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Jews and Muslims: A Call for Reconciliation

Howard A. Berman
Summer 2007

It is one of the great tragedies of twentieth-century religious history that two of the world’s three great Monotheistic faiths, Judaism and Islam, have come to be seen as enemies of each other. Perhaps it was inevitable, given the ethnic and cultural dimensions that are so essentially bound up with both traditions, that they would be caught up in the political conflicts that have racked the Middle East in our time. The peoples and nations that have become the chief antagonists in those conflicts come — respectively — out of understandings of these two traditions in which faith and culture, national and religious identities are inseparably tied together. In the Arab-Israeli conflict, religion has often been the vehicle for what are essentially political agendas, and the symbols of Judaism and Islam, particularly their historic shrines and holy places, have often been exploited as focal points in a conflict that is ultimately between sovereign nations, and not between these two religions.  
The more one studies the history of our two peoples in the past, the more tragic the estrangement between Judaism and Islam in our time becomes. The more one understands Islam as a religious faith and tradition, the more one sees so clearly the commonalities — the shared ideals that should bind Jews and Muslims together. Despite the complex global conflicts that appear to divide us, there are indeed many people of good will in both our faith communities who believe that we must begin to reach out to each other in reconciliation. For the sake of history, which has witnessed such close and fruitful cooperation between Jews and Muslims in the past — and for the sake of the survival of our world today, there are many who are convinced that we must and can transcend politics to reaffirm our spiritual kinship, as the foundation for a new era of peace and understanding.  
Not in Conflict  
We can proceed from the assumption that Judaism and Islam, while certainly differing in a number of fundamental perspectives and priorities — are, as religious communities, not in conflict. The tragic divisions in the Middle East today are ultimately between the State of Israel and the various Arab nations — rather than between Jews and Muslims — in the same way that the historic conflict in Northern Ireland has essentially been between two different cultural and political entities, more than it is between the Roman Catholic and Protestant Churches.  
We also proceed, from the perspective of the American Council for Judaism, that as American Reform Jews, our ties to the State of Israel are spiritual and historic links, and not political loyalties. The agendas, priorities and policies of the Israeli government are not our own, nor do we necessarily agree with all of them. Our Jewish commitment and identity are primarily those of a religious faith. It is as people of faith — as Jews — that we approach this issue. Ultimately it is as religious traditions that Judaism and Islam must encounter each other, and as religious people, that Jews and Muslims can and should relate to each other. The political issues of the Middle East need not enter into our interfaith dialogue other than as challenges to be constructively and respectfully confronted and resolved — out of the moral mandates of both our faiths. In an era in which Jews and Moslems are pitted against each other as enemies, and are perceived as bitter antagonists by others, it is important for us to remember those long centuries when our two faiths and peoples flourished together in friendship and cooperation.  
Peaceful and Creative Eras  
Some of the most peaceful and creative eras in Jewish history — most notably that of early Medieval Spain — took place in the Muslim world. From the 10th to the 14th centuries, Jews flourished in Islamic countries — under Islamic rulers — in Spain, Persia, Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco. It is important to remember that while the Jewish communities of Christian Europe endured unending persecution and oppression, Jews in these Muslim lands enjoyed freedom and security. There were certainly civil disabilities for Jews in Muslim societies, but nothing approaching the cruel and bloody persecution, expulsion and inquisition our people suffered in these centuries in Christian nations. It was in the flowering of Jewish/Muslim cultural cooperation in the Middle Ages, that great advances were made in the physical sciences, in literature and poetry, in mathematics and medicine — in the very era that Christendom was intellectually entombed in the Dark Ages.  
It was in Muslim Spain, Egypt and Persia that the greatest names in Medieval Jewish philosophy and religious 1iterature were nurtured — the “Golden Age” that produced such luminaries as Saadia Gaon, Isaac Alfasi, Judah Halevi, Solomon Ibn Gabriol, and, of course, Moses Maimonides. One need only consider the fact that the greatest Jewish literature of this period — the theological masterworks of Maimonides chief among them — were written in Arabic, and not in Hebrew — to realize how integral the Islamic environment has become in the Jewish experience.  
