Raja Kamal/Arnold Podgorsky: Reform Judaism's lessons for Muslim immigrants

In a recent article in the Eurasia Review, Riad Kahwaji identified a troubling relationship between ISIS-inspired terrorist attacks and increasingly hostile reactions from nationalist and other right-wing parties across Europe. Muslim immigrants most often arrive in the West from Islamic countries beset by oppression, illiteracy and poverty, he notes. Western Muslim leaders have not effectively addressed these challenges, and resistance to assimilation by many in their communities has made them more vulnerable to extremism.

Among the factors that make integration into Western societies difficult for Muslim immigrants are the ways in which Islamic principles have been inculcated by parents and other elders; apparent biases concerning life in the West that have been influenced by government, political and religious propaganda in their countries of origin; and a lack of cultural empathy, common languages, and understanding of Western culture. In addition, Muslim communities in Europe are overly reliant upon imams recruited from abroad who are not overseen by an Islamic higher authority that sets standards of education and practice for the clerics.

Combine these factors with resistance from elements of the predominantly non-Muslim population, high unemployment rates among young Muslims and lack of opportunity for social and economic advancement, and it is easy to see why a significant minority of Muslim youths in Europe and certain U.S. communities are susceptible to radicalization. In France, about 10 percent of the population is Muslim, but 70 percent of the prison population is – and prison is the single most fertile ground for recruitment of terrorists. Attacks by individuals and groups purporting to represent Islam not only alienate average citizens but also produce a furious backlash of anti-immigrant fervor on the part of right-wing political leaders and organizations.

To address the challenges faced by Muslim immigrants, it might be instructive to consider the lessons of the Judaic diaspora. After their destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, in 70 A.D., the Romans expelled the Jewish people from the Holy Land. For centuries, Jews often lived separately from indigenous populations, gathering in tightly knit communities. Informed by suspicion of “the other” and often by outright antisemitism, what today would be called “host communities” frequently prohibited Jews from participating in most professions and crafts and in the political and cultural life of the societies. Sometimes, anti-Jewish attitudes were expressed violently, and attacks on Jewish people and their communities were not uncommon. Jewish separateness, whether voluntary or enforced, was essentially the norm.

By the end of the 18th Century Reform Judaism emerged in Germany and eventually in the U.S. The movement developed in part as an extension of the growth of rationalism in Western thought since the Enlightenment and in part as a reaction to the strictures and separateness that traditional Judaism demanded. The Reform movement (and, to a lesser extent, the movement for Conservative Judaism) advocated a relaxation of the more fundamental practices of traditional Judaism and greater assimilation into the economic, educational, and political mainstream of European societies. It welcomed modernity. In place of strict observance, Reform Judaism emphasized ethics, charity, and the admonition to “heal the world” as essentials of the Jewish character.

To bolster new ideals, an infrastructure of Jewish institutions and organizations evolved that not only served the needs of Jews but also interacted with similar structures in host societies. Among the new institutions that were most critical were seminaries that provided rigorous professional education for new generations of rabbis.

Over time, the threats of political oppression and violent antisemitism diminished in many places (not at all times or in all places, but generally). Progress was made in part because it was based on the long-established Judaic principle that Jews are to respect the laws of the lands they inhabit (except where they directly conflict with fundamental Jewish belief as, for instance, in the case of idol worship).

The Reform movement spawned contemporary Jewish pluralism, which now includes several streams of Jewish thought and practice.  These diverse approaches provide an example of integration and response to evolving philosophical and political norms, while preserving essential and nourishing tenets of the Jewish faith. Adherents have managed to assimilate effectively into societies that are predominantly non-Jewish by adapting religious practice and expression to fit with the laws, culture and customs of their adoptive homelands.

Might the experience of the Jews in Western societies provide a model for the growing Muslim communities of Europe and North America? Perhaps so, but it is essential that reform in Islamic practice and custom be initiated and molded by leaders in those Muslim communities. We recognize that such efforts to reform will be met with resistance, but success is possible if all remember that, in our diverse communities, we can only embrace the ways of peace by respecting and making room for each other – and, in matters of faith, there is always more than one path up the mountain.

Raja Kamal is senior vice president of the Buck Institute for Research on Aging; based in Novato, Calif. Arnold Podgorsky is a lawyer and former president of Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, DC, a Conservative synagogue.