Tonight, I heard Rabbi David Rosen speak at a remarkable conference, Religions as Promoters of Human Rights and Peace (pdf), organized by the Jewish Studies program at the University of Washington. He is the director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee and unlike David Harris and the rest of the AJC crowd, Rabbi Rosen is a truly humane, forward-thinking individual who seems unprepared to blame any particular religion or ethnic group for all the sins of the Israeli-Arab conflict.
I last met Rabbi Rosen in 1983, when he was chief rabbi of Ireland. I lived there for seven months during which Rabbi Rosen showed me very gracious hachnasat orchim, also offering me a few hours of paid teaching at the community school. I never forgot his generosity. Tonight, after all that time, I got to thank him for it.
There were a few weaknesses of the program. First, I don’t really understand why an academic program on interreligious dialogue would only feature Jewish sponsors, omitting Muslim. To me, this shows a certain insularity among those who planned the conference. It is true that an imam from Georgetown was on the panel. So the Muslim perspective was represented in that way. But there could have been many more Muslims in the audience than there were if more outreach had been done to that local community.
The speakers dealt a little too much in theory and generalities. And as one audience member noted, it was a love fest. Everyone agreed with everyone else. All was sweetness and light. Meanwhile, from Mumbai to Hebron they’re killing, torturing and maiming in the name of religion and their respective God. What do we make of that?
Rabbi Rosen had a pretty good answer. He said: “What’s wrong with a love fest? We need all the love fests we can get. The better to blot out the din of hatred.” But still I wish the speakers would’ve gotten their hands dirty in the mundane, profane world of everyday hate. How do you counteract it and maintain your values as a sane adherent of your religion? How do you not get sucked into the vortex of hate?
Today, Comment is Free published my meditation on the Mumbai massacre. I tried to carefully calibrate my response to the attack on Chabad House so that I excoriated the terrorists without trashing Islam. Most commenters would have none of it. They placed the blame squarely on Islam. All of Islam. There was no nuance. No fine points. No distinctions. It’s goddamn depressing.
And that is the frustration I feel dealing with religious violence. It carries almost a hypnotic power. If you are an extremist the violence is like an accelerant to a fire or a drug. If you represent the victimized, then such terror cries out for vengeance. Who can resist this Svengali-like response? After all, revenge is a very human emotion. It’s common to all of us. And those on the right who argue that Jews are victims and never victimizers, we know how distorted that view is.
I know David Rosen could resist. But the settlers who nearly killed a Palestinian family of 20 by doing their damndest to burn down their home with them inside don’t give a crap about Rabbi Rosen. He’s probably a dirty traitor to his religion to them.
Certainly, the key is to marginalize these people. Smother their hate with love and tolerance. But Rabbi Rosen’s voice, despite his claim to the contrary, isn’t the majority voice in Israeli society. Would that it were.