On dialogue between Jews and Muslims

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Dialogue with Muslims has become the flavor of the month, and many Jewish organizations now compete with one another to create Muslim-Jewish talk-fests. Whereas such initiatives are helpful and certainly preferable to exchanging diatribes, if the objective is primarily to ingratiate ourselves with Muslims and gain publicity, the exercise becomes counterproductive.

The Jewish track record of dialogue with the Church illustrates that until Pope John XXIII’s dramatic condemnation of anti-Semitism at the Second Vatican Council, our efforts had little impact beyond reinforcing relationships with marginal Christian philo-Semites.

Meaningful dialogue requires that both parties agree in advance to accord mutual respect and genuinely commit to exploring means of forging deeper understandings. It also presupposes a willingness to indulge in honest and open discussion rather than mouthing platitudes or employing glib rhetoric to cover up differences. Above all, it demands the involvement of responsible and sensitive Jewish representatives, knowledgeable about Judaism and its place in the world at large.

There are circumstances in which dialogue must be avoided. For example, if the Muslim group concerned refuses to condemn the anti-Semitic tirades emanating from Islamic quarters, or even indirectly condones global terrorism and suicide bombings, or promotes conspiracies such as implying that 9/11 was an Israeli plot. To share stages or collaborate with groups holding such views merely provides a platform for radicals to exploit dialogue as a vehicle to obtain respectability and cover up their extremism.

The problem we face with Islamic religious leaders is that while a number of their spokesmen, under pressure, do ritualistically condemn Islamic extremism, many continue to express sympathy with the radicals, or at best remain silent. The dominant Islamic voices being heard are apologists for violence, terrorism and intolerance. If there are moderate Muslims, they remain mainly in the closet or are sufficiently intimidated to avoid condemning the excesses of their jihadist kinsmen.

In this environment, it is contrary to our interests to continuously repeat the politically correct but utterly false mantra that Islam is a religion of peace. Whereas all three major monotheistic religions incorporate elements of militant piety and violence, Islam, with its unique jihadism, today represents the most violent doctrine.

This is not to deny that given more enlightened religious leaders it could become moderate. But the export of Wahhabism from Saudi Arabia has led to the creation of new Islamic schools and the domination of existing institutions by a religious ideology which sanctifies violence. It is in these sources that martyrs (shahids) and suicide bombers were incubated and became such a dominant element in contemporary Islam.

Likewise, we do ourselves a disservice if we support the false allegation that Islamophobia is rampant. While as Jews we abhor and oppose all forms of prejudice, we must recognize that under the present circumstances, it is a tribute to tolerance in Western countries that despite the violence and intimidation emanating from Muslims, overt aggression or discrimination against them has been extremely limited.

In fact, despite our abhorrence of bloodshed, we Jews encounter far more violence than do Muslims – reflected in the simple fact that, unlike synagogues, mosques rarely require armed guards and that in Europe, much of the violence directed against Jews emanates from Muslims.

We should therefore also strongly endorse the approach of those who refuse to be intimidated by Islamic bullying, as exemplified in the vicious campaign against Danish cartoons of the prophet Mohammad, or the obscene threats and violent attacks against any who question Islamic beliefs or behavior.

Some Jewish representatives also display an unfortunate penchant for demonstrating their liberal credentials by endorsing Muslim demands to outlaw security profiling. We would be well advised to remember that Jews represent the principal target for terrorists, and it would therefore surely be bizarre for Jews to undermine security procedures which may largely ultimately directly impact against them.

It is simply a denial of reality to dismiss the ethnic profiles of Arab Muslims when 95% of acts of global terrorism emanate from this group.

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, head of the Reform movement, exemplifies well-meaning Jewish leaders falling into this trap. He recently publicly condemned profiling in an address to a questionable Islamic organization, the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), with whom he had recently launched a major interfaith dialogue. According to some American Jewish critics, ISNA had allegedly previously backed terrorist groups and was named as an unindicated co-conspirator in a major trial against a Wahhabi oriented group (The Holy Land Foundation) illegally raising funds for Hamas. In addition, the US Justice Department referred to the ISNA as an offshoot of the terrorist Muslim Brotherhood.

In similar vein, Rabbi Marc Schneier, sponsor of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, co-hosted a meeting of 12 imams and 12 rabbis at the Islamic Center in New York in conjunction with Imam Omar Abu Namous. In a previous joint meeting with Schneier’s group, Namous called for the substitution of Israel with a binational state and demanded that the Israelis apologize for their “crimes” to the Palestinians. To avoid a repetition, Schneier and Namous agreed among themselves that Israel would be removed from the agenda.

This is a prime example of the damage incurred through interfaith dialogue with Muslims. If we bask in expressions of mutual love but fail to proclaim to our partners in dialogue that Israel is central to our Jewish identity, we make a mockery of dialogue and effectively capitulate to the extremists.

Of course, Muslims are entitled to criticize Israeli policies. But there must be understandings in advance that, as distinct from genuine criticism, efforts to delegitimize or demonize Israel make it impossible for us to share platforms with them. We must also insist that the condemnation of Muslim anti-Semitism be an agenda item in all such encounters.

None of this detracts from our obligation to raise our voices against those who would condemn an entire religion because of the criminal behavior of its individuals. Alas, it is galling that in the Muslim arena there are virtually no such condemnations when it comes to incitement against Israel, the Jews, or even America.

There are nevertheless genuine opportunities to conduct constructive dialogue with judiciously selected Muslim groups. For example, the recent visits of Indian Muslims and Indonesian imams to Israel under the auspices of the American Jewish Committee represent the kind of positive dialogue that should be commended and encouraged.

Bottom line: Dialogue with Muslims becomes counterproductive when we grovel and demean ourselves in order to curry favor. All that is achieved is a fa�ade of goodwill which ultimately only strengthens extremists at the expense of the few genuine moderates within the Islamic community whom we are obliged to continue to seek out, for their sake and ours.

The writer is a former chairman of the Governing Board of the World Jewish Congress and a veteran international Jewish leader. ileibler@netvision.net.il

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