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Muslim-Jewish Advisory Council Bridges Religious Lines To Fight Discrimination


Jewish and Muslim groups have sometimes been on opposite sides of debates. Now they've joined together to fight common enemies. The Muslim-Jewish Advisory Council is a new bipartisan group designed to fight Islamophobia and anti-Semitism. I'm joined now by two of the group's leaders. Farooq Kathwari is Muslim. He's the CEO of Ethan Allen and one of the co-chairs of this new council. Bob Silverman comes from the Jewish advocacy organization AJC, and he helped create this group. Thank you both for joining us.

ROBERT SILVERMAN: Well, thank you.

FAROOQ KATHWARI: Yeah, good to - good to be on with you, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Mr. Silverman, begin by explaining how this group came about.

SILVERMAN: We started this over the summer - AJC did - and reached out to our Muslim partner organizations, our Muslim friends. The strategic need for these two communities - the American Muslim and American Jewish communities - to work together for common goals that are domestically oriented is longstanding. And, of course, because of the recent presidential election - some of the hate speech that's come out of our public discourse - there's been new impetus for this. And so we did rather quickly form this council. But I would emphasize that it's a strategic need that has been longstanding.

SHAPIRO: A longstanding need, but, Mr. Kathwari, there does seem to be an urgency today that might not have existed a year or two ago.

KATHWARI: Well, that is true, but I think this has been building up. Unfortunately, people who are somewhat more on the extreme - their points get across. And when I was approached, I had to give some thought to joining this. But what convinced me was first the need, and the second - that you've got Democrats, you've got Republicans, you've got independents. This is bipartisan.

SHAPIRO: Just to get specific, do you see this group advocating for legislation, doing training in schools, putting out statements after acts that could be construed as hate crimes? I mean, where do you see this group actually interacting with the public agenda on a day-by-day basis?

SILVERMAN: We are in the process of working on a very detailed policy agenda. There's a subgroup of our council that are looking at specific measures - both legislation, executive actions - that we would like the new administration to join with us on. These are measures that address the need to keep the door open to immigration.

And the two co-chairs of this group are both immigrants who came as young students and have given back a tremendous amount to this country. And so we want the power of that example to continue, and we're looking at specific measures that would do that on the immigration side. We will be addressing anti-Muslim hate speech, bigotry, anti-Semitism in the public. We're looking at hate crimes laws that currently exist. I think there's some questions about enforcement, both at the state level and at the federal level. We'll be doing things intersecting with the public with Congress. It's going to be a very positive, inclusive agenda.

SHAPIRO: You're obviously fighting external enemies - white nationalism and so on. Are you also fighting internal enemies? Are there people within the Jewish or Muslim communities who have said, wait a minute - I'm not sure this is a great idea.

SILVERMAN: Well, this organization is not really focused on enemies. I'll just start from that assumption. We want to project a proactive agenda that's good for the whole country. These are two communities that feel, first and foremost, that we're Americans. There are a high percentage of immigrants, both Jewish and Muslim, that are in this group, that are - that feel very grateful to be in this country and want to contribute something back. And we thought it was a powerful example for two communities that don't really see, you know, eye to eye on every possible thing, particularly on foreign policy issues, to combine and do things that are domestically oriented.

And it's not so much a reaction to enemies. You're going to see on February 1 when we put out our domestic policy agenda that it's a very positive, proactive one. And I would just emphasize what Farooq said. I think it's almost maybe more important than it's Muslim-Jewish, it's also Republican and Democrat. That's pretty rare these days, and it's a very cool thing.

SHAPIRO: Both of the co-chairs of your group are CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. Mr. Kathwari, you run the furniture company Ethan Allen. Your co-chair, Stanley Berkman, who is Jewish, runs the medical products distributor Henry Schein. We have seen President-elect Trump single out large businesses that have criticized him. Do you worry at all that your involvement with a group like this could have commercial repercussions?

KATHWARI: I wish I would say this - that it's not an easy decision to co-chair an organization like this. You are right. Ethan Allen is an organization that deals all over the country. We have manufacturing in Vermont, in North Carolina, in other states. We have 200 locations. We are a known and a desired brand. I had to give a thought whether something like this is going to be negative for us. But then I came to the conclusion that not doing it is not the right thing, that I must help. I help for country, for the community and even my children. I've got two grown-up children, and I can see that they have concerns. And people like me - if we do not stand up, I think we only did because we are afraid. That's not an option.

SILVERMAN: Yeah. And we're so glad you're - you've done this, Farooq, so thank you.

SHAPIRO: Farooq Kathwari and Bob Silverman of the Muslim-Jewish Advisory Council, thanks to you both.

KATHWARI: Thank you very much.

SILVERMAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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