Speaking for Peace
Still, Swidler says, most dialogue groups don't necessarily meet all of his criteria, and every encounter is different.
One rule of thumb that many groups try to maintain is to be sensitive when discussing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. While some Muslim-Jewish dialogue groups in the United States do not discuss the combat at all, most groups eventually must deal with tensions between American Muslims and Jews that result from the ongoing violence.
Reuven Firestone, a professor at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles, noted that Muslim and Jewish dialogue is often structured around "issues," such as conflict and peace. By contrast, Jewish-Christian dialogue tends to focus on theology, he said, as Judaism and Christianity have fewer types of religious practices in common, such as dietary laws, than Judaism and Islam.
Jews and Muslims sometimes discuss their status as religious minorities or similarities in religious observances, but many groups also deal with fear and distrust because of hostilities in the Middle East. It is important to distinguish between religious issues and political topics, such as the nature of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Firestone said. At the same time, those issues can be intertwined. Firestone noted that Muslim-Jewish dialogue increased substantially in the United States after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Even groups that intentionally aim to address the Middle East conflict sometimes try to avoid talking about the issue right off the bat. If dialoguers are not careful, such discussion can shut down discourse before trust has developed between members. A heated debate quickly can degenerate into a blame game in which Jews and Muslims compare the tragedies that have befallen fellow adherents of their faiths.
Loskota of USC noted that many people who live outside of conflict zones shy from talking about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict because they have the luxury of doing so.
"Piling up dead bodies in conversation is not necessarily a good way to spend an afternoon," she said.
Still, that does not prevent the ongoing conflict from creeping into conversation, even at events that are not intended to deal with Middle East violence.
A case in point was the November 2008 West Coast kickoff to the international Weekend of Twinning campaign at Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills. The first-time event paired off 44 mosques and synagogues and six groupings of university religious groups in an attempt to bring congregants together to jointly speak out against anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.
Hints of ongoing Jewish-Muslim tension throughout the world were apparent from the start of the Twinning event, as security guards scoured each car that arrived in a parking lot across the street from the synagogue. Rabbi Laura Geller of Temple Emanuel said she was advised to take extra precautions to protect Jewish and Muslim participants alike. Before the event even started, she said she had received more than 30 emails from people who told her to cancel the assembly, saying that she was being naïve for wanting to engage in dialogue with Muslims.
Walter Ruby, coordinator of the Twinning campaign, likened such tactics from naysayers to the Red Scare of the 1950s.
"To me, much of that is McCarthyism, pure and simple," he said. "There are people out there who have an agenda to try to prevent what we are doing."