It’s about time. Rabbi Eric Yoffie, leader of the Union of Reform Judaism, America’s most populous Jewish denomination delivered a ringing affirmation of solidarity with this nation’s Muslim community at this week’s Islamic Society of North America conference. Not only did he endorse common bonds that tie Jews and Muslim like the fight against discrimination and our quest for spirituality in a secular world; he also directly attacked Jewish extremism that singles out Islam as a global threat. Frankly, I would’ve preferred that he come out swinging and named a few more names. It’s high time we take it to them. As it is, he only mentioned Dennis Prager by name. He left out the groups I’ve been battling here over the past few months like Campus Watch, Frontpagemagazine and the David Project.
I found it instructive in his speech where he discusses a mutual propensity to violence among extremists in both religions. Here is the ‘money quote’ in which he denounced the Jewish rabble-rousers among us:
The overwhelming majority of Jews reject violence by interpreting these texts in a constructive way, but a tiny, extremist [Jewish] minority chooses destructive interpretations instead, finding in the sacred words a vengeful, hateful God. Especially disturbing is the fact that the moderate majority, at least some of the time, decides to cower in the face of the fanatic minority — perhaps because they seem more authentic, or appear to have greater faith and greater commitment. When this happens, my task as a rabbi is to rally that reasonable, often-silent majority and encourage them to assert the moderate principles that define their beliefs and Judaism’s highest ideals. My Christian and Muslim friends tell me that precisely the same dynamic operates in their traditions, and from what I can see, that is manifestly so. Surely, as we know from the headlines, you have what I know must be for you as well as for us an alarming number of extremists of your own — those who kill in the name of God and hijack Islam in the process. It is therefore our collective task to strengthen and inspire one another as we fight the fanatics and work to promote the values of justice and love that are common to both our faiths.
This is a theme that I return to again and again here when pro-Israel nationalists attempt to paint Muslims as bloodthirsty fanatics and paint Israelis as reasonable people who merely want peace. Yoffie is precisely right in declaring that we each have violent elements within our respective traditions. Making peace means not only coming to terms with our enemy, it means overcoming the hatred within our own ranks as well.
Here again Yoffie tells his Muslim audience that Israel is a bedrock principle of American Jews in precisely the same way that Palestine is one for them:
American Jews have a deep, profound, and unshakable commitment to the State of Israel. We see assuring the security of Israel as one of our community’s most important accomplishments, and we see maintaining her security as one of our most important priorities. At the same time, we understand the ties of Muslim Americans and Arab Americans to the Palestinian people. The challenge that we face is this: Will we, Jews and Muslims, import the conflicts of the Middle East into America, or will we join together and send a message of peace to that troubled land? Let us choose peace. Let us work toward the day when a democratic Palestinian state lives side by side, in peace and security, with the democratic State of Israel.
Here I would’ve preferred more specificity from the Reform leader about what precisely American Jews must come to accept in order to fully recognize Palestinian rights. You’ll note there is no mention of a state, the issue of return or Jerusalem–all of which must be part of the solution for both sides:
The basic outline of such a peace has been clear for a long time. For peace to be achieved, territorial compromise will be required of Israel. Unconditional acceptance of Israel as a Jewish state will be required of the Palestinians. Jews will need to accept the reality of Palestinian suffering, and understand that without dignity for the Palestinians, there can be no dignity for Israel.
Here Yoffie again makes a significant point about maintaining the conflict as a political, rather than religious one. But again he only notes the danger of Arab anti-Israelism but not the equal danger of Jewish Islamophobia which is no less potent an enemy of peace:
Second, if the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is seen in religious rather than political terms, resolving it becomes impossible. If Israel is portrayed as “a dagger pushed into the heart of Islam,” rather than a nation-state disputing matters of land and water with the Palestinians, we are lost. As religious Jews and religious Muslims, let us do everything in our power to prevent a political battle from being transformed into a holy war.
As he concludes, Yoffie saves his most important admonition for last, telling us that in each of our traditions we must renounce holy war and terror as a means to protect religion or advance our interests:
And finally, to all those who desecrate God’s name by using religion to justify killing and terror, let us say together: enough. No cause in the world, and surely no religious cause, can ever justify murdering the innocent or targeting the uninvolved. You cannot honor a religion of peace through violence; you cannot honor God if you do not honor the image of God in every human being; and you cannot get to heaven by creating hell on earth. If we can agree on nothing else, let us agree on this, and let us remain united on this point, come what may.
