Eboo Patel
January 1, 2009 - 1:00am

The Council of Islamic Relations calls the Israeli attack on Gaza a "disproportionate and counterproductive ... massacre". Its homepage features a photo of a bombed out building in Gaza with a panicked official ushering civilians to safety.

The American Jewish Committee's homepage has a picture of Palestinian militants in ski masks holding guns next to a video of AJC Executive Director David Harris speaking of the "intolerable situation" Israel faces and how it had "no choice" but to bomb Gaza.

The Muslim Public Affairs Council is calling the Israeli air strike "brutal" and is helping raise money for Palestinian victims.

The Union for Reform Judaism calls the bombing "necessary" and is raising money for Israeli victims.

All pretty predictable, all pretty familiar.

Responding to a crisis in the Middle East is old hat to most American Muslim and American Jewish organizations. All they have to do is call up old press releases and fundraising letters, change a few names and dates, and they're good to go. The playbook was written several decades back.

On the one hand, who can blame these organizations for hitting repeat? After all, they have clear and strong loyalties, and large and vocal constituencies. Circling the wagons and ringing the alarm bells has satisfied their respective sides for as long as anyone can remember. The proof shows up in the bank account during fundraising season, which happens to be right now.

Yet as I was reading through websites and press releases researching this column, I couldn't help but notice something eerie that Muslim and Jewish organizations had in common: the mutual sense that the situation is even worse now than it was before. The Jewish organizations talked about the broader range of Hamas rockets. The Muslim organizations talked about the higher number of Palestinian casualties.

So let me get this straight. Both sides are saying that they need to be supported now more than ever. Both sides are congratulating themselves for contributing to their respective causes. Both sides are saying the situation is getting worse.

All of this adds a morbid new twist to the age-old proverb: If you do what you've always done, you'll get what you've always gotten. The status quo in the Middle East is bad enough, and should make us all reflect on our approaches. But if the situation is actually deteriorating for everyone (which seems to be the one thing that Muslims and Jews can actually agree on), shouldn't we tear up the old playbook and try something else?

One of my favorite quotes is Susan Sontag's observation: "Whatever is happening, something else is always going on." And amidst a lot of the same old, same old - there is something distinct taking place that is worth paying attention to.

Muslim and Jewish organizations once considered it a matter of pride to engage in a communications blockade of organizations "on the other side". The basic line I've heard from both sides is, "We can't talk to people we have such fundamental disagreements with." And so interfaith groups break apart. Friendships between Muslims and Jews are strained. And we revert back to shouting our own talking points louder and louder.

But, slowly, it seems that some people are realizing that increasing the volume on your own talking points and trying to drown out the other side is not a strategy for getting to a solution.

A senior American Jewish official told me yesterday "Jews and Muslims in America should be modeling positive relationships here, and hoping that pattern offers a way forward over there."

I emailed with senior officials of the Islamic Society of North America yesterday and they expressed a similar sentiment. In fact, point five of ISNA's press release on the Gaza situation says the following: "Engage in informed dialogue with other Americans, especially Jewish Americans, so that religious differences do not become a source of civil discord and division ...."

My guess is that the idea of continuing positive engagement with people on the other side is probably gaining ground within Muslim and Jewish organizations, although it's still very much a minority attitude (inertia is a powerful force).

And so we're looking at a very small step towards a potentially big win.

The win isn't just a rewriting of the respective playbooks that Muslim and Jewish organizations use when the Middle East conflict heats up. It's the recognition that, if we want to actually solve the conflict, Muslim and Jewish groups should be writing a new playbook together - because they're on the same side.

The first phone calls Jewish and Muslim officials should make when bombs explode over there are not to organizations within their own religious community, but to reasonable people in the other community.

The first line should be, "I'm on the side of coexistence, and I bet you are too. What public statements can we collectively make, what press releases can we cooperatively issue, which helps the side of coexistence defeat the demon of conflict?"

That's a play that could change the game.


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