horrible. I grew like 10 years older. They wanted me to carry a gun. I told them I could never do that. I don't even allow my children to own a toy gun."
For some of those in that first group, there was a direct impact, he says. "Their standing in the community became questionable. They started getting fewer invitations to give talks; often the organizations who invited them came under pressure from anti-MLI groups."
But none publicly disowned the program, none apologized or claimed to have been duped.
For him and the participants, Antepli acknowledges, the 2014 Gaza war was "the most difficult time" to date.
Did he ask himself, Maybe I shouldn't be doing this? He says no, but that he too, even he, had to "catch" himself when he saw a minority of Israelis "celebrating or glorifying" Israeli airstrikes on Gaza. In this era of social media, he elaborates, "this is one of the things that we are doing to ourselves: taking a few marginal, fringe extremists and paying exaggerated attention to them."
He's referring to footage of small groups of Israelis who were filmed as they gathered and cheered the airstrikes from a vantage point near the Gaza border. "If you go to Arabic YouTube or Turkish YouTube, those are among the most watched YouTube clips of the Gaza war. They sing, they dance. Ten people. But if that's the only thing you see, the only Israeli response, you get a distorted impression, and that shapes your thinking, and that's how hostilities deepen... I mean, you get the point."
'It's not one guy anymore,' says Halevi
In the end, though, the 2014 war underlined the imperative for the MLI, and strengthened it, the co-founders agree. They organized a seminar for that just-graduated first cohort, in New York. "For most of them, maybe all of them, Israel was guilty of war crimes," says Halevi. "On our side, all of us who were representing the Hartman Institute were coming with this deep feeling that Israel had acted in self-defense and if there were incidents that shouldn't have happened, those were aberrations. We sat together for two and a half days and we unpacked all of this, and the most extraordinary aspect of this encounter was that not once did anyone raise their voice. I came home and I said, 'Nobody shouted at each other. How is that possible?' Here I am, I'm under attack. You're calling oursoldiers, our children war criminals? And for MLIers, you are assaulting our helpless brothers and sisters in Gaza? And yet, there was such a deep level of trust that had been built up, that we forced ourselves to listen to each other, not to agree with each other..."
Antepli chimes in: "It was a really great moment. Once you have some knowledge, some understanding of where these people are coming from, and at the human level you trust that this is a decent human being — that he can do wrong, or he can say some wrong stuff, but at the end I trust this man — it does wonders. It was a major success story to me."
Halevi: "I knew they didn't hate us. And not only didn't they hate us, they want good for us. They want us to be a decent country, from their perspective."
There had been debate as to whether the second cohort should be delayed, but instead they decided to accelerate the program. The second group, of 18, came in January of this year for their opening two weeks, and now the third group is under way, the largest at 23-strong, and heavily oversubscribed.
Opponents of the program wrote petition after petition "demanding that people boycott us, shame us, and intimidate us" in an effort to stop the program, says Antepli, "so that nobody will come, so that it's not going to happen."
The MLI opponents failed.
"It's not one guy anymore," says Halevi simply. "When I met Abdullah, it was one Abdullah. But today, it's 50-plus people, incredible people. Abdullah had 100 people who wanted to come on the third cohort. And we've developed a relationship of friendship and often of love. You have to see that: we laugh constantly, the atmosphere is hard to describe. With this new cohort we've already created such an atmosphere of trust and friendship that I feel like I've known these people for years."
"All the attacks and criticism, all the hardship that we went through, again confirmed the problem that we have identified and the need to tackle it," says Antepli.
Modern Orthodox Muslims
It was Imam Antepli who was leading the effort to reach out to Israel, breaking taboos, putting himself and potentially his co-religionists into danger by bringing them to Israel. But it is actually Halevi, the formerly disillusioned author, the reluctant partner, who seems more surprised and moved by the achievements to date.
Antepli had no doubts; Halevi was full of them. Which underlines the challenge that still lies ahead: to persuade American Jews that these are bridges worth building.
And yet it didn't take a lot for Halevi to be won over.
He casts his mind back to the day the first cohort arrived. "I remember waiting at the airport for everybody to come out. I see women in hijabs, head coverings, some of the men with beards. And I thought, Oh, oh, this is going to be intense. But the other thing that hit me immediately was how American these young people were, calling each other 'dudes.' Their nickname for Abdullah was Gandalf. Their references were popular American culture, like any other young Americans. What I immediately realized about this group was two things: They're very serious about their Islam; I call them frumMuslims. And at the same time, they are deeply American.
"In a sense," he muses, "they were recognizable to me from my own background: I grew up in a modern Orthodox community in Brooklyn. I said, Ah, these are a kind of modern Orthodox Muslims, which is exactly how many of them see themselves. When we did a session with them on modern Orthodoxy, the response among them was, That's us, we're modern Orthodox Muslims.
