Jewish-Muslim Dialogue

A few weeks ago I delivered a sermon on four common misunderstandings about Judaism. It was rather well received, and many of you commented that you learned something new about our own religion! 

This week I attended a talk sponsored by the Chicago Board of Rabbis that addressed specifically Muslim misunderstandings about Jews. The talk was led by Imam Abdullah Antepli, a chaplain and faculty member at Duke University and Yossi Klein Ha-Levi of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. Together they developed a program, held at the Hartman Institute, which they call the Muslim Leadership Initiative.

Imam Antepli initiated the program. His goal, he said, is to heal the Muslim-Jewish divide in the United States. What divide, you may ask? Has not he Jewish community stood by our Muslim neighbors during this time of heightened anti-Muslim feeling and rhetoric in our country? Has not the Muslim community expressed empathy and provided financial support when our Jewish institutions have been threatened and our cemeteries desecrated? That is all true, said our two speakers that morning, but our relationship comes at the cost of ignoring the elephant in the room. That elephant in the room is our differences over Israel.

One of the ways to heal that divide is for Muslims and Jews to begin to be honest with one another, and the Imam was very honest. He introduced himself by telling us, a group of rabbis, that he is a “recovering anti-Semite”. As a teen-ager growing up in Turkey he got most of his information about Jews from readings laden with anti-Semitic poison: Henry Ford’s International Jew, Hitler’s Mein Kampf and that classic Soviet anti-Semitic work, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. He was inspired by the religious revival that swept the Middle East in the wake of the Iranian revolution to become an Imam. He was revolted by Israel treatment of Palestinians. Yet, as he continued to study the Koran in depth he found it difficult to reconcile the hatred that he felt toward Jews with the teachings of Mohammed. It was then that he began to study the long and fruitful relationship between Jews and Muslims prior to the 20th century. He also began to meet and develop relationships with Jews with whom he shared values and beliefs. He was intrigued about how we Jews had managed to both maintain our religion and community in the United States and at the same time become so well integrated into the American mainstream. “I wanted to journey to the heart of Judaism,” he said.

At the same time he became concerned about the rising tide of anti-Semitism in the Muslim world as a result of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He became alarmed when he found Muslims unable to distinguish between their condemnation of Israeli policies and actions toward their Palestinian brethren and anti-Semitism. He now worries that this rising tide of anger and hatred toward Jews will deeply damage Muslims worldwide and will become an obstacle for American Muslims as they seek greater integration into American life.  

Yossi Klein Ha-Levi, Imam Antepli’s Jewish partner in the Muslim Leadership Initiative, is an American born Israel journalist and author. He grew up in New York City and was a follower of the extremist right wing rabbi Meyer Kahane. Kahane was the founder of the Jewish Defense League, whose mottos were “For Every Jew a .22” and “Never Again”. Kahane later moved to Israel and founded the Kach party that advocated the annexation of the West Bank and the expulsion of all Palestinians from that territory. His party was eventually banned from Israeli politics for inciting racism. Yossi Klein Ha-Levi eventually broke with Kahane and moved to Israel, where, he writes, he gradually repudiated his “Jewish rage” and sought out a different path. He is truly the Imam’s Jewish counterpart.

Yossi Klein Halevi told us that Muslims say they have no problem with Jews. They only have problems with Zionists. From a Jewish perspective this is a fundamental problem. This is a problem because when they say that Zionism is the issue, Muslims are saying that they don’t accept Jews as a “people”, only as a religion. In fact, along with Christians, Muslims have difficulty in understanding that we see ourselves more than just a religion. We see ourselves as a people with a shared past and a common destiny, who believe in the G-d who brought us out of Egypt and who led us to our sacred homeland, Israel, to which we have returned. According to our theology, G-d made a covenant with “The Jewish People” and therefore the collective has a theological importance that is found neither in Christianity nor in Islam. The Land of Israel is central to our self-definition as Jews. To deny that historical and religious connection is to deny an essential part of who we are. 

The goal of the Muslim Leadership Initiative at the Hartman Institute is not to make Zionists out of Muslims or to recruit new allies to the Israeli cause. Rather, the goal of the program is to help Muslims understand the historical and religious reasons for the deep attachment that Jews have to the Land of Israel after thousands of years of being a persecuted minority in the diaspora.

The subject of Israel is almost totally avoided in interfaith work. There are good reasons for that. The subject of Israel elicits complex emotions and many, including clergy, tend to avoid it altogether. Even those of us invested in enhancing and cultivating interfaith relationships do not talk about Israel with members of the other faith. After all, the topic of Israel is even avoided in many synagogues for the very same reason. If we cannot talk about Israel among ourselves without fearing that it will lead to a disruption of relationships, how can we talk about it with Muslims whose sympathies for the most part lie elsewhere? It also may be that many Jews themselves are not clear about the role Israel plays in the theological and historical self-understanding of the Jewish people. How can we be in dialogue with others when many of us do not fully understand the centrality of the Land of Israel in Judaism?

The Muslim Leadership Initiative cannot in itself bring peace to the Israeli –Palestinian conflict. But it can have a profound effect on those individuals who choose to participate in it. One graduate of the program writes that she learned that Zionism has a very different meaning to Jews than it does to her. And she learned that Jewish fears about the survival of Israel are not merely excuses for maintaining the occupation or “a deep collective pathology divorced from reality”, as she had previously thought. 

Perhaps programs like this can open up dialogue and make for more honest and authentic relationships between Muslims and Jews.
Shabbat Shalom