Jews should talk to Muslims
The reason for the recent marked increase in anti-Semitic incidents in Europe is usually ascribed to the growth of the Muslim population there. For example, Sweden – where I grew up and where I lived among Holocaust survivors who were helped to a new life by the then Swedish government – has gained international notoriety because of the re-emergence of overt anti-Semitism there. Radicalized Muslim immigrants are said to be the primary cause.
Through the ages Christians and pagans needed neither Muslims nor the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians to voice and act on their hatred of Jews and Judaism. Some spokespeople of ostensibly peace-loving contemporary Christianity are still trying to express their disdain with the pretext of only opposing government policies in the Jewish state, not the Jewish People or the Jewish faith. Of late, a growing number don’t even seem to bother to cite this lame excuse.
At the same time, many responsible Christian leaders are making valiant efforts to mend fences with the Jewish people. The pronouncements and actions by Pope Francis aptly illustrate this wholesome trend. Fruitful interfaith encounters between Jews and Christians have become important elements of religious life.
In recent years, despite political complexities and growing religious extremism, similar efforts to bring about Muslim-Jewish relations are beginning to bear fruit. Unlike Christians, Muslims are more likely start at the grassroots level, perhaps in the hope of thus influencing their often-reluctant leaders.
I’ve witnessed some of it myself. For example, last April I attended the annual international interfaith conference in Doha, Qatar, where the emphasis seems to have been more on local encounters than on generalities. Though cynics will always find ways to suspect and debunk such initiatives, the results are often very beneficial.
I’ve also experienced promising encounters with Muslims in Canada. Thus I spoke recently at a conference on world religions in Guelph, Ont., sponsored by the Ahmadiyah sect of Islam. Participants included the local rabbi. Some Jewish delegates came from the United States.
A couple of weeks later, I spoke, together with an imam and a Christian academic, about Muhammad. The occasion was a symposium hosted by the Waterloo Lutheran Seminary in Waterloo, Ont. Local Jews and Muslims attended and participated.
Recently I was invited to address a congregation at a Friday service at the Noor Islamic Centre in Toronto. Bearing in mind the Arab-Israeli conflict, I suggested to the Muslim worshippers that it’s not for us here to fight the battles there. Our purpose should be to promote peaceful coexistence, mutual respect and fruitful interaction between adherents of all faiths as a way of sharing God’s teachings, all for the good of Canada.
Interfaith organizations where exponents of Islam and Judaism meet and exchange ideas exist in many countries. In Canada, the Association of Jews and Muslims has been at the forefront. In Israel, the Interreligious Co-ordinating Council has developed a network for Jews, Christians and Muslims to meet and learn from each other in an effort to help shape a society that transcends wars and enmity.
It’s a welcome antidote to the mutual demonization that takes place in many settings around the world and is often fuelled by unscrupulous clerics and politicians. They misleadingly depict the Jews in Israel as colonizers who had come to displace the indigenous Arab population. In defensive responses to the wild accusations, members of our own community often succumb to pointing to Muslim extremism. Some even erroneously maintain that terrorists are the most authentic exponents of contemporary Islam.
Jews had lived under Muslim rule since the beginning of Islam. On the whole they’ve fared better than in Christian countries. Jewish literature, Jewish thought and even Jewish law have been greatly influenced by the great medieval teachers of Islam. Much of what some today consider to be normative Judaism is the result of the interaction.
It’s as equal citizens in a free and democratic Canada that we seek to encounter the Muslims of our time, not by focusing on extremist and lethal manifestations of their faith – or ours - but by the mainstream teachings of both.
The late Krister Stendahl, former dean of Harvard Divinity School and bishop of Stockholm, arguably the most significant exponents of contemporary interfaith dialogue, has taught us always to compare our best with their best, not our best with their worst. It’s the golden rule of interfaith dialogue.