Why dialogue is essential
by Larry Lowenthal
Boston Jewish Advocate
October 27, 2006
This week, Larry Lowenthal says that without Jewish-Muslim dialogue, critical changes could not have taken place.
Over the last few years, some Jewish voices in the community have questioned the effectiveness – or the advisability – of a Muslim-Jewish Dialogue.
As one of the founders of such a dialogue in Boston, now in its fourth year, allow me to make the case for the absolute necessity for this difficult but essential group interaction.
My basic premise is that the Jewish response to Muslim anti-Semitism has to be seen as a two-fold challenge: Half the battle is to fight Muslim extremists with all the resources at our command – and the American Jewish Committee has been in the forefront of that effort – but the other half of the battle is to cultivate Muslim moderates with all the powers of our persuasion.
A basic argument of some dialogue critics is that there are no Muslim "moderates." So-called "moderates," they insist, are actually extremists in disguise, and any time spent cultivating such people is a waste of community resources.
After spending the last four years interacting with dozens of local Muslims, I choose to reject the argument against moderates. I have met an entire community of Muslims in Boston who denounce extremism, abhor violence, welcome interreligious dialogue, long for a peaceful solution to the Middle East conflict, and embrace values of gender rights, human dignity and free speech.
Moderate Muslims have forcefully stated that they condemn the hijacking of their faith by suicide bombers, anti-Semites and other extremists who corrupt the true meaning of Islam.
But needless to say, Muslims, even the most friendly and open-minded, are not Zionists. A number of them have serious, often shockingly stereotyped biases against the Jewish State.
But without the dialogue structure, there would be no opportunity to dispel these anti-Israel prejudices, nor bring to the conversation a more realistic portrait of Jewish life, religion and community.
Recently, the American Jewish Committee brought 12 faculty members of Al Qasemi Academy, a progressive Islamic educational institution in Israel, to a Muslim home in Westwood. More than 30 local Muslims were present. The local Muslims had never met Israeli Arabs before. The Israeli Arabs calmly and methodically dispelled one Muslim presumption about Israel after another without minimizing the challenges still faced by the Israeli Muslim minority. One local Muslim, quoted in the Boston Globe, confessed that they were all "shocked" by the realization that Israeli Arabs had a voice in the Knesset, were religiously and institutionally funded by the government, and were, in effect, part of the Israeli mainstream. "Our minds were changed," he admitted.
Without the dialogue structure, such a meeting would never have taken place.
The Muslim-Jewish dialogue, admittedly, is in its fledging stage. But Stephen Schwartz's words may well serve as the vision for further progress: "The new Abrahamic dialogue must accomplish a mission of Abrahamic reconciliation, emphasizing the common legacy of Jews, Christians and Muslims, and a common responsibility for the future of humanity."
Larry Lowenthal is the executive director of the New England Region of the American Jewish Committee.
Related Topics: American Muslims, Muslim-Jewish Relations
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