Interfaith dialogue: Have we gone mad?

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Last year I wrote an article warning that whereas we all support interfaith dialogue and creating alliances with other groups, we must never lose sight of the objective and recognize that dialogue can only succeed when both parties are committed to improving relationships. If we merely mouth platitudes and make concessions in order to curry favor, this may provide a façade of goodwill but ultimately it becomes a counter-productive exercise which our enemies will exploit to undermine us.

For example, at the height of the violent global upheavals relating to the Mohammed cartoons, the World Jewish Congress (WJC) condemned the Danish newspaper publishers and called on Western countries to display greater sensitivity towards the feelings of Moslems. One may have concerns about the merits of such an approach, but it is surely disconcerting when a Jewish body promotes such a policy without either alluding to the obscene threats and violent reactions emanating from virtually the entire Moslem world, or avoiding mention of the vile Nazi style cartoons and anti Semitic propaganda saturating the global Moslem media. Ignoring these issues amounts to groveling in order to ingratiate oneself with Moslems. This impression was confirmed when the WJC’s Israel Singer stated that “the row over the caricatures of Mohammed showed how conflicts can be unnecessarily provoked” and made the bizarre observation that “99 percent of Moslems reject all forms of violence… and that is why we have to take actions against lunatics within our own ranks and look for common ground in dialogue.”

Now, a year later, the newly appointed chairman of the American section of the WJC, Rabbi Marc Schneier, took a further step in compromising Jewish dignity in the name of interfaith dialogue. He endorsed a gathering headed by Louis Farrakhan, one of the most notorious African/America anti-Semites, whose strictures against Jews are reminiscent of Goebbels at his worst. For example, Farrakhan describes Judaism as “a gutter religion” and praises Adolf Hitler as “a great man.”

Rabbi Schneier is himself a somewhat elusive personality. Some years ago he wrote a book on Martin Luther King which incorporated a speech by King purportedly praising Zionism which the highly respected US based pro research body “Camera,” subsequently exposed as a fraud.

It is furthermore alleged that at the urging of WJC officials, Prime Minister Olmert appointed Rabbi Schneier as president and Mark Mishaan as vice president of Kadima in the United States. Mishaan was obliged to resign when it was disclosed that he was a convicted criminal felon, possibly facing a lengthy prison sentence after pleading guilty to grand larceny. Additionally, sections of Kadima USA’s website had to be withdrawn from the internet after the media disclosed that Kadima USA had plagiarized portions of the Texas Democrat Party’s website into its policy program.

When the World Jewish Congress convened a small gathering of its American Section in order to appoint Rabbi Schneier as Chairman, the highly successful entrepreneur Russell Simmons, head of the Hip Hop Summit Action Network, participated as guest of honor. Simmons is a major sponsor of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding founded by Schneier, from which he draws an annual salary of $250,000. Although Simmons is on record opposing anti Semitism and sponsors commercials to that effect, he has been condemned by the ADL for remaining a staunch and unqualified supporter and financial contributor to Farrakhan. Foxman asked Russell how he would respond to sponsorship of an event dedicated to tolerance organized by a white supremacist.

At the WJC meeting, Simmons 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 Islamic Fundamentalists, supports Farrakhan, and demonizes Israel’s most important backers, the Christian evangelicals. To compound the problem, the New York WJC headquarters recently wrote to the Jerusalem Post dissociating themselves from their own Israeli Section which held constructive meetings with evangelicals in Jerusalem.

But the final straw was when the WJC American Section and Russell Simmons issued a public statement supporting an “interfaith” rally 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 President Jimmy Carter’s recent anti Israel book, 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.

The President of Sudan, Omar-al-Bashir also addressed the audience 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 Farrakhan, the WJC American section head explained that he had been unaware that Farrakhan would be promoting anti Semitic books at the rally.

The real question to be asked is how to question the responsibility of a person in such a position who can permit himself to endorse a notorious anti-Semite like Farrakhan. And setting that aside, what sort of interfaith alliances are Jews becoming involved in?

It is bad enough when fringe Jewish groups adopt policies inimical to the Jewish interests, but the situation becomes entirely intolerable when it applies to a body purporting to represent world Jewry.

There are lessons to be learnt from this debacle. Broad guidelines should be established in relation to interfaith dialogue. In the first instance, only responsible people sensitive to the interests of the Jewish people should be heading such activities. It is vital that a cordon sanitaire be 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 counter productive and will inevitably result in Jewish dignity being demeaned. It is also important that Jewish agencies resist the temptations of engaging in hype and proclaiming false breakthroughs, recognizing that the objective of interfaith activities must be directed towards building genuine alliances.

Disclosure: The writer, a former Chairman of the Governing Board of the WJC, has been involved in an intense confrontation with certain leaders of the WJC. He stands by the facts quoted in this article but encourages readers to reach their independent conclusions.

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