Remarks as prepared to the Islamic Society of North America
44th Annual Convention, Chicago, Illinois
Friday, August 31st, 2007
By Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie
Union for Reform Judaism
I am deeply honored by your invitation to be present at this convention.
I am here as the leader of largest Jewish religious movement in North America, consisting of more than 900 congregations and 1.5 million Jews.
My organization is currently discussing with your leadership a joint dialogue and education program that we hope to launch in the very near future, involving our congregations and your mosques. This project is a matter of the utmost importance to my Movement and to me personally, and I would like to share with you why that is so.
There exists in this country among all Americans — whether Jews, Christians, or non-believers — a huge and profound ignorance about Islam. It is not that stories about Islam are missing from our media; there is no shortage of voices prepared to tell us that fanaticism and intolerance are fundamental to Islamic religion, and that violence and even suicide bombing have deep Koranic roots. There is no lack of so-called experts who are eager to seize on any troubling statement by any Muslim thinker and pin it on Islam as a whole. Thus, it has been far too easy to spread the image of Islam as enemy, as terrorist, as the frightening unknown.
How did this happen?
How did it happen that Christian fundamentalists, such as Pat Robertson and Franklin Graham, make vicious and public attacks against your religious tradition?
How did it happen that when a Muslim congressman takes his oath of office while holding the Koran, Dennis Prager suggests that the congressman is more dangerous to America than the terrorists of 9/11?
How did it happen that a member of Congress, Tom Tancredo, now running for President, calls for the bombing of Mecca and Medina?
Even more important, how did it happen that law-abiding Muslims in this country can find themselves condemned for dual-loyalty and blamed for the crimes of terrorists they abhor?
And how did it happen that in the name of security, Muslim detainees and inmates are exposed to abusive and discriminatory treatment that violates the most fundamental principles of our constitution?
One reason that all of this happens is the profound ignorance to which I referred. We know nothing of Islam — nothing. That is why we must educate our members, and we need your help. And we hope in doing so we will set an example for all Americans.
Because the time has come put aside what the media says is wrong with Islam and to hear from Muslims themselves what is right with Islam.
The time has come to listen to our Muslim neighbors speak, from their heart and in their own words, about the spiritual power of Islam and their love for their religion.
The time has come for Americans to learn how far removed Islam is from the perverse distortions of the terrorists who too often dominate the media, subverting Islam’s image by professing to speak in its name.
The time has come to stand up to the opportunists in our midst — the media figures, religious leaders, and politicians who demonize Muslims and bash Islam, exploiting the fears of their fellow citizens for their own purposes.
And finally this: The time has come to end racial profiling and legal discrimination of any kind against Muslim Americans. Yes, we must assure the security of our country; this is absolutely our government’s first obligation. But let’s not breach the constitution in ways we will later regret. After all, civil liberties are America’s strength, not our weakness.
We hope to accomplish all this and more with our dialogue program. This dialogue will not be easy. It will work only if we approach it with humility. We should remember the words of President Lincoln at his second inaugural; he spoke of a transcendent God whose will we cannot hope to entirely know. Surely this God is big enough to accommodate a range of thinking and an inescapably plural religious reality. And surely, because God is God and we are not God, we can recognize that other religions have much to teach us.
The dialogue will not be one way, of course. You will teach us about Islam and we will teach you about Judaism. We will help you to overcome stereotyping of Muslims, and you will help us to overcome stereotyping of Jews. We are especially worried now about anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial. Anti-Semitism is not native to Islamic tradition, but a virulent form of it is found today in a number of Islamic societies, and we urgently require your assistance in mobilizing Muslims here and abroad to delegitimize and combat it. A measure of our success will be our ability, each of us, to discuss and confront extremism in our midst. As a Jew I know that our sacred texts, including the Hebrew Bible, are filled with contradictory propositions, and these include passages that appear to promote violence and thus offend our ethical sensibilities. Such texts are to be found in all religions, including Christianity and Islam.
The overwhelming majority of Jews reject violence by interpreting these texts in a constructive way, but a tiny, extremist 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.
I am optimistic that we can do this. After all, there is much that we share. As small minorities here, we worry how we will fare and if we will survive in the great American melting pot. As committed God seekers in an age of moral relativism, we are distressed by the trends that pollute our children’s lives: incredibly trashy television, high divorce rates, and media images that demean and objectify women. At the same time, and without contradiction, we are both beneficiaries of the blessings bestowed by this great and wonderful country. For all of its problems, America provides us with a secure sanctuary that safeguards our right to be different. And despite the prejudice that we still confront, America offers a measure of diversity and tolerance unmatched in any place or time in history.
Compare this with the situation in Christian Europe. For centuries we were the “other” in Europe. The Europeans have little ability to deal with difference, and often show suspicion or outright contempt for people of faith. As you are well aware, there are places in Europe where wearing a headscarf to a public school is a punishable offense. What an outrage this is, what an abomination! In a global media culture that fawns over Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan, why should anyone criticize the voluntary act of a woman who chooses to wear a headscarf or a veil? Surely the choice these women make deserves our respect, not to mention the full protection of the law.
America, fortunately, is different in this regard. What distinguishes America is our religiosity and our pluralism. More than 150 million Americans worship on a regular basis, in an astonishing number of denominations. Americans respect religion and believe in God, and they eventually learn to respect religions different from their own. If we add to this the great principle of church-state separation, we can be certain that our religious autonomy is assured. And we can conduct our dialogue not in despair but in hope, knowing that we will ultimately find a secure place in the American religious mosaic.
Permit me to conclude with a few words about the situation in the Middle East — because this too must also be included in our dialogue.
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.
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. Muslims will need to accept the reality of Israeli vulnerability, including the vulnerability of that tiny nation’s ever-threatened borders.
And what can we do, American Muslims and Jews? Three things, I believe.
First, while the terms of a settlement must be negotiated by the two parties, an American role in achieving such a settlement will be essential. Therefore, we must urge our government to commit itself to active, high-level engagement, in order to move the parties toward 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.
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.
We have expressed these views, and so have you, with your clear statements condemning terrorist attacks. But let us agree that this task will not be done until the message is heard, and others in the Muslim world join with ISNA in ringing denunciations of terror that will be heard throughout the globe.
Our agenda is long and difficult. There is nothing simple or easy about the project that we are about to undertake. But, interconnected since the time of Abraham, thrust into each other’s lives by history and fate, and living in a global world, what choice do we really have? Surely here, in this land, we cannot permit fanaticism to grow or prejudice to harden. Surely here, in America, as Muslim and Jew, we have a unique opportunity to reclaim our common heritage and to find a new way and a common path. Brothers and sisters, let us begin.
Thank you very much. May God bless the work of this assembly.