Babel in Boca

What Boca Raton's Jews and Muslims have here is a failure to communicate

"It was uncomfortable," Shareef recalls. "Mr. Gralnick explained to us that Jewish people do not differentiate between those in Israel and those in the United States. We understand that it offends Jewish people for us to separate Israel and America in this nationalistic sense. That is what we have come to understand. But they have to understand certain aspects of our faith."

Singer describes the meeting as "typically Middle Eastern": "It was calm, pleasant, formal," he says. "You know, like they always like to do."

Gralnick, however, dismisses the meeting as "public relations," saying that the best action right now is no action. "I don't know what good it would do anybody just to get us in a room together. That might even be dangerous," he asserts. "We considered the material [on the Website] blasphemous. The imam was very open about the fact that, if something was quoted from the Koran, that was just the way it is."

"No public dialogue is really in order until we get beyond the present mood," Singer says. And the rabbi doesn't anticipate pressure from members of Temple Beth El to move forward with communication. No one has requested that so far, but if someone does, Singer says, he would probably invite Muslim leaders to Temple Beth El without playing detective first.

Gralnick, however, says he's more resolute than ever about putting any Muslim through a series of checks. Although he would not detail how that information would be compiled, Gralnick says the American Jewish Committee "starts with the state department's lists of terrorist organizations. We assume that any individual that appears in the press and at rallies and who's on that list is going to be in our files. We have files on people who we think may do us harm: the Klan, the John Birch Society. I don't apologize for that."

Dremali is offended by the idea of being investigated. "There's already so much misunderstanding between us that that seems to make things much worse, the assumption that we are already suspects," he says. "I'm afraid any little mistake Muslims may have made in their lives will be known, exploited, used by a small group of people to their advantage. [Gralnick] told me that several million Muslims are already questionable to him. What gives them that authority?"

Although Jewish leaders support Gralnick's belief that the two groups should continue to refrain from open dialogue, they are distancing themselves from the term background checks.

Boca's chapter of the Anti-Defamation League aims to protect the rights of South Florida's 580,000 Jews, 64,500 of whom live in Boca Raton; the majority of Jews throughout the region attend conservative synagogues. The organization also serves South Florida's 70,000 Muslims, who first began migrating to the area in significant numbers 15 years ago. It's unclear how many Muslims live in Boca, but approximately 15 mosques and 10 houses of prayer have sprung up in southern Palm Beach County since the mid-1980s.

ADL director Bill Rothchild and associate director Ilene Goodman split hairs on the topic of Muslim and Jewish forums. They say they would recommend the groups "proceed with caution" and perform background checks not on Muslim organizations but on individual Muslims.

Not everyone with the league is quick to impose conditions on talks between Jews and Muslims. Art Teitelbaum, the organization's Southern Area director, says that, though Muslims have lived in South Florida for decades, only in the past few years have followers of Islam increased their civic and social presences here. "Now we have an extraordinary situation created by events here and in the Middle East," says Teitelbaum, who has led thousands of interfaith forums. "I can't think of a better time to talk than right now."

A voice from the Muslim community agrees. Dr. Zulfiqar Shah, the director of Fort Lauderdale's Islamic Studies Center and former University of Florida scholar on Judaism and Islam, says restricting communication between Jews and Muslims is "damaging, foolish, and dangerous."

"We need to unify our religions, not try to discard each other's credibility," effuses Shah. "This is not the time for picking apart issues mired in the Middle East. We must refocus as a nation and face terror like a nation. Dialogue is the best thing for everyone. These men call themselves faith leaders; they should act that way."

Dremali says he'd like to organize a forum for Jews and Muslims. "I feel that it's something we must do. Continuing with this level of conflict right here in our town is not healthy," he says. "That is not why I came to this country, to feel divided from another group. There is all this talk about feeling united right now. Well, where is that in Boca?"

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