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January 16, 2008 Edition

The Fate of American Muslims

January 16, 2008

One night last week I was asked by an American Jewish organization to play host to a group of young visitors from America, and I chose a good, though non-kosher, local restaurant to do it in.

Once we were gathered around the table, the restaurant's owner, an acquaintance of mine who had been briefed in advance about the group, came to our table and, instead of handing out menus, told us what he had in his kitchen. It seemed a nice personal touch, but when he skipped the one pork dish that I knew was a regular item, I realized it was also a tactful one.

Was the group composed of non-observant American Jews and was he worried that they might nevertheless be offended by pork on an Israeli menu? Not exactly, although it did have two accompanying Jewish members.

Its main contingent was five Muslim student leaders from American universities who had been offered a week's tour of Israel as part of a program to improve Muslim-Jewish relations in America and with whom I had been asked to meet. It was their feelings the restaurant's owner was concerned about.

He needn't have been, because the students four young men and a young woman, all bright and charming were perfectly relaxed about what they were eating and even encouraged us alcohol-drinking Jews to have a glass of wine with our meal. It turned out to be an enjoyable evening. I don't know how much the five of them learned from me about Israel, but I certainly learned something about America, a country I left in 1970 and have subsequently never been back to for more than brief visits, although there have been many of these.

Perhaps it's all old hat to you readers, who have been watching the gradual "multiculturalizing" of America for decades. To me, however, it came as something of a revelation to realize how many Americans are now living in a way that I had always associated almost exclusively with Jews and not with all of them either, by any means.

What I mean is this. When I was a boy growing up in New York in a religiously Orthodox and intensely Jewish home in the 1940s and 1950s, it always struck me how different I was from most other boys my age in having a second, Jewish identity that was entirely separate from my American one. If I had been asked what I was more, a Jew or an American, I wouldn't have known what to answer. I could only have said that I was both, and that these two sides of me didn't always get along too well.

This seemed to me a peculiarly Jewish fate. Of course, there were Irish-Americans, and Italian-Americans, and lots of other hyphenated Americans as well, but it was clear to me that, whatever ethnic pride they had about their origins, being American was not a problem for them, certainly not for the native-born among them.

They were Americans first and foremost, and the Irish or Italian part of them was simply one of the many flavors that Americans came in. Only Jews sometimes wondered whether being American was perhaps a flavor they came in.

But these young American Muslims the other night were not like that. They were more like the Jewish boy I once was. As I listened to them talking about themselves I came to realize that, although all but one of them was born in America, none of them felt entirely at home there. They identified as Americans, they liked being Americans, but they knew they were something else, too and this something else was sometimes in conflict with being American. They were leading the same kind of double life that I had led before deciding, at an age slightly older than theirs, to move to Israel.

Some of this conflict, of course, can be attributed to anti-Muslim feelings that have become more prevalent since September 11 and the spread of Islamic terror. Every one of the five students at the table had had the experience of being negatively singled out or profiled in his community for being Muslim. Every one had encountered some form of prejudice.

But on the whole, listening to their stories, none of this seemed to me much worse than my own experiences as a boy with being called "kike" or "Christ-killer" by the Irish kids who came looking for fights. It wasn't that which made me feel that being Jewish made me special, and the same seemed to me to be true of the five of them.

It was rather their attachment to Islam, which they felt to be deep and profound and to involve commitments, values, and ways of looking at things that set them apart from the rest of American society. Although they are all still young, they are already thinking about how they to raise their children and how to perpetuate this sense of difference in them, too just like Jews.

Is this true only of young American Muslims, or is it a more general effect of multiculturalism that would be equally the case with Asian-Americans, Hispano-Americans, and others groups more anxious than in the past to preserve their ethnic identities in an American melting pot that no longer melts so quickly or so thoroughly? I don't know the answer.

But sitting in the restaurant the other night, it occurred to me that I was looking at a changed America from the one I left in 1970. It gave me a strong sense of sympathy for the five young people I had met, all of whom now have before them a peculiarly Jewish fate.

Mr. Halkin is a contributing editor of The New York Sun.

January 16, 2008 Edition > Section: Opinion > Printer-Friendly Version



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