When it comes to “Kumbaya” moments, as some critics have dubbed Jewish-Muslim dialogue, “Police officers are pretty much a harder sell [than other people],” says Det. Lawrence Wein, president of the New York Police Department’s Shomrim Society. “They are a bit more cynical than peace activists.”
But during the past two years, as events locally and in the Middle East have sparked anger between Jews and Muslims, two groups of officers who would seem to have little in common outside of work have quietly begun moving closer together. The Shomrim Society, a fraternal group of Jewish police officers, and the NYPD’s Muslim Society, an organization launched in 2008, have created what both consider a burgeoning relationship, one which they say will help their police work.
That relationship, springing from the personal bonds between the presidents of both societies — Wein and fellow Det. Ahmed Nasser — rose to a new level late last month, when members of the Muslim Society for the first time joined Shomrim counterparts on the organization’s two-week tour of Israel. The trip also included members of the Holy Name Society, a Catholic group, which has traveled with Shomrim in the past.
But even as the Muslim Society became a partner in the trip, an incident at Ben-Gurion Airport shortly after the officers landed in Israel threatened to derail the sense of bonhomie and demonstrated the potential perils of Muslim-Jewish dialogue.
Israeli authorities singled out three Arab-American officers for questioning even as they allowed the trip’s 44 other officers to leave the terminal building, said Nasser, president of the Muslim Society and one of those detained.
The interrogation lasted two-and-a-half hours and included such basic questions as “who are you with, what are you carrying and where are you going,” said Nasser, 44, who came to the United States from Yemen 24 years ago. He added that he and the other two officers, both of Palestinian descent, made clear they had traveled to Israel with other cops. They also pressed Israeli officials for an explanation, but received none, Nasser said.
That version of events is backed by Wein, who waited with the rest of the officers in a bus outside the Ben-Gurion terminal as their three colleagues were being detained.
“We went under the interfaith banner,” said Wein, 40, who described the reaction of the trip’s Jewish and Christian officers as one of shock. “We understand that things have to be done for safety and security,” he continued, “but we were very annoyed that it was done to one of us.”
Nasser said he, too, understands the need for security precautions, but he believed that he and his two fellow officers “were targeted for our backgrounds.”
Despite the injured feelings, however, the three officers joked about the experience just after returning from Israel. And, perhaps more noteworthy, no one on the trip allowed the episode to affect their tour, which was aimed at building understanding and tolerance.
The relationship between Nasser and Wein began taking shape two years ago, shortly after both officers assumed leadership of their respective societies and met at an NYPD luncheon. Since then, the two have become close friends, creating a model for other cops.
The idea for the trip grew from that bond, both officers said in an interview last week, a few days after returning from their trip. At some point, Wein recalled, they realized that such a joint activity would benefit the department and the city.
“We sort of sat around and said, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we could do something for the world.’ I don’t know how familiar you are with police officers,” Wein said jokingly. “But if cops can get along, anyone can get along.”
And get along they have, according to Nasser, a liaison officer in the NYPD’s Community Affairs Bureau, and Wein, who works in the Canarsie section of Brooklyn.
In the past two years, ever since the two societies agreed on the trip, members of both groups have attended each other’s events, including scholarship dinners, toy drives and holiday parties. One of those gatherings took place during Father’s Day weekend last year, when Jewish officers showed up at a barbeque organized by the Muslim Society. The cops and their families played Wiffle ball together.
Wein guesses that “well over 1,000” Jewish officers serve in the NYPD, while Nasser puts the number of Muslim cops at about the same level. The Shomrim Society has about 2,000 members, half of them retired, and the Muslim Society claims 260 members.
Both officers believe the same sense of professional unity and cooperation is felt by the department’s rank-and-file cops, whether Jewish or Muslim. Wein, for instance, said he’s friendly with the “handful” of Muslim cops in his own precinct and that, as the Shomrim’s president, he surely would have heard about any bad episodes between members of the two faiths. So far, he said, he’s heard of none.
It was in that spirit that 47 police officers flew to Israel on May 20.
They experienced other tense moments during the trip, including one that involved their tour guide, an Israeli woman with a military background, Nasser said.
He recalled that she came across as a bit “hard-edged and one-sided” at times, especially while discussing Arab-Jewish relations and Islam. The tension reached the point where Nasser felt he “had to sit down with her” and discuss his feelings — something the two did for several hours while other officers were enjoying a night on the town.
“She was resistant at first, but she opened up later,” Nasser said. And that’s precisely “the way things should be,” he added, with two sides to a dispute or misunderstanding handling the problem by talking instead of fighting.
But the trip’s positive moments clearly outweighed the negative or awkward ones, according to the two friends.
While in Israel, the tour’s participants met separately with an Israeli police inspector and Palestinian cops in Bethlehem, in the West Bank. The officers engaged in “cop talk,” Wein said — conversations about the issues and problems that face all cops, wherever their location.
Meanwhile, Nasser, who grew up hearing only hostility toward Israel, learned that Israeli Arabs work for the national police and other government institutions — a discovery that surprised him. And he drew something positive even from the airport incident, learning how an average citizen approached by a cop might feel during the encounter.
Their experiences during the trip are bound to create more effective cops, said Wein, Nasser and other participants — another objective of the tour.
“Any time you have a better understanding of yourself and different communities, you also become a more sensitive and professional officer,” said Det. Samuel Miller, 55, a past president of the Shomrim Society and a leader of the trip.
The trip came amid the kinds of developments that could easily derail coexistence efforts, such as the Gaza flotilla, the firestorm aroused by Israel’s response and, locally, the opposition to a proposed Islamic community center near Ground Zero.
But Nasser, for one, didn’t even think about political issues as he made the trip. “I wanted to keep those aside” and, instead, look at how people can understand each other, he said. In addition, by the time news of the Israeli attack emerged, the Israeli leg of the tour had ended and the officers were on their way to Egypt.
Efforts to advance Muslim-Jewish understanding are often associated with peace activists and progressive groups, but some observers believe that those activities are now entering the Jewish mainstream.
Rabbi Marc Schneier, president of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, said there is probably no Jewish body more mainstream than the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations. But IJCIC, an agency that includes the World Jewish Congress, the American Jewish Committee and the rabbinic organizations of Reform, Conservative and Orthodox Jewry, is now exploring how to reach out to the Muslim world, the rabbi said.
Other examples include the World Jewish Congress, which has made outreach to the Muslim world a key part of its annual agenda, and the Union for Reform Judaism, whose president, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, began an initiative three years ago to strengthen ties between Muslims and Jews. Rabbi Schneier’s own foundation has created an annual “Weekend of Twinning,” which pairs synagogues and mosques throughout the country for joint activities.
Rabbi Schneier acknowledged that those involved in Muslim-Jewish dialogue face “many hurdles and obstacles” to their work. “But the good news is that the process has begun — and that’s not something I would have said five years ago.”
One person who’s now part of that process is Nasser, who views his trip to Israel as a positive experience.
“Despite that first-day experience” of being detained at Ben-Gurion Airport, he said, “I’d do it again.”
Next week: Muslims and Bukharan Jews in Queens forge a relationship.
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