Jews and Muslims must both grasp the nettles

Interfaith dialogue cannot work unless both sides face up to their differences

By Ed Kessler, December 3, 2009

Too often, when Jews talk to Muslims, we avoid the difficult issues, notably the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Instead, we each tend either to engage in friendly but essentially vacuous conversation or take delight in pointing out the other side’s faults (while ignoring our own).

Authentic dialogue must allow for sharp difference. It was unwillingness to tackle difference that led to a number of interfaith dialogue groups collapsing in the aftermath of the Gaza war.

Relations are overshadowed by the mutual failure to address the impact of the Middle East on both communities. For most Jews, the creation of the state of Israel is an ancient promise fulfilled by the emergence of a vibrant nation-state. Yet, for many Muslims, the permanent existence of a Jewish state in the Middle East is a religious and political anomaly. Although most Muslims accept the Jewish attachment to the Land of Israel, it is not an uncommon view that Islamic rule must be restored.

Relations are also inhibited by the tendency for Jews and Muslims to be suspicious and even fearful of interaction with people of other faiths. Those of us committed to interfaith dialogue— one of the greatest challenges of the 21st century — must show the courage to take the initiative and clear away the debris of division.

In its encounter with Islam, the Jewish community needs to focus on more than the threat of antisemitism. Of course, we should respond to ignorant and negative stereotypes of Jews but we should also remember that there is a certain amount of ignorance of Islam and Muslims among Jews.

Jews and Muslims both face the challenge of maintaining a distinctive and integrated community. Both face prejudice as minorities (for the first time in the same country). And, living a diaspora existence, we share concerns about continuity.

As a Jewish partner in the dialogue with Muslims (as well as with Christians), I am aware that, as a minority faith, Judaism has borrowed from and contributed to both of the other monotheisms, while retaining its unique identity. As a teacher of Muslim-Jewish relations I am also aware that we need to explore the past in order to understand the present, not evading controversy.

In practical terms, constructive dialogue has to take a step-by-step approach, starting with reciprocal visits to synagogues and mosques, developing joint strategies on issues such as discrimination, and supporting each other’s attempts to maintain a distinctive religious identity in a host society promoting conformity.

If the challenges posed by Muslim-Jewish dialogue seem daunting, consider the significant advances in Christian-Jewish relations over the past 50 years, even though the road has sometimes been rocky.

Christian-Jewish dialogue developed in the face of profound difference and centuries of alienation and distrust. This does not mean, however, that the Jewish-Christian model can be wholly applied to Muslim-Jewish dialogue in order to achieve similar, positive results.

Jews and Muslims today carry distinctly different memories to those that make up the historical baggage attached to Jewish encounters with Christians. But those encounters do show that reaching out to Muslims constructively is long overdue.

Dr Ed Kessler is founder and executive director of the Woolf Institute of Abrahamic Faiths,

Last updated: 4:21pm, December 10 2009


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