People of the Book  
Perhaps the major factor that had always determined Muslim and Jewish relations in the past, was the designation of the Jews by the Prophet Mohammed as the “People of the Book,” honoring our faith as the source of Biblical truth and tradition upon which Islam was built. From its beginnings, Islam recognized and affirmed its Jewish spiritual roots. It claimed spiritual succession — as did early Christianity — to the tradition that began with Abraham and Moses, and, like the Church, incorporated that Jewish Scriptural foundation into its own sacred canon — the Koran. Like Christianity, Islam taught that it was the proper “fulfillment” of the truth that originated with Judaism — superseding Christianity as well. But unlike historic Christianity, Islam continued to respect and even revere its Jewish parent. While Jews were seen to be in error in their failure to recognize the authority of Mohammed, Islam, for the most part, was willing to coexist and actually cooperate with Judaism. Not that Jews in Islamic countries enjoyed full equality as we might understand that democratic concept in a modern American sense — they rarely did in any gentile society, ancient or modern. But under Is1am, for the most part, Judaism was respected and Jews were welcomed to live in peace.  
In the eighth century, the Caliph Umar drafted a pact which codified the rules of conduct for non-Muslim populations in lands conquered by Muslim armies. The Pact of Umar guaranteed protection of life and property to Jews, and the right to worship and carry on Jewish community life in peace. Jews came to be classified as dhimmis - a legal status of protection for religious minorities — that permitted Jews the right to govern themselves by their own religious and legal traditions. This tolerant policy certainly emphasized the superiority of Islam, and non-Muslims — Jews and Christians — were certainly second-class citizens. But the expectation of anything more is — once again — a modern American sensibility, and the contrast between Jewish life under Islam and Jewish life under Christianity — until the 20th century — is profound.  
Deterioration of Status  
The deterioration of the social and political status of Jews in Muslim countries came in the modern period, essentially influenced by the turmoil and conflicts engendered by Western imperialism in the Middle East. Jews — as has so often been the case — were caught in the middle in the struggle between Western and Eastern, Christian and Islamic cultures and political hegemony. The stage was set for the further tensions that inevitably arose with the return of large numbers of European Jews to Israel and the beginnings of political Zionism in the early 20th century.  
Despite the efforts of many early Zionist thinkers, such as Ahad Ha-am, to embrace peaceful co-existence with the Arabs as a moral mandate of Jewish tradition, the exclusive political and territorial claims of both groups led to the conflicts that tragically continue to our own time. And yet again, it is so important for us to remember the long centuries of peace and friendship that came before.  
Spiritual Ties  
Spiritually, too, there are deep ties that bind Judaism and Islam together. Of the three primary monotheistic traditions — Judaism, Christianity and Islam — it is in reality Judaism and Islam that have more in common theologically. The concept of a “Judeo-Islamic” tradition has as much, if not more validity and substance than the oft heard catch-phrase “Judeo-Christian heritage.” Judaism and Islam are both conceived more as a total way of life — an orientation to the world — than as a denomination. Both have the cultural and social dimensions that Christianity, as a religion, expressed in a variety of cultural settings, lacks. Unlike Christianity, which emphasizes correct creed and persona1 faith, Islam and Judaism have always focused rather on one’s deeds — on action — on the observance of religious and moral law, as a framework for community 1ife.  
The parallels between Islamic and Jewish theological concepts and traditions are indeed striking. And, of course, the major shared perspective is an understanding of Monotheism in which the founders and prophets of both faiths are revered as spiritual mentors and messengers of God — not as divine in themselves — the point at which Christianity diverges. The centrality of communal and ethical law as the instrument of justice in society, the practice of prayer and charity — these are all ideals which Judaism and Islam affirm in common, and which are expressed in many strikingly similar ways. Unfortunately, our contemporary view of Islam is distorted by an essentia1 asymmetry in religious understandings. We tend to see Islam as a fundamentalist religion — and we do so as Westerners who have been nurtured in the humanism of the Enlightenment and the religious liberalism of the modern period. Most modern Jews and Christians — in Europe and particularly in America — are used to seeing religion in a modern context with progressive alternatives to orthodoxies, and with a tolerance and inclusiveness that is a reflection of our distinctive Western cultural pluralism.  
