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The Most Urgent Challenge For Jews, Is To Open A Dialogue With Islam, Columnist Writes

Allan C. Brownfeld, Editor
Special Interest Report
March-April 2002

Historically, writes columnist Marshall Breger in Moment (April 2002), “Religion was seen ... as the cause of political and social conflict. Certainly from the Crusades through the Treaty of Augsburg in 1555 - which established the principle of cuius regio, eius religio (the religion of the ruler is the religion of the state), religion was often the very reason for conflict. And today, when we look to Islamic fundamentalism and Osama bin Laden, it is religion (albeit a skewed variety) that is relied on to justify a Muslim jihad against the infidel West.”  

Still, argues Breger, who is a professor of law at the Columbus School of Law at the Catholic University of America, “religion can be a source for resolving disputes. Just as Chile and Argentina asked the Vatican to arbitrate their boundary over the Beagle Islands, there are many opportunities for religion to facilitate peace in the Middle East. In mid-January, the Archbishop of Canterbury convened a group of Christian, Jewish and Muslim leaders in Cairo to issue a joint declaration condemning the killing of innocent civilians as a desecration of God’s name. While such a view might seem obvious to Westerners, the fact that three religions together could agree on this proposition undercuts the notion that religious ends only justify terrorist means.”  

The meeting was hosted by Egypt’s Mufti Sheik Muhammad Tantawi of the Al Azhar mosque, a prominent figure in the Islamic religious world. The rabbis involved included Michael Melchior, Israeli deputy foreign minister; Menachem Froman of Tekoa, a settler rabbi who has met frequently with Muslim clergy; and the Sephardic Chief Rabbi Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron. At the end of the conference the Palestinians asked Bakshi-Doron to establish a permanent channel of religious dialogue.  

Breger notes that, “In this context one can see how unfortunate it was that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon chose to deep- six Israeli President Moshe Katzav’s plan to address the Palestinian Legislative Council at the invitation of the parliam­ent’s president, Abu Ala. In the speech Katzav would have urged a hudna, or religious cease-fire, and Yasser Arafat had already indicated that he would sign on. A hudna obligates Muslims to back away from conflict. While not a peace treaty it is the next best thing. A good case in point is how Arafat ordered Sheik Talal Sidr, a member of the Palestinian Authority cabinet, to seek a hudna last year. As Rabbi Froman told me during a visit to Jerusalem, the hudna gives Arafat the excuse to climb down from the war option without having to admit that the Camp David Intifada failed the Palestinian people. Bakshi-Doron’ s involvement is particularly important. It shows that the high value Sephardic jurisprudence gives to peace can still motivate Israeli religious leaders, scarred as they are by years of violence and terror.”  

Breger urges the U.S. to promote a hudna by inviting senior religious leaders of all faiths to Washington, D.C. He also argues that, “We have to begin a long-delayed process of talking with Islamic theologians, scholars and religious workers. Israeli Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein has it right when he pointed out that ‘one of the most urgent challenges facing Israel is a dialogue with the world of Islam.’ This is true for the entire Jewish world as well.”With regard to American Jews, Breger writes: “I doubt that more than a handful of congregational rabbis have met and talked with Muslims, and even fewer Jewish lay people or day school students. Sadly, religious communication is even less frequent in Israel, although Islam is the ‘second’ religion of the country. This is not to say that the Muslim community has done very much to promote dialogue itself ... Nonetheless, it is incumbent on Jews to begin a process that can break down a host of caricatures and misunderstandings about Israel and the Jewish religion. And in learning about Islam we might also learn something about ourselves.”  

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