It’s time to have another look at the purpose of interfaith dialogue. Last year, I wrote that whereas we all support interfaith dialogue, we shouldn’t lose sight of its objective; that we needed to recognize that reaching out can only succeed when both sides are committed to improving a relationship. If Jews merely mouth platitudes – or make concessions – to curry favor this provides the facade of goodwill, but ultimately proves counterproductive.
I cited the example of how the World Jewish Congress reacted to last year’s Muhammad cartoon controversy. It condemned the Danish newspaper publishers and called on Western countries to display greater sensitivity toward Muslim sensibilities.
I am a former chairman of the governing board of the WJC, and I have had my differences with the organization, so I am aware that when I criticize it some people will focus more on my history as critic than on the validity of my complaint.
Nevertheless, here we are a year later, and a newly-appointed chairman of the American section of the WJC, Rabbi Marc Schneier, is maintaining a bad pattern by going down the wrong interfaith path.
MY HUNCH is that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert may have put in a word of support in getting Schneier the WJC slot because Schneier also happens to be Kadima’s top man in the United States.
Schneier, in his WJC capacity, recently compromised Jewish dignity when he endorsed a gathering headed by Louis Farrakhan, the notorious Black Muslim anti-Semite.
The World Jewish Congress had earlier convened a small gathering of its American Section to appoint Schneier as chairman. In attendance as an honored guest was the highly successful entrepreneur Russell Simmons, head of the Hip Hop Summit Action Network.
Simmons is a major sponsor of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, founded by Schneier, from which Schneier draws an annual salary of $250,000. Although Simmons is on record as opposing anti-Semitism and sponsors commercials to that effect, he has been criticized by the ADL for remaining a staunch supporter of and financial contributor to Farrakhan.
At the WJC gathering Simmons reportedly called for an alliance against “Islamophobia” and urged that the Christian Right, Islamic fundamentalists and intolerant Jews all be marginalized.
This raises the question of the propriety of a body like the WJC providing a platform for a man who brackets the Christian Right and “intolerant” Jews together with Muslim fundamentalists and supports Farrakhan. And let’s not forget that Christian evangelicals are Israel’s most important backers.
To compound the problem, the New York WJC headquarters recently wrote to The Jerusalem Post dissociating themselves from their own Israeli Section, which had held constructive meetings with Evangelical leaders in Jerusalem.
BUT THE FINAL straw for me was when the WJC American Section, together with Russell Simmons, issued a statement supporting an “interfaith” summit convened by Farrakhan.
The summit was attended by 50,000 people. In the course of his address – in which he supported “Iran’s right to nuclear power” – Farrakhan urged his followers to read a number of books, including Jimmy Carter’s recent anti-Israel tome, as well as The Secret Relationship between Blacks and Jews, which alleges that the slave trade was dominated by Jews, and other notorious anti-Semitic tracts.
President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan also addressed the summit via satellite and condemned those “putting pressure on Sudan,” alleging that the “United States is exaggerating trouble in the Darfur region so that it can control the country, as it has in Iraq.”
After media exposure of Schneier’s endorsement of the summit, the WJC American-section head told the JTA that he was now “incensed that [Farrakhan] would use that forum to refer to books that are of the most venomous anti-Semitic rhetoric and diatribe.”
The real question to be asked is how a person in Schneier’s position could permit himself such naivete, which stemmed from his indirect endorsement of the dialogue in the first place.
Setting that aside, precisely what sort of interfaith purpose does a connection with the Nation of Islam serve?
IT IS BAD enough when fringe groups on the periphery of the Jewish community adopt policies inimical to the communal interests. But the situation becomes entirely intolerable when a body purporting to represent world Jewry goes down that very same path.
There are lessons to be learned from this debacle. We need to have broad guidelines for interfaith dialogue. In the first instance, we need to agree that only responsible leaders sensitive to the interests of the Jewish people should be entrusted such activities. There should be a cordon sanitaire imposed on dealings with unreconstructed anti-Semites of all political shades.
There should also be a clear understanding that dialogue requires reciprocity, and that groveling to extremists is counterproductive and will inevitably result in Jewish dignity being demeaned.
It is also important that Jewish organizations resist the temptations of engaging in hype or proclaiming false breakthroughs, recognizing that the objective of interfaith activities must be directed toward building genuine alliances.
The writer chairs the Diaspora-Israel relations committee of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, and is a veteran Jewish international leader.