Modernity and Islam  
However, the cultural and social transformations of modernity that led to the emergence of reformed or liberal expressions of Christianity and Judaism in Europe and America, have not fully taken place in the Islamic world. While various national Islamic traditions are perhaps more moderate than others — Turkish and Egyptian, as opposed to the fundamentalist Iranian expressions, for example — there is simply not — or at least not yet — a “Reform Islam” as we might understand liberal religion. Consequently, we must recognize that our liberal religious view of a religion that has no parallel liberal expression in the Western sense, often colors our attitude toward Islam as a whole. Lest we fall into the trap of branding the totality of Islam as inevitably fanatical and extremist, let us remember that Judaism and Christianity both have their fundamentalist strains and abundant capacities for fanaticism as well. Whether the violent conflicts caused in Israel today by Orthodox Jewish fanatics, White Supremacist ideologies rooted in American Protestantism, or the tragic legacy of extremism and intolerance in the annals of Roman Catholicism, we must always admit that all religions are vulnerable and endangered by such distortions of their underlying moral truths.  
It is very heartening and encouraging to see the clear signs that a distinctly American expression of Islam is emerging in the United States. As Muslim immigrants now enter the second and third generations of families born and raised in our democratic, pluralist society, new interpretations of moderate and progressive Islamic identity and practice are developing. It is in this particular context that the Jewish experience in America over the past 350 years, offers a compelling paradigm. In many ways, the challenges that Jewish immigrants from traditional European Jewish communities faced in adapting to the culture of this country, are directly parallel to the issues facing Americans from Muslim societies. The transformations that resulted from a desire to uphold a distinctive religious tradition, responding to the intellectual and social challenges of modernity, as well as the diversity of American society, are the creative dynamics that shaped Judaism in the United States. The same encounter and process is now underway in the Muslim community, and it is inevitable that a uniquely American Islam will emerge as well. American Jews and Christians must support this effort with dialogue and understanding, lest we fall into the patterns of the isolation and marginalization that has led to the growth of Islamic extremism in many European countries.  
Hope for Reconciliation  
Is reconciliation and dialogue possible between Muslims and Jews? We know and must believe that it is, We can be encouraged that it is already beginning — in Israel, between Israeli Jews and Arab Muslims — in Europe, where Jewish / Muslim dialogue has been fostered by Reform Judaism in France and Britain — and here in America, between American Jews and American Muslims. If we come to know and understand each other, we are overcoming the first major hurdle. Most Americans know little about Islam — and such knowledge is essential if we are to understand so much of what is happening in our world today. We must broaden our perspectives and, hopefully, reach out to Muslim leaders and mosque communities who are sincerely committed to interfaith dialogue and cooperation. History calls upon us to seek reconciliation — and a reaffirmation of the ties that have bound us together in the past. Our shared spiritual ideals and common religious traditions call upon us to recognize the possibility of transcending political conflict, and seeking, in our shared ideals, a path of justice and peace for all the world. As Jews and Muslims — as men and women of faith — we are called upon to come together in understanding and in friendship. For we are both the “People of the Book” taught by both Torah and Koran — to seek justice and peace in the world. And we are both, ultimately, brothers and sisters … children of the one living God whom we all affirm and who calls us to love, respect, and learn from one another.  
We must always remember that as Jews and Muslims, we are both descendants of our Father Abraham — we through Isaac — and Muslims, according to tradition, through Ishmael. We must come to realize that  
“Redemption will not come to our world — until people return  
out of their exile from each other …  
and Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau  
can embrace upon the peaceful shores of love.”

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© 2010 The American Council For Judaism.