"And I've come to see reality through their eyes. One of the jokes that they have among themselves is, Where are the moderate Muslims and why don't they speak out? Because these are people who routinely speak out, who see Muslim extremism as the greatest threat to them — to their standing in American society, to their ability to become fully a part of American society. At a session the other night, one of them said, I wake up in the morning and I never know what lunatic somewhere in the world is going to be doing in the name of Islam. That's my nightmare. He said: I wake up to a nightmare."
The challenge ahead
Antepli believes he'll reach a "critical mass" when a few hundred leading young American Muslims have completed the MLI. "But I worry that these Muslims will somehow not be able to break through the American Jewish firewall, that this extended hand will stay hanging in the air, and we will fall on our face."
Which is why he and Halevi chose to do this interview, as a key step in the gradual process of deepening the Muslim-Jewish conversation in America. "It was very clear to me from the very beginning: our ability to create an indigenous, homegrown American Muslim identity partially but significantly relies on our ability to bring ourselves to a healthier, stronger, relationship with the American Jewish community," Antepli says emphatically.
"With the kind of anti-Semitic DNA that we Muslims have been pumping into ourselves in some circles, American society will not accept us as mainstream. The way we understand Judaism as a religion, Jews as people, Israel as a state, Zionism as an ideology, the one version of the story which we keep feeding ourselves with, it wasn't helping, it wasn't helping us," says Antepli.
'The fact that this was a Muslim initiative, the fact that it was Abdullah and a group of his friends who approached us, really helped me overcome my own skepticism,' says Halevi
There's a "very common Muslim dishonesty," he acknowledges, "in terms of the end vision and goal" where Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are concerned. For many Muslims, even in the US, "if you pressed them, basically the entire Israel is an occupied territory and the solution is that you (Jews) have to go back or somehow Israel has to disappear." What "this program made so clear," he says, "is that there is so much legitimacy in the cry of Jews saying, Accept our right to be here. And if MLI can help create goodwill in the Jewish community and help Jews understand that they have Muslims partners, dayenu."
Says Halevi: "You know initially I was skeptical in all kinds of ways." Not only as to whether Antepli could deliver the right participants, but also as to whether his goal was practicable. "If this program had been a Jewish initiative rather than a Muslim initiative, I would not have been interested," he admits. "One more Jewish outreach, I would have simply said no. But the fact that this was a Muslim initiative, the fact that it was Abdullah and a group of his friends who approached us, really helped me overcome my own skepticism. And everything that I've experienced in the last few years of this program has really confirmed the rightness of that initial intuition.
"What I need, what I am looking for in this relationship, is very simple: recognition of my story, or maybe even more simply, a willingness to listen to my story. I can't ask for more than that. If Muslims are coming to a self-described Zionist institution in Jerusalem to learn about my story, as Abdullah says, dayenu.
While Antepli talks of reaching a transformational, critical mass, a tipping point in US Muslim-Jewish ties, Halevi is insistently non-grandiose. "In its way, it's a relatively small project," he notes, "though we are getting to some of the most significant young leaders in the Muslim American community."
But Halevi is adamant that those Jews who work to delegitimize Islam in America are sinning threefold: sinning against Muslim Americans, whose deepest longing is to be good Americans and to be part of the American story; sinning against America, by bringing a bitterness and hatred into American society; and sinning against the Jewish people. "Because we have an opportunity here to create a new kind of relationship between Muslims and Jews, a relationship of friendship and respect — with disagreements, even profound disagreements, but respect for who we are, and respect for who they are.
"I see MLI as an opportunity and a challenge for American Jewry," says Halevi. "We have a chance to prevent Muslim-Jewish relations in America from going the way, say, of France. America really is different. My hope is that not only liberal American Jews will respond to the MLI initiative but also parts of the Orthodox community. The deepest conversation for MLIers is potentially with Orthodox Jews."
For Antepli, a dream has become "a concrete reality on the ground. But it can only fulfill its potential if this one-way engagement is reciprocated by the American Jewish community," he says. "In all honesty, the reason I am talking to you is that I'm hoping that when we go back, when we take this reality, this educational engagement, back to the United States, it will be reciprocated by a significant part of the American Jewish community. North American Jews and Muslims have a moral imperative to lead and show that Jewish-Muslim reconciliation is feasible, despite the irreconcilable political differences. Things are possible in North America that simply aren't possible anywhere else."
What does that mean? What does this unstoppable imam want, specifically, from the Jews of America and their leaders?
The words positively fall out of him: "A healthier, stronger relationship, connecting mainstream Muslim leaders — the religious, civil and political — with their counterparts in the American Jewish community. Brainstorming and thinking of partnerships in the United States. Fighting Islamophobia and anti-Semitism together. Tackling the rising bias within each community toward the other. Spearheading work in the United States which will enhance the ability to co-exist, to live in a harmonious way."
He stops, and then smiles a little wryly at the fluency with which he delivered that menu for cooperation. Clearly, obviously, Antepli has given this considerable thought. Then he adds, in that irresistible way of his, "I hope they will give this a try. The voice from Sinai is calling us to take up this challenge."