One Simple Question Can Strengthen Jewish-Muslim Ties

While conflict rages at home and abroad, students with diverse backgrounds find ways to connect with each other.

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This story is syndicated from The Spectator, the newspaper of Stuyvesant High School in New York City. The original version of the story ran here.

The Monday following Hamas’s attack on Israel, I woke up to my family crying. We are Jewish, and our extended family was safe, but a friend of a friend had been kidnapped, another had been killed, and countless others to whom we were distantly connected were missing as well. I resisted tears at first but soon found myself crying with my family at 7:16 a.m. on a Monday morning.

On the subway, I tapped through hundreds of Instagram stories, some condemning Hamas’s terrorist attacks, others attempting to justify them. I’ll admit I was terrified to go to school that day. I was terrified of what my Muslim friends would say. I was terrified of what my Jewish friends would say. I was terrified of what my non-Jewish, non-Muslim friends would say.

Art credit: Dominique Greene

However, very quickly into the day, I found no tension between me and my Muslim friends. We didn’t discuss the conflict. We didn’t try to put words to our feelings, because none could possibly suffice. Rather, we simply made eye contact and smiled sincerely, hoping that the quiet smiles could somehow say everything we were too scared to. I wondered then if my Muslim friends had woken up to their parents crying sometime during the week, as well. I realized they had likely tapped through the grade’s Instagram stories, equally terrified of the conversations that would ensue. We had likely both been crying at 7:16 a.m. on a Monday morning.

So, I didn’t argue with my Muslim friends, and they didn’t argue with me. Because on some very basic human level, we understood each other in ways others could not.

None of this goes to say that Stuvyesant has been free of antisemitism, Islamophobia, or Israel-Palestine disagreements. On the contrary, as I was conducting interviews for this story, students shared many upsetting incidents. Stuyvesant students hold a diverse array of contrasting views on the war, which has created awkwardness and conflict amongst peers; however, it’s Stuy’s diversity that gives moments of understanding and empathy between Muslim and Jewish students such significance.

Just a few months earlier, I had participated in a Model UN conference in Israel, where I made friends with Palestinian and Israeli teens alike. On October 7, the Saturday of the attack, I couldn’t think of any message I could send to my Palestinian and Israeli friends that could possibly express my fear and pain. 

“Are you okay? was the message I came up with. Hearing from both Israelis and Palestinians made me realize the urgent necessity for peace. The war threatened the lives of everyone I knew there. Death doesn’t discriminate based on religion.

Experiences like these aren’t unique to me. A Muslim freshman, Nafis Mahim, acknowledged both the stress and the connection between him and his Jewish friends; he shared that despite generally avoiding the topic, he made sure to tell his Jewish friend who has family in Israel, “Hey man, if you need someone to talk to, I got you.” He continued to explain, “It’s a case of humanity, and it doesn’t matter what side you’re on.”

Another Muslim freshman, Nabila Rahman, had a similar experience with her Israeli best friend: “It wasn’t a question of do you support Israel or Palestine. It was a question of [if you were] okay; if your family was okay. That was what mattered at the moment; her opinion didn’t matter, even if it differed from mine,” Rahman said.

More common than these instances, nearly every Jewish student I talked to had Muslim friends, and vice versa. However, most students had avoided discussion regarding the war; quiet acceptance of differing views is necessary, but reaching a point of honest and respectful dialogue should be the final goal. Without dialogue, truly understanding opposing opinions is impossible. 

Though tension still prevails throughout Stuyvesant, these Muslim and Jewish students have begun to do what the rest of the world and world leaders couldn’t: find empathy, connection, and compassion despite the conflict and ask, “Are you okay?” 

If we ever want to reach a point of peace or coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians, operating through humanization and empathy is vital. The first steps occur on a micro level. During such a divided time, something as small as finding a point of shared connection holds tremendous weight. If Israel and Palestine, or Jews and Muslims, allow polarization to overshadow connection and fail to acknowledge the validity of the other’s pain, then there’s no hope for future peace.

Israel and Palestine can only work towards peace once the two nations build some semblance of trust and once the world acknowledges that the majority of both Jewish and Muslim people are, in fact, not feeling okay.

The only path to coexistence is through connection, empathy, and understanding.

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