Rabbi Jonah Pesner was at an interfaith event in Nashville when a Somali immigrant approached him to talk.
“[He] said to me, ‘I have to tell you, when I was growing up in Somalia I hated Jews, because that’s what we were told…[but] I met them and how wrong I was’,” Pesner recalled the man, who was a volunteer at the event, as saying.
It’s moments like this that convinced Pesner of the benefits of interfaith and inter-community interaction and dialogue. Pesner is the director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (RAC), a group that mobilizes about 1.5 million Jews on legislative and social concerns and currently tours the country delivering speeches at religious centers on issues like countering anti-Muslim sentiment. Pesner was also named one of America’s 50 most influential rabbis in 2012 by the Daily Beast.
“If we’re going to be the family of Abraham, we together have to call out Islamophobia,” Pesner told a packed crowd at the Islamic Center of Tennessee in Antioch, last month. “We have to beat back the forces of bigotry, whether it’s anti-Jewish bigotry, anti-Muslim bigotry or bigotry in any form in America.”
By reaching out to other communities and religions, Pesner fulfills what he sees as his religious duty and while simultaneously breaking down stereotypes about race and religion.
That’s why, in the current American political climate, where anti-Muslim sentiment is on the rise, Pesner’s latest bailiwick is in countering anti-Muslim sentiment and Islamophobia.
In such an atmosphere, Pesner is working to build acceptance instead of deepening communal divides. In fact, Pesner and RAC are placing pressure on Congress to fund their work with refugees, in addition to touring the country and delivering speeches promoting the benefits of interfaith dialogue.
“It’s my job to fight Islamophobia and build relationships with the Muslim community,” Pesner told ThinkProgress by phone from his home in Boston. “We stand with them when they come under attack and fight for refugees and against Islamophobia.”
Fighting anti-Muslim sentiment is not a recent issue adopted by Pesner. He said his work with refugees in particular is inspired by his own grandmother’s escape from pogroms and anti-Semitism in Europe to America as a 16-year-old.
Prior to his days as RAC’s director, Pesner saw colleagues at the Islamic Society of Boston berated by members of his own religious community. “Groups tried to label them as terrorists,” Pesner said. “They tried to bully and attack a mosque and one tactic they used was to attack a rabbi I know personally who had been standing next to a Muslim leader.”
Pesner responded by gathering nearly 100 rabbis to oppose such actions. The rabbis had a unified message, according to Pesner, that said, “For Jews to attack a rabbi for standing with a Muslim is unacceptable.”
Much of the misunderstanding, Pesner believes, comes down to mainstream America’s ignorance toward Islam and American Muslims. Muslims make up less than 1 percent of Americans. About 1.8 million are adults, and if Muslims of all ages are counted, the total Muslim population in the United States comes to about 2.75 million, according to estimates by Pew. These small numbers mean that most Americans will never come across a Muslim in their day-to-day life, and therefore, they may sometimes make specious or atavistic assumptions about the entire community.
“There’s no replacement for relationship, that’s a baseline. When people know each other, they are much more likely to understand appreciate and know each other,” Pesner said. “Only 8 percent of Americans have met a Muslim. It should be 100 percent. Everyone should know Muslim and Jewish people.”
The ubiquity of anti-Muslim comments has been led by Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. The real estate mogul called for a ban on Muslims entering the United States last year and said he supported the closure of mosques.
But Trump isn’t alone in espousing anti-Muslim views. Following the Paris attacks last November, well over half the governors in the United States called for a halt to Syrian refugee resettlement. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who is also running for a spot as the Republican presidential candidate, went as far as saying that the United States should reject the resettlement of even the most meek refugees, including 5-year-old Syrian orphans.
If more Americans met Muslims, Pesner feels they would see them as more rounded human beings instead of as caricatures.
“In a post 9/11 universe, there is this suspicion, fear, and bigotry,” he said. “These are people I worked with for health reform and affordable housing. Some are immigrants and some are American-born. All are trying to be a part of the majesty of American society, and it was clear to me that I am my brother’s keeper and we must stand tighter.”