It was distrust at first sight for Rabbi Marc Schneier and Imam Shamsi Ali when they met in Manhattan in 2005.
They were both being interviewed by CBS about Pope John Paul II’s interfaith outreach, following his death. They looked at each other, shook hands and felt mutually uncomfortable in their interactions.
“I’d grown up in an environment as an Orthodox Jew where Muslims were the enemy, Muslims were to be denomized, Muslims were not to be trusted,” says Schneier, 55. “I clearly brought to the table many biases, prejudices, prejudgments.”
Jewish-Muslim relations around the world should not be defined by the conflict in the Middle East…
Ali, 46, says he reciprocated with his own quietly ignorant views, until Schneier reached out several months later with a phone call and an olive branch. “He called and said he wanted to meet,” says Ali. After acknowledging their awkward first meeting, they talked about what they could do to better understand each others’ faiths.
Years later, Ali says their “friendship has already impacted both communities worldwide.”
In their quest for mutual understanding between Muslims and Jews, Schneier and Ali orchestrated the first summit of rabbis and imams in New York in 2007. They started a process called “twinning,” in which Schneier visits Ali’s mosque to talk to his congregation, and Ali does the same at Schneier’s synagogue. Ali says rabbis and imams have adopted the process in Canada, Europe, Latin America and the Middle East.
A central tenet of their interfaith talks is that Jewish-Muslim relations around the world should not be defined by the conflict in the Middle East. Even in the melting pot of NYC, this is a barrier that is not so easily overcome. Schneier stresses that the reciprocal mistrust between the two faith systems is based on very old misunderstandings of each other’s religions. The duo tackles this problem in their recent book Sons of Abraham: A Candid Conversation About the Issues That Divide and Unite Jews and Muslims. In the book, they explain the theological commonalities between Muslims and Jews while breaking down common misconceptions. It is a very ambitious undertaking: Both men believe that an increased understanding between the two religions could solve geopolitical conflicts.
They’re religious heavy hitters, each with their own share of accolades — as well as doses of controversy.
“If these two [groups] can come together, I think 70 percent of conflict in the world can be resolved,” says Ali, in his matter-of-fact way of speaking. Schneier says, “We need both communities to fight for each other.” He points to shared challenges such as legislation recently passed in Denmark, which banned the production of halal and kosher meat by ruling that all animals slaughtered in the country must be stunned prior to being killed. “A joint struggle must be fought,” says the rabbi in his stern voice.
Their book’s foreword is written by President Bill Clinton, who writes that he has been “inspired” by Schneier and Ali. ”Their personal friendship is a poignant example of what is possible among people of deep faith and goodwill,” he writes, adding that the long dispute between Jewish Israelis and Muslim Palestinians and their Arab supporters have “profound consequences” that echo “across the world.”
Clinton is an impressive man to have writing the foreword of your book, but given how high-profile Schneier and Ali are in their respective worlds, it comes as no surprise. They’re religious heavy hitters, each with their own share of accolades — as well as doses of controversy.
Born and raised in Indonesia, Ali, by the age of 12, had memorized the Quran and moved into an Islamic boarding school. He received his undergraduate and master’s degree in Pakistan, and then moved to Saudi Arabia to teach. While there, he impressed the Indonesian Ambassador to the U.N., who invited him in 1996 to move to New York City to lead the Al-Hikmah Mosque. His interfaith work in New York lead to an invitation to meet then-President George W. Bush at ground zero shortly after the September 11 attacks. Ali went on to work at the Islamic Cultural Center on 96th Street, the biggest mosque in New York City, to promote their interfaith efforts, and was named the most influential Muslim leader in New York by New York Magazine in 2006.
However, in 2011, he clashed with the Islamic Cultural Center’s new chairman — Ali says the chairman disliked his focus on interfaith outreach and specifically tried to “annoy” Ali as much as possible to push him out. When Ali was reprimanded for speaking in support of Arab Spring protestors fighting against Hosni Mubarak, he left the mosque. Mosque officials say he was fired for being too political, but Ali denies this. He continues to live in Queens with his wife and five children, and his congregational work is with the Jamaica Muslim Center and the Al-Hikmah Mosque.
Schneier is an 18th-generation rabbi, born and raised on the Upper East Side. Similar to Ali, religious leadership has been the crux of Schneier’s life. While at Yeshiva University, he was president of the student council, and went on to found the celebrity-studded Hamptons Synagogue in Westhampton in 1990, along with the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, which advocates racial harmony and is chaired by Russell Simmons. Schneier has been incredibly active in the Jewish community, as both president of the New York Board of Rabbis and chairman of the World Jewish Congress.
Similar to Ali, religious leadership has been the crux of Schneier’s life.
Paralleling Ali’s difficulties, Schneier says he at times has been “attacked and villified” by members of his own community, in resistance to his interfaith efforts. However, his personal life has been a bit more rocky than his professional one, and that has impacted his public life. Schneier has been married five times and, while still married to his fourth wife, he was apparently photographed kissing his now fifth-wife. The affair lead the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) to open an investigation into his ”alleged moral improprieties,” though the investigation has been indefinitely delayed for more than three years because of a gag order associated with Schneier’s divorce.
Soon after the controversy, Schneier revealed to his congregation that he suffers from bipolar disorder, and publicly reprimanded the RCA for not supporting him “in a time of medical need” and instead listening to “tabloid smears and innuendo spread by a soon-to-be ex-wife looking to shake down her third husband.”
There is no question that Ali and Schneier’s efforts to resolve tense conflicts between Muslims and Jews around the world is a genuinely important mission, but can these men lead it successfully?
“I have my detractors; I also have great supporters,” says Schneier. ”I’m not going to sit here and represent to you after seven years that we have arrived at the Promised Land of Muslim and Jewish reconciliation. In the Bible, it took Israelites 40 years to get to the Promised Land. The good news is that we have made significant and lovely strides. The journey has begun, but we have a long distance to go.”
Moral of this story? Don’t judge a book (be it the Torah or the Quran) by its cover.
Why you should care
As Israel and Palestine peace talks halt, these men want Muslims and Jews to remember that sometimes your most bitter enemy can become your most faithful friend.