My only criticism is Yoffie’s lack of specificity. He holds back from denouncing sufficiently strongly those in our community who preach hatred and violence. Why shouldn’t it be time to name the Daniel Pipes, David Horowitzes and Mort Kleins of the world as the obstacles to peace that they are?
For that reason, I’m glad to read that Jewish Week, in an article which otherwise stokes the fires of mistrust, did provoke a more particular debate between Yoffie and Pipes. Here Pipes does his usual ranting about Muslim hatred of Jews. You’ll note that Stewart Ain gives Pipes the dubious distinction of being a “counter-terrorism expert” when the only thing he is “expert” in is fomenting mistrust of Muslims and Jews insufficiently supportive of Israel:
Daniel Pipes, founder and director of the Middle East Forum and a counter-terrorism expert, called Rabbi Yoffie’s outreach to ISNA “well-intentioned but very misguided.”
“There needs to be an acknowledgment that ISNA is an Islamic organization, Wahhabi in outlook, which is deeply problematic,” he said.
Wahhabi Islam is said to be the primary religious movement behind extremist Islam.
“Beyond ISNA’s own character is the question of Jewish-Muslim relations and whether this can be fixed through ‘Kumbaya’-like sessions such as Rabbi Yoffie’s,” Pipes said, “or whether there needs to be a frank acknowledgment that there is a deep current of anti-Semitism among Muslims in the United States that needs to be addressed.
“It is not a mutual situation,” he continued. “You don’t see mosques and Muslim schools being surrounded by security as you do synagogues and Jewish schools. There is no parallel. And what Rabbi Yoffie did was to build his base on a parallel — saying that there are problematic texts in the Jewish Old Testament as there are in the Koran, and saying that each side has its extremists. I think that is a flawed analysis and one that will have mischievous consequences if it is widely accepted.”
Yoffie, for his part, finally engages Pipes and refutes his partisan animus against Islam:
“The perspective that [Pipes] represents begins from the premise that the Muslim-American community is a dangerous community filled with anti-Semites,” the rabbi said. “There is a big difference between saying there are elements of anti-Semitism in a community that is basically moderate and well educated and middle class, and suggesting that the entire community is somehow dangerous. If you see the community in that sense, it does not make sense to engage in dialogue.”
Rabbi Yoffie insisted that the Muslim community is “conceivably the best educated minority in America” and that there “are significant elements of that community who are untouched by extremism and who are anxious to cooperate with us and with others.”
He said that at the ISNA convention he heard ISNA’s American vice president, Ingrid Mattson, speak three times and she repeatedly called for Israeli-Palestinian peace and to “stop the tie between Muslims and extremism.”
“She gave a speech Jewish leaders would give,” Rabbi Yoffie insisted.
I’m afraid that Yoffie will have to do much more to combat the hatred promoted by the Pipes’ of our community. We cannot assume that peace will just happen between Israel and the Arabs, nor that Jews and Muslims will somehow learn to get along. Besides reaching out to the other side, we must set our own house in order as well. The Plauts, Neuwirths, Pipes, Kleins and even Hoenleins and Foxmans of our community must be firmly rebutted in order for tolerance to grow.
I take strong exception to this passage from Ain’s article in which he attempts to question Yoffie’s tolerance project by noting INSA’s involvement in the Holy Land Foundation federal case:
what makes the effort problematic is that the Muslim group Rabbi Yoffie has chosen to dialogue with is an unindicted co-conspirator in the Dallas trial now taking place against the Holy Land Foundation. The foundation is accused of raising funds for Hamas, the terrorist organization that has vowed to destroy Israel.
What especially distresses me is that the Jewish press seems to accept lock, stock and barrel that the Holy Land Foundation is a supporter of terror and that the unindicted co-conspirators have somehow done something illegal in abetting the Foundation’s terror agenda. First, the government has by no means proven its case. In fact, many legal observers feel it has an especially weak one. Second, the categorization of INSA as “unindicted co-conspirator” has no substantive meaning in terms of associating the group with any tangible nefarious activity. And if it has, let Pipes and his crew tell us what INSA has actually done that is against the law or even remotely tainted. He can’t because they haven’t. It’s as simple as that.